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Los Angeles’ beat scene was always loose by design. Though it had a very specific and physical home—Low End Theory, a club night that still happens every Wednesday at The Airliner in L.A.—the music is more mercurial, with innumerable sub-genres flourishing and swiftly fading. The architects of the scene understood that tying themselves to any one sound meant desertion when the wave inevitably crashed. So, the music was omnivorous, encompassing rap, IDM, psychedelia, turntablism, dance music, trap, jazz, ambient, trip-hop, and spiritual music.
The resulting milieu produced a body of work that is nearly unparalleled in hip-hop and modern electronic music, and you can hear the beat scene’s influence in everyone from Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu to Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Kid Cudi. It transformed L.A. from an electronic-music backwater to a hub of indigenous electronic music culture. And while even casual electronic music fans know its commercial lodestars—Flying Lotus, Thundercat, TOKiMONSTA, Daedelus, et al.—the scene has a deep bench, a psychedelic assortment of mad scientists, Afrofuturists, and avant garde tinkerers that seem like characters ripped out of comic books.
The Dowsers has partnered up with The Passion of the Weiss to present an exhaustive look at this scene—complete with an accompanying playlist of definitive tracks. Head here to check out their list of the Top 20 albums, and check out our remix of their list below, which focuses on the 10 artists who defined the movement.
AN ORIGIN STORY, OF SORTS
Nearly 10 years removed from its release, Flying Lotus’ 2008 album Los Angeles still feels like an anomaly. Most L.A. music evokes sunshine, but FlyLo used techno, bass music, jazz, and hip-hop to sketch a picture of stoned weirdoes marauding through the city’s endless expanse. African percussion collided with IDM sub-frequencies, and Moog licks bounced off record static, conjuring strange, shamanistic imagery. It’s unsurprising that its Afrofuturist grit earned full-throated endorsements from the electronic-music press; the “black Aphex Twin” headlines wrote themselves.
And yet despite its electronic bona fides, Los Angeles is hip-hop to the core. Released during a half-decade death spiral of rap’s ’90s generation, and during the South’s ringtone rap phase, Los Angeles didn’t fit. What it did, however, was inspire misfits, both global and local. The irreverent beat science of Odd Future pointed directly to Los Angeles, while Detroit’s Danny Brown calculated what it’d take to rap over music this weird. Soon, an entire scene of blunted beatmakers sprung up both around Low End Theory (Lotus’ performance space of choice) and the internet (where his music was consumed).
We’re a decade removed from cloud rap, half a decade from Yeezus, and two years from Future’s DS2, and while we don’t know for sure if Clams Casino, Kanye, or Future heard Los Angeles, the album was the butterfly whose wings indirectly started a rap hurricane where harsh electronic productions became an acceptable canvas over which to brag about sexcapades and Gucci brand footwear.
Listen to key tracks from Los Angeles alongside the music that inspired it:
INTO A DARK SILENCE
Nosaj Thing was one of the earliest members of the beat scene, but where his contemporaries tended to produce more fleshed-out sounds, often with a heavy hip-hop influence, Nosaj Thing created a canvas shaded as much by silence as by noise. On his debut album, 2009’s Drift, the beats are dark and exploratory, and, while he couldn’t have known it at the time, it has a lot in common with “the drift” of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. In both instances, the drift is a process by which two active participants bond over synchronized brain waves to form a more perfect whole. While del Toro had a specific, mechanical process in mind, Nosaj Thing found a far more organic approach, realizing that (re)creation wasn’t about moving away from the original source as much as it was about moving toward a new one.
Listen to key tracks from Drift alongside the music that inspired it:
Gonjasufi has the voice of a man who’s been through the gutter and back. An ancient, rusted-out croon, it’s by turns manic and tender, evoking many days lost in the wilderness, and many more spent re-aligning the chakras. His 2010 release, A Sufi and a Killer, feels like an epic trek, as producers Gaslamp Killer, Mainframe, and Flying Lotus sample a global list of artists to forge soulful, psychedelic beats. The vibe is dirty, and the thunder and rain that comes in at the tail end of “Love of Reign” makes the voyage that much more unnerving. Still, Sufi navigates the landscape with confidence, unleashing a crisp poetry that lays his contradictions bare in an allegorical track about a lion that wishes he were a sheep. When the singer finally finds redemption in “Made”—whose lyrics find a parallel between the coming of spring and the arrival of a paycheck—his voice is feather-light and full of relief.
Listen to key tracks from A Sufi and a Killer alongside the music that inspired it:
HEARING IS BELIEVING
To see The Gaslamp Killer is to believe in The Gaslamp Killer. The Low End Theory co-founder/resident DJ’s wide-ranging sets reside on the brink of chaos, mixing hip-hop, rock, electronic, and all points in between. On stage, he resembles the waving, inflatable man outside of a car dealership, yet the rhythmic flailing isn’t a substitute for pyrotechnics or pre-planned drops. It’s genuine, and he connects without a shred of self-consciousness, guiding audiences with shamanistic conviction.
