|Breaking through: Nosaj Thing
A new generation of producers as indebted to Dre as they are to Warp are emerging in California, led by Flying Lotus and Samiyam. Meet one of the best: Nosaj Thing.
The easiest way for outsiders to calibrate the sensibilities of Southern California zip codes is to compare them to their corresponding overwrought and overheated teen soap operas. Nosaj Thing doesn't live in Beverly Hills or on Melrose. He doesn't live in some salmon-colored ersatz-Italian monstrosity in the Fairfax District, nor does he suntan south-bound in the beach blanket O.C. Instead, the guy lives in Pasadena, an old-money, ex-orange grove best known for hosting The Rose Bowl, a substantial naturalized parrot population and for inspiring a two-month Fox teen soap that flamed out around the fin de siècle. Like Nosaj, real name Jason Chung, the place is quiet and about as far removed from silicon and sunshine stereotypes as possible, while still remaining in Southern California.
Were you to serendipitously stumble across the 24-year old and try to guess his profession, "blunted beat wunderkind" would be the last thing you'd speculate. A self-described "nerdy Asian kid," with a Meet the Beatles mop-top, Chung looks like a reserved architect who eats egg salad every day for lunch, a UCLA 1L with leanings towards environmental law or a clarinet player in the LA Phil (his instrument of choice throughout his formative years).
But Nosaj Thing is an entirely different entity. In the eighth grade, he told his parents that he was sleeping over at a friend's house and then went to a rave at Pomona's Fox Theater, where he proceeded to have his mind melted and re-constructed back into solid matter, with the new neurons compromised of late '90s drum and bass and rave. Of course, like all Cali kids consecrated during the early Clinton Years, the bedrock was always G-Funk.
It's impossible to underscore the importance of Dr. Dre, Snoop, Warren G and the lesser Dove Shacks and Domino's, who controlled the nascent teen masses of the Los Angeles basin, even those who grew up in outlying freeway suburbs like the Montebello and Cerritos-raised Chung. D.J. Waldie territory—strip malls and smog, worlds removed from the gladiatorial warfare of the Compton and South Central streets but close enough to infect aural perspective via the magic of Marconi.
"It was my bus driver, really," Chung says, just days prior to departing for his first European headlining tour. "I was in the third grade and he played Power 106 every morning on the way to school—I was hooked. Listening to a producer like Dre made me realize that there were brilliant people behind the boards actually making the beats. Then I started regularly going to a roller skating rink that played old school funk. One day, I started asked the DJ about what he was playing. He told me that I could find them on one compilation: Old School Vol. 1."
It became the fourth CD in a collection of four—the others being The Chronic, Doggystyle and Regulate...The G-Funk Era. Ostensibly, a throwaway detail, the Old School comp reveals much about Chung's work. Frankie Smith's "Double Dutch Bus." Parliament's "Flashing Light." George Clinton's "Atomic Dog." The Gap Band's "Dropped a Bomb on Me." Whodini's "Friends." These were all once staples on stations currently consumed by Lil Wayne, Drake and T-Pain, and while Chung's music won't be classified as funk anytime soon, if you listen closely, a strutting syncopated swing emerges, in stark contrast to the sober and stiff sounds that slow down some lesser IDM and Warp releases—the closest nodes of comparison.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
First, there was the 13-year old Chung, newly indoctrinated into the world of dance music, hijacking his father's computer and installing a bootleg copy of Reason, with the goal of trying to make beats like Dre and Timbaland. It didn't take long to figure out the basics, considering he'd been a computer freak since the fourth grade and had already learned elementary music theory in band class. Soon he was decamping to Guitar Center to experiment with their enfilade of drum machines and keyboards.
"My older friends had gotten me into DJing and I was obsessed with DJ Q-Bert, DJ Shadow's Endtroducing... and a lot of battle records and break beat scratching," Chung said. "I hadn't even stopped to think about how it was produced until I saw a friend of mine remake trance and house anthems step-by-step. It seems kind of corny now, but I was blown away because I'd never seen anyone make beats like that. I just had to do it, so I saved up all my money for a really long time, got a keyboard and Reason and started."
But the first creative leap didn't transpire until a friend from high school art class took him to the Smell, just as the seminal Downtown LA all-ages punk and noise shack was getting its bearings. There, the hip-hop and DJ devotee received his introduction to the world of raw shaggy sounds and the DIY aesthetic.
"I was insane to think how many incredible noise and punk bands I saw doing entire sets based off of feedback loops from guitar pedals," says Chung, who witnessed some of the earliest sets from groups like No Age, The Mae Shi, HEALTH, Mika Miko and Abe Vigoda. "They used to have five bands playing each night and we'd go there and listen to all this new music and just hang out."
