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As LA's Beat Scene Evolves, Can Low End Theory Festival Survive?

LET Fest returned for a third year with fewer marquee names, but a fresh crop of rising young acts.

by Max Bell
Jul 26 2016, 6:00pm

All photos by Gaius Roberts

Low End Theory started small. By most accounts, attendance on that first Wednesday night at Lincoln Heights' Airliner in October of 2006 was roughly 30 people, and almost all dudes. It was the beginning of a transition, and the emergence the now internationally renowned "beat scene."

Defining beat scene music can feel reductive, but it can largely be described as an electronic-hip-hop hybrid antithetical to commercial pandering and EDM count-to-three drops. More broadly, it's an amorphous anti-genre that melds dynamic percussion and brain-melting bass with the singular inspiration of the producer/DJ—whether that's the glitchy 8-bit video game sounds on Jonwayne's Bowser, arcane Turkish instruments on Gaslamp Killer's "Nissim," or the imagined transmissions of the crackling, zapping cosmos captured on Flying Lotus' Los Angeles. The quietly devoted regulars of LET's salad days are now names known around the world: Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing, Ras G, Daedelus, figureheads of a scene shaping the sound of the mid-2010s.

After years of fostering this influence—and the respect and impromptu DJ sets of industry elite like Thom Yorke and Erykah—a LET festival made sense. The inaugural 2014 event would be an opportunity for beat scene fans who couldn't always make it on a Wednesday, and to book performers who would draw crowds too large for the club and surrounding neighborhood (YG's recent attempt to surprise the hundreds wrapped around the corner of N Broadway and Avenue 24 ended with ticket refunds for the few lucky enough to enter,). As this year's main stage host, Open Mike Eagle, said at one point during this year's proceedings, "[The festival] is a thousand Wednesdays at once."

The first two years of LET festival were successful by most metrics. In 2014, they sold out the cozy confines of the Echoplex; in 2015, they partnered with Goldenvoice, and sold out the 5,000 capacity Shrine Expo Hall, with an additional outdoor stage packed from beginning to end. The lineups, featuring the aforementioned figureheads, were impeccable, a testament to both talent within the beat scene, and LET's ability to draw top-tier talent from tangential spheres (e.g. The Internet and Kamasi Washington in 2014, Thundercat and Earl Sweatshirt in 2015).

Now in its third year, the day-long festival, which ran July 23 at the Shrine, seemed poised to continue LET's ascent and secure the future of the festival. The bill, while not as impressive as it was in 2015, featured Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, and many of the beast scene's best; in short, artists that people would pay to see at solo shows. Thus, it was disheartening to see so few people turn out.

But to say that LET and beat scene are past their heydays, or folding in on themselves, would be mistaken. Like the ebb and flow of experimentation that gave rise to the club's momentum in the first place, the scene is evolving. The old guard is moving on to more complex compositions, adding musicians to their live sets and rubbing elbows with a global community of artists on the international festival circuit; the younger generation, meanwhile, is expounding on the foundation, and finding new permutations.

The scene's future shined in the late afternoon. DJ/producer Linafornia spun the jazzy, SP-404 beats from her Dome of Doom debut, Yung, flawlessly chopping, pitch-shifting, and twisting knobs. The smaller lobby stage was a fine fit for her somewhat warm, somewhat muted suites, the narrowness of the hall mirroring the close confines of the Airliner's upstairs stage. As her show went on, the audience quadrupled in size. To that she's the beat scene's "rookie of the year," as she tweeted earlier this year, may be an understatement.

On the main stage, Grammy winner Eureka The Butcher (a.k.a. Marcel Rodriguez of The Mars Volta) hammered drum breaks at inhuman speeds on an electronic drum kit, sometimes simultaneously singing and playing the keyboard. The couple hundred gathered at the foot of the stage, more mesmerized than moving, responded with enthusiastic applause at the end of every song.


