All profoundly original things look empty at first. But none of the 30 beat-heads who attended the first Low End Theory could have guessed that the Airliner would become an internationally recognized tabernacle of underground music. After all, the weekly party's name was better associated with a Tribe Called Quest album, none of the resident DJs were yet famous, and the venue was a half-ruined two-story bar in Lincoln Heights. It was the last place you'd expect to see Erykah Badu or a secret DJ set from Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Yet last month, hours before commencing its fifth-anniversary celebration, fans curled in a blocks-long line on Broadway.
October 2006 was a time of transition. J Dilla had just died, DJs clung to vinyl, and L.A.'s chief electronic export was coked-out, Cobrasnake-chronicled Hollywood sleaze-hop. Four resident DJs and one rapper, the Low End crew represented that scene's antithesis, and formed like Voltron with more voltage. Daddy Kev was the man with the plan, born in San Pedro and raised on rap and first-generation rave music.
Before turning 30, the man born Kevin Moo had been a writer and art director (Urb), label manager (Sony), engineer and producer, co-owner of a record company (Celestial) and the Weekly's 2001 "Best DJ." The award was partial recognition for Konkrete Jungle, his nationally known night at Spaceland, which blended British drum-and-bass with homegrown hip-hop from 1999 until its closure in 2001.
By the middle of the last decade, drum-and-bass had long left vogue. The murky, monochromatic wobble of dubstep rumbled in England but had yet to take root in America. Sensing the void, Kev turned to edIT (Edward Ma), a founding member of festival staple Glitch Mob and one of the first domestic dubstep boosters. Next came Carson-raised DJ Nobody (Elvin Estela), a Dr. Gonzo doppelgänger who could DJ, produce dusted rap beats and dulcet pop, and play a ferocious psych guitar.
Rounding out the resident selectors was 23-year-old the Gaslamp Killer (Willie Bensussen), a Koosh Ball–coiffed transplant from San Diego, whose live B-boy exorcisms and lysergic record collection solidified his rep as the best young DJ inhaling smog. The lone rapper was Nocando (James McCall), a freestyle-battle prodigy and top prospect at the L.A. underground rap cradle Project Blowed.
Absorbing existing local traditions and transmuting them, Low End inherited the genre fusion of Konkrete Jungle, the soulful instrumentalism of Stones Throw, the streetwise avant-gardism of The Good Life/Project Blowed, the eclecticism of Dublab and the sour diesel symphonies of Sketchbook — where Flying Lotus, Dibia$e, Take, Ras G and Kutmah bumped beats from portable boom boxes outside of the Little Temple.
Slowly, a diaspora congregated under the corrugated outdoors roof of the Airliner, smoking haze and deconstructing hip-hop into psychedelic fractals, stuttering drums and everlasting bass.
After a year, edIT left amicably, replaced by turntablism legend D-Styles. Meanwhile, Flying Lotus, the honorary sixth LET resident, emerged as a breakout star and scene ambassador, putting on for his city to the point of naming his debut Warp LP Los Angeles.
Though permanently in favor of the homegrown, the residents harbored international aspirations, founding a monthly Low End Theory podcast (with 3.5 million downloads since its launch) and throwing multiple Low End Theory Japan shows.
Championed by influential British DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, the locus in Lincoln Heights has shaped music from Scotland to Moscow. Even the glitchy beats of the latest Radiohead album bear a heavy Low End influence.
Distributed through Kev's label/distribution company, Alpha Pup, imprints like Brainfeeder, Friends of Friends and Leaving began pumping out caustic rap, fusion jazz, electronic folk and ambient. Young electronic artists emerged from the crowd to earn national followings, including Nosaj Thing, Baths, Jonwayne and Shlohmo. In October 2010, the 140-legal capacity club hosted the first live performance from Odd Future, a ski-masked brawl of a show that set off their ascendance. Three months later, Low End Theory relaunched a successful monthly in San Francisco.
Even after 200 Wednesdays, Low End Theory remains the rare epicenter that people will wistfully invoke decades later, like CBGB or the Paradise Garage in New York, or the Hacienda and FWD>> in Britain. In the words of those who helped build it, this is how it became the place.
Daddy Kev: Nobody, Gaslamp and I ended up sitting next to each other on a van ride up to San Francisco [in September 2006]. They were playing with Prefuse 73, and I had a show at an art gallery. We all ended up having a good time talking, and the next day when I talked to Nobody he told me that Gaslamp had blown everyone off the stage and was his new favorite DJ. I was caught off guard, because he doesn't praise people easily.
A month later, I discovered the Airliner and called edIT. He loved the place and, since it had multiple rooms, we wanted more residents involved. Nobody and Gaslamp were our first picks, and I had just signed [Nocando] to Alpha Pup after having heard that he was the best young rapper in Project Blowed.