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UP FRONT: MUSIC AND CULTURE

The undertones of the city

Internet radio's dublab.com delivers a mix that is very L.A.

June 16, 2005|Andrew Asch | Special to The Times

One of Los Angeles' most vibrant subcultures started with the simplest of urges: Mark "Frosty" McNeill wanted to play records.

From that seed grew Dublab, an Internet radio station that survived the dot-com crash and stamped its influence all over L.A.'s underground arts scene. If you've never heard the eclectic fare webcast at www.dublab.com, perhaps you've run across one of the group's resident DJs at a nightclub or an art gallery opening -- or anyplace else ears are being bent and boundaries are being stretched.

"At the core, we're just Internet radio," McNeill, 28, says of the experimental-minded group of artists and DJs who are part of the Dublab collective. "But it's evolved into all these other things."

The creative sprawl grew from the cutting-edge listening offered on the website -- a mix McNeill has described as "future roots," which includes hip-hop, electronica, avant-garde classical, soul, dub, jazz, reggae and indie rock. Tune in and you might hear the work of obscure noise merchants, or you might hear an ancient Cuban work song.

As willing as they are to embrace the new and explore the unfamiliar, those in the Dublab collective predictably have fingers in myriad slices of the Los Angeles cultural pie. They mount nightclub promotions. They set the tone at art gallery openings. They write and produce music of their own.

"Dublab seems to have made some kind of imprint on almost every scene around town," says Ben Rogers, the manager of new media for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, explaining that McNeill and crew transcend the notion that "DJs are just there to make people dance."

The museum hired Dublab to entertain at its January installment of First Fridays -- a monthly promotion that fuses art and clubbing while ostensibly helping the institution attract a wider audience. That evening's success prompted the museum to invite Dublab back in April.

"What they're capable of doing is creating a whole ambience, a wide range of feelings, with their soundscapes," Rogers says. "They create the atmosphere."

Dublab's club nights attract a loose but loyal following of music nerds, with sundry Rastas, jazz heads, avant-garde aficionados and hip-hop fanatics. Even so, the name Dublab doesn't enjoy wide recognition. Recently, a woman who was dancing to Dublab DJ Tom Chasteen's mix of reggae classics at the Echo nightclub's Dubclub was asked if she had heard of the Internet radio station. "No," she answered, furrowing her brow. "Have you?"

Yet the Dublab brand is earning wider exposure, in part because of the collective's other artistic forays.

The "Up Our Sleeve: The Dublab Covers Project" art show has made the rounds to galleries in Tokyo, Belgium, Holland, New York City and Chicago after opening in the summer of 2003 in Los Angeles. The project, which drew work from more than 400 artists, posed a simple challenge -- use a blank record sleeve as your canvas. It's a visual feast for vinyl junkies.

Then there are the "Dublab Presents" CD compilations, as well as the vinyl 12-inch series "In the Loop."

Freelance journalist Alec Hanley Bemis, whose work has appeared in the New York Times and LA Weekly, says the music on this series is blazing a new sound. "It's soulful, psychedelic dance music," he says of the mix of electronica, rock, hip-hop, folk and Latin produced by the Dublab DJs. "It's not new per se. But they somehow combined them in a way that no one had done before."

And, perhaps, in a way that is distinctly L.A.

"People say they're sorry when I say I come from L.A., because they think Los Angeles doesn't have any culture," says Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, owner of Hollywood-based indie label Stone's Throw Records. Dublab has "helped put L.A. on the map. They created their own subculture."

Not that McNeill and crew have gone unnoticed. A host of Dublab DJs have either won or been nominated for LA Weekly music awards. They're also one of three Internet stations archived at the Museum of Radio and Television, based in Los Angeles and New York City.

"It's a modern version of underground radio," said Monique J. Fortune, the radio curator for the museum. "If it wasn't for the underground radio stations, college and public radio, a lot of music wouldn't have been able to grow, like Public Enemy, R.E.M. and Patti Smith."

As it turns out, subculture only goes so far toward paying the bills.

Most of the DJs on the station do not draw a salary from dublab.com -- instead, their association with the collective earns them record-spinning gigs around town. More than just the music, however, Dublab seeks to commodify its culture, as described by its mantra: "positive music driven lifestyle." Slowly, clients are plugging in.

The station itself requires about $2,000 per month to operate, McNeill says, and is supported by listener donations and a modest battery of advertising on its website.

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