How LA’s underground beat culture spawned a new breed of hip-hop emcee

How LA’s underground beat culture spawned a new breed of hip-hop emcee
Ed Cañas
Ed Cañas

Hip-hop in Los Angeles sprawls like the city itself. South Central may loom large as West Coast hip-hop's center of gravity, but the scene has always spread wide into the far reaches of L.A. County.

Back in the day, in the '90s and early aughts, you could go to The Glass House, an unassuming, all-purpose venue in Pomona, some 30 miles east of Downtown L.A., and see top national acts. Inevitably, you'd find workhorse rapper Busdriver out in the crowd, selling C.D.s out of a cardboard box for $5 a pop after opening the evening in the 7:30 slot.

At that time, the center of the scene was Project Blowed, a collective formed at the Chaos Network Art Center in South Central L.A. where aspiring rappers like Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, MC Nocando and others spent the bulk of their time learning the art from veterans like founding "Blowedians" Aceyalone and Abstract Rude.

But it was over in Lincoln Heights where a new locus of L.A.'s hip-hop underground formed out of a convergence of beat culture, electronic dance music and freestyle rap. That's where Low End Theory, a legendary collective and showcase for beatmakers — the producers who laid the foundation for hip-hop jams — took up residence at the Airliner club and spawned a new breed of emcee.

Emcees before beatmakers. Before Low End Theory put producers into the spotlight, hip-hop in L.A. was all about the emcees. And the emcees came out of Project Blowed.

"They created a rap school," James McCall, the gregarious emcee who performs as Nocando, said. "There's not one rapper who didn't come through there and study. It's where we'd go and freestyle together, or perform a song and battle."

Project Blowed itself had grown out of the Good Life Café, another "rap school" of sorts in South Central where artists came to hone their skills at open mics. The Jurassic 5 Crew came out of Good Life in the early '90s, and regulars Aceyalone of Freestyle Fellowship and Abstract Rude went on to found and preside over Project Blowed's weekly showcases well into the aughts.

Open Mike Eagle  Emari Traffie

"I was at the Blowed soaking up game from the OGs on the independent tip, and really my career started there," the Chicago-born Open Mike Eagle said. "Doing shows and tours and songs with Busdriver, Aceyalone, Abstract Rude ... 2Mex, CVE and more. I was part of the last generation from the Blowed, and we started to get known by the people all around the world that followed L.A. underground rap."

But apart from the founders, Project Blowed regulars weren't getting signed to big labels. Underground hip-hop in L.A. had reached a lull at a time when electronic dance music was starting to bubble up. That's when a weekly DIY gathering for beatmakers called Sketchbook had popped up on the same night as Blowed.

"Producers never really got a fair amount of shine at Project Blowed," Open Mike Eagle said. "They always played the background and were seen more as functional players in the scheme of how rap music was developing. Sketchbook developed the community and shared values among the beatmakers where they started to build an audience for themselves and what they do absent of having to deal with rap egos and politics."

Source: Low End Theory/Facebook

"A club for people who hate clubs." Low End Theory emerged in 2006 amid the EDM craze that followed Daft Punk's legendary set at California's Coachella festival and gave birth to the HARD Festival series a year later. At Low End Theory, L.A. found its underground niche, with a slate of co-founding performers featuring DJ and Alpha Pup Records chief Daddy Kev, resident emcee Nocando and others.

"There was no showcase for beatmakers. This is what inspired Low End Theory," Nocando said. "And just before Low End, the technology to make beats became easily accessible. Everybody [was] using Reason or Fruity Loops. Or an SP-404, an inexpensive piece of equipment for like $300," he added, referring to beatmaking software programs. "Most hood kids use a 404 and most kids who can afford a laptop use Reason."

While the accessibility of software certainly plays a part in the timing of Low End Theory's emergence, it was the accessibility of its central Lincoln Heights locale at the Airliner — and the fact that it wasn't South Central — that drew beat heads from all over L.A. County.

"When I first went to Low End Theory [at the Airliner], it felt like a club for people who hate clubs," L.A. hip-hop journalist Jeff Weiss said. "The sound system was incredible and there wasn't anything like that at the time."

The Airliner was the perfect place for the beat scene to blossom: The vibe was laid back, and there was no Hollywood-style velvet rope separating the celebrities and quasi-celebrities from the masses.

"Despite the growth of the internet for being this meeting place, you would go every week to Low End Theory and listen to something you'd never heard and someone would whisper something in your ear, like, 'This is this kid.'" Weiss said. "Low End Theory connected the diaspora of L.A. music. It connected every dot."

Tyler, The Creator  Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

"That modern L.A. sound." While beatmakers reigned at Low End Theory, rappers slowly worked their way into the picture. The show has been known to drop massive surprise performances, including the hometown debut of Odd Future, the hip-hop crew led by Tyler, the Creator.

"It was the perfect place for them to have their first real L.A. show, and I felt like, from then on, there started to be a more defined place for rap there," Open Mike Eagle said. "Specifically rap that had that modern L.A. sound. It was an important place for acts like Odd Future, Death Grips and definitely Hellfyre Club."

Hellfyre Club — a label and hip-hop crew founded by Nocando — was behind some of the most interesting and influential rap in the country, spawning artists like Open Mike Eagle, Busdriver, Milo and Anderson Paak, a Dr. Dre collaborator and multi-instrumentalist, whose album Malibu is one of the most intriguing hip-hop albums of 2016.

Anderson .Paak  Mike Windle/Getty Images

"Hellfyre was created because hella artists and vocalists were becoming overlooked, 'cause L.A. was obsessed with beatmakers and DJs," Nocando emphasized. "Guys like Open Mike Eagle or Anderson Paak ... were great writers and song creators, but are ultimately producers."

Perhaps a production background is indeed what sets apart the music contained within Paak's Malibu, Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy, Milo's So the Flies Don't Come, Nocando's Jimmy the Burnout and Busdriver's Thumbs. All of these artists play and rap over their own beats and music on-stage, a byproduct of how they came up at Low End Theory. Many have extensive back catalogues that pre-date Hellfyre Club — including those mixtapes Busdriver used to sell out of a cardboard box at the Glass House club in Pomona back in 2001. The Low End/Hellfyre Club pedigree brings them the attention they deserve.

"Low End was the best incubator for talent that L.A. has ever had," Weiss added. "It's been so important to the city because it came at a time when dance and rap were the two biggest trends. They figured out a Northwest Passage — the bridge of the two."

Kamasi Washington  Mike Windle/Getty Images

Among the many careers that link back in some way to Low End Theory, none illustrates the ethos of diverse styles intermingling quite like that of Kamasi Washington. An L.A. born-and-bred saxophonist who's toured with both Snoop Dogg and Ms. Lauryn Hill, Washington is a jazz traditionalist, but his 2015 album The Epic was released by Brainfeeder, an eclectic label that arose from Low End Theory, to widespread critical acclaim. A sweeping, three-album journey through the sounds of L.A. jazz over the past decade, The Epic has brought jazz back to the mainstream like no other album in recent memory. It can be considered a sonic map of L.A.'s sprawling, interconnected music underground.

"In L.A., it's so big, so we were able to stay self-contained," Washington said. "Even though people didn't pay attention to the art we were making, we paid attention. Project Blowed, World Stage, Low End Theory. We always kept it here, did it and had a place for it and kept moving. And now that the light has shined on us, we have all this music to put it out there."