At Low End Theory, a weekly club night for experimental hip-hop and electronica artists at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, there is one square foot of standing room where the music sounds perfect. To get there, patrons must climb a stairwell that opens onto a bleak stretch of Broadway Avenue, be frisked by a bouncer, proceed to the middle of the dance floor, which is almost always humid with body heat, then walk exactly 12 feet back from the stage and wait for the bass.
“We wired the P.A. setup so that’s the spot where the 20hz frequency is strongest,” said Kevin Marques Moo, a record label owner and DJ who co-founded Low End Theory three years ago. He pointed to the dance floor and grinned. “I love that feeling, the face melt.”
Any time spent in that one-square-foot space listening to the music, which is mostly instrumental and rooted in hip-hop, will prove Moo is not kidding about the power of the 10,000-watt hand-curated sound system. But even more than bass, Low End Theory and the uniquely Angeleno scene around it -- which includes such rising artists as the Glitch Mob, Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing and Daedelus -- is about intersections.
LET showcases the links between classic Los Angeles rap and the fractured jazz of Eric Dolphy but also demonstrates how artists are using dazzling instrument technologies to upend both of those traditions. It offers a lesson on how, with the right kind of business savvy, performers and entrepreneurs can turn a profit releasing new music digitally by capitalizing on an Internet culture in which that music instantly goes viral.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it underscores the way challenging, inventive music can bridge larger cultural gaps and bring together Latino, Asian, African American and white music listeners.
“I’ve always felt like a bit of a musical outcast, but ever since I moved to L.A., Low End Theory has been my home,” said Jneiro Jarel, the 34-year-old DJ for rapper MF Doom and a frequent collaborator with TV on the Radio’s David Sitek. “It’s such a natural fit for me. To find a club playing these sounds was overwhelming.”
Many of the artists in the scene have potential breakthrough records out now or coming next year; they stand to profoundly influence the direction of pop, hip-hop and electronic music, and the business models used to sell it.
“It’s presumptuous to say, ‘I want it to be so big,’ ” Moo said. “But I think Madonna should be calling Daedelus. Bjork should be talking to Nosaj. Jay-Z should be knocking down Glitch Mob’s door.”
In some ways, Low End Theory began like every other scene in L.A. history -- a few inspired artists find off-the-grid venues for a difficult sound, and word spreads. The 35-year-old Moo had been trying to create such a scene since the late ‘90s, when he founded the hip-hop and drum-and-bass leaning Celestial Recordings label, but he didn’t hit his stride until a few far-flung producers began booking shows at his new club night in October 2006.
Among that group was Steven Ellison, the soft-spoken, 25-year-old, Winnetka-raised artist who performs as Flying Lotus; the dandyish Santa Monica producer Alfred Darlington, who records as Daedelus; 24-year-old Pasadena-based producer Jason Chung, whose June debut album, “Drift,” released under the moniker Nosaj Thing, earned raves from tastemaking websites like Pitchfork; and the Glitch Mob, a band founded by the 30-year-old producer Ed Ma with friends Justin Boreta and Josh Mayer, who formed the group after solo careers as DJs and producers.
These artists have a promiscuous attitude when it comes to influences. Breakbeats and samples are spliced with the filters and synthesizers of techno and house music. Jazz-inspired drumming is manipulated with digital controllers to make it cold and alien. Harsh bass lines hit at such frequencies that the music becomes less about sound than physical sensation.
Writers including the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones have tried to put a name to this particular brand of brainy samples atop deep sub-bass, using colorful phrases like “Lazer Bass” or “Wonky” or “Aquacrunk.” But the artists often bristle at those terms.
“ ‘Lazer Bass’ is like a cuss word to us,” Boreta said.
“We’re all out to make a deeper experience,” offered Ellison, whose 2008 full-length release “Los Angeles” made many critics’ year-end best-of lists and whose follow-up is expected early next year. “I want it to be a beautiful and mesmerizing sound that, when you’re stuck in traffic, it can take you away. For me, music is a meditation, we’re just receiving it and translating it as best we can.”
Each Wednesday, shows at Low End Theory draw hundreds of fans, many of whom subscribe to a membership club for frequent visitors. Satellite communities for the Low End sound have emerged in Montreal and Glasgow, Scotland, cities never considered hotbeds for beat-heavy music. But even far-flung practitioners of this bass-centric experimental music see the L.A. contingent as standard bearers, both in the music’s quality and in the potential star power of its players.
“In the U.K., producers are really reticent. If you stand stock still while perfectly beat-matching, that’s considered a good set,” said Mary Anne Hobbs, a DJ for BBC Radio 1 who produced “West Coast Rocks,” a documentary largely on Low End Theory; she performed at the club late last month. “In L.A., you’re at the epicenter of a city of performers. Flying Lotus is his generation’s Jimi Hendrix, he literally tears a room apart.”
The artists’ fierce charisma is integral to LET’s appeal. So is its markedly diverse fan base, which represents an unlikely cross-section of racial, musical and economic demographics. Moo said that the late Heath Ledger, a Daedelus fan, came to the club one night and went completely unnoticed.
