Jlin is Making the Most Aggressively Beautiful Music You've Ever Heard
After getting her start in footwork, the Indiana producer breaks the grid.
All photos by Matthew Avignone.
Chicago's relationship to its eastern neighbor, Indiana, is one of selfish convenience. For starters, gasoline is basically free in comparison to the nearly $3 per gallon you pay in the city. Those living on Chicago's South Side never shy away from flocking to the border—anywhere from five to 30 minutes from home—to fill up their tanks for the upcoming work week. It's a Sunday ritual for many, along with snagging a few cartons of cigarettes, since they, too, are cheaper on the other side.
But there's another tradition Chicagoans have, one that causes them to make a special trip across the state line at the height of every summer: fireworks. In Chicago, pyrotechnics are banned for consumer use, though it never truly seems like that in the weeks before and after the Fourth of July. Just take a ride through any neighborhood on the South or West side, and you're likely to be startled by militant booms. "One monkey don't stop no show," as the saying goes.
There's a plethora of colorful billboards lining I-94 in Indiana, guiding you to fireworks stores the size of supermarkets. Jerrilynn Patton, the 29-year-old producer from Gary, a city just 30 miles outside of Chicago, witnesses this pilgrimage to her home state every year. In her three-acre backyard, we can hear them going off in the cloudy distance. Since it's legal to buy and shoot firecrackers in Gary—a once-booming steel town with a declining population of about 77,000—it's not out of the ordinary to hear them on a random Wednesday like today.
"People's obsession with fireworks in this area is insane," Patton says. Her childhood home, where she still lives with her parents, is secluded in a suburban-style subdivision, about 15 minutes south of downtown Gary. Patton appears to be one of those "obsessed" people herself. Dressed in cargo shorts and a black hoodie—with a black bandanna to harness her dreadlocks, which she's just gotten retwisted—Patton smiles while reminiscing about the time in 2014 when she bought $200 worth with a paycheck from one of her first jobs, at US Steel's East Chicago Tin Mill. She popped them all herself, too.
Known across the world as Jlin, Patton is one of the biggest risk-takers in dance music. She got her start with a couple of tracks on the 2011 Bangs & Works Vol. 2 compilation from Planet Mu, pushing footwork beyond its traditional function as the soundtrack for skilled street dancers to something more moody and expressionist. Chattery vocal samples and asymmetrical kick-drum patterns are staples of the genre, but Jlin's take somehow felt even more blistered and broken. Her 2015 debut album on Planet Mu, Dark Energy, wasn't completely removed from her frenetic footwork roots, but its physics were weird, as though she were breaking open the very grid on which footwork was built.
She quickly developed a following in experimental music communities—earning slots at Poland's Unsound Festival and a #1 spot on the Wire's top albums list—but she also found fans outside that world. In 2014, Designer Rick Owens nabbed Patton to create the soundtrack for his Fall/Winter 2014/2015 runway show at Paris Fashion Week. The following year, Jlin made the beats for the Adidas Originals Spring/Summer presentation in that city as well as a Chanel show in Seoul. Her just-released sophomore album, Black Origami, features collaborations with musicians from all sorts of worlds, like computer music polyglot Holly Herndon, ambient composer William Basinski, Cape Town rapper and activist Dope Saint Jude, and Halcyon Veil artist Fawkes. She's stepped far outside her comfort zone as a producer at every turn in her career—and her latest Planet Mu release reflects that impulse, shirking footwork beats in favor of nightmarish marching-band drumlines and rhythms that teeter like a late-game Jenga pull.
Still, when asked if she'd like to set off some fireworks for her photo shoot, she grows visibly hesitant. "My neighbors are going to be like, 'The hell is she doing?'" Patton says through an infectious laugh. "I don't want to kill myself."
