Picture him sleeping on the floor of a run-down Hollywood tenement — the handsome and exuberant head of the L.A. Internet radio/arts/events collective Dublab, Mark “Frosty” McNeill, curled up between stacks of records, PCs and piles of cables. In 2001, the organization McNeill and his friends had quite literally built with their bare hands was on the verge of obtaining a multimillion-dollar boost from well-meaning venture capitalist Doug Ahlers, inventor of the banner ad. After months of mutual vetting, Dublab’s lawyers signed the deal, and on what should have been the morning that the investment was locked, the NASDAQ crashed. The dot-com bubble had burst. The deal was off.
“We basically had no money at that point,” says McNeill, seated at his desk in Dublab’s current office, located above the Little Temple bar in Silver Lake. “What little we had just kind of disappeared along with any hope for future investment deals. We were done — we even had a farewell broadcast — but then realized this was something we believed in too much to just let go. My partner sold his car, and I moved into the studio. I rolled out a bedroll every night, slept amongst whirring computer fans, and rolled it up the next morning as people would be coming in to record.”
Dublab is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, and its second year as a nonprofit, and McNeill sits at the center of a humble empire whose arteries stretch out to every electronic, ambient, etc., sound posse in town: Stones Throw Records, Human Ear Music, Low End Theory, Mas Exitos, Part Time Punks and Lucky Dragons, not to mention guys like Daedelus and Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel), who are scenes unto themselves. In honor of the occasion, McNeill and his fellow Labrats (Dublab DJs, musicians, engineers and organizers) are throwing a 10-day party starting October 1. The amassed events showcase just how far the Dublab echo has expanded, into the realms of film, installation art, interactive performances, education and plain old quality disc-jockeying (see sidebar).
Tuning into the Dubstream at any given time is a music lover’s dream: a wellspring of exotic sounds cycling through krautrock, psych of all eras, new electronica, heavy beats, obscure funk and soul, bare-bones folk, Latin gems, ethereal stuff and underground rap (to name a few) — a mercurial set that McNeill’s dubbed “future roots music,” which implies “something that allows for expansion.” Rather than utilize the artificial intelligence–based MP3 jukebox model of services like Pandora, Dublab has always been as good as its DJs, regularly refreshing its 19-hour loop of sets from eclectic-minded crate-diggers like Ras G, Nobody and Carlos Niño, and interspersing those with in-studio artist performances and live mixes from actual clubs. The stream has earned Dublab attention around the world — and around L.A., for its Friday-night show on KPFK, “Future Roots Radio.”
Dublab’s own roots go back to 1998, when McNeill, a music-industry major at USC, was running the campus’ then–pirate radio station, KSCR. He took the broadcast online (possibly the first college station to simulcast on the Web) shortly before the FCC quashed their FM transmission. By necessity, McNeill — alongside fellow student DJs and current Labrats Daedelus and Morpho — realized the potential at his fingertips. About a year after graduating, McNeill and then-partner John Buck had found a location (the aforementioned tenement), gathered some capital (thanks to Buck’s parents), assembled a team (culled mostly from KSCR and KXLU), quit their day jobs, and launched Dublab’s first broadcast, on September 27, 1999. Almost instantly, the suitors came calling.
“There was ridiculous money going into Internet radio,” McNeill says. “We’d go to these companies for investment meetings and people would be partying midday. They would have, like, ‘Kegger Day’ every Thursday and ‘Early Day’ on Tuesdays. DJs were getting paid $60 an hour, plus money for buying records. I had a friend who had his MPC on his desk and he’d just be making beats at work. It was hard not to have delusions of grandeur, but you could see from a mile away it wasn’t gonna last.”
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McNeill and Buck had been maintaining a full-time staff of six and transmitting a live audio/visual feed 115 hours a week. With Dublab’s near-collapse came a necessary restructuring. The pre-recorded Dubstream went into effect, and DJs volunteer their time to this day. McNeill also launched the semi-annual Proton Drive fundraiser, which wrangles listener donations from as far away as Germany to cover about 30 percent of Dublab’s operating costs. The in-studio guest list, strong from the beginning, grew to include names like Nobukazu Takemura, Slum Village, Mr. Scruff and Damo Suzuki. By 2003, Dublab had launched its annual 12-inch record series, In the Loop (then released by Plug Research, now via Anticon), and debuted its first art exhibition, the “Up Our Sleeve” project (its 500 hand-decorated record sleeves have toured the globe).
In the six years that have followed, Dublab has grown in ways McNeill never imagined possible. Buck left in 2005, making way for Alejandro “Ale” Cohen to join full-time. Since he teamed with Dublab, Cohen’s annual Tonalism ambient-music happening, once a get-together at Pehrspace and now an overnight festival in the woods of Big Sur. 2007’s Echo Expansion tour took Dublab staples like Flying Lotus and The Gaslamp Killer to Europe along with a dozen others. A regular Labrat Matinee evening screens rare music videos and shorts at the Downtown Independent theater, often with live music. Most recently, Dublab collaborated with Dave Eggers’ 826LA nonprofit, scheming up a workshop that allows kids to write and record their own news radio show as time-traveling reporters (you can hear “Future News Radio, Episode 1” on Dublab.com).
Dublab’s seemingly ceaseless stream of artful ideas has led to partnerships with MOCA, LACMA, the Getty, Disney Hall and the Natural History Museum, among others — all of which should only increase with the organization’s nonprofit status (which brings access to grants, as well as a certain gravitas). McNeill says they trust their intuition in deciding on projects.
“I think a lot of it goes back to the same tool you use as a DJ — you know, what’s the next record I’m going to pick out? What do I want to play? What do others want to hear? What’s going to keep that flow going? We’re all music freaks, as well as people who love film, literature, art. From year to year, we’re growing, expanding and exploring, and Dublab is a realization of our process of discovery. That’s why those projects pop up — because we’d get bored running in place, doing the same thing.”