Eureka the Butcher

Throughout the night, the beat scene's rap contingent was also well-represented, helmed by hosts VerBS and Open Mike Eagle. Wisconsin's art-rap wunderkind Milo ignited the Shrine lobby, stalking the stage as he rapped the philosophic broodings from his Kenny Segal-produced So The Flies Don't Come, his impassioned delivery and varied inflection heads above his early performances at the Airliner.

The same can be said of Jonwayne, the Alpha Pup producer turned rap-game Bukowski who was joined by a live band for the first time. Wayne's productions sounded fuller, the instrumentation inviting the audience into their complexity as his resonant baritone cut to the marrow. Lines from his latest singles ("Wonka," "Jumpshot," "That's O.K.") displayed the marked improvement from his earliest, MF Doom-influenced songs. Few rappers can stack such fierce punchlines; fewer can turn them into compelling, personally revealing songs.

As night fell, the beat scene's old guard reminded the audience why LET retains such an exalted stature. Between sets, Gaslamp Killer spun tracks from Dilla, DJ Shadow, and Clams Casino alongside early material from Jonwayne and Mono/Poly that sounded as fresh as it did ten years ago.

Daedelus and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz showcased the technical precision that's helped define the scene's ahead-of-the-curve sound. Accompanied by a drummer, the ever-bespoke Daedelus was in particularly rare form, pushing buttons the way you'd imagine Greek gods throw thunderbolts, dropping thundering bass in time with his accompaniment. The Skratch Piklz, who delivered on their renowned ability to cut, scratch, and transform on a dime, like many in the beat scene, incorporated jazz melodies into their set.


Milo

The only glaring miscast was MixedByAli. While he did a fine job of hyping the crowd, he fell back on a lot of the gimmicks employed by those in the EDM scene (e.g. running out from behind the turntables to walk the stage and jump). While the set displayed the depth of TDE's catalog, and featured appearances from Jay Rock and Isaiah Rashad, it was ultimately underwhelming.

As for the headliners, Ghostface and Raekwon have their show down to a science. Tracks from Only Built for Cuban Linx and early Wu-Tang albums were run through with impeccable delivery, welcomed by a crowd who knew most lyrics by heart, as evidenced when Ghost and Rae pulled brave two audience members to rap verses from Method Man and Ol Dirty Bastard.

After Shaolin's finest decamped, about half of the already dwindling crowd departed. As Gaslamp Killer unleashed beats and bass, I began to wonder why the festival hadn't sold out, or at least sold more tickets.

It's possible that the bill just wasn't big enough. It's possible that acts LET wanted to book were hemmed in by radius clauses from competing fests like HARD Summer (Lunice, DJ Dodger Stadium, Mr. Carmack, and Anderson .Paak, who align with the LET aesthetic, are all slated for HARD this weekend.) It's also entirely possible that the proliferation of festivals, with both FYF Fest and KDAY's Fresh Fest coming up in August, has created a general feeling of ennui amongst music fans in LA.


Raekwon and Ghostface Killah

All of the above, however, says nothing of the atmosphere at the festival, or, of course, the music. LET Festival is one of the few music festivals to feature an Ableton production workshop—it's a place that encourages the furthering of art. Its Mountain Dew sponsorship eschewed obnoxious banners or pretentious "art" installations in favor of keeping their visual presence to a minimum. It's also the festival where you can see familiar faces: We spotted the Airliner's gruff but kindhearted head of security, Frank, nodding to the music. Same goes for Sharky, the Airliner's barkeep/manager, or any of the LET regulars.

Even with a modest turnout, the familial camaraderie wasn't compromised. Actually, the lack of attendance falls in line with the club's history: LET has always seen its share of sparsely attended nights between marquee headliners—they're an essential part of the grassroots discovery and experimentation that gave the club its momentum and stars in the first place. And so it may go for the festival.

As Mono/Poly rounded out the evening, a cluster of kids at the front of the stage jumped, bobbed, and writhed, too into what's playing out in front of them to notice, or care, that floor behind them was practically vacant. They are the devoted. They will be there as LET and the beat scene wrestles with the transitions. You'll know where to find them on Wednesday.

Max Bell is a writer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.