Inside the L.A. scene that is bringing back jazz and transforming hip-hop
No one suspected the Los Angeles Beat Scene would rewire the circuits of international underground music, but over the past year its influence has become pervasive, shaping some of the biggest hip-hop albums and dictating the future of modern jazz. The scene started in 2006 with an obscure congregation worshiping loudly every Wednesday at a party called Low End Theory. It was held at The Airliner, a dingy club in Lincoln Heights on L.A.’s Eastside. At first, few came but the musicians themselves. By 2008, the word was out, and producers and DJs were driving from all over the county to test their instrumental hip-hop and experiment with wild styles on a sound system that shook like a subduction zone. Inspiration came from within, fostered by healthy competition at Beat Invitationals. It was a self-contained world: no internet hype, no frills, no ego trips, and no green room to separate artists from fans. The club offered safe harbor from button-pushing, bottle-popping Hollywood DJs. Inside the walls of The Airliner, genres got fractured and remixed.
Those early years of the Beat Scene were a Copernican revolution. Instrumental beats had influenced hip-hop albums before, but for the first time, producers emerged as the center of a solar system. No longer did the sun revolve around rappers. Catalyzed by advanced computer software, bedroom recording technology, and strong smoke, a constellation of stars burst from Low End Theory.
But a good secret can be kept for only so long. Tastemaking British DJs began playing Low End Theory artists on their radio shows, and soon the L.A. Beat Scene was shaping sounds in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Berlin and Moscow. By early 2011, Thom Yorke played secret DJ sets at the club. So did Erykah Badu. The first-ever Odd Future performance in 2010 almost started a riot. The second one got so chaotic that cops shut it down.
Low End Theory now sponsors a sold-out yearly festival, but it’s still the club for people who hate clubs. Its artists are one degree of separation from every tributary of L.A. hip-hop, dance music, and modern jazz. The Beat Scene’s musicians went from outcasts to underground kings and queens.
Steven Ellison, also known as Flying Lotus, lives in a home in the San Fernando Valley, but it’s just as easy to picture him steering a glowing orb alongside fellow astral travelers George Clinton, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Future, as well as the North Star spirits of J Dilla, Sun Ra, and his own great-aunt, Alice Coltrane. Since his 2008 breakout album, Los Angeles, Flying Lotus has been what Low End Theory co-founder Daddy Kev refers to as “the pace car” for the scene. Over the past ten years, he’s released more than a dozen EPs and full-length albums of his own music and produced sky-splitting grooves with Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Odd Future, Thom Yorke, and Herbie Hancock. Imagine gliding through Van Gogh’s Starry Night on a spaceship while smoking DMT and bumping West Coast rap, and you start to get an idea of his sound.
Mixing hip-hop, jazz, soul, and electronic funk, Flying Lotus’s eclecticism is reflected in Brainfeeder, the record label he started in 2008 that offers a platform for young avant-garde musicians to reach mass audiences — and made jazz cool again. While streaming nurtures a quick-fix mentality, Flying Lotus is more interested in long-term levitation, including films, tech projects, and video games. “What I want to do musically is the easy part,” he says. “The current format of releasing music for Spotify and iTunes just isn’t inspiring for me. I want my next project to be an interactive music project or film.” He has already scored a feature and a short film and is collaborating on a mumblecore-esque script. It’s about a band whose “star vocalist is losing his mind and everyone’s along for the ride.” No one knows where they’ll end up, and that’s the point.
The Low End Theory Residents
On a sweltering Wednesday night in mid-October, a line of late teens and 20-somethings stretches for blocks down North Broadway. They’ve assembled for Low End Theory’s ninth anniversary. Until the club, it was unthinkable that a weekly party could stay open, relevant, and sonically progressive for almost a decade.
Adventurous booking and homegrown stars help sustain the party’s appeal. But, ultimately, its success is largely attributable to its five residents. What the Wu-Tang Clan was to the rap group, Low End Theory residents are to the DJ crew. They each fill a definable niche: Daddy Kev is the abbot, cultivating young Beat Scene talent; Nobody is a Swiss Army knife — a rap scholar, psychedelic guitarist, and occasional Auto-Tune balladeer; D-Styles is one of the world’s premier scratch DJs; The Gaslamp Killer has no peer for stage presence or energy. Low End Theory host and lone rap resident Nocando is a national freestyle-battle champion and accomplished solo artist blending rowdy hedonism with poignant heart-on-sleeve rants.
“I don’t think anyone foresaw that it would turn from a real regional sound into something that people all over the world would relate to,” says Daddy Kev, who also operates Alpha Pup, the label and distribution arm that acts as a recording hub for the scene. “A lot of guys got famous. That they stuck around and stayed enthusiastic is testament to the genuine friendships, inspiration, and respect that runs through the scene.”
The Gaslamp Killer
Two and a half years ago, the Gustavo Dudamel of beat music nearly bled into oblivion on a hill near his Mount Washington home when his motor scooter flipped over and crushed him. Doctors said The Gaslamp Killer was three hours away from never being able to electrify a crowd again.
