Low End Theory was founded by Daddy Kev, a promoter, label owner and hip hop producer for the likes of Busdriver and Awol One; indeed, all involved – from the DJs to the sound man – have deep resumes. edIT, one of the original DJ residents, was involved with Kev in the Konkrete Jungle parties of the late ’90s and is a member of The Glitch Mob; he was later replaced by D-Styles, one of the best scratch DJs on the planet. Other residents include The Gaslamp Killer, rapper Nocando and Nobody – a fixture of LA’s leftfield beats arena with releases on Ubiquity and Mush and a long-running radio show for “future roots” station Dublab.
In the six years since it began Low End Theory has become an almost necessary stepping-stone for a new generation of producers from Los Angeles, as well as a required stop for international DJ guests, both underground and mainstream.
As the artists around LET continue to grow in stature around the world, Daddy Kev has focused his sights on ensuring that the party continues to innovate locally. In addition to his LET responsibilities, he also runs Alpha Pup and a studio where he engineers and masters records for local labels and artists. Laurent Fintoni recently spoke with Kev about his own history, the night’s evolution and what happens when your club night is at “the end of its innocence.”
The central theme [for a book I’m working on] is the idea that hip hop production and beats have evolved along certain – often instrumental –lines since the ’80s and how this manifested itself came to a height between 2000 and 2010. I thought the best place to start would be with your views on this idea.
Sometimes when people talk to me about LET (Low End Theory), my easiest analogy is to say Mo’ Wax Part Two. That’s what it kind of is in my mind. I think people like DJ Shadow, DJ Krush and all that early Headz stuff really is an essential part of our vocabulary, perhaps the most essential. I think it’s important to identify the key influences in a movement, and without Endtroducing it’s arguable whether or not the beat scene would have ever come to fruition.
Shadow, Krush, Attica Blues and the Mo’ Wax visual and sonic aesthetic has been a point of inspiration, of course, but for people like D-Styles, Elvin [AKA Nobody] and myself, our memory goes back further to the Egyptian Lover era. The early ’80s LA electro stuff, the 808 stuff. It's arguable as to whether or not that is some of the first instrumental hip hop.
Without Endtroducing it’s arguable whether or not the beat scene would have ever come to fruition.
When I think of what we do DJ-wise at LET, I also see parallels going all the way back to the origins of hip hop and the mindset of DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc. Their idea that you could use a pair of turntables and a mixer to bridge all these different forms of music, to take out parts of it and re-contextualise it is definitely the spirit in which we operate at LET.
In the first year of the club, before the LA scene became what it is today, we were playing a healthy diet of Dabrye, Shadow, Dilla, and a lot of old Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune. To me, the DJ Food records are some of the most essential part of this vocabulary. I agree with the idea that this instrumental movement has been evolving for the last three decades. It’s interesting how the term “instrumental hip hop” – I think that encapsulates it best – is the thread that ties it all together.
You were involved in Konkrete Jungle in LA. Was that one of the first drum ‘n’ bass parties in the city?
It wasn’t the first, but we were on it pretty early for LA standards. We started it in 1999 and then ended in 2001. It was definitely a major education for me, doing a weekly club and it being relatively successful in that it kept going and we were booking talent through agents and trying to get people from overseas to come through. It was definitely a very important part of my experience to be able to then go on and do Low End Theory.
You also had involvement in the LA underground hip hop scene right?
At that point we had Celestial going, which was a label I co-founded and ran. I was also producing a lot back then too. My first record was with an MC named Phoenix Orion, who was actually from New York but was living in LA. It was a cool first record to produce because I got to experience the entire process, from the recording and mixing to the actual release and marketing. We started with 1,000 vinyls and sold them out in 45 days. Then we pressed up CDs and ended up selling 10,000 of them. It transformed Celestial into a bona fide indie label. I started the label with Hive and he’d known Omid and it was through them, and then MC Supernatural, that I got hooked up with Freestyle Fellowship. I spent a lot of time with those guys – Abstract Rude, Living Legends, Shape Shifters and other similar artists – in the late ’90s.
Popular artists are either on the express elevator up, or on the one going down.
