L.A. record label Fade to Mind looks to expand its cultural reach

Fade to Mind, associated with acts like Future Brown and Kelela, branches out from L.A. music underground

The roof deck of Fade to Mind’s office and recording studio is covered in huge loops of imposing razor wire.

It’s a featureless orange building, on a block of discount cellphone stores and inexpensive Central American restaurants on the southern edge of the Hollywood flatlands. Inside, the headquarters for the four-year-old record label, club-promotion firm and artist collective is a bit more welcoming: cases of Budweiser line the kitchen and piles of analog synthesizers and digital sound controllers cover the walls.

Still, when you’re on the roof peering out through all that sharp metal, it’s obvious this space is invite-only by design. And that’s how its inhabitants like it.

“We just moved in here a few months ago,” said Will Boston, one of the label’s cofounders who performs as Prince Will. “We’d love to eventually get a bedroom and a shower in here and make this a place where artists can fly in and stay and work on records with us.”

Fade to Mind has become one of the most influential projects in L.A. underground music, as a pioneer of a particular style of eerie, electronic club music. After dozens of releases from artists including Nguzunguzu, Kingdom, Fatima Al Qadiri and Total Freedom, the collective is now influencing a much broader swath of culture. From Beyonce to Tinashe, from the darkest warehouse parties to ambitious art museums and the biggest mainstream dance music festivals, Fade to Mind’s murky mood isn’t fringe anymore -- it defines L.A.’s late nights and radio hits alike.

Much of that crossover success can be traced to Kelela Mizanekristos, the striking Ethiopian-descended, L.A.-based singer whose 2013 debut LP “Cut 4 Me” is the label’s marquee release. Featuring production from many of its core artists, the album made Kelela a bona fide star, playing major festivals like Primavera Sound and L.A.’s FYF.

Now, after millions of streams and downloads on services like Soundcloud, the label is finally physically pressing “Cut 4 Me” in a sprawling, triple-gatefold vinyl package with a host of remixes, and throwing a release party at Jewel’s Catch One on Friday.

“[‘Cut’] was all written very casually,” said Ezra Rubin, the label cofounder who produces and performs as Kingdom. “It was our first time writing with lyrics, and we didn’t know anything about writing with toplines.”

"The collaborations (in the room and over the internet) were magical," Kelela told The Times in an email. "[It] was a turning point for me as an artist because it came together naturally and sounded like the intersection of all my favorite elements."

Originally a mixtape, the record made such an impact online that Rubin and Co. opted for a proper LP release.

“Its audience just keeps expanding,” Rubin said. “We released it as a free download, but people are still paying for it on iTunes, just to support it.”

"I think we tried to make something honest, something we've been wanting to hear in the world," Kelela said, "so praise from the outside world just reinforced the idea that I should just be true and never stop challenging myself in that process."

The Fade to Mind crew, many of whom have formal, art school training, forged their distinctive sound and woozy net-art visual aesthetic with groundbreaking late-'00s parties like Wildness. Hosted by another of the label’s marquee acts, Total Freedom, the club night at the Westlake Latino gay and transgender bar Silver Platter became one of L.A.’s most progressive nights of music, shrewdly anticipating how the city’s subcultures -- musical, sexual, aesthetic -- were beginning to merge in new ways.

That sensibility has earned them attention far outside of the underground circuit.

Perez Art Museum Miami has hosted several live performances and video projects with Fade to Mind artists. It most recently staged a collaborative “R&B opera” with Kingdom, singer and new Fade signee Dawn Richard and visual artist Kyselina for Miami Music Week.

“Everyone was sitting mesmerized, it was as much of an experience as any club or festival,” said Emily Mello, deputy director for education and public programs at Perez.

Their Perez collaborations are “about closing the gap between life and technology, and we see so many manifestations of that in their work,” said Katerina Llanes, the curator of time-based media at the Perez. She described Fade to Mind’s aesthetic -- a mix of club music’s physicality, the Internet’s populist pleasures and a radical inclusiveness -- as a flashpoint of contemporary culture.

But it’s still personal. “Queer politics and feminism inform everything they’re doing,” she added. “It’s incredibly political.”

Now the team is at a tipping point, where it could credibly translate its sensibility onto even larger platforms.

Kelela’s success proved Fade to Mind’s sound clearly works in a pop format (she’s shared bills with Solange Knowles), and some of their acts have flirted with mainstream recognition. Asma Maroof, one half of the experimental production duo Nguzunguzu, served as M.I.A.’s tour DJ, and Richard is a former frontwoman of Diddy’s techno-soul combo Dirty Money. Future Brown, an electronic supergroup quartet featuring three Fade to Mind artists, released a rap- and reggaeton-inspired LP this year on the esteemed Warp label featuring collaborators like Timbaland’s new protege Tink. It’s already one of the year’s most debated club-music LPs (admired for its production prowess, divisive for its highbrow sheen on global party music).

It’s no stretch to imagine a future Rihanna single produced by a Fade To Mind artist. But they admit it can be difficult to find collaborators who want to work with them for the right reasons.

“There was one very well-known singer I was working with, and everything I’d play, they kept saying, ‘It’s too dark, it’s too dark,” said Maroof. “After a few days, I knew it wasn’t working, and I just had to say ‘OK, maybe I’m just too dark for you.’”

“We may have missed some opportunities because we want to control everything,” Rubin said. “Our brand’s really complicated, it’s not just a bunch of boys in hats playing trap music. But we’ve always been influenced by pop music, and if someone came to us to do a Britney record, of course we would try it.”

Over New Year’s Eve last year, the label flew many of its artists to a surfing resort in Oaxaca for a three-day revel with the like-minded Mexican artist collective NAAFI. Fade to Mind admitted it was kind of a giddy mess of a weekend. But it did prove that it was thinking about upending more than just L.A. club music. Maybe pop music is up next.

“That’s what’s amazing about being in this family,” Maroof said. “I can always go to Ezra when I feel funny writing vocals, like telling somebody, ‘What if you went, ‘Ahhhhh’ instead?”

Rubin grinned. “I know, it’s like ‘What are we, in ‘Empire’ now?”

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Fade to Mind: Kelela, Bok Bok, Kingdom, Nguzunguzu, Prince Will

Where: Jewel's Catch One, 4067 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Friday, 9 p.m.

Cost: $20-$25

Infohttp://www.ticketfly.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

1:50 p.m., April 8: This post has been updated with additional details and background.

This post was originally published at 5 a.m., April 7.

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