" L.A, L.A..."
Written by Robin Margolis.
‘‘Why was I out here alone, amongst the ghosts of May Day? What did I think of Los Angeles? I tried to explain I had just written a book…”
— Mike Davis from City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles
Los Angeles is haunted. Contemporary writing about LA is séance; communing with the Unseen, evoking the spirit of bygone eras and figures long forgotten. Mike Davis knows this when he starts his noir history of LA in the ghost town of Llano, a failed socialist desert utopia on the outskirts of the city. Davis populates his Gramscian guide with a rogues gallery equal parts industrial developers and science fiction writers, old money elites and prophets of New Age spiritualism, boosters for the police state and patrons of the arts and architecture.
Davis touches only briefly on the part music plays in the point-counterpoint of the eternally recurring orchestration of LA—nodding begrudgingly to the social realism of gangsta rap, including modernist composers like Arnold Schoenberg in his account of European intellectuals and artists exiled to LA. Yet the central theme of City of Quartz applies as well to LA music as every other part of the City of Lost Angels. Davis contends “[t]he best place to view Los Angeles of the next millennium is from the ruins of its alternative future.” Or, put another way, LA is as much haunted by the ghosts of Days of Future Past, as it is by the legions of dead its rise to metropolis has left in its wake.
Miguel Atwood Ferguson.
‘‘[T]here was a very mystical and musical rain that came through on the bassoon tracks…When we heard the rain, hitting the sky light of the main live room at the Bomb Shelter, we were immediately drawn to it! Miguel commented, that it was Dilla, and we all agreed… If you listen closely, you’ll hear it in the track!”
— Carlos Niño from liner notes to Suite For Ma Dukes EP
On a February night back in 2009, I initiated an expedition over LA hills in pursuit of a ghost. To experience fully the lion’s share of the music emerging from LA this century and the last, little can replace a car stereo while cruising the sporadically lit landscapes of the city at night. We hailed from across the country, driven by a Detroit native son, but were most united by our shared passion for the music then coming out of Southern California. “EYECANTAKEYOUTHERE (FOLLOW,)” an unreleased Jaylib track, propelled us the last stretch of the drive, sparking a cipher of goofy boyishness familiar from the male only moments Hip Hop fandom often created.
We were following up on a recommendation from Jeff Chang, who had hipped us to a concert series his friends B+ and Coleman were hosting at Cal State LA through their production company Mochilla. Chang had described them as on a “post-Hip Hop” tip, which perked my ears coming from as committed of a Hip Hop head and historian as him.
At the center of the three-part concert series, down from the original four after the cancellation of a planned David Axelrod show, was “Suite For Ma Dukes”. A project started by record producer-host of Spaceways radio, Carlos Niño and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who arranged and conducted the suite. “Suite For Ma Dukes” paid tribute to the late great James Yancey aka J Dilla, arranging his music and the songs influential to his sound for a sixty-piece orchestra.
The tribute came three years after Dilla’s untimely death in 2006 and fell toward the end of the first official “Dilla month,” declared as such at the beginning of 2009 by LA label Stones Throw — the last label for which he recorded.
The show opened with a series of photographs of the ruins of Dilla’s hometown of Detroit, portraits of homes and buildings as eerily haunted as Davis’s description of Llano—bringing into the room the context and world of the majority of Dilla’s life and career. Those of us that came out to hear the concert experienced an atmosphere somewhere between a wake and turn of the 20th century Spiritualist communion. The audience featured much of the elite and soon-to-be beatmakers and musical journalists—I remember waiting in line for the bathroom behind the curled mane of the Motherfucking Gaslamp Killer, William Bensussen, resident DJ of the Low End Theory — but once we were seated the space felt incredibly intimate. To be there felt like being simply one among many who came to celebrate and to mourn, Dilla’s music representing a deeply personal relationship formed through years of listening on the part of each member of the crowd. And, like the story Carlos Niño tells in the liner notes to the Suite For Ma Dukes EP, the presence of the spirit of Dilla was strongly felt.
For his fans and collaborators, who number among the biggest artists and producers still working today, Dilla deserves an assured place in Hip Hop alongside other great ghosts of Hip Hop like Tupac, Biggie, and ODB. Yet Jeff Chang’s gesture toward “post Hip Hop” fit the event as well.