Yet a childlike enthusiasm overtakes her as soon as she steps foot inside Phantom Fireworks, a mid-sized warehouse filled with fireworks galore. Patton grabs products from the shelves and recalls old memories with family. "It was me and my cousin in Chicago—we were maybe 11 or 12," Patton begins, holding a red pack of tiny dynamites called Wolf Packs. "They had this idea to put them in a coffee can. Then, they had this idea to put gasoline on them. It was a nightmare. I don't advise anyone to do that."
Somehow, she not only lived to tell the tale, but seems ready for more antics. She points to a pack of roman candles. "Can we shoot them in a bottle?"
Back at her house, Patton tests out a few smoke bombs and ground spinners. Once certain that she's not going to blow herself up, she sets off a few roman candles and a package of Wolf Packs—firecrackers that look similar to the ones Kevin McCalister fires off in a kitchen pot in Home Alone .
Then, the finale: two cans of fountain fireworks. Once lit, sparkles shoot up in the air and cascade downwards, like water in a miniature fountain. Posing for the camera against this glimmering backdrop, Patton looks like she's going to rocket into the sky.
Patton was born in the middle of a heat wave. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Chicagoland area saw temperatures of 90 and above for 19 days in July 1987—anything higher than 90 is capable of killing. Patton came into the world on the 30th of that month and, unbeknownst to her, she was up against years of challenges.
Patton's parents met while working at Nabisco on Chicago's South Side in the 1980s. Her mother was from Gary and her father from Chicago; the couple found their dream nest by fate. While driving around Gary one day before Patton was born, her mother laid eyes on a 2,000 square-foot ranch-style home.
"She stopped my dad and told him, 'Jerry, that's our house.'" Patton says, pausing for effect. "And my dad was like, 'But there ain't even no 'For Sale' sign there.'" Patton's mom got out of the car and knocked on the door anyway. Turns out, the owner was looking to sell the house. "They caught it just at the right time, and we've been here ever since," Patton says.
Patton's parents sent her to Catholic school, thinking she'd get a top-notch education. But when she was four, she says, her teachers told her parents that she was "mentally retarded" because she was left-handed.
"It was considered a handicap," Patton elaborates. Her teachers also worried that Patton couldn't keep up with her classes. "But thank goodness, my mom fought against the school system," Patton recalls. Her mother found a tutor, and Patton quickly started to pick up on her lessons.
"I'm one of those people who needs to know why I'm doing something. I need to actually know what I am studying and why it works the way that it works."—Jerrilynn Patton
"I'm one of those people who needs to know why I'm doing something," she says, explaining that she was never the kind of student to study for a test just to pass. "I need to actually know what I am studying and why it works the way that it works."
A paint-chipped basketball rim sits atop a pole in Patton's driveway. Patton used to play point guard and small forward as a kid; around age 10, she became fascinated with free-throw shooting, trying to figure out the most efficient system for getting the perfect spin on the ball so it'd fall in the basket. "The Bulls were my team," Patton says. "Back in the day, who wasn't with the Bulls?"
Accordingly, when we meet, she's wearing a pair of black-and-white Jordan 12s. Patton is a sneakerhead, but she explains that she's not like some collectors—she doesn't go the extra mile of selling her retro kicks once she's done with them. Her mom is a project administrator and coordinator for Nyakinyua Community Empowerment Program, a missionary arm for the Dagoretti Nyakinyua School in Molo, Kenya, so Patton donates her shoes to students there. "There's too many people in the world that need shoes," she explains. "They don't care about no Jordans—they just need shoes to walk in."
As a teenager, Patton was bullied by other kids at school. Looking back, Patton believes she was bullied because she had a structure in her home that her classmates did not—a two-parent household environment reminiscent of The Cosby Show. Her confidence was shaken, and she started getting bad grades in school. "I always looked down when I walked," she remembers. "Everything about me changed."
Even as she withdrew from most of her studies, Patton found solace in math. "I loved having to figure things out and then [prove] them back to myself," she says. "I think the proving part was a confidence thing."
After a short afternoon walk around Patton's neighborhood, we jump into her Nissan Rogue and go for a drive. About fifteen minutes later, she pulls up into the parking lot at Calumet New Tech High, a mostly brick building advertised from the road with a problematic cartoon Native American mascot.
