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Low End Theory: High-concept music

A new generation of experimental artists is using dazzling instrument technologies to create new genres of music at a club night in Lincoln Heights.

October 04, 2009|August Brown

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."

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Physical sound

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."

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