As a culture and a community, Hip Hop allows plenty of room for growth, but as a genre its confining as all genres, an easy lie for the purposes of marketing and making it easy for listeners to classify what they are hearing.
“Suite For Ma Dukes” was named for Dilla’s mother, Maureen Yancey or Ma Dukes. She spoke at the concert, speaking on behalf of the larger family Dilla left behind:
“We appreciate you for loving music. Music is universal—it doesn’t matter what language you speak, it doesn’t matter where you are from. But it exudes a love, that we can all understand and all appreciate and all become community and fellowship. In the very depths of our souls, it will get us through anything in life. Just to have a song in your heart, in your mind, to store and reach in and get, whenever you need it. Something that doesn’t go away and that you can share, and keep for yourself, but it’s everlasting and it doesn’t go away. It’s only going to get bigger, so just brace yourself…”
The GasLamp Killer.
For those assembled, a challenge was set forth to continue to live up to the vision and brilliance of Dilla—a gauntlet, in all reality, thrown well before his passing, but which now required a movement without his living inspiration at its center.
‘‘And that record [Donuts] came out. It was just like, boom, a hit in the face, a call to action. We will not let this sound die.”
— Matthew David from the film “All Ears: A Glimpse Into The Los Angeles Beat Community”
Maureen Yance AKA Ma Dukes.
For lovers of Hip Hop and Beat heads worldwide, Donuts would cement Dilla’s status as martyr and patron saint of the beat. He released what would most widely be considered his masterpiece on his 32nd birthday, three days before he died. But there had to be a strong enough music community in place in LA to convince Dilla to relocate from Detroit, a city whose sound, history, and community were such a big part of him. And while Dilla may be the figure most obviously haunting the Los Angeles beat scene, he’s very much not alone in that role.
‘‘When [Charizma] died, I had no interest in being in another group with somebody else…I just didn’t have any desire to do it, but I knew my career would have to involve music still…I don’t know that there would be a Stones Throw if he was still here.”
— Peanut Butter Wolf from Vapors February 01, 2004
Founded in 1996, Stones Throw has become a label embodying well Ma Dukes vision of “fellowship and community,” built more on the sensibilities of its founder Peanut Butter Wolf than a single sound. Stones Throw began on haunted grounds, starting with the “My World Premiere” 12-inch, a single PB Wolf produced with his collaborator and friend, the late rapper, Charizma.
It was one of their first songs, coming out after they were signed, then dropped from the Basics label, and three years after Charizma’s murder. Through its continuing evolution as a label, PB Wolf continues to release material from the album they worked on together, with a new deluxe edition scheduled for 2015.
Its biggest release, aside from Donuts, is the collaboration between Madlib and DOOM, Madvillainy. And while the man behind the mask, Daniel Dumile, remains very much alive, DOOM as a persona emerged out of the ashes of his earlier career as Zev Love X—created after his brother’s death, their group KMD losing its representation on Elektra, and Dumile living on the streets.
Beat-conductor, Lord Quas, Yestersday’s Quintet, Otis Jackson – Madlib.
The latitude provided by the label initially made it a comfortable landing point for a number of the more left field Hip Hop artists, though it’s strayed further from a backpacker friendly aesthetic in recent years. If Impulse records could be dubbed the “House Trane Built,” Stones Throw owes its identity and following in large part to remaining home to the eclectic catalogue of Madlib — Mr. Yesterday’s Universe himself.
“[W]ith my aunt’s stuff…I can honestly understand why she made the music she made after John Coltrane died. I can see why she’d be inspired to make those sounds…I feel like she was grieving through the music, understanding his passing.”
— Flying Lotus from Pitchfork interview June 14, 2010
Steve Ellison aka Flying Lotus has long since risen to the level of metonym for the LA Beat scene at large, offering an anchor for the eclectic and hard to classify community, coming equipped with a ready-made narrative built into his biography. The nephew of Alice Coltrane, who he cites as his spiritual mentor as well as the person who recognized the musician within him before he did, Flying Lotus’ career can seem star-crossed. If Donuts distilled the energy of a career and elevate the tradition of beat-making beyond breakbeat compilations and instrumentals, FlyLo seized the space it broke open to translate the myriad influences of the scene into his own musical language. Through his label Brainfeeder and his druggy trickster with a devil may care grin persona, FlyLo fits more readily into the role of simultaneous pioneer and movement center.
