There was no mistaking producer, vocalist and rhythm king Ras G whenever his work required that he interact with mortals. Whether walking down Colorado Boulevard in East Pasadena toward his day job at Poobah Records or ascending the stairs of the Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights during one of his many appearances at the influential beat club, Ras G’s singular style suggested a time traveler, one who seemed barely tethered to the earthly plane.
The artist, born Gregory Shorter, died on Monday at age 39. In addition to masterminding dozens of recordings and mix shows, Shorter also co-founded producer Flying Lotus’ respected Brainfeeder Records imprint. The label confirmed his death via social media. No cause of death was given. In December, Shorter revealed that he’d been struggling with health issues including diabetes and pneumonia.
In its announcement, Brainfeeder described Shorter as “one of the most important figures in the Los Angeles beat scene.”
Shorter dubbed himself “Captain of the Afrikan Space Program.” His mission: commanding rhythmic fleets by making beats, including albums such as “Ghetto Sci-Fi” (2008), “Brotha From Anotha Planet” (2009), 2013’s “Back on the Planet” and 2018’s circle-of-life concept album “Stargate Music.”
With his arm-length dreadlocks, vivid dashikis, warm demeanor, tangle of gold and beaded necklaces and ring-crammed knuckles, the artist was certainly one of the scene’s most striking operatives. Like fellow travelers such as out-there jazz composer Sun Ra, Jamaican dub producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and meditative harpist Alice Coltrane, Ras G strove to propel his tracks beyond the outer edges of space and time. His most recent album, which came out in February, was aptly called “Dance of the Cosmos.”
On that album and elsewhere, Ras G smushed a scholar’s worth of historical and musical context into his mostly instrumental tracks. One of his most popular, “Juju,” rides on an airy, meditative groove that hints at Impulse Records-era Pharoah Sanders. Ras G issued its sequel, “Juju Pt. 2,” on the new “Down 2 Earth Vol. 4.” It rolls on a whole other tip. That was often the case with his work.
Unlike more prominent figures in the oft-insular beat scene, whose central figures over the last decade include Flying Lotus, Tokimonsta, Thundercat, the Gaslamp Killer and the WeDidIt collective, Ras G didn’t command standing-room-only billing, and seemed less interested in packing venues than in exploring his muse.
A tight-knit community of bass-obsessed experimental hip-hop producers, starting in the mid-'00s the influential scene offered a platform for artists such as Ras G, Teebs and Daedelus, all of whom were interested in deconstructing the music’s oft-rigid structures in the same way that jazz artists messed with meter and chord progressions to create free jazz. The movement has resonated most famously through its influence on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
Asked about his creative process, Ras G told an interviewer, "It’s the feeling I’m just channeling. I don’t know how I’m making this music per se. I never went to a music school. I never know what you need to know for music. All I know is the feeling of music and how it should be. I just utilize that with intuition. Out-of-body experience, spirit controlling the flesh.”
The artist described his ambitious recent album, “Stargate Music,” with a written introduction: “From the Primordial Water Formation we flow thru the Stargate,” it read, unveiling the thematically linked work about an individual’s “great journey reconnecting and returning” to this portal. “The womb is the Stargate of humanity,” he wrote, while musically populating that womb with bass, rhythm, spaceship sounds and various chirps and bleeps to create interlocking psychedelic transmissions.
That album was released by respected L.A. label Leaving, which issued a statement that praised Ras G’s “exploratory & futuristic beat curation,” adding that his “influence + legacy will eternally carry throughout the fabric of our community.”
“Ras_G has left the planet, far beyond the galaxy,” wrote Flying Lotus on Twitter. “Show us the way to the cosmos my friend. I will love you forever. Thank you for your time on earth.”