Upstairs in Mrs. Lee's second-floor classroom, Patton and her favorite math teacher hug. Reminiscing on old times, Patton teases Mrs. Lee about how she repeated the quadratic formula in her lessons so much that she might as well have tattooed it onto her students' foreheads. So Mrs. Lee hands Patton a dry-erase marker to see if she still remembers the lesson.
Patton's love for concentration kicks in with this challenge. She starts writing on a slick transparent sign outside the classroom door, but Mrs. Lee makes a sound when Patton forgets to write "X =." Patton erases everything and starts again. "Did I start off wrong?" she says. "Wait. It's =b²,I think. No! I'm messing up!"
Mrs. Lee steps in like a coach. "I'm going to give you a mnemonic that I didn't teach you when you were with me," she says, taking the marker from Patton's left hand. Mrs. Lee erases Patton's attempt, and writes down the correct formula while reciting the following phrase: "X equals there was a negative boy who couldn't make up his mind about going to a radical party. Because he was a square, he missed out on meeting four awesome chicks. And it was all over at 2AM."
Patton recalls staying in Mrs. Lee's class after school and completing entire homework assignments on the chalkboard, solely so Mrs. Lee could reassure her that she was doing it right. "I loved figuring things out and then proving them back to myself," Patton remembers.
It's a pastime that extends to the way she makes music. In late 2007, after a DJ friend in Chicago introduced her to music production software FL Studio, Patton spent hours on YouTube, trying to figure out how to work it . "I had it for a week, and I couldn't get it to make a sound," she says.
With the first successful high-hat, she was hooked. "Creating music was an escape for me, because I wasn't happy with what I was doing in college," Patton says. At Purdue University, which she attended until 2011, she studied architectural engineering, computer graphics technology, and math. When math no longer satisfied her needs, Patton would skip class, hole up in Purdue University's library, and make tunes.
"Don't get me wrong," Patton says. "When I started making music at the end of 2007, footwork is what sparked my interest." While at Purdue, she reached out to luminary DJ Rashad to get his advice on the songs she'd made on her Sony ACID software. He slowly became her mentor in producing ankle-breaking beats at 155 to 160 beats per minute—as did Chicago Juke producer DJ Roc, whose Bosses of the Circle DJ crew welcomed Jlin as a member in 2009. In 2011, RP Boo also welcomed her into D'Dynamic.
Though Patton didn't play her tunes at any of the battles in Chicago, the tracks she was producing and self-releasing on Facebook drew heavily from the lineage of footwork, juke and ghetto house—three historically interconnected sub-genres of Chicago house music based on gritty triplets and fast tempos. Ghetto house, which first appeared in the early to mid 90s, typically starts at 130 beats per minute; juke, which hit the scene in the late 90s, is a little faster, at 145; and footwork as we know it today clocks in at a blistering 155. One early song of hers, 2011's "Romance," has the same repetitive drum patterns and slippery grooves of Chicago classics like DJ Clent's "Bounce," an early example of juke and footwork's overlapping lines, and DJ Rashad's "Ghost," a footwork circle anthem. It also does its fair share of referential sampling, warping in and out of snippets from The Stylistics and Alicia Keys.
As Patton likes to say, around 2010, her pyramid shifted. No, not paradigm—pyramid. "The reason I call it a 'pyramid shift' is because when I think of the pyramid, I think of infinity," she explains. "Whether you say it has nine sides or nine angles, that nine can be flipped in so many different ways."
It seems her mother heard that shift coming before she did. After listening to a footwork track of hers that sampled Teena Marie's "Portuguese Love," the story goes , her mom told her she didn't think she was embracing her full potential. According to Patton, her mother thought the song was good, but she already knew what Teena Marie sounded like—she wanted to know what Patton sounded like. That motivated the producer to think outside the box of footwork.
