You don’t go to karaoke bars to hear the progressive, head-nodding instrumental music emanating from L.A.’s internationally renowned beat scene. If you’re lucky, no one in your besotted cohort will belt a tone-deaf “Don’t Stop Believin’” or attempt their best Scott Stapp impression. For the last year, however, if you were to stumble into the dark, red-tinted confines of Little Tokyo karaoke/ramen bar Tokyo Beat on the second Wednesday, third Thursday or fourth Wednesday of the month, you’d enter Beat Cinema (BC).
Backed by visuals that oscillate between Day-Glo psychedelia and the precise geometry of the Tron universe, BC’s resident producer/DJs and guests — both burgeoning (Linafornia, Eureka the Butcher) and widely renowned (Tokimonsta, Open Mike Eagle, MNDSGN) — play and perform forward-thinking permutations of everything from footwork and house to hip-hop and jazz, with thundering low end the unifying sonic thread.
Since its start at Claremont’s Hip Kitty in 2009, Beat Cinema has slowly become a fixture in the beat scene. Admittedly inspired by Low End Theory, BC and the tight quarters at Tokyo Beat offer another gateway for fans who aren’t able to get into the often-packed Airliner on Wednesday nights. And with a steady stream of shows, podcasts and beat battles, as well as live innovations and increasingly high-profile new ventures (e.g., soundtracking Coachella’s Turn Down Tent), BC has cemented its place alongside other prominent L.A. collectives like Team Supreme as a hub for some of the city’s elite beat-centric sounds.
It’s a bright and boiling Monday afternoon in early August when I meet BC founder/DJ Rick Gonzalez (Rick G) and BC creative director/DJ/producer Michael Davis (DMM) outside of Tokyo Beat, which has been BC’s home base since the Hip Kitty shuttered in 2015. Both enthusiastic and affable men in their early 30s, they’ve also brought Westley Ulit (wave Groove), the stocky and soft-spoken BC resident producer/DJ who also handles BC web maintenance. After we head to Far Bar, an air-conditioned gastropub with a reasonably priced happy hour across the street from Japanese Village Plaza, they discuss the recent relocation.
“We went through a year and a half of searching,” Davis says. “We did a lot of spots in Orange County [and] one-offs at maybe 10 different locations.”
In addition to its three nights a month at Tokyo Beat, BC also throws a show at Acerogami in Pomona on the first Wednesday of every month.
“Tokyo Beat is our partying vibe … Acerogami is where you go to experience more of our aesthetics,” Davis explains. “If you want something to look beautiful and sound perfect, we do it at Acerogami.”
The Acerogami shows illustrate BC’s growth but also its allegiance to the Inland Empire and the San Gabriel Valley, areas historically lacking in nightlife compared with L.A. proper. “We want to hold onto that spot,” Gonzalez says. “That’s where we started. We still want to cater to that area.”
For Gonzalez and Davis, the Inland Empire was also once home. During their teens, their respective families moved into newly developed prefab homes in the Riverside County city of Eastvale. They spent the long bus ride to Norco High School bonding over their shared interest in thrash bands and battled suburban ennui by hanging together after school. Though Davis left town before graduation, the two kept in touch online. When Davis moved back to L.A. in his early 20s, Gonzalez offered him a place to stay.
“He was supposed to stay for a week, and it ended up being like two months,” Gonzalez says, chuckling.
Davis’ return coincided with Gonzalez’s growing interest in the music he heard at Low End Theory. After a brief tenure as a bar back at Hip Kitty, Gonzalez started booking scene stalwarts like Gaslamp Killer and Daedelus to perform there. The response from music fans in the area was immediate.
“The early shows would hit capacity,” Gonzalez says. “There were no shows like that out in Claremont. You had to drive to L.A.”
As attendance increased, Gonzalez improved as a DJ and began filling out the BC roster. Davis, who initially ran the door (DMM stands for Doorman Mike), eventually became so inspired that he started DJing. Today, the roster remains purposefully in flux.
“It’s still changing,” Davis says. “We pick people along the way if they have talents that fit with us and vibe well. … The people with us now are the ones that have the same passion we do.”
Shawn Curley (aka Major Gape) is arguably the essential addition to the BC team. After editing together movie clips for the projection screen on the Hip Kitty’s outdoor patio, Curley began experimenting with live video manipulation inside. Today, he controls the visuals in real time at Acerogami and Tokyo Beat, mapping them onto any number of screens and light boxes.
“Without him, [BC] would just be a normal, regular beat club,” Davis says. “That’s what separates us.”
Gape also was instrumental in two of BC’s latest developments. When Goldenvoice approached him to do visuals for Coachella’s Turn Down Tent in the camping area, he lobbied to get BC residents on the bill. He is also responsible for the visuals in a virtual reality documentary about BC, Do What You Love: The L.A. Underground Beat Scene.
A mix of live sets and interviews, the short documentary will premiere at L.A. Weekly’s Artopia on Aug. 26. Those at the event, held at Union Station, will be able to watch the short film on headsets with BC residents. “The premiere is at Artopia,” Gonzalez says. “We have no idea what it looks like.”
Despite their already exhaustive output, Beat Cinema continues to expand, now throwing a show once a month at the Lash downtown with several like-minded collectives, booking BC DJs at other L.A. shows, and releasing albums through its Bandcamp page. In many ways, it's solidifying the definition of a beat collective as much as it's expanding it.
“There are people who throw shows, put out albums or do podcasts, but I don’t think there’s one collective that’s a one-stop shop for everything,” Davis says. “It might seem like we’re doing too much, but I don’t think so.”