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The Angelical Conversation

California and the New Gospel of Abstract Hip Hop

Flying Lotus is only the tip of the iceberg. For ten years, a quiet, sturdy nucleus of underground resistance has been patiently brewing a psychedelic reading of abstract hip hop. Today, Los Angeles is speaking out to the world electronic scene with its own voice. These are the keys to it.1. Low End Theory’s sound-system is designed to stun the senses. The flyers don’t lie: 10,000 watts of sub-harmonics that sound like the eruption of the Eyjafjäll volcano in a tiny matchbox of a club, The Airliner, in downtown Los Angeles. Write down the address in case you’re in the city looking for a plan for a Wednesday night: 2419 N. Broadway. At Low End Theory, there’s no exclusive VIP area, and you can’t order a thousand-dollar bottle of champagne there either. It’s not on the circuit of those It-girls with Vuitton bags who stand in line in the restrooms to file into the toilet stalls in groups of three, and of course outside the door you’ll only find a line of fans of vanguard hip hop waiting, not a group of paparazzi standing by in case Lindsay Lohan leaves her panties at home again. Is this heaven? The regular clientele, fans of the latest mutations of broken, danceable music have no doubt, they are the ones who have made this club the California equivalent of London’s Fabric (on a Friday night)—thanks to that same clear, powerful sound, the mixture of cultures in search of a mutant groove like the Influenza A virus, and that feeling of being at home, while that home is growing in a controlled way. Started in 2007 by Daddy Kev as an extension of the label that he had discreetly rebuilt a few years earlier, Alpha Pup (previously Celestial), Low End Theory has quickly become a dream come true: a meeting point and place for the expansion of underground hip hop and avant-garde intention in Tinsel Town, with its white teeth and perfect tans.Daddy Kev had, in effect, been the head of the Celestial label: hip hop under underground (therefore, in hell)—a suicide platform that gave birth to a generation of anti-stars of mixing and rhyme. In his recording studio, The Echo Chamber, were created the albums of Phoenix Orion, Busdriver, AWOL One and the most hardcore faction (we’re talking about Sole) of the refined Anticon. His has been a long struggle upstream, earning the favour of adepts one by one, like sects do, with sacrifice and sweat, never caving in to the temptation to step with the tip of his trainers on the stinky swampland of the mainstream. This was the time when indie hip hop sounded like Martian music even to the indie-rock public, supposedly more open-minded and willing to set off on adventures with their headphones than the rap public. That hip hop at the crossroads between the decade of the 90’s and the noughties was profoundly electronic, pursuing dissonant sounds and surreal lyrics—it was closer to electro-acoustic music than to funk. Of course it practiced an urban, uprooted idea of psychedelics, using scratching like a hallucinogenic effect—many veterans of the turntable, like D-Styles, came to fill its ranks, and quickly established alliances with the scenes that could most easily understand them, like IDM in Europe, and the remains of the wreckage of trip-hop. There were people in Los Angeles, one of the capitals of the world, who seemed to speak in invented languages, binary codes.But Low End Theory and its significance, solidification into an agile, powerful scene on the margins of hip hop and bedroom electronic, are no longer a bubble floating in a vacuum. The club, its residents ( The Gaslamp Killer, Nobody, D-Styles and the MC Nocando), and its absence of limits are right now the Los Angeles embassy on the planetary game board of electronic music that is breaking moulds with its sub-bass beat. If we want to talk about scenes, about cities that make the rules, Los Angeles deserves a privileged position. It might be too much to call it the current capital of electronic, a title that would sound pompous, and unnecessarily conceited, but it is undeniable that things are happening here—very serious things.2. This week, the British label Warp is bringing out what may be one of the most eagerly-awaited albums of the year. Audio file smuggling already started a while back on the Internet, with the usual prudence required by albums like that; you can always be tricked by a phoney, an incomplete or illegitimate version, and maybe when you listen to these lines, you will have already read all there is to read about “Cosmogramma,” Flying Lotuss third album. Some will have shown a reasonable disenchantment, since hey, anything that isn’t a reinvention of the wheel would be a disappointment—there