That’s also how I ended up meeting D-Styles. I was already a fan of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. I’d been a DJ for years and, like most scratch nerds, I thought ISP were the ultimate shit. He hit me up out of the blue saying that he dug what we were doing with Celestial, which was a huge honour. He then asked me to mix the first single from his debut album, the Clifford’s Mustache 12” and then all of Phantazmagorea. At that point Dave and I were were becoming close friends. It’s also during this period that I worked on Nobody’s first record, Soulmates.
The one Ubiquity released?
Yes. It’s funny because we hooked up for that in 1999 or 2000. I recorded for him and then we lost touch; not fully, but we didn’t really hang out a whole lot until exactly six years later, in the summer of 2006. Strangely enough it was that process of Elvin and I starting to hang out regularly which kinda sowed the seeds of things to come.
The reason we came back together is because I was mixing Busdriver’s Roadkillovercoat album. Elvin had produced two-thirds of it, and because of how long the mixing process takes, we were spending a lot of time together. One weekend I ended up hitching a ride to San Francisco with Gaslamp Killer and Nobody for a gig. The three of us had an immediate natural chemistry. That one van ride, with us talking and laughing about music, ended up forming the foundation for the Low End Theory resident lineup.
Would you then say all this work with Celestial, scratching and so on, influenced both Alpha Pup and Low End Theory?
Absolutely. In a way, it’s like my second act right now. Konkrete Jungle, Celestial and the underground hip hop scene was like my first act. My second act has been LET, Alpha Pup and the beat scene. I feel lucky. I’ve had a second go at this. In the independent music world it’s tough. I’ve know a lot of people I came up with in the mid- to late ’90s who aren't doing music anymore.
Did you ever see the links between the ’90s drum ‘n’ bass scene and what was happening within hip hop?
Absolutely. We were the ones who were the most about it in a sense. We were trying to illustrate the connection between hip hop and drum ‘n’ bass. Arguably we were the only drum ‘n’ bass guys working with real hip hop MCs, people like Freestyle Fellowship and Supernatural. We were really trying to do songs that had hip hop style arrangements but with a drum ‘n’ bass tempo, and with drum ‘n’ bass’s sonic aesthetic. It was interesting. One thing I treasure about my drum ‘n’ bass education is that I was able to witness the rise, plateau and subsequent fall of an entire genre, and know some of the players too.
I know we’ve been riding a high wave, and I know that we’re closer to the end now than we were before.
I’m an acute observer of human psychology. I got to know some of the biggest personalities within the drum ‘n’ bass and underground hip hop scenes back then, witness how they handled certain situations or… maybe I should say mishandled them. It didn’t really know how to sustain itself and I think that’s the hard thing about the music business. Popular artists are either on the express elevator up, or on the one going down. They have the experience of one and then the other and that’s it. They don’t know how to transition once their cultural relevance has peaked.
I don’t think that’s just business either. The stereotypical artist personality and ego play a big role. It’s something I’ve been very cognizant of, and this time around I’m trying to do my best to make this thing sustainable as long as possible by giving the best advice I can to all of the people who want it.
I’ve no illusions about the cyclical nature of music. I know we’ve been riding a high wave, and I know that we’re closer to the end now than we were before. I talk to many of the artists I work with about it, about their transition to becoming a legacy artist. What that means, how that’s different today. The things you need to do it gracefully, and to do it intelligently, so that they can still be in the music business for another 20 years.
I feel 2011 was our peak, with press, people’s curiosity. Coming just a year after my perception of the peak it’s a tough time because guys are getting used to the fact that our brightest days are behind us now, and it’s a tough one to swallow. I look at it more like we have to continue to be innovative with what we’re doing, stay competitive with the bookings. As long as that’s in place we can still call it a business and do our thing. I don’t think our spirit needs to be directly in line with what the press thinks of us.
2006 feels like a key year in terms of events that helped propel this idea of a beat scene forward and cement its culture, with the influence of Myspace as well as Dilla’s passing, Flying Lotus’ first release and LET beginning. Did you ever feel that tipping point?
