When Jerrilynn Patton was 4 years old, growing up in Gary, she went over to a neighbor’s house one day, drawn to the strange sound she heard leaking out of a pair of headphones: dark, twitchy, syncopated rhythms, songs firing at 160 beats per minute. It was her first taste of footwork, the hyperspeed dance music descendant of Chicago’s house scene. “It was like nothing I had ever heard before,” Patton remembers. It would be years before she would encounter footwork again, but that day would make a serious dent, marking a place in her to which she would one day return.
As a child, Patton was so baby-faced people called her Gaga—“like goo goo, ga ga,” she says. She loved watching documentaries, especially about ancient Egypt or elephants—as an adult, she once skipped her own birthday party because the National Geographic Channel was airing a special about woolly mammoths. She took piano for a while, but it never held her attention the way drums would. On weekends at home with her parents, Roberta Flack, Earth, Wind and Fire, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis records were all in heavy rotation. She was into basketball and played on the school team. Until, abruptly, she stopped.
When Patton talks now about working from a place of darkness and turmoil, that means a few things, but mostly she means the years of sustained bullying she endured as a teenager, a thorny combination of mean girls, verbal abuse, and shaming. It’s a painful legacy that followed her into adulthood. “They turned everyone against me,” she says. One day, no one on the basketball team would talk to her. Her self-esteem plummeted. Her mother wanted to know why she always seemed sad and withdrawn. The only times the mean girls stopped bullying her, she says, were when they needed help with their math homework.
“I’m sure you notice when I talk to you, sometimes I don’t look at you,” Patton says, managing to meet my eye most of the time as she says it. “I can spot a kid who’s been bullied just by their body language. For me it was no eye contact. I used to grip the soap bar in the bathroom until you could see my finger marks. I wouldn’t hug my mom. Your whole countenance just changes. You don’t like anything about yourself. And I’m just starting to come out of that.”
What brought her out, years later, was footwork. For a high school talent show, she reluctantly agreed to take part in a group dance routine based on a footwork track. Though the idea ended up getting shelved, Patton found herself hooked on a sound she’d first encountered as a little girl. “It hit me in that spot again like, oh my god,” she says. Instead of the brightly colored cassettes that had drifted down the road from Chicago into her neighbor’s collection, she downloaded tracks from the song-sharing site Imeem.
“By the time I was in college, I was listening to footwork heavy,” Patton says. “I started messaging people on Myspace like, ‘Hey, I really like your work.’” Even though she lived at home and didn’t go to clubs or footwork battles, she began chatting with DJ Rashad, the late pioneer of the Chicago scene, who was the first producer to respond to her MySpace queries. Another footwork DJ sent her the music-making software FL Studio. “I just sat there trying to get it to make a noise,” she says. “And when I could finally hear the drums and the high hats and everything, I thought, Man, I’m going to make footwork!”
She was attracted to the style’s percussive qualities. “Being of African descent, you feel it,” she says. “You have rhythm and drums in your blood. My sound is not a bite, it’s a grab—it takes hold of you and it doesn’t let go.” At this, she tightly grips her left wrist in her right hand.
In recent years, teenage bullying happens online as much as it does in the real world, amplified on social media. But for Patton, in the days “when Facebook was still for college kids,” an online community was first an escape, then a portal into a life as an artist. Sitting at her computer, she discovered a virtual universe of people equally obsessed with this music. They became her mentors.
“When I was first starting out, DJ Rashad told me not to go out and buy a whole bunch of gear,” Patton says. “He said, ‘I know some of the worst musicians who have the best equipment and I know some of the best musicians who have nothing.’ You have to find your space and what makes you comfortable creatively, and then build from there.”
Patton was a thriving architectural engineering student enrolled at Purdue when she started skipping class to sit in the library and construct footwork tracks. She loved math—even now, her face lights up when she describes the thrill of learning to solve problems forward and backward, of conquering proofs, of deconstructing formulas. It’s not a stretch to discover the parallels; when Owens asked her to remix her single “Erotic Heat” for his fashion show, she took her song apart and rebuilt it.
“Math is music,” Patton insists. But math couldn’t take her where music did. And even though she claims not to be proud of her decision to drop out, she is adamant that college was not for her.“I hate the way we’re taught in the United States,” she says. “You go to to school, but do you teach this person how to be a human being? You are taught to feel accomplished just because you work for a big company. You’re making someone else rich. Something felt very wrong about that.”
It was in discomfort, though, that she had her first breakthrough. She’d just played her mother a track that featured a sample of the 1981 song “Portuguese Love” by soul singer Teena Marie. Patton’s mother looked at her. “Well,” she said, “I know what Teena Marie sounds like. But what do you sound like?”
Patton was devastated. “I was scared, angry, all these things. Like, Oh, it’s not good enough?” From then on, she vowed to use original samples only. On Dark Energy, the only vocal samples came from films—Bruce Lee; or Faye Dunaway’s famous “No more wire hangers!” line from Mommie Dearest, a film that had terrified Patton since she first watched it with her parents as a child. “If a sound can give me such an eerie feeling that I don’t want to hear it again, that’s a sound I’ll probably use,” Patton says. Her mother’s query, sharp and pointed, triggered a turning point.
“It meant: You have the skill, you have the gift, lose the crutch,” Patton says. “Taking away that Teena Marie sample meant I was in that dark space, that I had to draw from nothing. Even now, 90 percent of my music is not about sound, it’s about being aligned with myself. Before you even hit the creative spot, you need to deal with the personal. Don’t even worry about the music. That’ll be there. You have to deal with you first. You have to face things about yourself you don’t even want to face. I have to go into a space that makes me cringe every time I go there.”
Jlin: "Black Origami"
The next day, while Patton works on her ballet score, I head out to explore Gary alone. For all I thought I knew of the city nothing has prepared me for the sight of its downtown, which feels not just forgotten but absolutely gutted, its heart ripped out.
On Broadway, the main artery, theaters and storefronts stand empty, near ruined shells of nightclubs and hotels. The newspaper is shuttered. The water tower, painted “Gary”in a 1980s-esque typewriter font, looks like a cartoonish, deflated balloon, held aloft by tall stilts. Lake Michigan, and the Indiana Dunes along its shores, are mostly pristine except for the smoke billowing from the mills to the east and west, and a pregnancy test discarded on the beach. I tune into the city’s talk radio; on 1370 AM, there’s a long, lively discussion about first white flight, and now black flight, to the suburb of Merrillville.
Back downtown, I pay a visit to Michael Jackson’s birthplace, a house so tiny it is hard to picture how all the Jacksons ever fit inside it. It is easy, though, to picture those early band practices spilling out of the windows. An iron fence surrounds the house, and there’s a granite monument in the startlingly green yard, with tributes chalked and markered on every available surface. Behind the house, a plastic raised emblem of a glove has been affixed to a recycling bin.
Driving down Jackson Street, I try to count houses and give up. At least half of them are boarded up; at the end of the block stands an abandoned school. I had assumed the street was renamed in honor of Michael, but this is not the case. On the east side of Broadway, the roads are named after states; on the west, for presidents.The president streets end with Taft, who took office in the city’s early days, and who tried, unsuccessfully, to break up U.S. Steel, once the largest mill in the world. The street names only underscore the looming metaphor and irony of this city, deliberately aligned with and conceived in American capitalism, and now living with a legacy of racism so obvious that it cannot be blamed simply on Gary, or even on Indiana, but on America itself.