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On Cue: Jana Rush

Chicago’s Jana Rush records an hour of high-energy footwork and head-spinning rhythms for the On Cue mix series, and speaks to Ray Philp about balancing creativity with a busy day job, mental health, and her forthcoming music on Planet Mu

Jana Rush is getting ready for another hard shift at the hospital. In a few hours, she’ll drive to the Illinois Masonic on Chicago’s North Side, a level-one trauma centre that specialises in critical care. She eases dozens of patients a day into a CT scanner, up to three of whom will have suffered strokes. Corralled in her tight workspace, a “crap-load” of doctors will order scans — anything from a sinus cavity to a major organ — every 15 minutes. The other day, she was helping out with chest tubes insertions, a delicate procedure that, if not done carefully, can trigger a collapsed lung, or what she calls a “pneumo”.

Eight-hour days can often stretch to ten, and COVID-19 has made life at the hospital even harder. By the time she gets home, often into the night, “I’m exhausted, completely drained,” she says. The stress of Jana's day job has given fresh urgency to a potentially life-changing decision: “It’s kind of late — you know, in life — but I’m wrestling with whether to continue in this career or to pursue my music.”

The risks of a career change in the current climate are significant: US unemployment remains at a record high, and dance music producers and DJs like her face unprecedented challenges to living sustainably. Jana’s talent, however, presents a persuasive case. Her first album, 2017’s ‘Pariah’, was a widely praised breakthrough that reflected both her roots in Chicago and a strikingly flexible sound. It encompassed offbeat takes on house, footwork — a style she is lukewarm about associating herself with — techno, jungle and ambient, with drum pointillism that recalls drill and bass. 

At the heart of her music is a contradictory dynamic — “it’s simple yet complicated,” she says, a quality she admires in artists like Venetian Snares. Nothing on ‘Pariah’ illustrates this better than ‘Break It’, a 240bpm bruiser whose crafty, half-speed snare tics create a kind of tempo mirage. Other tracks, like ‘Old Skool’ and ‘CPU’ call back to her mid-’90s days as a teenage ghetto house prodigy on Dance Mania. The album’s strength was to work out a golden ratio between head-spinning novelty and nods to the past.  

The album’s critical success is also something like a second chance for Jana, who is still best known in Chicago for what she did more than two decades ago. In 1996, she was billed as “The Youngest Female DJ” on a split EP with DJ Deeon. She was so-called because of a slot Jana secured, aged 11, at the college radio station WKCC. But seven years later, her mother, a single parent wary of supporting a precarious career, gave her an ultimatum: make music or make a living. Jana was surprisingly easy to persuade.

“On some level, I agreed with her,” she says. “The life before you ‘make it’ just wasn’t for me. I know a lot of people tell success stories about how they couch surfed for, like, three years. I don’t know — I'm humble, but I’m not that humble. I don’t want to couch surf. I don’t want to become somebody else’s burden.” 

A few close friends, including the late footwork pioneer DJ Rashad, tried to pull her back into music. She was tempted, but was also adamant about earning “adult money” and so focused on her engineering degree. “My affection for music has never stopped,” she says, “but I also knew I wasn’t the strongest artist, so I spent a lot of time being kind of shy about my music.” 

Lately, she’s been working on a compilation for Berlin’s Rec Room party, a preset-making collaboration with Native Instruments on their Massive X synth (“I would like to do hardware design for interfaces or systems”), and a second album she expects to release on Planet Mu next year. When Jana sends us some tracks she’s working on, we’re drawn to the ones that, as it turns out, are inspired by her lifelong battle with depression.  

Music is more than a passion for Jana. By neglecting it, “I feel like I’m sacrificing my lifeline,” she says. “Music is what convinced me to stay alive when I was having issues with possible suicide. It gives me my fire.” When it comes to communicating these feelings in her music, she tells us about the track ‘Painful Enlightenment’. It has an introspective, first-smoke-of-the-day feel to it. Jana says it’s about accepting the good and bad sides of her, and taking responsibility for both. 

