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.
Nobody: Before we did Low End, Kev wanted to start a pirate radio station. He even bought a transmitter and asked me to help program it. But after the car trip to S.F., he never talked about the radio station again.
Gaslamp Killer: When it started, I was living in Marina del Rey. Don't ask me why. And on the first night [of LET], I got a speeding ticket and said, "This place is fucking cursed. I can't drive this far every Wednesday. How am I going to drink?" And I wasn't getting along with edIT and Nocando, either. But it only took a month to realize that we were doing something special. Having a weekly brought people together. But it wasn't much of a party at first, just a bunch of dudes hanging out and bobbing our heads together.
Nocando: It was initially a music free-for-all. Our first bookings were rappers and bands we knew. The crowds were small throughout the first year. It was on a Wednesday and nothing much ever really stuck on Wednesdays, other than Dub Club. edIT was regularly blowing my mind, going crazy on his controllers and playing early dubstep. We also brought in sound from Pure Filth, so even though the shows weren't packed, we had an over-the-top drown-you-out system.
D-Styles: I was struck by how free things were. It wasn't confined to one type of music, it was 18-plus, and you could smoke. People were hungry for all types of music, and everyone was mixing jungle, dubstep and psych rock into futuristic hip-hop.
Nosaj Thing: I found out about Low End through D-Styles' message board. I'd been playing the Smell and the Il Coral but felt like my sound didn't really fit. Low End was exactly what I'd been looking for. At the time, it was, at most, 20 to 50 heads — like a little boys' club. But every new track and artist that I heard brought new styles and sounds to the table.
Flying Lotus: You could definitely sense some kind of magic. Low End was drawing people from all races and parts of L.A. But it wasn't until the first Beat Invitational that we really sensed how powerful it could be.
Daedelus: The Beat Invitationals were basically local producers playing beats — the most boring thing possible. But people put on real performances, and the kids got really, really excited about it. People could get loose, the sound system was good, and the space was raw. It had the feeling of a movement.
I'm not sure who did it first, but someone figured out how to connect Madlib and J Dilla and the more authentic hip-hop production style to a more grounded experimental form of IDM [Intelligent Dance Music], in a way that both made sense and got a wider swath of people to move.
Low End couldn't exist if it was a message board or a podcast. Regionalism exists because of the spaces themselves. When you blow that up, with the Internet's power to yell, that's where you see the international reflection.
Daddy Kev: Before there was a real L.A. sound, the residents played tons of Dabrye and Dilla. But within a year we got the demos from Nosaj. Lotus was making a beat a day, Ras G was killing it, and the aesthetic cohered.
Nobody: Things really evolved once we all switched to Serrato and started sharing songs. Plus, suddenly, there was less need to play old records when local kids started feeding us all these beats.
Mary Anne Hobbs: I'll never forget my first visit as long as I live. The place was absolutely mobbed and screaming and wild. The residents played music that I never thought I'd come across in my entire life — totally alien and incredible. Producers showed up and brought music to me. I collected more phenomenal new music in a few hours than I had in a whole year.
Gaslamp Killer: It's been my testing ground, my laboratory, where I try new shit out. That's where I got the courage to play this weird music. It's been so nurturing. The kids are so ride-or-die and devoted to the idea of community.
Nocando: The producers there are building on 20 years of production styles and putting them into one. You can get a guy like Samiyam, who makes stuff closer to an Alchemist, next to Jonwayne, who has a Southern slow vibe to his beats.
Flying Lotus: In some way, I try to be connected to the cities that I visit. So when I'm in London to play, I'm always sure to do the underground show, too — something that's at the core of the community. That's where I feel like I'm from.
It's the same thing when I hear artists like James Blake saying that they're disappointed in the venues they're playing. I tell them about Low End, and if they're up for it, then they should check it out. With [Thom Yorke] it was the same thing. He'd been playing DJ nights in a hotel in Hollywood and was sick of it. I knew how much the Low End crowds would love it, and he was up for it.
That's what makes Low End special. The crowds are there for the love of the music and nothing else.
Daddy Kev: The day after Yorke played our club, people were looking at me like a unicorn. I can't tell you how many promoters asked for his booking info. I laughed. That's not something you can make happen based on will. The high-profile artists, like Yorke, Erykah Badu, James Blake, DJ Muggs or Photek, aren't enticed by money or exposure. They're looking for a more pure music experience.
Nocando: In the future, I'd like to see more of the beat guys and affiliated rappers drop records that have a bigger effect on the industry. In the end, Low End is about these kids from L.A. forging a sound and doing something that everyone thought was weird or wrong or superniche. It's about the underdogs coming up without co-signs. What made it pop was rappers and beatmakers and visual artists and marijuana showing and proving for four hours every Wednesday.
Gaslamp Killer: I want Low End to have a monthly party in a 5,000-person room, once a month on a Saturday night, and [have us] twice a year do a street festival. We want to affect the kids. We're spreading a message of love, truth and being yourself. No one's cool at Low End, there's no backstage, no VIP. Everyone stands at the bar with everyone else, and it brings us together.
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DJ Nobody: In the next five years, the beat scene ought to be producing songs on the radio. Nosaj could make a beat for Busta Rhymes. Mono/Poly, too. But it needs to evolve at an organic pace.
Flying Lotus: I'd like to see us all get a permanent place that we can make into an L.A. version of [London dance mecca] Fabric. A place that's a hub for new music, not just beat-driven stuff — an expansion of where we're at.
Daddy Kev: We had more than 10,000 people at our stage in Eagle Rock, and we'd like to do a festival one of our own — something like Sonar in Spain. Something well-curated, with great sound. Not a rave and without any corporate quack sponsors. The brand has to be pure.
We've had huge opportunities come our way, but we've always said no. Our tab and conscience are clear. We don't have to answer to anyone but ourselves.