For a couple of years at the end of the 2000s, beats were all the rage.
A hype bubble formed around a loose group of like-minded heads spread from Los Angeles to Glasgow via Montreal, Paris and Tokyo, and conspired to make this new wave of instrumental-minded producers the heralds of the new hip-hop underground. At the same time, dubstep was having its own hype bubble moment, and the two scenes, disparate from the outside but kindred souls beneath the sub rumbles and skittish beats, propped each other up and rode the bubbles to bursting point.
In England, the term wonky was coined some time in 2008 as an attempt to try and define the meeting point between dubstep and beats – a moniker that would turn out to be as divisive as IDM had been a generation before. Even the Guardian jumped on the hype train with an ill-thought-out op-ed on the non-existent relationship between wonky and ketamine. Where terminology failed, the music itself music spoke volumes, and the beats got steadily more boisterous as a new generation learned to embrace the low end. For a short while, the potential seemed infinite.
Five years on, it’s easy to look back on that short-lived period and think that perhaps it was all hype and nothing more. But that would be selling short the artists at the roots of the movement: Dabrye, Prefuse 73 and DJ Shadow. The impact of this generation is still being felt. You’ll hear it every Wednesday in the Lincoln Heights neighbourhood of Los Angeles where Low End Theory continues its residency; it’s part of the nous that has made LuckyMe a quiet powerhouse that bridges the underground and mainstream; it’s just behind the dial of GTA V’s radio stations, the fastest selling entertainment product in history, and it’s even at the heart of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, the credits for which include a spread of the beat scene’s pioneers, figureheads and progeny. The nerds got the last laugh.
When I was asked to put together a list of ‘beat producers to watch’ I was a little cautious, because while the heyday of the beat scene gave us some memorable moments, it felt as if what came directly after was a little underwhelming. Saying that, it’s undeniable that right now a new generation is rising, bred on Soundcloud, dubstep’s mutation into EDM and thousands of trap beats. If anything, it’s representative of the convergence of seemingly disparate styles that is the hallmark of the 2010s. It’s not just the nerds who got the last laugh, but the south too.
What follows is a list of 10 artists, some new, some a little older, who have the potential to make moves in today’s disparate beat scene. Where hip-hop had been a clear influence on so many back then, today things are broader and the overall mix of music is more wide-ranging, even if traces of the old are still to be found.
I discovered OriJanus on a recent trip to Los Angeles. The son of C-Minus (a long-standing L.A DJ who is part of the Fantastic Four alongside Jrocc), OJ is 21 years old and already turning heads. His beats, flips and remixes are informed by the swing and sample science of pioneers like Jay Dee and Pete Rock, and similarly he’s found a way to get at the soul of the music.
At the same time his work seems equally rooted in the present day sonic soup, where everything is fair game to a generation raised on the internet. With a handful of self-releases on his Bandcamp (including a pretty funky set of Parappa The Rapper flips) and a drop for Soulection’s White Label series (check out the sultry ‘Bonita’), OriJanus has made the move from his native Bakersfield to Los Angeles where he’s sure to continue his ascendance.
A soulful storm has been brewing in London for a few years now, and Henry Wu has been at the centre of it alongside fellow beat heads and vinyl addicts Mo Kolours, Al Dobson Jr and Tenderlonius. After some quiet releases via the 22a and XVI labels, including a split 12″ with Jeen Bassa (who we’ll look at next), Wu dropped the Negotiate EP on Alex Nut’s Ho Tep label in February showing just how deep and versatile he can be. Soulful, jazzy and, most important of all, rooted in a deep understanding of groove, Henry Wu makes music that moves between genres and styles with effortless charm.
South London’s Mo Kolours was one of 2014’s breakthrough artists, and like most he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. He draws inspiration and support from a close-knit group that includes Henry Wu and his two brothers Reginald Mamode VI and Jeen Bassa (the youngest of the lot). While all these guys are worth watching, I’m placing my money on Jeen as the next to really break through.
Quiet and almost invisible, with no internet presence to his name, Jeen possesses the same rhythmic intuition as his brothers, a groovy savoir faire that he works into anything from delicate house rhythms to neck-snapping hip hop beats or blunted Jamaican grooves. I’d tell you to go check his Bandcamp beat tapes but it looks like he deleted them, so you’ll have to hunt for his first vinyl appearances and check his Boiler Room set for a taste of the goodness.
