Masta Killa once said, “The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum.” He lambasted those listening to rap solely for the beats, but he also foresaw a time when bass-driven electronic music would become the dominant genre for an entire generation.
The time the Wu-Tang rapper prophesied is now. The majority of U.S. music festivals feature scads of DJs hunched over turntables, samplers and MacBooks. In this crowded field, Coachella has separated itself by continually booking the subversive and the innovative. In the current landscape of electronic music, that distinction belongs to L.A.’s Beat Scene.
The words, shorthand for the ever-expanding group of likeminded DJs and producers in and around L.A., don’t have to be capitalized, but they probably should be. Permutations notwithstanding, beat scene instrumentals are often characterized by a sub-woofer-shattering hybrid of electronic and hip-hop. Forged during the decline of drum n' bass, the drums pound with the force of a battering ram. They can trigger the turn up, but also have the potential to tap into the primal and the profound simultaneously.
Criticizing Coachella lineups for their commerciality has become de rigueur. But you can’t fault them when it comes to the beat scene. Their roots run deep. Beat scene forerunners like DJ Shadow and Prefuse 73 were booked over a decade ago. In 2009, only two years after the founding of beat scene mecca Low End Theory, Coachella slotted all of the weekly’s resident DJs (Daddy Kev, DJ Nobody, Gaslamp Killer, D-Styles) and frequent LET guests Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Ras G, and Samiyam in the Dome.
“They’re into the beats. They’re into the raw shit, the underground shit… Coachella has been booking all of that stuff for so long,” Gaslamp Killer told me during a brief interview. He’s attended every Coachella since its inception and, in addition to his performances this year, has appeared several more times in the last half-decade.
With each passing year, the presence and profile of beat scene artists have only increased. Flying Lotus went from low billing in 2010 to headlining the Mojave tent on Friday night. In 2014, beat scene stalwart Shlohmo was near the top of the bill in the Gobi tent; the Heineken House featured everyone from Gaslamp Killer and Nosaj Thing to L.A. beat collective Team Supreme.
The steady rise of beat scene artists has run parallel with their influence on hip-hop and electronic music as a whole. This was never more evident than this year at Coachella.
Trap, at least its electronic iteration, was incubated at places like LET. DJs there played Hudson Mohawke long before Theophilus London zipped Kanye a copy of the TNGHT record. That they initially gravitated towards this menacing fusion of the electronic and Southern rap makes sense. That more and more mainstream electronic DJs have followed suit over the last year is as much a sign of the beat scene’s influence as it is disheartening.
From sets by marquee acts like Flosstradamus and DJ Snake to sets in The Do Lab and Heinken House by CRNKN and TWRK, borrowed and bastardized versions of trap were everywhere at Coachella this year. Their drums smacked and their hi-hats skittered with Southern-fried syncopation. There were even times when these DJs abandoned the electronic for unadulterated rap, as many beat scene DJs often do. But it all felt forced, carefully calculated to hit the style's easily identifiable sonic signifiers while side-stepping anything subversive or remotely innovative.
To hear and feel the difference between the originators and the aforementioned imitators, you only had to watch sets from Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, and Tokimonsta. Performing inside of a massive cube with Kendrick-whisperer Thundercat on bass, Flying Lotus tempered beats built to fracture subs with avant-garde jazz. When he played the slowed spectral thump that is “Coronus, the Terminator,” there may have not been a more meditative moment at the entire festival. It was an attempt to engage with the ethereal, an acknowledgement of the afterlife.
Forgoing a traditional DJ set, Gaslamp Killer split time between the turntables and conducting a 12-piece band. During extended versions of songs from his acclaimed 2012 album, Breakthrough, he worked his drummer harder than anyone. He ran around the stage with a sampler and dropped 808s that shook your teeth and sirens direct from Dilla, to let you know the lineage. Throughout, Gaslamp’s body convulsed and gyrated as if possessed by the beats. At one point, he began scratching like he was gunning for a DMC world title. It was a reminder that the majority of beat scene DJs know their craft. For them, Serato was an adaptation, not a necessity.
Tokimonsta had the second weekend's best set at Do Lab. Her drops were organic, not timed to the lights. Her beats had more grime, more edge, where other DJs felt safe. After firing rounds of bass that hit like blasts from a bazooka, she slowed things down with Peter Gunz and Lord Tariq’s “Déjà Vu.” A lesser-known ‘90s rap classic, it reflected both good taste and the knowledge of the rap canon that serves as the foundation for the beat scene. Then, after juggling juke and footwork with punishing and propulsive trap, she brought out Anderson Paak for their song “Realla.” The packed Do Lab appeared genuinely moved. These kinds of things happen when you actually collaborate with your guests, instead of just making them flex their hits.
Apart from an incredible set from Gesaffelstein, who somehow stitched together threads from techno, EDM and French industrial, and artfully imbued them all with elements from the beat scene, I left Coachella feeling somewhat dejected. But then I remembered something Gaslamp Killer said during our interview.
“People like beats with bass. People like to go dumb. What I mean by that is that they like music that puts them in a trance and gets them in that spiritual place. That’s what bass frequencies do to human beings. The drums [in our music] hit so hard it shakes your entire body. That’s priceless shit. That gets people going. So every single culture is going to borrow from us on that front. It’s inevitable.”
The DJs borrowing from the beat scene, for the most part, aren’t interested in the spiritual. You can always separate the real from the fake, the alternative to everything that isn’t. It really depends on your definition of dumb.