Twenty years ago in a cafe turned raucous cocoon of an event space, two musicians and their friends cultivated the ultimate breeding ground for multigenre experimentation. From the seeds of the acid jazz, underground hip-hop and funky breaks germinating all over Los Angeles bloomed a unique party with a distinctly eclectic sound.
"The Root Down was dedicated to showcasing the roots of hip-hop in a way that was previously unknown," says Root Down co-founder Carlos Guaico, aka DJ Loslito. "We bridged the gap of great turntableism and seamless mixes while keeping the dance floor up."
Spawning from a party called the Breaks — in which emcees were backed by band the Breakestra while DJs spun funky breaks — the Root Down is one of those only-in-L.A. events that has gained legendary status over the years. It's been host to Cut Chemist, The Black Eyed Peas, Antibalas, Peanut Butter Wolf and Mayer Hawthorne, among others, offering a stage for experimentation in a time when few such venues existed.
"The Root Down became a weekly activity and something that was just, without thinking, you knew you were gonna show up there. The challenge was to make sure you could make it in before it reached capacity," says singer Aloe Blacc, who got his start rapping with DJ Exile, performing as Emanon.
To celebrate two decades of deep cuts, the Root Down will have a weekly Thursday residency at the Virgil (formerly Little Temple, where the party set up shop for years) throughout December with four events featuring DJ Rhettmatic and Emanon, Z-Trip, the Boogaloo Assassins, and The Root Down Soundsystem. Blacc says it will be a return to the stage that helped shape his skills as a performer.
"You don't know what you're worth until you rock an audience that has access to everything," Blacc says of L.A. crowds.
Hosted every Thursday since 1997 before slowly becoming a monthly and then semi-regular event, the Root Down is mythic not only for the people who graced its stage but for the sheer force of will it takes to put on a party of epic proportions in a city with high standards and sometimes fleeting interests.
"There were a few strictly underground hip-hop parties happening in L.A. in the late '90s, early 2000s," says Breakestra, the Breaks and Root Down co-founder "Music Man" Miles Tackett, citing early-'90s party Peace Pipe as inspiration. "We were coming from a much more eclectic place, everything from raw hip-hop to neo-soul to raw real funk to rare groove to disco to dance-floor classics."
The Root Down crew grew to include DJs Expo, Wyatt Case, Sloe Poke, Jedi and Ervin Arana, as well as dozens of guest selectors such as KCRW's Jeremy Sole and DJ Shadow. They'd play breaks from famously sampled songs, then throw in the full version of that tune before blending into the hip-hop version of the break. Live players would pick up horn and bass lines, riffing off a funky break that would be handed back off to a DJ.
"I would hear so many styles of music within one night and rarely would the DJs repeat a record within weeks of each other," says Josh Paret, aka DJ Expo. "Each DJ in the crew brings their own set of flavors. I've always been one of the youngest sets of ears, so I try to incorporate some of the newer sounds that fit into the integrity of what the Root Down is."
Such a varied mix of genres and mediums was relatively unheard of, as clubgoers and genre-heads remained segregated in their musical comfort zones. People became attuned to the musical meld as the Breaks morphed from a heavy jam session featuring the best local players into the Root Down's experimental hip-hop test kitchen with live accompaniment and featured artists.
"[The Root Down] definitely appealed to a little bit more of a discerning crowd that wanted to hear something not so commercialized, so Top 40. It kind of became a watering hole for that type of artist, that type of musician, the record collectors," Loslito tells L.A. Weekly.
In addition to local groups, hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and soul legends like Syl Johnson graced the stage. A series of Jamaican-style beat battles, or "sound clashes," in the early aughts between the likes of Madlib and Cut Chemist were made into a DVD and remain among the crew's favorite events.
At the end of the night, the DJs would often have long conversations about the new music they discovered. "It became a very, very intense emotional connection with the music," Loslito says. "Not everybody could do that, so we became the local experts."
Expo likens DJing with The Root Down Soundsystem to an education. "We all learn from each other and we all remain students, but we all earned our master's at this point, too," he adds. "I've opened up for a countless number of my musical heroes and inspirations from being part of the Root Down. I've grown up under its umbrella and there's a lot of people that are family to me because of it."
TRD brought an additional aspect of musical education to attendees in the form of "baseball card" flyers, which Miles and Loslito initially distributed by pounding the pavement in the days before social media. The cards featured a picture of each guest artist along with "stats" on the back that offered some context and musical history.
As the Root Down moved from its first digs at Gabah on Melrose, to Little Temple in Silver Lake, to El Cid and eventually the Echoplex, the night also branched into satellite events in New York and more narrowly themed nights such as the now defunct Afro-Latin fusion party Descarga, Motown on Mondays, and Funky Sole, which will celebrate its 18th anniversary over Christmas.
The driving force behind this expansion was Tarek Captan, aka DJ Dusk, whom Miles calls "one of the best selector/DJs, emcee/hosts I've ever witnessed." Dusk brought a catalytic change to the Root Down sound, blowing the night's definition of hip-hop roots wide open to include a fearless mix of tunes from the late '70s and '80s, R&B and boogie alongside Latin and Brazilian music.
"His library was even broader than ours. He and I would sit there and talk about salsa records and cumbia records before you could even collect any of that stuff in L.A.," Loslito says. "If it created a good vibe, people were open. Hip-hop heads would sit down and listen to cumbia. Even if they didn't know it, they'd participate."
Dusk was killed by a drunk driver in 2006, and his absence created a major handicap for the Root Down. Two years later, when the economy took a nose dive, attendance dwindled and Miles and Loslito decided to take a break from the hustle for a couple of years before bringing the Root Down back for semiregular events. The 20th-anniversary residency is perhaps less of a triumphant return than a celebration of a multigenre musical culture they helped create.
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"The Root Down is almost this folklore thing. Because of that constant energy and sincerity from people throughout our lives, it was hard for us to fully let go," Loslito says. "The fact that we've been able to be continuous to some degree, the fact that the brand is still being sought after, is the highest compliment."
As a new generation hits the floor with baked-in knowledge of the roots of hip-hop and access to vinyl, one might think that the Root Down's relevance is disappearing. Miles challenges that assertion: "In my opinion we made ourselves relevant in the first place. If it's good music that we're playing and featuring, maybe that's always relevant."
Loslito adds, "The fact that we were able to kind of be the tree that branched these other scenes and other movements, and nurtured these bands and allowed performers to do their thing on our stage, I'm definitely proud of what we've been able to accomplish. I think the legacy is really the people that have come from us."
THE ROOT DOWN RESIDENCY | The Virgil, 4519 Santa Monica Blvd., East Hollywood | (323) 660-4540 | $10 before 10:30 p.m. with RSVP; $15 otherwise | rootdown.eventbrite.com