Like juke and footwork, Patton's music revolves around time. Via collapsing drums, otherworldly vocals, and alien high-hats, she toys with rhythms and movement in an uneasy way that often draws comparisons to psychedelic experiences. "I don't do drugs—I'm high off myself," Patton explains. But doesn't deny that her music sounds pretty trippy at times.
When I played Black Origami's title track for one of my best friends before meeting up with Jlin, we stared at each other in bewilderment. So many music sites had referred to her as a footwork artist that I'd expected to hear the sound of my black Chicago upbringing: thumping kicks and booty-popping claps. Instead, the percussion putters along with the android whirr of interlocking gears rather than the subtle off-beat grooves of hip-hop or R&B. I spent the majority of my hour-long drive from Chicago to Gary revving myself up to ask her about her relationship to footwork, which seemed like a complicated question. To my surprise, when we met up on her driveway, she cleared up any confusion straight away: "I'm not a footwork artist."
Footwork is synonymous with Teklife and its pioneering Chicago DJs—the late Rashad, who passed away in 2014, along with Earl, RP Boo, Spinn, Gant-Man and Traxman. It's a male-dominated genre with rite-of-passage elements to it, meaning that many footwork producers either DJ'd ghetto house and juke parties back in the day, or they grew up battling in competitive footwork crews. If you're not fully embedded in the culture, it can be difficult to keep up. Patton is aware of footwork's growing prominence on local and international stages, which is why she's very transparent about her shift to a more idiosyncratic sound. She doesn't want anyone unfamiliar with footwork and its Chicago roots to think of her latest work as an archetype of the genre, because it isn't.
"Footwork is where I started, but I've evolved into something else now," she explains. She says felt her pyramid shifting before her Dark Energy album, where she moved away from the aggressive kicks and rhythmic restraints of "Erotic Heat" and started focusing in on more free-associative sounds and arrangements. In order to find her voice, she had to stop listening to her peers' music and dive into her own moody core. "My name has been so heavily associated with footwork [that] I guess I felt the need to say it," she tells me. "I love footwork music. It's just that I know I'm not there right now."
"I want people to know that every time I sit in that [home studio] chair to create, it is a fight. I am not one of these producers that's gon' sit there and make something in two minutes, because that's not even real."—Jerrilynn Patton
Patton grew tired of Dark Energy soon after it's release. She wanted to make something different. In one of the sound folders in her MPC, she came across a Ney flute—a woodwind prevalent in the Middle East. "It grabbed me, and it was just kind of touching me in this way that was really deep," Patton remembers. "Immediately, I knew that chemistry was there."
Next, she added high-hats. Then vocals. "There were these 'Oohs' and 'Ahhs' I had," Patton says of the preset sounds in her MPC kit. But she got to the end of the song, and hit a brick wall. "The track was so energetic to me that I was having a hard time finishing it." It took her four days to craft the perfect ending—and two weeks in total for her to complete from start to finish. She's unapologetic about the amount of time she needs to make sure her tracks are complete. That determination to carefully engineer each sound is what makes her productions so unique. "I'm OK with leaving a song and coming back to it, because nine times out of 10, I'm going to be more refreshed after I've slept."
A self-proclaimed "homebody," Patton wavers between two totally different worlds: the solitude and familiarity of her life in Gary, and the thrill of the unknown. When recording Black Origami, that thirst for new experiences took her all the way to India, where she recorded a few of the album's tracks. She first went to Bangalore in 2016, to visit friend and collaborator Avril Stormy Unger, a local choreographer and performance artist. Patton's made three additional visits to the city since then, spending 21 days there during her most recent trip. In that time, she put the finishing touches on Black Origami and performed with Unger at a packed-out Boiler Room broadcast in Bangalore.
The finished album wasn't only thing she brought home with her. While in India, Patton chronicled the story of her life in three finger tattoos: a grumpy face, three vertical alignment dots, and a bass clef.
