LOW END THEORY FEST 2016 @ THE SHRINE + PHOTO ESSAY
all photography by alex the brown
From its genesis as a club night in 2006 (and one that continues to this day) to its now three-year run as a one-day fest, Low End Theory has defined itself as an umbrella for all kinds of hip hop eccentricities. That open-minded sensibility is represented in part by the diverse styles of its four residents: the unbridled psychedelia of Gaslamp Killer; the dancefloor-ready hip hop of DJ Nobody; the classic scratch pyrotechnics of D-Styles; the technical wizardry of Daddy Kev. But it also showed through at this year’s Low End Theory Festival, which curated some of Southern California’s most adventurous and promising hip hop acts while making a few plays at expanding its territory. Low End represents the ethos of the L.A. music scene: to open its doors to all with the guts to enter and the courage to be different. Their success in recent years turning that ethos into a movement with national influence is something all Angelenos can feel proud of.
For the third year going (and the second at the Shrine Auditorium), Low End Theory brought together some of the most brilliant musicians in L.A.’s still-burgeoning beat scene. Taylor McFerrin adopted his debut record Early Riser into an astounding one-man stage show, replete with Fender Rhodes, sampler, and deft beat boxing. Jonwayne, technically thrilling and offbeat as always, made his return to the stage after a two-year pseudo-retirement. Invisbl Skratch Picklz, the legendary DJ squad, made magic with three turntables and the gravitas of legend behind them. Homegrown maniacs Daedelus and Ras G, themselves longtime Low End regulars, turned in typically sterling sets.
But the festival branched out this year, too. They invited MixedByAli, house engineer at Top Dawg Entertainment and sonic mastermind behind recent L.A.-crafted heavyweight records like To Pimp a Butterfly and Compton. They also invited Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, marquee headliners who brought a classic East Coast vibe to a decidedly SoCal party. Both acts turned in exhilarating sets, while expanding the Low End brand’s horizons in a way that felt welcome. But the most indispensable acts, perhaps, were the down-bill ones, the ones that represent the future of the scene.Their performances, for the record, were no less thrilling than the headliners: Acts like Linafornia and Shiva, who needle and prod the beat sound in the tradition of L.A.’s best, and Sonnymoon, the Anna Wise project that invited a little sun-drenched harmony to the proceedings. Low End Theory has always challenged what we think of as the “L.A. Sound” by consciously mixing in new ingredients, and this past weekend, it did it again with style and grace.
Ghostface Killah and Raekwon
Ghostface Killah and Raekwon’s classics-heavy set, brimming with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Enter the 36 Chambers highlights, was pretty much unassailable. And while it was kind of a bummer not to hear much that was newer than ‘97, it was kinda special when the duo brought up two fans to rap OBD and Method Man’s “Protect Ya Neck” verses. It even got a little emotional when one of the fans shared a long hug with Ghost afterward.
Invisbl Skratch Piklz
You might imagine that seeing three dudes lined up on turntables would bring on a wave of ‘90s hip hop nostalgia, but Invisbl Skratch Piklz are just too damn good to sound dated. It’s just plain dazzling to watch them do what they do — the intense concentration it takes to sync up their brains; the sheer speed and agility with which they scratch.
I spent much of the festival wondering what we were going to hear from MixedByAli, AKA Top Dawg Entertainment mixer/engineer Derek Ali. It was largely what I expected, but in the best way possible: A big, bassy DJ set of TDE tracks, heavy on Kendrick and designed to remind the audience how many essentially perfect records have come out of that shop in such a short amount of time. (Ali had a hand in all of them.) The set felt like a bridge between TDE’s Carson stomping grounds and Daddy Kev’s Atwater Village HQ.