“There’s almost a Studio 54 aspect to it,” Darlington said. “It’s the promise of a good club, where people from all creative worlds on the fringe of L.A. can come, and actresses can come too.”
Eclecticism might define the Low End Theory sound, but new technology is its foundation. These artists eschew the traditional hip-hop and techno setup, forsaking turntables and samplers for far more cutting-edge devices.
At a recent headlining set at the Roxy (where, Moo said, Bjork was in the audience), the three members of the Glitch Mob stood before a black tablet with a touch-activated screen called a Lemur. By pressing, swiping and tracing patterns on the screen, they manipulated software to create and edit sounds that previously had been saved on their laptops, all while thrashing about the front of the stage.
Similarly, a typical Flying Lotus performance finds Ellison behind a nest of cables, software controller pads and an array of mixing equipment that he plays with an almost shamanic quality befitting his musical lineage -- he’s the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane. In concert, Daedelus makes judicious use of a Monome, an instrument with a grid of 256 illuminated buttons that, when pressed and illuminated, control sequences of samples and software.
The technology allows for nearly endless possibilities when it comes to making and tweaking electronic music in a live setting without the complications of a live band; these new devices allow a laptop to be played just like a regular instrument.
“The problem with an electronic performance is that there’s no relationship between what you’re seeing and the sound you’re hearing,” said Gareth Williams, the artist, promotions and content manager of JazzMutant, the company that developed the Lemur. “With these controllers you take away the smoke and mirrors.”
The business end
Although some of the Low End artists are signed to high-profile labels (Lotus to the renowned U.K. electronica label Warp, Daedelus to the London- and Montreal-based Ninja Tune), much of the scene runs through Alpha Pup Records, Moo’s label and studio, which operates out of his three-room downtown L.A. office. Eighty percent of Alpha Pup’s sales are digital downloads offered through major online retailers such as iTunes and boutique sites such as Boomkat and Bleep.
Moo, who once worked as a label manager at Sony BMG, has abandoned most customary physical and digital distribution arrangements, however. He prefers to personally cut deals with the sites themselves and for his artists to release a constant flow of free digital mixtapes, remixes and singles. These tracks also show up in a monthly Low End Theory podcast, which draws tens of thousands of listeners each month, many of whom don’t attend the club night.
That approach, he and the LET performers believe, helps to keep fans interested in his artists and to build the kind of brand loyalty that can translate into positive word of mouth and future sales.
“We did a tour of Eastern Europe, and over there the idea of paying for music is just absurd,” Boreta said. “To them it’s all free. But when we played Budapest we sold 800 tickets. We believe in the commerce of buying albums, but that ship has sunk.”
Moo, who runs the label along with his wife, a staff of three paid employees and four interns, used his background in designing data architecture systems for companies to engineer Alpha Pup’s accounting system, which tracks every song and album sold worldwide. He said a transparent model for paying artists is a necessity.
“To chase after your money, you’ve got to know what you’re owed,” Moo said. “When you’re starving, but your record’s selling and you’re not seeing any of it, you feel burned. I’m trying to save these kids a lot of heartache.”
Sales for each act are modest (for an artist like Nosaj Thing, monthly revenues are in the mid-four figures) but are growing annually. Of course that could easily change should one of them break into mainstream producing -- Ellison’s woozy remixes of Radiohead’s “Reckoner” and Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” suggest that is a real possibility.
Fundamentally, though, the LET scene is a democratic one. The musicians are all hoping to inspire listeners to one-up them with unheard-of sounds and blistering live sets. Moo, for one, thinks it’s only a matter of time before someone shows them all what’s coming next.
“There will be a kid who comes along in 10 years, who grew up coming to see Nosaj, Lotus and Glitch Mob,” he said. “And that kid will be the new Dr. Dre.”
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A primer on Low End Theory
Many of the Low End Theory artists have extensive catalogs full of singles, collaborations, remixes and experiments that reward longtime fans but might intimidate new ones. Below is a list of starting points to discover the latest, and the most popular, work of each act.
Latest release: “Love to Make Music To,” 2008 (Ninja Tune); also, as The Long Lost: “S/T,” 2009 (Ninja Tune)
Essential singles: “Make It So,” “Fair Weather Friends,” “My Beau.” For more, go to www.myspace.com/daedelusdarling
Latest release: “L.A. E.P. 3x3,” Warp Records, 2009
Essential singles: “Massage Situation,” “Auntie’s Harp,” “Reckoner” (a remix of Radiohead). For more, go to www.flying-lotus.com
Latest release: Crush Mode (mixtape) 2009 (Glitch Mob Unlimited)
Essential singles: “Artsy Remix,” (remix of the Grouch),” “The Red Dress” (a remix of TV on the Radio),""West Coast Rocks” (remix of Matty G). For more, go to www.theglitchmob.com
Latest release: “Drift,” 2009 (Alpha Pup Records)
Essential singles: “Coat of Arms, " “IOIO,” “Fog.” For more, go to www.nosajthing.com
-- August Brown