His ascension from more diminutive title of “laptop musician” only came when he entered the elegiac mode. Cosmogramma assembles around him the constellations of the many musical lineages he walks among, ushering in a new one at the same time. But as the mythical narrative written of in nearly ever review of it, FlyLo sampled the aural space of sitting beside his dying mother in the hospital room, weaving the machine sounds deep into the tracks.
The God, Sun Ra.
The image of an album haunted by grief and dying subsumes the toil of synthesizing a community of music and musicians into its relatable human narrative. The genius responsible for the sound is really more of a pyramid, resting on the melodic lines of the hardest working bass on the scene, Thundercat and the arranging work of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson — an artist well familiar with the elegiac mode.
“Equation-wise, the first thing to do is to consider time as officially ended. We’ll work on the other side of time.”
—Sun Ra from Space Is The Place, sampled on “Shadows of Tomorrow” by Madvillain
Yet the question remains: to what end does an aesthetic of haunting serve? Are these mere examples of music combining a mirror reflection of what author Robert Fogelson called “the fragmented metropolis” and a genuine response to the pain of the death of loved ones? An answer is suggested by another figure who remains a touch stone of the LA scene—Sun Ra.
FlyLo’s barrage of press made quite visible Sun Ra’s influence, as does his explicit referencing him in Cosmogramma on tracks like “Arkestry” and “Do The Astral Plane.” LA beat aficionados found nothing new in this, though, as Madvillain built an entire track around not only a Sun Ra sample, but rapping his poetic philosophical tract over the beat. Scene mainstay Ras G’s career feels like a dialogue with Sun Ra, from Ras G’s group the Afrikan Space Program and his regular inclusion of Ra’s voice reciting his mytho-poetic aphorisms. Beyond that, mix, DJ set, radio appearance, and album after album contain traces of Ra.
Sun Ra’s inspiration can be read on a facile level, as Ra’s blending of performance with ritual can echo the New Age pageantry built into the DNA of Los Angeles from the start. His interest in incorporating the tropical rhythms of 50s exotica records resonates with the thrift shop finds predominating the LA area. Ra’s cosmic language and exploration into the innovations of electronic instruments and soundscapes yields much fruit for electronic musicians to draw from.
“Lacking socially prominent first families or deeply rooted social traditions…Los Angeles imitated Hollywood.”
— Carey McWilliams Southern California: An Island on Land
But in a land where “imagineers” reign king, where the aerospace and entertainment industries are so entwined they feel more like one, Sun Ra’s philosophical tracts on Myth-Science are far from outlandish. In his writings on LA that retain their primacy to this day, Carey McWilliams paints the picture of a city that constantly remakes itself in its own on-screen image. Mike Davis writes of the cultural amnesia that comes from rewriting history to fit the contemporary moment or aesthetic, perhaps most convincing in transmuting a legacy of imperial violence and territorial dispute into a Spanish Mission architecture style considered evocative of a pastoral history. I’m reminded of the story of an old union boss of mine told of fighting Disney in court because a hijab wearing food worker was declared “historically inaccurate” for the era of the early frontier themed restaurant, despite the presence of Muslims in that period. Accuracy here meant looking like the image of the frontier, not the actuality.
“Everything I do is so you go buy the old stuff, learn your history.”
— Madlib from interview in The Wire August 2009
If Duke Ellington played the piano like it was an orchestra, than Madlib produces music like a creator of worlds—populating them with characters of his own making, artists he collaborates with blending into the mix in such a way that they feel no more real than the imaginary roles he performs himself.
To, as Sun Ra via Madlib says, “work on the other side of time,” then, is to declare the game rigged. LA is a fortress constructed by developers and various armies in their employ, designed to resist bottoms-up community or expression. The haunted electronic music of LA—produced in bedroom studios, experienced in darkened clubs, on headphones and car stereos—provides an alternative to the erasure of theme-park, sound-stage history. Haunting is a sonic strategy, not merely an exercise in nostalgia or mourning.
Robin Margolis is a writer for By Such and Such. All drawings are by Adam Rogers a contributing artist for By Such and Such.