are people who expect world-changing miracles, not albums, as if a producer were a sort of Al Gore with a sampler. Others will give themselves over to a piece of mutant hip hop, astral spirituality channelled through cutting-edge technology and jazz references that expand through the cosmos and crown (for now) the aesthetic ambition of a family of beatmakers that’s been trying to spread to a global scale without having to live in the shadow of intelligent techno and rhyming hip hop for a decade – a sound that was set up around the year 2000 by Prefuse 73, Ko-Wreck Technique and a few other quiet pioneers. Or we could go back even further in time and head north, to the Bay Area, to the first DJ Shadow and his puzzles of infinite slices of junkyard vinyl, varied flavours, and vampire effects. The way is long and winding, and nobody ever said it would be easy.Flying Lotus called its second album “Los Angeles” (Warp, 2008) because the city is everything, it is inspiration and goal. Los Angeles is an ideal breeding ground for lethargic beats wrapped in bass lines that run through the body like sparks of electricity and little details that are pleasing to the pop ear, or to fans of all things soulful, who never forget to buy the latest issue of the magazine Wax Poetics. And what Los Angeles gave to FlyLo, Steve Ellison is returning now in the form of a new album that is turning all eyes towards the city, without reservations. It’s a good time to check out what else there is in Los Angeles besides Los Angeles itself – we’ve already seen that nothing can be understood without dropping by Low End Theory one day, or at least without downloading its monthly podcasts or buying one of the mixtapes that Ras G, The Gaslamp Killer, or Nobody put out for the club’s Japanese tour in 2009 (if you can find one). And checking out the scene gives you the expected result: it’s a breeding ground, an endless list of labels, up-and-coming artists, records that deserve to appear in any select collection belonging to people who dig the latest thing. In a single idea: there is life beyond Flying Lotus.Flying Lotus is what we would call, in sports jargon, a “franchise” producer. A franchise player is the star that a team is built around; the team recognises the player’s superior talent, and bases its game on him—he takes the ultimate responsibility in decisive plays, and he’s the one who has to take the heat, but he also has to be aware that he’s nobody without the rest of the team. Here, the star would be Lotus, who receives the most attention from the specialised press, and who, until it is proven otherwise, has put out the most relevant albums; but Flying Lotus is only the tip of a pyramid that upholds its power. Underneath are those who aspire, the public, labels, and the scene, which as a whole allow the solitary, possibly fleeting, star to shine. How would the story go? We can’t recognise Flying Lotus as it is now without looking back to its first beats, or even its first album, “1983” (Plug Research, 2006). Plug Research had been one of the first techno labels operating in Los Angeles, although they occasionally opened the door to hip hop—that Mr. Hazeltine who laid down narcotic beats was no one less than John Tejadauntil a new phase of downtempo psychedelics somewhere between pop, lounge, and trip hop started. Daedelus, AmmonContact, and finally Flying Lotus were essential for changing the register.The name J.Dilla has yet to appear on this scene, but it’s clear that his name has to be mentioned: the production technique and the sliding of the beat of the deceased producer, always with a twist, a dislocation, an asymmetry, and a shining aura in search of a genuinely “soul” type of abstraction, is another cornerstone of the scene. J.Dilla never marginalised himself in the recalcitrant underground, but he showed that experimentation in the technique of crafting beats was not at odds with success or with the recognition of minorities. Dilla, and particularly his instrumental masterpiece, “Donuts” (Stones Throw, 2006, put out a few weeks before dying of a fatal case of lupus), gave the family of sampler craftsmen the push it needed: besides ability and open-mindedness to the sounds of pop, electro, jazz, and progressive rock, he also inspired the ambition of crossing boundaries between nations and generations. So Flying Lotus could be like the new J.Dilla, breaking new ground, but also like the new DJ Shadow, convincing the not-strictly b-boy public that this is a new faith that deserves attention. It could also be itself, which is the case.It’s not alone in this mission. The Los Angeles scene is no longer so wrapped up in itself—instead, its influence has spread. Like in the days of trip-hop, there’s a new Mo’Wax in Europe who is tracking sounds