It was the night of Valentine’s Day and I was sitting next to my boo at Oracle Arena watching the Grammy-nominated singer Charlie Wilson. Flanked by four back-up dancers in light-up L.E.D. suits, Wilson had just finished singing the song, “Charlie, Last Name Wilson” and was, for the first time that evening, addressing the audience.
“Fellas, if you’ve got the most beautiful-est girl with you in the world tonight, I want you to stand up,” he said to the crowd.
Practically everyone in the packed venue stood up. Except my guy.
“But if she’s just butt ugly, don’t stand up,” Wilson added.
As someone who is both shy and stubborn, I turned to my boo (who is also stubborn, but not shy) and told him it was okay if he didn’t stand up. The woman behind us, however, was not as okay with it and politely nudged him and asked, “Why you not standing up?”
Thankfully, Wilson changed the topic and gave the crowd another command: Turn the flashlight on your phone on and direct it towards the stage. If you’ve been to a show recently, you’ll know that the lighter has now been outplaced by technology. And even though I’m usually one to shun modern advances, in this case, I applaud the change, which is not only safer, but a lot cooler visually.
Success has its caveats. Once an artist makes it big, there’s a certain visceral quality to the music that gets lost. The do-it-yourself, succeed-or-perish ethos that helped make the artist becomes irrelevant once they’re signed. The hunger vanishes. The yearning dissipates. And while the music itself might get better, there’s no denying that a shift has taken place.
Fortunately, that shift — or loss, if you will — does not yet apply to the R&B songstress ABRA. Though she is signed to Awful Records, the label started by Atlanta’s hip-hop darling of the moment, Father, her music is still genuine.
She still writes all her own lyrics and creates all her own beats, and her “studio” is still the walk-in closet of her bedroom in her parents’ house. She still records every song from an awkward, “super painful” kneeling position on the floor, and her “desk” is still an overturned clothes hamper. In other words, her music might not be as clean and polished or scrubbed down and reduced as it could be, but then again, that’s kind of the point. (And you’ll have a chance to hear her prove this point at the Feels IV party thrown by Wine and Bowties on Nov. 28 in Oakland). (Click here to read more)
Shura is a 24-year-old experimental pop singer from Manchester who makes dance music — but hates dancing. She’s a vocalist who doesn’t like the sound of her own voice. A musician who has anxiety performing in front of others. And an artist who’s about to go on her first U.S. tour, but hates flying.
In other words, it’s hard being Shura.
And also fucking awesome. In a little over a year, Shura, whose real name is Aleksandra Denton, has climbed out of SoundCloud obscurity and become one of the most promising up-and-coming crooners to hit the scene. Her first self-directed music video for the electronic-synth breakup song “Touch” went viral in 2014, and her singles have been played over three million times on Spotify. In a matter of months she went from “working full-time and making music whenever I had the time” to being a full-time musician, signed to a record label (Universal Music Publishing Group), with funding and resources at the ready to produce her first album. This summer, she released a 10-minute “performance film,” called Three Years, as well as her first EP, White Light, and she has plans to drop her debut album soon.
Amber London is in a moment of transition. Like many 23-year-olds, the Houston-bred rapper is contemplating moving out of her family’s home, what she wants from her career, and where her identity fits with that vision. “I’m figuring out who I am,” she says. “Just figuring out the world that I’m living in, and, you know, young adult-type problems.”
But Amber London—née Linwood—isn’t your average 23-year-old. She’s got five releases under her belt, 15,000 Twitter followers (and counting), and a standout flow that’s earned her endorsements from the likes of Spaceghostpurrp and Gangsta Boo.
It makes sense, then, that the self-proclaimed “Underground Queen” would document her life in flux on her latest release, Life II Death. The mixtape marks her first project since 2014’s chopped and screwed record Hard 2 Find. Her penchant for the style is still there, but it also sees her shedding the hazy, early 90s influence that dominated earlier works like 2012’s acclaimed 1994. Nixing the retro sound was a conscious decision, she says, largely because the 90s have become too popular for her taste. “The 90s will always be an influence, but I met too many people who are doing it now,” she says. “It’s all about staying ahead of the game.”
London, who grew up in Alief, Houston and still lives with her family, has been rapping since the age of 13. Most of her songs are born from the freestyles she spits through a computer mic when she has something on her mind.