Yes. When Flying Lotus signed to Warp that was a major step forward too. I felt that if Warp was taking this budding scene seriously, then that reinforced to me that I wasn’t fucking crazy and that we had something significant going on. It gave me confidence that what we were doing was important, that it mattered and that we should keep on.
Another thing about LET that I don’t think gets mentioned enough, or a story that I don’t see often told, is that the artists who came out of there really developed these performance personas with controllers and laptops. They figured out how to emote with it.
How do you keep LET relevant after six years?
It’s hard. There’ve been several changes in the club, the aesthetic, our approach. External factors. The first time Thom Yorke played was the definitive “before and after” moment. Even though it was 2011 and we’d made plenty of impact by that point, it just changed people’s perception of the club permanently. For better and for worse. I love the fact more people were able to learn about the club, know more about it, because at the end of the day I’m trying to make this music connect with as many people as possible. That’s definitely the goal without selling it out or doing something bad aesthetically.
People have come to expect these miracle shows on a regular, if not weekly, basis.
That said, it definitely… it was kind of like the end of our innocence. We were blown up now. For someone who’s been operating from an “underground” aesthetic for as many years as I have, there’s something about that which honestly troubles me. I’ve tried my best to deal with it, internalize it, but that was a hard one to get past.
To me, the peak of our relevance was getting everything to that point where Thom Yorke would want to come down and see us and be a part of it. Since then it’s not been easy because the bar has been set impossibly high and people have come to expect these miracle shows on a regular, if not weekly, basis, which we still deliver pretty solidly. Just last fall we did secret shows from DJ Shadow, Flying Lotus and Amon Tobin all in the space of one month.
For me, the key – where my head and heart have been – has never been about one scene or one aesthetic. It’s always been about the city of Los Angeles. I feel that if my head is right about that – and we’re just trying to foster new talent and give new talent in this city a platform to do their thing and grow and be developed – then our relevance stays right where it is. There are people who credit us for being there during the rise of Odd Future, which happened after Cosmogramma. That said, booking Odd Future wasn’t about looking for the next Flying Lotus or the next beat producer. It was about being in tune with what’s happening on the streets of this city, what young people are interested in, and championing that very confidently. I think that’s a big part of staying relevant. I, of course, can’t speak for everyone but that is where my mind is at. I’m born and raised here and I’ve had had to learn how to articulate it, how to explain it to myself.
In the moment you never think about it.
When you’re busy, you’re just handling it and juggling. It’s hard to have the best perspective on it. I just feel that if the city is where I’m getting my inspiration from, versus it being a whim or something that people aren’t going to care about in five or ten years, then that's a better position to be in.
Let’s face it: fan bases grow up. They get old, they get responsibilities and all of a sudden music isn’t as important to them as it once was. People get stuck. I’ve realized this now having spanned different scenes and eras. There’s a whole section of my fan base who have zero interest in LET, the beat scene, Alpha Pup or anything else I do now. All they want me to do is to make more Awol records. I meet these people regularly. So it’s funny to me how we have zero control over people’s music consumption habits. We’ve just got to put it out there and watch our consumers grow and get old to a certain degree. It’s a blessing for me to have seen it from these different angles.
To go back to your original question about relevancy, I think you have to offer an alternative. And that’s how I will continue my path, by recognizing what all these other people are on and when everyone turns right, turning left.
Talking with other people I came to understand that Sam XL’s Pure Filth sound system has played a part in bringing sound system aesthetics and an understanding of frequencies to Low End Theory, and thus to the LA beat scene. I was wondering if you could explain your take on the story?
Sam has one of the best sound systems in the city. He has an aesthetic and delivers it – and it’s a really underground, party-minded aesthetic, which also has been important to the city. It’s been tough, though, because doing parties like that is a roll of the dice here. Sam is an LA institution too. He’s worked and done different things for almost as long as I have. He definitely was the only person doing dubstep parties in LA back then that bore any resemblance to what was happening in the UK.
