In that medieval abyss known as the fall of 2006, Justin Timberlake's “SexyBack” knocked “London Bridge” off the top of the Hot 100, Britney Spears divorced Kevin Federline, and a 16-year-old Taylor Swift released her debut album.
Paris Hilton and the stars of That '70s Show wore trucker-hat crowns, reigning over long-since-shuttered Hollywood nightclubs. The Game was the only nationally celebrated L.A. rapper. Steve Aoki and the Cobrasnake hypnotized the hipster underground with bedazzled American Apparel unitards, Sparks and blog-house bumped off iPods. It felt as if Franz Kafka was the editor of US Weekly.
That same month, in an opposite corner of the pop culture constellation, four DJ/producers (Daddy Kev, Nobody, The Gaslamp Killer, edIT) and one rapper (Nocando) quietly founded the Low End Theory, a weekly club night in Lincoln Heights named after a Tribe Called Quest album.
Walking into Low End on those early Wednesdays felt like an episode of Scooby-Doo wherein someone pulled the candelabra, the wall rotated 180 degrees and you suddenly entered a kinetic new world. A club for people who hated clubs. If L.A.'s underground hip-hop world had grown reactionary and stale and Hollywood felt hollow, the Low End Theory was where the diaspora of progressive beat junkies reconvened.
An aesthetic gestated from Dilla, Madlib, DJ Shadow, The Neptunes and Dabrye. You never knew what the residents would play next, but it always seemed governed by the Wu-Tang credo that if ain't raw, it's worthless. They imported doom-laden, early British dubstep back when Skrillex was still in a screamo band. Before the Airliner received a much-needed face-lift, the bass shook the walls so hard you felt the place might crumble into sulfur.
The grimy atmosphere matched the music. Bathroom trips meant potentially stepping in puddles of urine. On a walk back to your car, you might step over homeless people lying motionless on concrete or hear gunshots ringing out on the blocks just off Broadway. You were also likely to walk into the club and catch a surprise guest appearance from Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke or Odd Future.
Of course, the last decade has brought change. D-Styles replaced edIT a long time ago. Nocando departed in 2015. There's now a yearly festival at the Shrine. The rate of new stars birthed has slowed from its Big Bang pace of the early 2010s. But there was and remains a reason why the residents and their most ardent apostles call it “church.”
In a meretricious industry where branding and social media skills often overshadow genuine artistry, the Low End Theory has remained an oasis where integrity trumps profit margins. No sponsors. No corny cross-promotions. No quid-pro-quo deals with superstars seeking credibility bookings in exchange for TMZ testimonials. The price of admission remains $10, despite around-the-block lines that suggest they could easily charge double.
Its influence stretches to most corners of contemporary sound: from pop (AlunaGeorge) and jazz (Kamasi Washington, Thundercat) to hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar). When YG dropped Still Brazy this summer, he selected Low End for a secret show until a promotional tweet caused so many people to flood Lincoln Heights that it forced the fire marshal to cancel it.
There are more than enough classic nights, both indelibly remembered and hazily forgotten, to ensure its permanent enshrinement alongside those legendary institutions in hip-hop and dance-music history: the Hacienda in Manchester, the Paradise Garage and the Tunnel in New York City, Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse in Chicago.
Somewhere along the way, Low End Theory irrevocably altered outsiders' lingering perception of L.A. as a cultural backwater. Ten years deep, the residents deserve the key to the city — they've already unlocked enough doors.
Low End Theory's 10-year celebration takes place tonight, Wednesday, Oct. 19, at the Airliner. More info.
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.