Drift exists in its own dimension
and feeds off its own exhaust.
Coupled with the concurrent Napster revolution, Nosaj began digging digitally, dropping in on various chat rooms and compulsively seeking out new sounds: "When you're in high school, you're all about finding the newest shit so I got into artists like Fennesz, the Warp guys, Prefuse 73, Boards of Canada. I started listening to more indie music too and changed up the style that I wanted to do. It was interesting and fun for to put them together and start making different music," Chung remembers. "At first it took a while to create my own sound. I played guitar on some tracks, I sang on others. I knew I wanted to make music, I just didn't know exactly what it was going to be. But whatever it was always had that hip-hop backbone to it."
He graduated Schurr High school in Montebello, and went to work full-time and tried to go to school and make music. But you know how that goes. So after taking every music class that East Los Angeles Community College offered, Chung bounced and went to work full-time at a Guitar Center in Pasadena, spending the rest of his hours holed up in the lab brewing up the beats that became his debut, 2006's self-released Views/Octopus EP. With the Guitar Center discount aiding the assembly of his own mini-studio, Chung's style became slowly defined: equal parts Boards of Canada, Shadow, and Prefuse 73, a G-Funk foundation with help from their funk forebears and a salient classical influence borne from his mother's love of piano music (Chung taught himself to play by ear) and his own ardor for Chopin, Bach, and Debussy.
The Break came when Daddy Kev posted a flier on the message board of D-Styles, Chung's favorite turntablist, for a night featuring current Low End linchpins D-Styles, Daedelus, Elliot Lipp and Kev himself. At the bottom of the sheet, it offered the opening slot to anyone that showed up early enough with their laptop and records ready to rock.
"I was like, 'oh shit, this is crazy,'" Chung says, the excitement still lingering almost a half-decade later. "So I packed my things—I didn't even have a laptop at the time so I borrowed one and got to open. It was the first time I'd ever met them and I was already a huge fan of D-Styles and Daedelus. The night went really well—I got really good response and feedback, and it was on."
Less than a year later, Kev and fellow residents D-Styles, Gaslamp Killer, Nocando and DJ Nobody, opened up the Low End Theory at the Airline in Lincoln Heights, an economically depressed neighborhood in the no-man's land past Chinatown. Soon, the far-flung venue acted as a magnet for Los Angeles' avant-garde beat scene, fusing the moody tenebrous dubstep and bass emanating from London, with J Dilla's icy experimental boom-bap, with the wonders of strong California Kush.
The Low End nurtured a constellation of stars: the residents, plus Samiyam and Ras G, 12th Planet and Diabia$e, Dam-Funk and Daedelus, Exile and Teebs and Mono/Poly, and most notably, Flying Lotus, whose Los Angeles owned year-end critics polls all last winter. At first, though, Chung was little more than a talented fan in thrall to his heroes, until he received the opportunity to enter one of the night's legendary Beat Invitations, where the best up-and-coming producers around are forced to play their top two never-before-heard-beats and let crowd applause determine the outcome.
"The invitational was a real turning point. I was up against guys like Exile and Rhettmatic—guys I'd been listening to for my entire life. Then I played my first track and the crowd went crazy," Chung said. "That was how I met Lotus and Sam[iyam], it slowly built into a community. It was funny because when I was working at the Guitar Center in Pasadena, I'd always go into Poobah Records and they'd be playing Madlib or Dilla. That was how I first met Ras G, and when we all finally all met up at Low End, it made perfect sense."
After painstakingly going over every last detail, Nosaj Thing finally finished his debut album Drift, a gorgeous ethereal work that defies gravity and locality. With songs titles at once concrete and opaque ("Quest," "Fog," "Coat of Arms," "Caves," "Lights," Lords,") it exists in its own dimension and feeds off its own exhaust: full of alien choirs, conquered computers, and refracting stained-glass light. Brighter than the harsh black and whites of dubstep. Clearer than Flying Lotus' blurry radio transmissions. Diaphanous enough to disappear at the first array of earnest adjectives and purple prose.
"You get to a point when you're analyzing music, where it's either genuine emotions coming through or it's not. With Jason's music there's so much emotion and depth, it's undeniable," said Daddy Kev, whose Alpha Pup Records released Drift in June. "Some of his arrangements are minimal, yet some are very complex. It speaks to a certain versatility that you rarely see... Before the label and Low End stuff, I'm a hardcore fan first and sometimes I have to contain my enthusiasm. I'm that amazed by it."