Sometime in early September, a few hundred people around the world received in the mail a flat, cardboard box containing a heavily padded, highly anticipated vinyl record. Ostensibly, those same few hundred people slipped the record out of its astral-themed jacket and then placed it under the needle of their record player.
Assuming they started with side A, they would have listened to the opening track, “Control,” an upbeat dance-pop tune by the Sydney band Olympic Ayres. Had they started with the other side, they would have heard a moodier, piano-laced ballad called “Baptize” from a Los Angeles band named RKCB. Because therein lies the beauty of this vinyl release: It’s a mixtape, not an album.
Called Vinyl Moon, the nascent, Los Angeles–based endeavor is a subscription-based vinyl mixtape series, featuring a new 10-track release mailed out every month. Each curated release consists of songs from relatively obscure and unknown indie artists and bands. In addition to the records, each volume comes with stickers and postcards, and each record jacket is decorated with original, custom artwork from different artists.
At Time for a Cut Barber Shop in Inglewood, Lonnie Kimble, known to rap fans as Skeme, sits slouched in a faux leather chair, his dreads pulled back in a ponytail and his knees peeking out of holes in his distressed Yves St. Laurent jeans. A bootlegged version of Straight Outta Compton, with Chinese subtitles, plays on the TV, while the shop’s lone barber, Marlon, shaves the head of one of Skeme’s “brothers.”
It’s a sizzling Friday afternoon in September and some of the guys in the shop have wet towels draped over their heads. The rest of Skeme’s crew is camped out in the back of the room, sitting in a semi-circle around the shop’s lone floor fan.
As his friends joke and gossip, Skeme looks on with a smile. These men — his crew and the other customers — are the people he makes music for, releasing all nine of his mixtapes for free. Though he has been offered deals with labels such as Top Dawg Entertainment, he has remained unsigned. He hasn’t upgraded his lifestyle by relocating to Hollywood or the Valley, instead remaining a constant fixture in the neighborhood he grew up in and still calls home.
His music, he says, is tailored specifically for the streets, with themes of drugs, death and money. “These songs were made for Inglewood niggas,” Skeme says, his voice raspy from years of smoking clove cigarettes. “I speak with their tongue. I say the shit that they’re going through.”
The Internet is a peculiar thing. Especially when it comes to releasing and disseminating music. Take, for example, the brother-sister indie pop band, XYLØ. Even though they’ve never had their own show, haven’t recorded an album, and have only released four songs, their music is everywhere.
One of their songs, “Afterlife,” premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 radio station. Another song, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” played in the background of a KTLA newscast. Two of their songs have been listened to over one million times on both Spotify and SoundCloud, and they have fans hailing from as far away as Malaysia, Israel and Russia. And they’ve only been around for a little over a year.
“That’s what’s blowing my mind,” says Chase Duddy, the band’s producer. “With technology, you can just put your music out there and anything can happen.”
He and his 21-year-old sister Paige made their first song, “America,” in spring of 2014. “Most people think since we’re brother and sister that we’re in a family band and that we performed for our parents after dinner in front of the fireplace,” says Chase, who is 10 years older than his sister. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
They recorded one song for their parents and grandparents back when Paige, the band’s vocalist, was only 13. But that was just for fun; the idea of forming a band and taking music seriously never entered their minds. Not only was there a huge age gap that made working together difficult (while Paige was in middle school and high school, Chase was already pursuing his career), but the pair were geographically isolated from one another. Chase spent the bulk of his twenties living in Hollywood and Los Feliz, while Paige remained in Westlake Village, where they both live today. (Click here to read more)
Oh, Shea Serrano. It seems like just yesterday the beloved music writer was an 8th grade science teacher, moonlighting some of his first writing gigs for Noisey and dropping sage hip-hop knowledge and witticisms in pieces like his review of a middle school talent show and that profile on Houston rapper Maxo Kream. Well, Shea’s all grown up now, having found his way to a staff writer gig at Grantland. He’s even got a couple books to his name now. If you consider a “coloring and activity book” a real book, pssshhh. (Just kidding, we think it’s awesome.)