Another track, ‘Homicidal Ideation’, is a mazy gauntlet of ruler-snap hi-hats, cartoonish voices, hacksaw bass and improvised piano figures, all of which resembles the gory fever of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film. It came about after a distressingly vivid dream during what Jana called “one of the lowest points of my life.”

“I think I’ve been dealing with depression for a very great part of my life,” she says candidly. “I didn’t know what it was. It came out a lot of times through anger, or me not talking to people. It came out in a lot of weird ways. I can’t remember the last time I was just happy and not in my head. A lot of my depression comes from the feeling of inadequacy, and having to prove otherwise. However, through this — I don’t want to say journey... I don’t want to be mean, but I really have a disdain for the woke people, because sometimes they go too far with that shit, you know? I tend to let people tell me who I am. And through that, I’m not being who I am. And through me also not knowing myself, I don’t create the best boundaries.”

When Jana felt suicidal, some of the support she received was clumsy and ultimately harmful. “When you do talk to people about this, the first thing they want to do is invalidate what's going on” — by, for example, insisting that “life is a gift” or repeating clichés about selfishness without acknowledging a person’s pain. “You want to talk about someone being selfish, you’re telling someone to put up with a life of shit so you can feel better.”

What has Jana found helpful? “I had a few good friends that I knew wouldn’t be trying to make problems or make fun of me about my situation,” she says. “They would come over and check in with me, text me, just make sure I’m good.” Friends made sure she ate. Co-workers kept Jana company at home so she could sleep, which she found “very comforting.”

Jana is keen to discuss her mental health because, ultimately, she wants to help people. During lockdown, she spent time “learning to be more empathetic”, which has made her more sensitive towards hesitant patients at the hospital. (“My mind-set is the assembly line, and I have to remind myself constantly to slow down.”) It also gave her the space to help herself. “It’s so funny. I love quarantine — I got in touch with being by myself. It gave me a lot of time to go inside, something I’d never done before. It was this feeling of like, for a split second, everybody was on even ground, and I just felt that was so beautiful.”

Until, that is, November’s presidential elections. When we bring it up, she gives a characteristically pragmatic answer. “Besides voting, I didn’t really engage. I found looking at a lot of stuff very draining. I’m still around people that want to argue about stuff — It’s like, let’s just get on with it. Let’s figure out what’s going on with COVID-19. What are the facts? That’s what I want to know.”

Another new track that catches our ear is ‘Mynd Fuc’, which will be released as part of Planet Mu's 25th anniversary compilation on 4th December. The only thing we can compare to its erratic, kung-fu-sample percussion is Theo Parrish’s ‘Any Other Styles’, perhaps the strangest track he’s ever made. “That track right there somehow puts me in the frame of mind of a Quentin Tarantino movie; it just doesn’t make any sense, and then it all comes together at the weirdest time. That track reflects my life. At first, it’s random — like I’m just doing things without any meaning. Now I’m starting to see how things connect.”

If there’s one thing that connects Jana Rush’s creative and professional pursuits, it’s an attraction to intensity she can’t necessarily help. “I don’t need to really work at a level one trauma centre. I should probably be, at this point in my career, at a cake job” — something easy — “where I’m just scanning regular patients. I compared it to all my other jobs that I had. What was the part that I liked the most? I liked it when it was busy and I was figuring things out.”

Jana is particularly fond of her days as a fire fighter. “That was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “Fire fighting taught me a lot about team playing, and it taught me a lot about survival, too.” 

Jana Rush's On Cue mix is an hour of electrified rhythms and high-intensity grooves, simultaneously futuristic and rooted in the sounds of Chicago. Check it out below.  

For DJ Mag's Dance Music Is Black Music issue, Jana Rush spoke candidly about how how living in a racist society affects her. You can read that feature here.

Ray Philp is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @ray_philp_

Feature photo credit: Wills Glasspiegel