and wrapping them up for the British and continental public: just change James Lavelle to Kode9, for example, and Mo’Wax to Hyperdub. Or replace Hyperdub with Warp, also home right now to Gonjasufi, a vagabond of misty psychedelics, a fan of getting lost like “Gerry” in the Mojave Desert, produced by the explosive The Gaslamp Killer, or even Ramp. What’s more, notice that three of the latest references flattened to 10” by the All City label, based in Ireland, are called “Los Angeles 1/3,” “Los Angeles 2/3,”and “Los Angeles 3/3” and they are the sharpest cutting edge of the state of the scene. The network is global, all paths come together, influence goes both ways, English dubstep has fed off of California productions and vice versa, giving rise to crossbreeds of the mutation we call wonky (as well as other arbitrary labels that hide exciting sounds).Nevertheless, in spite of European interest, the best is still at home: Alpha Pup and Brainfeeder are two of the kind of labels whose new albums you would buy with your eyes shut, without trying out the feeling of the needle on the groove in a specialised shop—you trust them. Labels that back up our “franchise” artists with high-class supporting artists. In the case of Alpha Pup, we have Nosaj Thing, a beatmaker with fat rhythms and nebulous wrapping, who is on the agenda of pop artists like Charlotte Gaingsbourg or The xx, who he has treated to hypnotic remixes—but behind him there are new talents like the baroque Take and the almost metal Free The Robots. At Brainfeeder the moral leadership of Flying Lotus is rounded out with underground breakbeat sensations like Mono/Poly, Ras G, Matthew David, Teeb s or Tokimonsta.The city of Los Angeles is at the point where the scene is cooking. It has gotten into a winning dynamic that has covered its main players with high morale and ambition—everyone wants to follow in the footsteps of the leaders and spread their sound around the world, visiting festivals and turning the electronic audiosphere into a toxic cloud (going back to the simile of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjäll), but instead of collapsing the air space, collapsing the senses until you swoon from the invasion of lasers and bass lines that throw off the proper working of your intestines. It’s an angelical conversation: Christian doctrine says that angels don’t need words when they talk to someone, they penetrate the senses of who they’re communicating with using their thoughts, and they record the ideas subtly in the centres of the mind and memory. This music seems identical in the mechanism of this angelical speech: its level of abstraction means it has to be channelled through the soft tissue of the muscles and the folds of the brain. The angels of Los Angeles are labels, online radio stations– Dublab, for example– and any type of 2.0 sonic assault that is communicated by way of strange waves.We’re at that stage where any new LP that comes out (this year we have had one from Free The Robots, Flying Lotus and Take, and Lorn’s is on the way) is another sentence in one of the most perfect episodes in history, written in words made up of destabilising noise, broken rhythms that wobble like a broken chair, the energy of rock and heavy metal channelled through riffs of uranium, melodic ambient, melodies of babysitter-robots, astral funk, obese dub, sweet voices of soul, penetrating psychedelics like peyote distilled in an MPC, and minimalist jazz. Divine conversation. I hope we keep on hearing it for years to come. Astral Travellers: Seven Los Angeles Beatmakers You Should Know (in alphabetical order) 1. Flying Lotus. The talent of Flying Lotus has been there to be discovered for some time: its first beats go back a decade, as documented by the mixtape “Ten Years Of Flying Lotus. Mixed By The Gaslamp Killer,” which can be downloaded for free on the Brainfeeder website. In any case, talent doesn’t manifest itself until it has had time to ripen, and in this sense Steven Ellison’s productions are like fruit—they are ripe and have their full flavour after a reasonable period of time has passed. In his case, it was the publication of “1983” (Plug Research, 2006), a record with abstract, simple beats in which you could already start to see his predilection for psychedelics and mental travel. Since then, Flying Lotus has never stopped moving ahead, a distance that should be measured in light years, ever further into the immensity of the cosmos. The city of the future of “Los Angeles” (Warp, 2008), made of glass and steel that reflects the sun with a hard shine, painted black and white and designed with smooth curves, is now a new world in the intergalactic “Cosmogramma” (Warp, 2010), a hybrid of cinematographic electronic, astral jazz, and hypermodern hip hop.

