Rattling the Underground With Nosaj Thing and Low End Theory
It’s still a bit soon to dub a successor to the Smell. That venue has survived a hailstorm of attention with its vitality intact, so perhaps it’s better to imagine Low End Theory, the Wednesday-night event at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, as the downtown noise mecca’s beat-oriented little brother. Low End Theory is barely 2 years old, but already it’s given the city’s music cognoscenti a handful of new names to murmer under low lighting and to sport on T-shirts. Last year, Flying Lotus was the cream of the crop, but 2009 belongs to Nosaj Thing, and the comparison between the scenes isn’t lost on the young artist.
“All these years I was trying to figure things out,” says Jason Chung (read “Nosaj” backwards). He’s only 24 and is releasing his debut LP, Drift, via Alpha Pup Records on June 9, but he’s been making hip-hop-informed electronic music quietly for more than a decade. “Honestly, what helped me out was going to the Smell. My friend took me there in high school — we went every week — and I was inspired by the whole DIY thing. I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I played there a few times, but I felt a little out of place. The bands there had more of a movement behind them.”
Times have changed. To paraphrase the work of Low End Theory devotee Shepard Fairey, Nosaj has a posse. They’ve got handles like the Gaslamp Killer, Free the Robots, Samiyam and Ras G, and ties to the Plug Research label, Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint, and Alpha Pup, founded by longtime L.A. producer Daddy Kev. But within this well-pedigreed crew, Nosaj Thing stands out.
For one thing, Chung is the quietest guy in the group. He’s sweet, fresh-faced and exceedingly calm under a well-formed cap of dark hair, like a LEGO man. He lives in a nondescript Pasadena apartment building, in a unit personalized by small details: Cornelius’ Point on vinyl, propped against a wall; small, unframed art pieces balanced on the back of the couch; two Guitar Hero facsimiles and a genuine guitar rack that holds two actual guitars. He’s polite, and only gets riled when discussing the realm of exponential possibility that exists where technology intersects music-making.
Mostly, Chung allows his songs to do the talking, and instrumental though they may be, they’re the main reason for all the chatter currently surrounding him. He’s garnered comparisons to his friend Flying Lotus, but while FlyLo coats his compositions with record static as primer and gets his texture from overlapping percussive imperfections, Chung takes the holistic approach of a sound designer. In headphones, this translates to a 360-degree arrangement around the listener’s head, bouts of almost disorienting synth surges, and moments where the rhythmic intricacies subside and something ghostly arrives. FlyLo emits warmth and flow, while Chung deals in cleanliness and creep. The former is bass boom; the latter is that sucking feeling that happens just before the boom hits.
“We just call it beat music,” says Chung. The futuristic qualities of their sound, created primarily with software and synthesizers, have inspired names like “lazer-bass” and “blap” (presumably “bleep” plus “rap”). It has recent roots in dubstep, and deeper, disparate ones in Boards of Canada, Cornelius and DJ Shadow, and while the electronic music does have a home at Low End Theory, it’s difficult to determine its exact place in the Los Angeles underground. To wit, hear Chung describe his trip to the historic Project Blowed open mic for a beat competition (which he won):
“It was the first time I’d been to Blowed,” he says, “and I was kinda buggin’ out because there were guys staring me down. I mean, I was this nerdy Asian kid in a Flaming Lips shirt — I was wearing a Flaming Lips shirt, dude. I felt like I was in Eight Mile or something. I did one more battle after that and I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I feel like I’m more a new-school guy.”
More than that, Chung and his contemporaries both here and abroad represent a groundswell of producers who make hip-hop-based music that can thrive apart from the MC culture. In the past, with a few significant exceptions, a rap instrumentalist’s reputation was only as good as that of his vocal counterpart. The recent comingling of boom-bap, dance music and ambient strains is changing that. Imagine hip-hop as high school. The MCs are the jocks, the DJs are the nerds, and after so many years of ceding the choicest bits of their lunch to jocks, the nerds are eating the whole damn thing.
“Someone told me a lot of MCs in L.A. are frustrated because the producers are all going instrumental,” says Chung, who has only contributed beats to two local vocalists, Busdriver and Low End Theory staple Nocando. “I don’t think I’m too interested in working with rappers. When I got into hip-hop I was in third grade. My first tape was Warren G’s Regulate, and my first CD was Doggy Style, neither of which makes sense to a little kid in Cerritos. Since I didn’t understand the slang, I listened to it on a musical level, and the flow was more percussive — that’s what I responded to.”
It seems a controversial point, but it’s an honest one. Vocals would weigh down Drift, an album that already carries a ton of promise for its maker. And Chung’s youth is another one of his beneficial distinctions. Old enough to have idolized his turntable-bound predecessors, and young enough to be highly tech-literate (he set up his first home studio at age 13 using his father’s computer), Chung now finds himself rubbing elbows with legendary scratch DJs like Q-Bert and D-Styles. The latter now holds permanent residency at Low End Theory, which makes him a regular in Chung’s world.
“I’m still not used to it,” Chung says. “I was the guy who used to go to in-stores to see D-Styles perform, and now he’s, like, ‘Hey, J, can you show me your moves?’ Ever since I graduated from high school, I’ve been working full-time jobs and now ... I can’t believe it.”