“Electrify,” however, doesn’t quite do San Diego native William Bensussen justice. Since he first took up his DJ residency at Low End Theory in 2006, his shamanic, psychedelic mad-monk rituals — headbanging, morphing his voice into a sinister echoing boom, unleashing the occasional John Waters–inspired rant — have made him a main attraction. His 2012 debut album, Breakthrough, lived up to its name, blending filthy hip-hop drum breaks, druggy prog-rock, and Middle Eastern spirituals. But it was his deep crates, turntable sorcery, and live-wire creativity that made him arguably the best DJ in the U.S. Then came the accident. “The darker the times, the harder the beats,” The Gaslamp Killer says. “People want to escape into a place where other like minds are — and that’s our scene. We’re trippy, nerdy, intellectual diggers with massive appetites for old and new music, always on the hunt to make shit pop harder.”
Before the crash, The Gaslamp Killer’s reputation rested largely on his kinetic solo performances. But to help pay off his medical bills, he assembled The Gaslamp Killer Experience for a benefit concert last year. The dozen-piece orchestra turned beat music baroque without losing any of its grit. It played last year’s Coachella and epitomizes the scene’s growth and virtuosity.
“I’d rather be someone’s 15th-favorite producer than their first-favorite female producer,” TOKiMONSTA says. This stance partially explains how Jennifer Lee acquired the title “First Lady of Brainfeeder.” She’s transcended genre and glass ceilings by simply being better. In the process, she’s broken ground for other women in a male-dominated scene.
She lives in Koreatown, which has emerged as a flashpoint of L.A.’s cultural diversity. For a recent episode of his CNN web series, chef Roy Choi brought out his friends — TOKiMONSTA and rapper Dumbfoundead — to talk about race and gender in the music business. Korean American, TOKiMONSTA grew up just down the 405 in Torrance, where her obsession with Wu-Tang, DJ Shadow, and West Coast rap inspired her to buy a MIDI keyboard and a copy of FruityLoops beat software while majoring in business at the University of California, Irvine.
After discovering Low End Theory early in its existence, she quickly ascended to become one of the scene’s stars, releasing records and singles on Brainfeeder, Ultra, and her own Young Art imprint. TOKiMONSTA’s ability to cross-pollinate hip-hop, R&B, pop, and disco seems as ingenious as Choi’s pairing of bulgogi with tacos. It’s yielded collaborations with rap legend Kool Keith and Dr. Dre protégé Anderson.Paak. The increased profile has even led to an offer to be on a reality show, which she declined.
“People try to focus on me being an ethnic minority or that I’m a female producer,” TOKiMONSTA says. “It’s important for people to understand those aspects of my story, but my main purpose is to write good songs.”
Dial Thundercat and you might get his voicemail. If you do, you won’t immediately understand what’s happening: Whispering voices babble, interstellar noises whirl, and then you hear the beep. It’s a whimsical prank fit for the alien creativity of the bassist whose line hasn’t stopped ringing since Kendrick Lamar conscripted him as a chief musical collaborator on his Grammy-nominated 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
At the moment, Stephen Bruner is thankful for a respite at his home in Koreatown following a month-long sold-out national tour. “We played at the Blue Note in New York, and the owners and management flipped out,” Thundercat says. “Lines on both sides of the street. They hadn’t had the place that packed in years. They’d been wondering where the young people were at — and it was like, ‘Look, they’re here.’” Europe beckons; he leaves in a few weeks.
The prodigious South Central native spent his early years playing with Sa-Ra, Erykah Badu, and Suicidal Tendencies. He regularly gigged in clubs with the West Coast Get Down ensemble, which includes Kamasi Washington, whose Brainfeeder release, The Epic, was one of 2015’s most celebrated jazz albums. But when Thundercat finally linked with Flying Lotus in the late 2000s, it sparked innumerable collaborations, including a pair of Thundercat solo records and an EP so vital that it nullified the past 30 years of existential ruminations about the state of jazz. “My friends on the Beat Scene side helped loosen up that creativity,” Thundercat says. “It took a minute to get there, but it’s become seamless. Jazz never really left.”
Jason Chung never quite fit in. In the pre-iPod suburban sprawl of early 2000s Cerritos, there seemed to be room for everyone except a teenager equally fluent in drum and bass, rap music, and Radiohead. A kid could be into Bach symphonies or scabrous punk, but not both. The future Nosaj Thing was a computer prodigy who taught himself the piano by ear, an introvert willing to lie to his parents to go to all-night raves, a black sheep rocking iridescent laptop beats at The Smell, near Skid Row. When he discovered the Beat Scene, he found a haven for the creatively eccentric.
“When Low End Theory first started, it was a dude from the jungle scene, one from the scratch scene, and guys from the hip-hop scene. I was like, ‘Of course, this is what I was waiting for,’” Nosaj Thing says.
Mercurial and comfortable in the shadows, the DJ and producer has become an avatar for a generation that sees a negligible difference between hip-hop beats and dance music. So it’s obvious why he’s stealthily shaped the sounds of collaborators Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, and Chance the Rapper. After three stellar solo albums, he’s launched his own imprint, Timetable Records, with a goal of bridging the gap between the music and fine-arts worlds.
“With all these new types of media and accessibility, why does a label have to only be limited to music?” Nosaj Thing wonders. “My goal has always been to create something more experiential. Why not create an installation to walk you through the album? That’s the stuff that I want to do — to make music that’s fully immersive.”