[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Internet radio station Dublab is less KCRW and more MOCA. Thirty rotating "Labrats" operate as a permanent exhibit, seamlessly switching between the modern avant-garde and abstruse masters of the past. You're as apt to hear the next brilliant beatmaker as reggae 45s rarely played outside of the Caribbean.
To bolster the collection, the station curates guest DJ sets and live performances from internationally lionized Angelenos like Dam-Funk, Nosaj Thing and Julia Holter. Recent visitors to the Silver Lake spot include legendary oldies DJ Art Laboe and German Krautrock pioneers Tangerine Dream and Faust. Sometimes a writer, sundry sonic dignitary or slick-babbling rogue will sneak in.
That's why I'm in their studios above the Virgil, several days before Halloween, prepping a pre-holiday set of horror-tinged hip-hop (Gravediggaz, Dana Dane, Bobby Brown circa Ghostbusters II). The 13-year-old station programs 30 hours of radio a week, plus a packed calendar of live events such as a recent Halloween bash at LACMA. At the moment, the lab is bubbling on a Friday at 3 p.m.
In the next room DJs Shaun "Sodapop" Koplow (who runs the Anticon label) and Diego Herrera (aka house producer Suzanne Kraft) artfully weave vintage house and contemporary IDM to rap headbangers. I'm in a roughly 20x10 office room filled with promos, sound equipment and concert handbills, talking to Mark "Frosty" McNeill, the co-founder and "creative energy focus captain."
"We're inspired mostly by the great radio of the past. John Peel and the regional radio freaks," says McNeill, wearing a blue Dublab T-shirt, college-professor specs and scholastic bearing. "It's about pushing to find something new. It's risky: Most people want to feel safe. That's why Pandora is popular. It offers just the smallest amount of randomness."
The risk has yielded significant reward. Dublab is a spice rack for an exotic array of underground flavor. It has thrown functions at every major museum, launched a biannual film series (the Labrat Matinee) and released compilation records that have become collectibles. And it has done it on a shoestring operating budget of $160,000, half donated during twice-yearly Proton Drives (the fall drive is currently under way). "We're still learning how to be a nonprofit," adds McNeill, who originally envisioned the station as a socially conscious corporation using its profits in responsible ways, à la Toms Shoes or Ben & Jerry's. As listenership increased, the station received more and more donations until it switched over five years ago.
Nor was survival a foregone conclusion. L.A.'s other major Internet radio station, Little Radio, shut its doors several years ago. McNeill and his partners have been savvy and good: wrangling sponsorships from American Apparel, partnering behind the scenes with Red Bull, offering short-term sound-system rentals and doing for-hire work, including setting up mobile radio stations and websites. They've also won grants from the L.A. County Arts Commission and the Department of Cultural Affairs.
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McNeill is sanguine about the station's future, noting that new Priuses and Buicks arrive with Internet radio as a standard feature. "In the next two years, every new car will have built-in Internet radio, and Dublab is on all the tuners because we've been doing it for so long," he says.
We talk more about Dublab's ultimate goals: around-the-clock programming and a physical space with room for a workshop and gallery. Then it's time for my set, maybe the first to include '90s Rap-A-Lot psycho-rapper Ganksta N-I-P and a song called "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah." (After all, Dublab is 13.)
I'd tell you how it went, but you should've tuned in.