As for the influence on the sound, I think that’s one of those things that begs the question “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” The LA beat scene as it stood before LET, the events that were a part of it – Sketchbook, the ArtDontSleep parties – all suffered from crap sound systems. The whole era was marked by that. So when we started LET I made sure we had a TurboSound rig from the very first night. It was like the whole scene went from black-and-white to Technicolor overnight. Then the second week of LET Flying Lotus played, opening up for Awol I think it was. I remember the look on Steve’s face that night. He’d never played on a system like that before. The subs were out of control and he was tripping off it. To him it was the shit. I know that this idea stuck, and you take that one feeling and multiply it for every kid that played the club.
Where do you see this whole movement going to next? I’ve noticed a return of the MC, so to speak. The ’00s were marked by a distinct sense that the MC was shunned – voluntarily or not – and I feel that the ’10s are already showing signs that the MC-plus-producer is coming back, though with new rules.
I agree that there’s a return to that MC-and-producer combo again. I see more of it. Literally in front of me too, such as Flying Lotus taking a bigger interest in rap music. It definitely shows that things are coming back in fashion. I don’t think I’d call it the next phase though. To me, the rap thing never went away. These producers are now coming around to it a bit more perhaps, but I think the beat scene became popular because the audience were seemingly bored by rap music. Rap music in the last decade was getting stale, at least in the mainstream. At the same time you look at the rise of someone like Kendrick Lamar and his aesthetic is more indie than major label – that shows where a lot of people’s heads are at. I think Odd Future also embody this idea of DIY, being able to rise fast without a whole lot of help… Visible help at least.
I doubt I’ll be this close to something like this ever again in my lifetime.
I don’t think that’s where the beat scene is going. If anything, what we’re trying to do for the next few years is put out a lot more really interesting, challenging instrumental records. There’s of course still rap, like The Underachievers album coming on Brainfeeder, but at the same time Thundercat has nearly finished his new album. Nosaj has a new record with no rap on it. What I’m trying to say is that the instrumental aesthetic is not going away anytime soon.
From a business point of view, I believe that there’s one main commodity the music business is based on and that’s new talent. I feel that with genres and aesthetics, those can be revisited so long as you’re doing it with new talent. It’s arguable that this is exactly what the beat scene is, has been and will continue to be.
I feel like we’re fortunate here to have had these really amazing artists come together from the same town with a similar focal point. It’s definitely uncanny. I doubt I’ll be this close to something like this ever again in my lifetime. To witness it and to see the talent – the raw talent so concentrated – it’s definitely been a moment in time I feel.
Anything you want to add?
Sometimes in a genre, someone makes an album that sets the bar so high it kills the genre. I think arguably Endtroducing almost did that to the Mo’ Wax scene. It was all this awesome potential being shown and the album dropped and ain’t nothing coming out that’s going to fuck with that for years. To me, it was borderline destructive, despite being glorious. Nothing else compared. I couldn’t listen to Herbaliser the same way. And I don’t mean to be specific.
I want to say D’s album did the same thing to scratch music. It was just like, “Where do we go from here?” He pulled out every stop, did every tempo, pulled out every trick. Who’s going to scratch “fresh” better than that guy?
One thing I’ve had to come to terms with is that most indie artists have one good idea, literally, and that’s usually their first album. Everything they do after that is an attempt to get back to that point. I won’t say it’s sad. It’s just something I’ve recognized over the years. From a business standpoint you have to deal with it too. But when you have an artist who can do the opposite and show he has more than one idea, maybe five, and they’re all album-length, that to me is a huge differentiator.
One thing I’ve had to come to terms with is that most indie artists have one good idea, literally.
One thing I think I’ve tried to do differently release-wise in this scene is make this an album-oriented thing. We still drop singles and EPs, but not very often, and seldom without it being linked to an album that’s coming. And that is a philosophical difference that separates the beat scene from pretty much the rest of the world of electronic music; definitely dubstep and drum ‘n’ bass and all that stuff, EDM, whatever. We’re more about the long thoughts versus the sound bites, which is ironic given the disposable nature of media these days.
What that shows you, though, is that there is still a significant part of the population who aren't ADD, that would rather have something bigger to sink their teeth into versus something that lasts 15 seconds, which is the attention span of a lot of people these days you know. It is what it is. If anything, we offer an alternative.