The grumpy face, she says, symbolizes her teen to young adult years, when she lacked confidence because of her experiences with bullying. The alignment dots represent her mid 20s, when she found her sense of self. The bass clef marks the moment she discovered her niche in music as an adult—a devotion to the bass, with its chillingly deep vibrations. Each tattoo plays a role in her story, she explains, because she wouldn't be where she is today without the bumps and bruises of her journey. "I had to go through everything in my life to get to this point," Patton says. "And it's all important because it all plays a part in your life."
Even with her successes, Patton's mind is just as restless as ever. Some mornings, Patton says she wakes up questioning why she ever became a music producer. Sometimes, she even questions why people buy her music.
It's an hour and a half before her performance at Chicago's SmartBar, and she's eating a slice of cheese pizza and sipping a juice box at Big G's Pizza nextdoor. She's been up, working on new music and preparing for upcoming shows, since 6AM. And because her album is coming out in a few days, she's been fielding calls to make sure everything with promos and the label is right.
"I actually got to work a little bit, but I got frustrated," she explains. "All I was thinking about was, I've got a show, and then I've got a show tomorrow [in Seattle]. My mind was too many places to sit there and create."
She took some B12 vitamins, thinking it would help her push through the day, but says she was sleepy again by 11AM. "All that's on my mind right now is doing music for this ballet."
The ballet she's speaking of is "Autobiography," an upcoming October production by modern dance choreographer Wayne McGregor, perhaps best known for his award-winning work while in residence at The Royal Ballet. Patton isn't sure if McGregor had heard of her work before their collaboration, but they were introduced by Mat Schultz and Gosia Plysa of Unsound Productions, which handles booking and project development for Jlin.
"I want people to know that every time I sit in that [home studio] chair to create, it is a fight," she tells me. "I am not one of these producers that's gon' sit there and make something in two minutes, because that's not even real."
But Patton's patience is what makes her music so beautiful. Black Origami's "Holy Child"—a collaboration with William Basinski full of collapsing drums and ethereal vocals, and one of the songs she plans to play tonight—is a case in point. She says it's a dedication to DJ Rashad, who, despite working more squarely in footwork, shared her penchant for pushing the music he grew up with into uncharted territory. She says Double Cup deep cut "Reverb"—a dizzy, bass-driven track that's nearly beatless—still gives her the chills. Her dedication to him produces a similar mood. "I really want the listener to understand his legacy," she says. "It's very deep and he still inspires many [producers, dancers, and fans]. He'll be a legend forever."
She admits that working with Basinski—famous for his tape composition, Disintegration Loops, a tribute to 9/11—was a little intimidating at first. "That track was really hard for me, because a lot of people were like, 'William makes this type of music, and you make that type of music,'" Patton says, pointing to Basinski's proficient use of brass in his catalogue. Basinski's composition style is typically more orchestral in nature, while Patton's is very digital.
But Patton made it work. "He sent me his potion, and I made the magic," she says through a chuckle. "Those are his words."
Minutes before she goes on, as she notifies the staff that she's returned from eating, someone offers her a drink. She politely declines, and turns to me. "I don't believe in drinking while I work."
Disco balls and strobe lights flicker from the ceiling as Patton kicks off her set, her head bobbing to the beat. As she soars through her gems—"Guantanamo," "Holy Child," "Black Origami"—her stress from earlier seems to melt away. Then she starts playing "Nyakinyua Rise"—a track with sporadic war calls and cowbells—and I remember her telling me it was inspired by a trip her mother took to Kenya last year. "I wanted to dedicate [it] to the children of Nyakinyua, Kenya," Patton said. "Her trip inspired me to quit my job, because I realized there is a whole world to see."
There are so many layers of speed and flow to latch on to throughout her performance, yet many of those dancing in the predominantly white crowd still struggle to stay on beat. But that's the thing about Patton's music: it carries you to places where dancing well doesn't seem to matter. Her set builds climatically until you're high in the clouds, hands raised into the air, eyes closed and body swaying across the dance floor as if gravity doesn't exist. Patton's taking off into the sky, and she wants you to know that feeling, too.
This post was originally published on THUMP.