Review

Jason Chung shows there's no such thing as giving up

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Despite being robbed of his equipment and recordings, Nosaj Thing showed up and played at the El Rey

The beat producer Jason Chung has had a rough few days, and you could see it on his face. The dark, menacing El Rey Theater set he delivered was meant to be the victorious homecoming after a cross-country tour to tease his forthcoming album, "Fated." But last week the artist, who records abstract hip-hop tracks under the moniker Nosaj Thing, and his touring posse had their gear stolen in Houston.

Chung, 30, lost everything. And not just his live set-up and the PowerBook loaded with tracks that in performance he harnesses to build syrupy, bass-heavy electronic meditations. More crucially, the thieves stole Chung's backup hard drive containing all of his recording sessions, sketches for new work and unreleased beats built using now-obsolete software.

His last hope: an older second backup drive at his Los Angeles studio. No luck. It was dead.

For a producer, Chung's loss is the rock equivalent of being robbed of not just your Gibson, Marshall stacks and effects pedals but everything you ever put to tape. For a rising talent who's built tracks for artists including Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi, Busdriver and, most recently, Chance the Rapper, it's a history-erasing event.

Gone are a vast bank of ideas from a producer who rose in the late '00s alongside a generation of kindred Los Angeles creators including Baths, Daedalus, Shlohmo, the Low End Theory crew and scene hub Flying Lotus to build deep, dynamic experimental instrumentals. Chung lost all of his instrumental snippets and experiments, ripe to be explored, expanded on or licensed for lucrative video game, television and film use.

The artist carried a hardened look and a cup of whiskey as he walked onto the stage Wednesday. Earlier in the day in an email, he was described by his label, Innovative Leisure, as being "absolutely gutted." He'd pulled an all-nighter to have something to present at this worst-case scenario release party. His devoted fans, many of whom have followed him during an eight-year rise, empathetically cheered his arrival.

He welcomed the crowd and briefly explained the agenda: a run-through of "Fated," a selection of unreleased MP3s rescued from the label's archive and a special guest. Later he acknowledged the theft and his sudden creative tabula rasa.

The result was as much a listening session as it was a concert. Chung moved through his "Fated" tracks, its title resonating with a meaning he couldn't have predicted when he named it. "Sci" drifted in as if with fog, a hum of fluid bass tones, dots of manipulated, plonky piano-esque tones and an ethereal, electronically manipulated female voice washing through. Like many of his tracks, it came and went within a few blurry minutes.

"Cold Stares" featured the voice of promising Chicago rapper-singer-lyricist-dancer Chance the Rapper, whose tone moved from moaning to singing to rapping over the course of three minutes. Chung worked the buttons, tweaking the high and low frequencies and nodding in rhythm while behind him song titles moved across the screen. At one point he slammed the rest of his whiskey while the visuals behind him swirled.

Unlike the long, focused tracks by opener Clark, who has released consistently striking (and noisy) work with the influential Warp Records imprint, Nosaj Thing has little interest in linearity, repetition, solid four-on-the-floor stomp. Still, they're connected by similarly exploratory natures.

After playing half a dozen previously unheard tracks, Chung introduced his guest, Los Angeles-based vocalist Kelela. They closed the night with a fresh track composed, by necessity, earlier in the day, one that merged his free-floating beats with her sturdy voice.

Whether Chung ever recovers his gear is up to aforementioned fates — and Texas police. But the determination that pushed the artist at El Rey confirmed that whatever happens with those tracks, there are way more where they came from.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

Twitter: @liledit

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