London’s Tehbis first emerged a few years back thanks to a co-sign from Kutmah, who handpicked the young producer for his Worldwide Family Vol. 2 compilation on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. Moving between the low-slung swing of the beat scene, heady layers of jazz and the sharper tempo hopping of the slow/fast junglist axis, Tehbis has evolved and refined his approach, showing an understanding of genre and pace that betrays his young years. Beyond Kutmah, who’s tapped him for his own Izwid imprint, Tehbis’ potential has been recognised by the Darker Than Wax, Fly High Society and Hit+Run labels, with his forthcoming EP for the latter a perfect summary of his multi-faceted approach.
Another London resident who’s been making quiet moves for a few years now is K15. A lifelong music fan, it’s in the secrecy and comfort of his bedroom that he’s channeled years of messing around with instruments, raving and studying music into a sound ready for the public. The patience and time put in clearly paid off with Detroit’s Kyle Hall calling on him for a double pack on Wild Oats and the first release on sister label No Room For Air.
His sultry house grooves aside, he’s also released a growing collection of eclectic beats via Wot Not and regularly takes to his Bandcamp to drop miscellaneous experimentations. His recent Black Tape is a perfect introduction to the mind of a beat addict – a well-executed conceptual work that borrows from the wise words of a London legend to make its point.
Viewed from a distance, Istanbul has always appeared somewhat enigmatic and fuzzy, a cultural bridge between east and west that has weathered centuries of upheavals. Today, the city and country find themselves once again in a volatile position, teetering on the edge of a dystopian future. It’s in this context that the music of Gantz should be appreciated, as sonic witness to history being written between political oppression and youthful enthusiasm for a world accessible at the touch of a keyboard.
Emerging in the dubstep scene with the co-sign of Mala’s Deep Medi Label, the Istanbul producer has been a lone voice pushing past the obvious tropes and further into the abyss. His latest EP, Blues Witch, and a forthcoming 12″ for Black List sound like what might burst out of the speakers of an alternative version of Low End Theory, one where Istanbul, not Los Angeles, turned into a Blade Runner megalopolis. He’s not alone either – check his Sounds of Istanbul mixes for a taste of what else Turkey has been cooking.
The latest song on Tek.Lun’s Soundcloud page includes the ‘what’s a tag’ tag, a fitting summary of the meta world the new generation of beatmakers live in, floating through the digital ether, searching for inspiration before grounding themselves in the physical space of their home studios. Baltimore’s Tek.Lun was recommended to me at the same time as OriJanus, and the pair have collaborated on a few tracks.
Prone to similar stylistic excursions as the rest of his generation, Lun’s best beats have a rugged edge to them that’s equal amounts youthful enthusiasm and no fucks given. Affiliated with the HW&W collective, Lun also raps under the Varth Dader name where he gets equally rugged. At just 19 (if his Bandcamp’s profile is to be trusted) Lun’s potential is ripe for progression.
Mike Gao is a bit of a genius, and that’s no overstatement. In the past few years he’s created his own suite of music-making apps, including a beatbox-to-MIDI converter and PolyPlayground, which helps you understand music theory and perform chords and melodies through colours and shapes. Beyond his technological virtuosity, Mike’s also good behind the boards and his work has always cut a fine line between classical virtuosity and hip-hop’s musical free-for-all.
After years of releases on All City, Project Mooncircle and HW&W, as well as regular spots at Low End Theory, he’s hit a career high with his recent Migamo album for Alpha Pup, a body of work that perfectly captures the ups and downs of the current generation’s sweaty nightlife. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that some of today’s bigger rappers could benefit from his ingenious take on the overbearing trap sound.
Another Low End Theory alumni, Great Dane emerged as part of the Team Supreme collective, which he co-founded. The self-styled drifter from Orange County began making himself heard in the early 2010s with a string of releases via Team Supreme and Alpha Pup, where he debuted in 2013. As with Mike Gao, it’s on his latest album for the label, entitled Great Dane, that he hit the sweet spot for instrumental club beats. Call it what you will, and there are obvious sonic anchors to be found, but Great Dane’s music displays a keen understanding of what made the beat scene happen and, in turn, the limits which that imposes on an aesthetic.
Mr. Carmack is a San Francisco native and current Hawaii resident who first emerged in the second half of the 2000s under the name DJ Remikkusu. His rise to attention came more recently when, having assumed the Mr. Carmack name, he made a number of independent moves that placed him firmly at the centre of the second generation of West Coast beat heads.
Borrowing in equal parts from trap’s headlock of the mainstream and house, soul and hip-hop, Carmack’s sound epitomises the sweet spot between old and new that has been the cornerstone of collectives like Soulection and Team Supreme, both of which count him as a member. Still unsigned and with a touring schedule that’d make most professional musicians envious, Carmack is making his own path forward, a Timbaland for the Soundcloud generation.