The Los Angeles electronic music scene is unlike any other in the world. For one thing, it is closely-knit – its main participants have usually worked together, cross-pollinating at avenues like underground radio broadcaster Dublab.com or the weekly club showcase Low End Theory. Their proximity to one another results in a sound that listeners have struggled to name ever since. Some just call it “beats,” which might partly be a legacy of a podcast called BTS Radio that helped spread the sound during its early years.
The beats sound emerged from instrumental hip-hop and downtempo. Instrumental hip-hop in particular has a curious history. Back in the late 1990s, it essentially died in the mainstream when club DJs stopped blending rap and R&B with instrumental “breaks” made by Frankie Cutlass, DJ Spinna, Mark the 45 King and others; and started mashing the latest hits together. (It was also when mainstream rap DJs stopped cutting and mixing and devolved into carnival barkers. But that’s another story.) While virtually ignored by radio rap fans, it continued to flourish in the underground, thanks to DJ Shadow’s elaborate sample pastiches, Madlib’s dusty beat loops, and others.
In the early 2000s, major developments elsewhere inspired LA beat producers to push into deeper waters. There was the glitch-hop trend, personified by Prefuse 73 and Dabrye, as well as groundbreaking UK imprints such as Ninja Tune and Warp Records. Detroit’s J Dilla and Waajeed mixed swaggering rap beats with electronic funk. Back in LA, Daedelus made an eccentric swirl of modern classical techniques and dance rhythms. There were the electronic duo Ammoncontact, the downtempo producer Nobody, the soul-jazz orchestra Build An Ark, and beat makers like Omid, Take and Ras G. In 2003, there was the landmark compilation Mu.sic, which debuted producers like GB (Gifted and Blessed) and DJ Exile.
2006 was a watershed year. J Dilla, who by then had relocated to L.A., finished his Donuts masterpiece before he passed away. Producer, mastering engineer, Alpha Pup Records owner and scene godfather Daddy Kev launched Low End Theory. And Flying Lotus, a former Stones Throw intern who cut his teeth spinning tracks on Dublab.com, released 1983 on local label Plug Research. When Warp signed him the following year, his subsequent string of works like 2010’s Cosmogramma turned LA into a global mecca for beats music.
Today, the LA beats scene cuts wide and deep. There is the “lazer bass” of the Glitch Mob; MPC-smacking, head-nod-inducing “blappers” like Samiyam, Jonwayne and Dibia$e; the atmospheric ambience of Teebs and Mono/Poly; the folk-inflected, electronics-infused indie-pop of Baths and Matthewdavid; and the baroque psychedelics of the Gaslamp Killer. Leading lights such as Nosaj Thing, Shlohmo and Tokimonsta evolve in new ways as they flirt with R&B, radio pop, and sundry post-millennial trends. Despite the eclecticism of these various artists, they share a common lineage that’s regional and wholly distinctive in sound.
(Rhapsody – October 9, 2014)
It’s been 10 years since James “J-Dilla” Yancey died on February 10, 2006 at the age of 32. I have written about him many, many times since. However, my initial reaction to his death remains my most honest and personal Dilla piece. So in honor of his impact on my life, I’ve decided to re-post my piece on what would have been his 42nd birthday.
I originally wrote my memoriam for freerap.blogspot.com, which I maintained from 2005-2006. The blog no longer exists on the web, but you can view a December 2, 2005 snapshot on the Internet Archive. When I launched a second and more ambitious website, plugonemag.com, I re-posted that item along with a fresh introduction on February 6, 2007.
Now that my focus is Critical Minded, my first tribute to J-Dilla deserves placement here.
On You’re Dead!, Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison revisits the mysteries of the afterlife. His 2008 album Los Angeles concluded with “Auntie’s Harp” and “Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum,” tributes to his late great-aunt, the spiritual jazz harpist Alice Coltrane. A second version of “Auntie’s Lock” was included on 2010’s Cosmogramma. 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes explored the human capacity to alter consciousness through dream-like journeys, with the title holding a double-meaning: the moment when REM sleep settles into a deep slumber, and when the body is fully at eternal rest.
Late last year, Stones Throw Records announced that it would release a full-length album of tunes by its veritable resident producer Madlib in 2010 . . . every month. Dubbed Madlib Medicine Show, the 12-part series sounds like a rap nerd fantasy.
Ever since his critically lionized Quasimoto adventure, 2000’s The Unseen, when he adopted a helium voice and crafted adult cartoons straight out of Fritz the Cat and Le Planete Sauvage, the L.A. musician has defined an idiom of crackling sampled loops, slightly buggered raps, and thick clouds of weed smoke. Over 15 years deep into a career that kicked off with a cameo on the Alkaholiks’ 1993 debut, 21 & Over, his enigmatic vision perseveres, even as the idealistic underground scene he once occupied — remember back in the ’90s when his old group the Lootpack chastised wannabe gangsta rappers on “The Antidote”? — has turned cynical, becoming obsessed with the same guns-drugs-porn-money quadrant it once criticized the “mainstream” for.
The key to Onra’s third album, Long Distance, is the heavy boogie rhythm of “My Comet.” Released as a 7-inch on All City Records two years ago, it sounded uncharacteristic of the French-Vietnamese producer’s sound at the time, which consisted of crusty post-Dilla donut loops. Now it anchors Long Distance, a tribute to hot early 80s soul and post-disco that stands as his best work to date.