His Brainfeeder debut, 2012’s Breakthrough, captures the intimate, heartfelt lunacy of his live sets. It is the circadian rhythm compressed, shuttling you at breakneck speed from a psychedelic midnight to lucid dawn. “Holy Mt Washington” (with Computer Jay) tempers eviscerating low-end bounce with buoyant, Morricone-inspired whistling. “Peasants, Cripples, & Retards” (with Samiyam) moves from industrial, intergalactic funk to Jamaican dub. The emotive plucking of the yiali tambur by Jogger’s Amir Yaghmai on “Nissim” is backed by Gaslamp’s breakbeat barrage. It remains the standout, a reminder that not every song from the beat scene needed to rattle your body in order to touch your soul.
THE AFROCENTRIC FROM ALPHA CENTAURI
Ras G is the beat scene’s answer to Sun Ra. His music is an attempt to commune with the constellations, drawing equally from the electronic and analogue. His 2008 album, Brotha From Anotha Planet, is prime headphone listening, a solitary exploration of the soul in twilight hours. Ras G’s willingness to pull back between banging beats, to tie everything together with these oddly comforting intergalactic sound collages, is brilliant. It’s in these moments that we reflect, reminding ourselves of that a celestial experience is visceral as well as cerebral, and attempt to find our place in the universe.
THE FUTURE AT 90 BPM
Teebs’ balancing act between subtly and bombast not only served as the M.O. for his 2010 debut, Ardour, but as a mission statement for the beat scene. While early Los Angeles electro used the sparseness of drum machines to rock the party, and DJ Shadow pushed crate digging to its first extremes, Teebs pulls both traditions toward the center, balancing the psychedelic quality of the music with a palpable sonic immediacy. It’s hard to disassociate the somatic contrast between weight and weightlessness from New Yorker Teebs’ adopted sunshine state. Rick Rubin’s beats were born of boomboxes on trains, Detroit techno’s future jazz filled the mechanical void left by shut-down factories, and Ardour was brought to you by dispensary-bought weed cookies and 90 bpm hip-hop records.
Shlohmo (a.k.a. Henry Laufer) has a gift for building tension by mining the space between wonder and terror. On 2011’s Bad Vibes, his intricate, skeletal rhythms invite close inspection, and the natural sounds and white noise textures have all the warmth of a down comforter, but the booby-trapped funk of “Just Us”—opening on a thread of light, blurpy synths and then boiling over in a wash of phantom electronics—makes you question just how safe this world really is. Laufer said that he was going through a rough patch when making this album, yet Bad Vibes reflects deeper, more ingrained burdens. Some are consumed by pain, fear, and insecurity, but Shlohmo transformed it into something beautiful.
RAZOR BLADE BEATS
If you stumbled into Low End Theory between 2008 and 2012, you felt Samiyam’s bass hit you so hard that it felt like you had a razor blade in your throat. The Ann Arbor transplant twisted synths into shrapnel, while his drums signaled an imminent sonic destruction. Samiyam’s 2011 release, Sam Baker’s Album, is an instrumental suite that is alternately gorgeous and gargoyle-heavy. It’s innately infused with Samiyam’s grit and filth, and plucks diamonds from dirt, stars in soot, breathing artesian oxygen and then descending into a valley of smog. It reminds you that the beat scene was as far away from Hollywood as it was Hanoi.
The influence of jazz on the beat scene is more spiritual than aesthetic. Before Kamasi Washington (who came later, and orbited the periphery), the scene produced only one true jazz artist —the young piano prodigy Austin Peralta. Peralta had a reputation as a live performer, and the recordings that have surfaced since his 2012 passing have taken on a near-mythical dimension. They are full of exuberance and wonder, with every chord revealing new avenues of sound. This willingness to push boundaries provides a through-line that connects Peralta to the larger beat scene.
But experimentation is hollow without a handle on the fundamentals, and while Peralta’s live sets reached the farthest edges, his most important studio work, Endless Planets, is comparatively conservative. The piano and rhythm section do the bulk of the work, staying comfortably in pocket, with only a sparse smattering of electronics and a few ambient flourishes revealing the album’s progressive modernity. Endless Planets’ relatively reserved approach provides a launching pad for Peralta’s mutations, and established a link between the beat scene and a larger jazz tradition.
8-BIT BOOM RAP
Though producer Jonwayne declares that Nintendo DS game Animal Crossing gave him the only semblance of structure in his life—understandable for a guy who used to work at Gamestop—he is first and foremost a hip-hop aficionado. He established his crate-digging bonafides by exalting criminally overlooked Pasadena crew Mad Kap, and he’s a devout follower of the cult of Busta. Still, it’s remarkable how nicely Jonwayne’s two obsessions dovetailed on his 2011 debut, Bowser. The eerie, descending keyboards of “Bowser I (Sigma Head)” evoke a King Koopa rampaging like Ice Cube’s dad in “Down for Whatever,” drunk and threatening to turn the party out, while “Beady Bablo”’s woozy, chiptune interpolation of “Freek-A-Leek” proves that Petey Pablo could have a second career stealing princesses from castles.