Less than 30 miles from the hustle of downtown Los Angeles, Topanga Canyon’s rolling hills and valleys can feel like a world away. The serene community is close-knit and bursting with musical history — but there’s also nothing for the area’s teenagers to do but escape boredom in Topanga’s forests, where they would often gather to play music.
“Everyone called us Creekers. We were spread out but we’d come home and play music in the creek, in the woods, whether it was five of us or 10 of us or 120 of us playing music,” says Brooks Ellis, co-owner of event company Label 27.
It was at one of these nighttime creek jams that Ellis met Amit Gilad, a drummer who attended a different high school. The two became friends, started a band called The Chiefs that headlined the famed Topanga Days festival, and dreamed up an event that would come to be one of the highlights of Southern California’s reggae scene — Reggae on the Mountain, which returns to Topanga July 22 and 23.
Now in its eighth year, Label 27’s Reggae on the Mountain festival takes roots reggae out of the city and into the hills for two days of music from international stars and heavy-hitting local and regional bands. Six thousand people are expected to attend this year’s festival, which will be headlined by a reunited Sly & Robbie and Mykal Rose alongside Grammy nominee Raging Fyah and New Zealand roots crew Katchafire. Over the years, ROTM has hosted big-name acts including reggae/dancehall DJ Yellowman (who returns this year), Julian Marley, original Black Uhuru member Don Carlos, and the Easy Star All-Stars.
How did a couple of self-described rock & roll kids from the canyons become such heavy roots fanatics? “Reggae came to us, I think,” Ellis says, noting, “Bob Marley really spoke to us as kids.” Gilad adds, “As a musician, reggae is such a meditative music and is very spiritual. It’s really just the vibe that resonates.”
The positive, community-oriented message often heard in roots reggae struck a chord with Gilad, 26, and Ellis, 28, who still live in Topanga and wanted to give back. Each year, ROTM raises money for the Topanga Community Club — a 68-year-old nonprofit with an aging building that’s used for everything from children’s classes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to bar mitzvahs.
While still teenagers themselves, Gilad and Ellis created production company Label 27 (named for State Route 27 aka Topanga Canyon Boulevard) and started to plan their first reggae festival. Armed with only the experience of throwing backyard parties and inspiration from the long-running Humboldt County Reggae on the River festival, they hustled. The two tapped L.A.’s “endless wealth of knowledge,” taking reggae promoters to lunch and waiting outside clubs that they were too young to enter in order to put in face time with people in the business.
“Like anything, it was earning your stripes basically," Ellis says. "At first it was like, who are these young kids? But now we built love and respect for the genre and now there are some of the elders coming to us, like, ‘What are we gonna do now, boys?’”
Gilad approached reggae veteran Junor Francis, who hosts The Reggae Show on KXLU and another show on Inland Empire station KSPC 88.7 FM, to emcee the first Reggae on the Mountain. Francis has hosted the festival each year and says he was immediately impressed by the event and its young promoters.
“Everything was thoroughly organized, such as vendors, sound, box office and so on,” he says via email. “I was so massively impressed by the early arrival of the fans that I had to enquire how is that possible that so many fans would turn out so early for the first annual. I was told that the folks who live in Topanga Canyon are a unique set of folks and they support events at the community center.”
The first ROTM in 2010 featured nine performers, including locals Pato Banton and Quinto Sol (the latter has performed every year) and about 600 attendees. In 2015, the festival expanded to host 21 artists and 3,000 attendees over two days on two stages. Tickets quickly sold out.
“Bringing Reggae on the Mountain has brought an amazing new flow of people from all over L.A. to Topanga who hadn’t come up to Topanga before,” Gilad says. “We only book artists with a pure message of positivity. Now we’ve found ourselves as cutting-edge people in the reggae scene.”
ROTM employs locals — friends and family run the bar and box office, while Ellis’ dad is in charge of logistics and an army of volunteers pitches in on everything else. Despite its fairly small budget, the festival has always been profitable.
“What’s happening here is a great example of how community should work,” Gilad says. “Us being teenagers, there was a little bit of resources for us to tap into, and now we're able to donate back to the community center.
“This has definitely been the best training you can ever imagine,” he adds, pointing to the difficulties of coordinating international performers, throwing a festival on a mountain, and having to shuttle all attendees to the concert site. In addition to hosting other events, Label 27 now also does event consulting work.
Gilad and Ellis have seen their teenage dreams come true — from successfully booking Steel Pulse (after three years of trying) to getting Don Carlos to headline in 2012. “When we were teenagers, we were seeing [Don Carlos] headline Reggae on the River — then all of a sudden he’s hanging out in our VIP area, chillin’,” Gilad says. “Realizing what we dreamed about as teenagers is really surreal.”
The two are already planting seeds for their 10th-anniversary festival and have a long wish list of performers, from Toots & The Maytals to Jimmy Cliff. They’re also keeping an eye on up-and-coming roots artists.
“There’s a great resurgence of roots reggae out of Jamaica, which is important because all the great reggae artists are people in their 60s and 70s,” Gilad says. Locally, L.A.’s reggae community is also an inspiration. “What’s so great about Los Angeles is the incredible fusion of Latin music and reggae coming out of East L.A.”
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“All of this was done with the community and communities in mind — the Los Angeles community, which encompasses so many people,” Ellis says.
Reggae on the Mountain takes place Saturday and Sunday, July 22 and 23. Tickets and more info.