Event Review: Low End Theory Festival

The beats-and-bass brigade descend upon LA's Shrine Auditorium.
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Video & Photos by Chris Nelson

It’s hard to get much more Los Angeles than being in the thick of the Low End Theory Festival, held on August 8 at the Shrine in Los Angeles. For years, the Oscars were held in these hallowed halls at the northeastern tip of the University of Southern California. Some old-school ravers may remember Sasha & Digweed played a monumental Fourth of July party there in the summer of 2000. But when Flying Lotus took the stage somewhere around 1am for his headlining festival set and the words “You’re Dead” flashed on the screen, he just may have been addressing any of those past relics—and proclaiming himself the future. Five thousand head-nodders roared in agreement.

It's been a slow burn for the weekly Lincoln Heights party that grants its name to this festival of Los Angeles-based artists, now in its second year. Produced in partnership with Goldenvoice—the Goliath behind Coachella and many, many other shows in the LA area—it’s clear that after nine years, the surrealist, psychedelic and highly experimental aesthetic honed by Low End co-founders and residents Daddy Kev, the Gaslamp Killer, Nocando, Nobody and D-Styles, and propagated far and wide by the likes of Flying Lotus, Daedelus, Thundercat and the Odd Future collective, has struck a nerve.

 Free the Robots performing at the outdoor stage

Free the Robots performing at the outdoor stage

Of course, in the big moments, that's easy to see when like FlyLo gets decapitated by his own accompanying visuals, or when Earl Sweatshirt, mid-performance, somberly pays respects to a friend who had just passed mere hours ago, or when Nosaj Thing demonstrates his utter mastery of the crowd. But the Low End crew is known for their jokes and anecdotes during set changeovers, and one from the night stood out.

After his set, the Gaslamp Killer took to the microphone while the equipment for Thundercat’s performance was being set up. Gaslamp regaled the crowd with a story about the legendary bassist’s recent travels: Having flown in that same day, the airport staff (not knowing the importance of this divine instrument) insisted that Thundercat check his bass. To his horror, when he opened up the case, his bass had been utterly disrespected, mishandled and straight-up broken.

While many musicians would have replaced the instrument, Thundercat’s instrument is one of a kind—and therefore irreplaceable. So he had his bass repaired that same day, and came out on stage to execute his customary musical spectacle, involving sweeping arpeggios that gracefully complement his distinctive piping vocals.

As expected, both musically and emotionally, the big guns delivered. But as the crowd discovered, the cult of Low End Theory filters down to all of the small moments and details as well.

Daedelus on stage kicking off the workshop portion

Daedelus on stage kicking off the workshop portion

Although the festival officially began at 4pm, the doors opened several hours earlier for a series of technical workshops. Longtime Low End stalwart Daedelus, looking like a grown Oliver Twist holding a TR-8, gave a brief overview of alternative beat structures to the standard 4/4. Dr. Strangeloop walked through some of the software he uses for visuals, and Daddy Kev gave a truly down-in-the-weeds Ableton tutorial. The crowd was captivated. That's the norm for any Low End Theory Wednesday, however, not just the festival. These guys enjoy interacting with their community and it has cultivated a dedicated following that made it standing room only not too long after the workshops began.

The large early crowd made for some huge smiles and earnest moments, as each of six hand-picked winners of a “beat invitational” were invited to play five or six minutes of original music for their peers after an introduction from Nocando. They were all genuinely geeked. Whereas most DJs and electronic music performers create more barriers between themselves and fans as they gain notoriety, the Low End crew is hanging out on stage spouting good-natured barbs to the up-and-comers, a group that may very well contain the next Flying Lotus.

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This cultivation shone through in a chance conversation outside with Cazal Organism, one of the early-afternoon undercards playing on the outdoor stage. He spoke with glowingly about the Low End core crew for believing in him and giving him the chance to play his music. He said it with reverence—as if he was describing a meeting with the Dalai Lama. This was his world, his life and he was at his temple of worship. This was serious.

Seriousness abounds, actually. There isn’t a ton of dancing as much as there is varied head movements. You won’t find any glow sticks, or candy-raver light-glove nonsense, in the corners. The V.I.P. area was strictly for press to get a good vantage point for pictures. There was no bottle service.

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That’s not to say that people weren’t having fun, as there were plenty of grins outside in the pitch-perfect LA weather. But by allowing an 18-and-up crowd, Low End's engendered a level of musical fanaticism that only a foundation of teenage fans can bring. Any one of them, man or woman, would probably kick the shit out of Justin Bieber if they saw him walking down the street. By this measure, they’re not self-serious as much as they just take this music and their scene seriously—which is an interesting contrast to the looseness and general stage antics of the residents.

As for the music, the hip-hop leaning sets from Nocando and Daddy Kev, and the sheer force of nature that is the Gaslamp Killer, were personal favorites. Alix Perex & Eprom still had an obvious rawness to their evolving collaborative live show, but it’s clear that the two are professionals with a clean, defined sound that stretched the wall of subs to their limits, finding that perfect head-bobbing half-tempo groove with plenty of production flare (check the song in the above video for a sample of their new EP).

Playing week in and week out has given all of these guys a noticeable mastery of their craft, despite the playful and deep-crate origins of their musical selections. It’s remarkable, actually, what the residents and the regulars have been able to accomplish by championing music that's anything but 4/4 and accessible. Some of the earlier sets didn’t quite translate—but that’s to be expected from a culture that encourages experimentation. Laptops are the weapon of choice and no one expects smooth transitions. There’s not much vinyl-purist snobbery to be found among the Low End crowd.

 Nocando

Nocando

So many scenesters claim to be “all about the music” as they pile on the drugs. If it’s not that, they criticize every single minute technical error, to the point of making how well someone can ride a fader the singular focus, as opposed to what’s coming out of the speakers.

But that's not what Low End Theory is all about. Even with 5,000 plus in attendance at the festival, there was plenty of camaraderie, greetings and commiserating that was borne of a familiarity that existed long before Low End was doing events of this size. The incredible, singular novelty about Low End Theory is that they just really fucking like each other, and love the music they all make. In this respect, they are LA’s standard bearers.

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