Nosaj Thing's debut arrived four years ago, roughly the amount of time it takes a college student to graduate. By contrast, the electronic world matriculates freshmen every quarter. Four years ago, Skrillex was the lead haircut of a post-hardcore band, Steve Aoki's brow-beating bro-beat was the national face of L.A. dance music, and Flying Lotus' Los Angeles had only recently landed to blow smoke rings in the competition's face. The Low End Theory, meanwhile, was mostly known as A Tribe Called Quest's jazzy second record.
But the Lincoln Heights beat cenacle was where Jason Chung refined his celestial sound after discovering the club's existence on DJ D-Styles' message board. This is where he really became Nosaj Thing — Jason spelled backward.
Like many performers, there's a split between his on- and offstage personas. Jason Chung is a middle-class, Korean-American gentleman, raised in Cerritos and Montebello. His elementary school years were spent in equal study of the clarinet and g-funk. He's as polite, sincere and intelligent as a young environmental law scholar.
Nosaj Thing is the alter ego — mysterious, slick and swift. For the release show of last month's Home at the Low End Theory, he showed up in an all-black hoodie, barely spoke to the crowd and detonated the dance floor with melancholic funk. It was like watching Evil Ryu unleash a knockout series of Hadouken punches.
If Flying Lotus was the Low End Theory cavalry, Nosaj Thing's 2009 arrival signaled the reinforcements, concrete evidence that something rare was occurring at the Wednesday night rituals. Released on Low End Theory co-founder Daddy Kev's Alpha Pup imprint, Drift soared in seemingly out of nowhere. Without blog-baiting, big-name guest appearances or a Pitchfork "best new music" co-sign, it quietly become one of the most influential electronic LPs of recent years, tincturing the style of almost every intelligent dance music (IDM) producer breathing.
With only 12 officially released songs and a handful of remixes, Chung was invited to play Coachella 2011, toured with indie darlings The xx and was included on a seminal beat compilation from Mary Anne Hobbs.
"I didn't expect any of it to happen. We were just hanging at Low End when it was just the same 40 heads every week," Chung says, speaking from the modest but beautiful wood-frame back house he rents in South Pasadena, complete with a small backyard in January bloom. He just turned 28 but, with his thick block of black hair, black pants and Chuck Taylors, he looks not unlike the teenager who thrashed at noise shows at downtown experimental hub The Smell. He also occasionally popped in to underground rap hub Project Blowed, a self-described "nerdy Asian kid with a laptop," who aspired to be the next Dr. Dre or Timbaland.
Chung had made beats on his father's computer since he was 13, but Drift was the breakthrough, when he finally started making enough money off music to quit his Guitar Center day job. Fusing Bach, late-'90s turntablism, Warp Records, DJ Shadow and early dubstep, Chung helped define the far-flung Low End Theory aesthetic and the boundaries of the current IDM world. Drift also shaped the moody orchestral sound of Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar, both of whom have rapped over Chung's beats. Even Atlanta's all-gold swag rapper Trinidad James recently sampled "Voices" for a song called "Giving No Fucks."
Released last month on nascent local indie Innovative Leisure, Home's title makes sense, considering the story of its genesis. "After Drift, I toured a lot ... and then realized, 'Oh shit, it's been two years already,' " Chung says, laughing, surrounded by a roomful of keyboards and guitars, a Wii controller, a massive computer, DVDs and an impeccably curated selection of books about midcentury architecture. A record rack showcases some of his musical DNA: Boards of Canada, Daedelus, Madlib.
He adds that the work took so long he forgot the techniques he used on Drift and put heavy pressure on himself for the follow-up.
It's the paradox that faces artists who lead off with a classic: Do you attempt to re-create the magic, or deliberately shift to avoid stasis? Things get more difficult when one relies largely on touring income to pay the rent. For an artist as meticulous as Chung, isolation and focus were imperative. Nor was the speed of creation eased by the demise of a six-year relationship, three moves and stress-related health problems. His face started swelling and turning red, which doctors diagnosed as rosacea. The combination of these events led to bouts of depression and sleeplessness.
"Drift has a lot of energy, but because of what was going on, I didn't have the energy to make tracks that people would play in DJ sets," Chung says. "I wanted to do more of a personal, introspective and honest record, so I focused on songwriting and textures."
Thus Home is less head-nodding and more of a head reeling. Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino and Toro y Moi ring a somber and elegiac chorus — friends consoling rather than starting the party. Yet Home retains the ethereal radiance of Chung's first record, full of negative space and spectral glow.
Listening to Chung speak about the last two years, it seems he's been galvanized via hellish temperature. He talks of his new music almost as a purging process that allowed him to re-access his funkier half; now, he plays some speaker-rattling beats slotted for an upcoming EP that seemingly would work for Kendrick Lamar's next record. In fact, don't be surprised if that happens, considering that Chung's sound helped Lamar figure out what he wanted his blockbuster 2012 release, good kid, m.A.A.d city, to sound like. Paired in the studio in the fall of 2011 as part of a promo series for the Windows phone, there was instant chemistry between the pair.
"I had 20 beats for him, but after the first one, he said, 'I don't need to hear anything else — this is the one. I feel an idea already,' " Chung recalls.
Lamar came up with a hook, spit his verses without writing them down and finished in about two hours. "Then his manager got a call from Dr. Dre, and he was, like, 'I need you guys in Vegas right now. I already bought your flights.' And they had to bounce."
Afterward, Lamar told Chung he wanted him to be the sound of his debut album.
"I was just, like, 'Fuck, I gotta get to work,' " Chung says. "But I was also working on my album, and I tried making beats for him and it just didn't come out right."
His last 18 months may have been bleak, but Chung speaks with unbridled excitement of his future. The albatross of the sophomore album is over, and he's launching his own imprint under the Innovative Leisure umbrella.
More importantly, he's making beats again at a feverish clip. The stress of succeeding as Nosaj Thing could not consume him.
"I'll never wait that long to release another record. It just builds up and makes it harder on yourself," Chung says. "I've been exploring different sounds, instruments and techniques, and want to apply them for the next EP. I feel like I'm kind of getting out of my shell and getting back to making beats again. I've been doing more up-tempo stuff lately. It's fun again, you know?"