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)
Two decades ago, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s ascent from Long Beach Crip to number-one debut album with a bullet and a murder charge was the target of a Newsweek cover story that asked, damningly, “When is Rap 2 Violent?” Today, he’s known as Uncle Snoop, and his wink-wink naughtiness seems harmlessly all-American. His youth football league warrants regular coverage on ESPN, while he costars with his UCLA college football-bound son, Cordell Broadus, in the documentary Snoop & Son: A Dad’s Dream. He makes regular appearances on WWE Raw, and bro comedies like Old School and Entourage.
Perhaps the most remarkable transformation lies in Snoop Dogg’s music. For millennials, he’s the dogg buried in the sand, cornrowed head wagging about, as Katy Perry sings about “California Gurls.” Smoker icons in training like Wiz Khalifa are his “nephews.” He makes EDM bangers with David Guetta and Afrojack, and offers his imprimatur to everyone from Kendrick Lamar and Dam-Funk to K-Pop stars Girls’ Generation and Psy (the “Gangnam Style” guy). His just-released album, a full-length collaboration with Pharrell Williams titled Bush, barely has any rapping at all, just Snoop crooning blissfully about big booties and THC edibles over a light disco-funk beat.
How did Snoop grow from the man who rapped on “Deep Cover,” “It’s 1-8-7 on an undercover cop,” to singing duets with Willie Nelson? Perhaps the turning point was his 2004 album and arguable highlight of his post-Death Row career, R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece. Or maybe a bit earlier, when he and Pharrell cavorted in Rio De Janeiro on the video clip “Beautiful.” Ever since then, his biggest moments have had a decidedly pop tone, whether it’s hanging with Wiz on “Young, Wild & Free,” or singing in auto-tune on “Sexual Seduction.”
Nowadays, he’s everyone’s favorite uncle, the young-at-heart OG who gets a little too drunk at the family barbecue, is probably too old to know the latest rap hits, and is definitely too old to be flirting with the young ladies in the backyard. Who doesn’t love that guy?
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.
Piñata, the full-length collaboration between 21st-century gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs and 31st-century producer Madlib, lulls breezily between pro forma thuggery and Swisha Sweet insights, mixing progressive beats (sampled, not synthesized) with grizzled street raps (real talk, not fake Bawse boasts). But though this is well-trod ground, from the blaxploitation allusions to the Odd Future and TDE cameos (sorry, no Kendrick), there is innovation and illumination here, too. There is “Thuggin’,” wherein Gibbs chops over frail guitar licks looped and sped up into an Americanized spaghetti-gangster soundtrack, thanks to Madlib’s excavation of an arcane British library record, Rubba’s “Way Star” (h/t WhoSampled.com). There is “Deeper,” wherein Gibbs unravels a deeply metaphorical flip on Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and bemoans the decline of gangsta rap culture, “All for a nigga that ain’t got nothing that I ain’t got / Only difference is, he’s tryin’ to be a fuckin’ astronaut.”
Perhaps the best thing about “Tyler, The Creator” Okonma’s Goblin is that he has mastered the art of intimacy. Throughout this nearly hour-and-a-half therapy session, he sounds as if he is speaking directly to you. However, therapy sessions usually last an hour. By stretching the listener’s patience to its breaking point, and offering modest emotional returns, he impresses with his self-absorption instead of his catharsis.
Tyler’s breakthrough arrives in the final track, “Golden,” when he announces “I’m not crazy.” In the first track, “Goblin,” he subtly broadcasts that he’s capable of change in spite of the worrisome obscenities that will follow. “I’m not a fucking rapist, or a serial killer. I lied,” he says to his “therapist,” which is actually his own voice modulated to a low growl. Speaking to his “conscience,” he adds, “They claim that shit I say is just wrong/ Like nobody has those really dark thoughts when alone.” He doesn’t spend much time bidding for the audience’s sympathy because no one wants a pity party. He knows that what we really want to hear are the vicarious thrills of calling someone nigga, a bitch, and a faggot; of raping and cannibalizing women; and of entertaining an interest in Nazism (though that last point is less pronounced here than on his debut solo album, 2010’s “freelease” Bastard).