Recommended album: “Cosmogramma” (Warp, 2010)

2. Free The Robots. Its influences, according to its Myspace page, can be summarised in two words: death metal. Listening to what Chris Alfaro does, it was easy to imagine: his beats don’t sound entirely like hip hop, but rather like highly poisonous riffs that are hidden behind a layer of stony noise. Equivalent in the new abstract hip hop to what DJ Distance and Vex’d did with dubstep—which is to say, seeming more like Entombed than the urban tradition—Free The Robots is a sound attack of epic proportions that lays questions on the table that have always interested us when we listen to music with machines. Is this a new cyborg hybrid, half artificial intelligence, half heavy machinery? Does the future of abstract hip hop mean crossing it with the macho arrogance of metal, or vice versa, thus having the hi-tech and somewhat IDM equivalent of Linkin’ Park? The superb album “Ctrl + Alt + Delete” doesn’t have all the answers, but while its tightening up your calf muscles, it’ll make you think about them until your neurons short circuit.

Recommended album: “Ctrl + Alt + Delete” (Alpha Pup, 2010)

3. Lorn. Lorn is a b-boy from head to toe. He is young, he could never have experienced the golden age of graffiti and breakdance competitions, and his first retro trainers might have been a nostalgic re-edition or an impulse buy that cost him an arm and a leg on eBay. But otherwise, Marcos Ortega understands the codes of old-school hip hop, which he tries to bring to an up-to-date grid without breaking many rules. He has albums of loops for DJ battles to his name, electro tracks to dislocate your knees jumping around to, and a joint project with another new cat on the California scene, Adoptahighway, under the name of Omega Clash. But the decisive moment will be when his debut album comes out in the exclusive circle of Brainfeeder in June. It will be called “Nothing Else,” and it’s a thick tangle of digital beats that take a detour towards robotic syncopation, with an IDM cover, and layer of fog of this material that is best enjoyed under a thick cloud of THC.

Recommended album: “Nothing Else” (Brainfeeder, 2010)

4. Nosaj Thing. Along with Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, alias of L.A. producer Jason Chung, is perhaps the most renowned face of the Californian beat scene, most of all because he has agreed to remix pop figures like Drake, Charlotte Gaingsbourg, or The xx with noteworthy results, always maintaining his personal blend of smooth psychedelics and textures that encourage you to travel. Never heavy-handed, or classic, the sound of Nosaj Thing is necessarily identified with abstraction and a stroll through unknown, pleasant landscapes. The title of his first album, “Drift,” already signals this random drifting in the waters of hip hop, bedroom electronic, dub, and melodies that tinkle like a spoon tapping on glass. Besides this, his visual show, very thought-out and studied, also makes him an artist who is attractive to see live, a good drawing card for festivals and big-name clubs. With time he could be a star.

Recommended album: “Drift” (Alpha Pup; 2009)

5. Ras G. Gregory Shorter consciously joins in on the Afro-futurist phenomenon. It is almost sure that he knows and admires the concept, that he sees himself reflected in the great pioneers of astral travel in a jazzy, funky key, and this is where his look comes from, with his thick beard and Rastafarian cap. The titles of some of his albums also suggest this, note how Sun Ra “I Of The Cosmos” sounds (Circulations, 2008), and especially the project that he has been pushing the hardest on the off-dubstep and off-hip hop scene in recent months, Ras G & The Afrikan Space Program. His beats are a fascinating space chaos, a rather anarchic crossbreed of reggae, electronic effects, mutant dubstep, and samples of soul and jazz, almost always backed up by an irregular speed and a healthy dose of noise. As a DJ, he’s another thing—his mixtapes and podcasts for Brainfeeder and Low End Theory show a selector with a wide range, a clean, technical kit for cutting precisely, and who doesn’t mind burying Flying Lotus under tons of black psychedelics and pulling out Public Enemy’s most devastating singles when called for.

Recommended album: “Destination There Ep” (Ramp, 2009) 6. Take. This must be Take’s year. It could have been any other – Thomas Wilson, alias Sweatson Klank, has been active since 2003, putting his shit out to the world with a fan that until recently hadn’t reached cruising speed—but 2010 is when the planets are coming into alignment, basically because it’s the year that people are talking about astro-hop without fear or shame. Take is one of the chosen ones participating in the “Los Angeles” series of maxis from the All City label, along with Mr. Dibiase, Ras G, Matthew David and Samiyam, and it is also the label Alpha Pup’s major bet for this season, its “franchise” player, its star. For now, it’s working like a charm: “Only Mountain” is an album that lives up to the expectation it created, an exhibition of technique, sensitivity, and ability to reinvent the dynamic of abstract beats and the noise of outer space. It’s a symphony of little details and fat rhythms that places Take in a privileged position to compete for the leading spots among this year’s best.

Recommended album: “Only Mountain” (Alpha Pup, 2010)

7. The Gaslamp Killer. The culture of the mixtape is still alive in the hands of William Benjamin Bensussen, but in his case the cassette tape has disappeared completely and it’s the dawn of the super limited-edition CD-R that circulates from hand to hand, and, of course, the digital audio mix that is bouncing around the Internet. He’s a sound tracker, a multifaceted DJ, and an occasional producer – the majority of beats on “A Sufi And A Killer”(Warp, 2010), Gonjasufi’s album, are his. The Gaslamp Killer has spent two years of apotheosis bringing out sessions for labels like Brainfeeder or Finders Keepers in which telluric psychedelics and the most disintegrated hip hop take turns in his molecular structure of rhythm. The good vibe with Flying Lotus is just a plus on his service sheet: The Gaslamp Killer sets trends himself. It’s a pity that you have to spend a fortune in old vinyl to keep up with him. Were you looking for somebody to face off with DJ Shadow, the omnivore? Here he is.

Recommended album: “I Spit On Your Grave” (Obey Records, 2008)

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