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'I don't think about the dance floor': Jlin's complicated rhythms

Jlin
22feetTribalWorldWide (Madhu Madhumita, photographer)
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Team Wass
Jlin

Jerrilynn Patton grew up in Gary, Ind., and after studying engineering and math, she landed a pretty good job at U.S. Steel. "Put it like this: my life was stable," she says.

It wasn't until she started experimenting with the uniquely Chicago style of electronic music called "footwork" that her career path shifted about as wildly as her compositions. She became Jlin.

"Footwork" is a fast-paced style of house music originally intended for dance battles. One of the gurus of the scene – RP Boo, there at the style's beginning in the late '80s – mentored Jlin, without dictating what she should and shouldn't do, freeing her up from the start to find her own sound. One of her early compositions, "Expand," was selected by Jon Pareles of The New York Times as one of the best tracks of 2015, marking the beginning of Jlin's critical ascent.

Philip Sherburne, a contributing editor with Pitchfork who specializes in electronic music, says "Jlin has a rhythmic sensibility unlike just about anybody else in electronic dance music... Most [EDM] is in a 4/4 time signature. Jlin typically works with triplets and polyrhythms — three against four, 6/8, 12/4, 12/8... and then things that I have no idea how to parse."

Jlin's music has changed as she's traveled the world. A trip to Uganda introduced her to new percussion techniques, India's hand-drummers blew her away with structures she'd never heard before.

"Completely, totally different," Jlin recalls. "Rhythms switch at any given moment. That's actually my favorite thing: the rhythm change. You know, totally switching rhythms at any moment and still never losing flow of what's being played, I have always been fascinated by that." You can hear the Indian influence on a track like "Kyanite" from the 2017 album Black Origami.

Jlin can get lumped into the blurrily defined genre of electronic dance music, but if you try to dance to some of her work, you might tear a ligament.

Jlin says she doesn't think about the dance floor when she's composing. "What I'm looking at is movement — and movement can be anything for me: [it] can be the way a woman moves her arm, the way a man blinks his eyes... One of the movements that I've seen that inspired me [is] from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha — when she first became a geisha and it was her premiere performance. When I saw that, I remember making 'Carbon 12.' That did something to me."

"Exactly what you're afraid to do is exactly what you should be doing."

Jlin arrived at this unique sound by going outside the music industry for advice. The first person she runs her new music past isn't a fellow musician, but her mother. They remain very close, both still living in Gary. "She knows me the most, so she knows when I'm being true to myself and when I'm not. And her opinion is a lot more valuable because for me it's less about the music and more about: Am I coming through a thing?... She's like: 'Exactly what you're afraid to do is exactly what you should be doing.' "

Recently, Jlin has stepped outside the late-night club world, collaborating with avant-garde composer William Basinski and choreographer Wayne McGregor. But her dream collaboration has yet to materialize: "I would love to make a track with Missy Elliott and Big Freedia — all on the same track."

During the pandemic though, Jlin wasn't doing much collaborating at all. No globetrotting, no performances, no audiences. So she went inward. And that solitude resulted in her new EP, Embryo. "I created this really to keep my sanity," she said.

Embryo began with the stresses of COVID in the background. "I had lost financially — like everybody," she said. "You're losing your shows, everything coming to a dead stop. It was just a bad, bad, bad time."

But Jlin feels the stillness brought on by the pandemic was actually a bit of a blessing, "because I was probably moving around a lot more than I should have been. And I needed to rest." She developed a renewed love of her craft. "It made me realize how blessed I am by the universe to still create," she says. "No matter how hectic and hellish life gets, I still have that in me."

Jlin cites a new track, "Rabbit Hole," as telling the story of how the creative process saved her sanity. "I felt like I was going down, like, the rabbit hole — but not a rabbit hole in a 'I'm coming to my demise' [way], but rabbit hole, like, I know this is the start of something. Good or bad."

Surprisingly, Jlin's new music moves her a bit closer to the dance floor, says Pitchfork's Philip Sherburne. "She's actually moving into four-on-the-floor rhythms, although she's doing them her way... She could have stuck with what people expected from her, but she's sort of taking this detour. And it's exciting to hear her setting aside what could have become a crutch and trying something really new."

Jlin says she's elated that her new music might lift some of the gloom people have felt during the pandemic. "The way those tracks are created, it may have been created in bad spaces, but people dance to them. That makes me happy. Because in the midst of that, there's the balance of life. It happened in a bad circumstance, but hey, y'all are dancing, and it's cool! It makes perfect sense."

And Jlin's not done surprising us. At the height of her powers as a musician, she says in the spring, she's going back to school to study math.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 9, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of the web story mischaracterized the Chicago producer RP Boo as having died. That is not accurate. The story has been corrected.