Serrano’s latest, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Reconstructed, hasn’t even come out yet—it drops October 13—and it’s already the number one best-selling book in three of Amazon’s categories (rap, history and criticism, and popular humor and entertainment). The publishers have even already ordered a second printing of it. We’re so proud!
And anyway, with a foreword written by Ice-T, there’s no way the fully-illustrated, 36-chapter year-by-year analysis of rap’s most important songs will suck. Of course, you might disagree with some of Serrano’s choices—was “Still Tippin’” really more important than “Drop It Like It’s Hot” in 2004?—but that’s life, bro.
Given our excitement for what just might be one of the most important rap tomes in the history of rap tomes, we gave Serrano a call at his home in Houston to find out more about the book, blowing his deadline, and predicting Kanye’s bid for presidency. (Click here to read more)
Straight Outta DTLA
Nestled in the heart of the Arts District is the alternative music label and distributor, known as Alpha Pup. Co-founded in 2004 by renowned promoter/producer Kevin Moo (a.k.a. Daddy Kev), it is one of the most daring and innovative labels in LA, as well as one of the few labels to be based in Downtown. After a decade of producing and engineering albums, as well as throwing nightclub parties throughout LA, Moo decided to start his own label. Alpha Pup was not only a way for him to release music and promote new and up-and-coming artists, but it allowed him to pioneer trends and craft new sounds in the local music scene.
In addition to the numerous artist-run divisions that it sponsors, like Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, the independent label is also beloved for its weekly club night called Low End Theory, which has been held at The Airliner since 2006. On any given Wednesday, you’ll hear a congruence of rhythms and melodies at the event, where leading tastemakers in the underground music scene, as well as newbies and unknowns, take the stage. Though Low End Theory defies genres, “We were able to kind of maneuver around that,” said Moo, “which I think is a testament to the DJs we have and the variety of music they play.” You’ll hear a heady mix of rap, electronic, trap, dub-step, and maybe even a little jazz, as well as a whole lot of drum and bass. The music is not trendy or throwback, but rather so new that it’s a few years ahead of the curve.
“I met a whole bunch of other people who were interested in making the same kind of music as me,” said TOKiMONSTA, an electronic/hip-hop producer signed to Alpha Pup’s roster who got her start by spinning at Low End Theory. “We were just a bunch of kids who made beats and [Low End Theory] was a place where we could experiment and play the kind of music we wanted.” (Click here to read more)
The Memphis-bred Three 6 Mafia MC’s got you covered when it comes to turkey chops, butter cake, and a taste of southern living.
It’s a Friday afternoon when rapper Gangsta Boo pulls into the parking lot of a soul food restaurant in Inglewood. The Tennessee-raised MC—who was the first (and only) female member of Three 6 Mafia—is wearing jean overalls, an Eazy-E t-shirt, and a snap back hat with the words “Rap Fan” emblazoned on the front. Her boyfriend Emmett, a Playa Del Rey native, is in tow, she explains, because today’s his birthday, and she didn’t want to leave him alone. Besides, it was Emmett who introduced her to this very spot, bringing her one step closer to finding comfort thousands of miles away from Memphis.
Boo and her boyfriend walk into the restaurant and choose a booth in the corner next to a wall plastered with photographs. “I normally don’t eat soul food this early,” says Boo. But as she picks up the dense 12-page menu and starts flipping through it, she confesses that she’s actually rather hungry.
And for good reason. Soul food is, after all, the thread that ties Gangsta Boo to her time spent growing up in the South. “My mom, my friends’ moms, everybody cooks soul food in Memphis,” she explains. “You go to Grandma’s house on Sunday and she’d have soul food. It’s just a way of life over there.” (Click here to read more)
If you want to hear rap and hip-hop on a weekend night in the City of Angels, your options are limited. If you’re willing to dress up, pay a cover and order bottle service, you can head to the clubs in Hollywood. If you’d prefer something more laid-back, you could choose a hipster dive bar, but be prepared for a track list of overplayed, run-of-the-mill, old-school jams. Or you could opt for a warehouse party filled with kids half your age.
“There seems to be no middle ground in the rap club scene,” says British DJ and promoter David Sadeghi, better known in the hip-hop scene as Davey Boy Smith. Luckily for hip-hop heads, Sadeghi has a solution to this problem in the form of a monthly rap dance party called Southern Hospitality at Los Globos.
The event, which has been held in London in various forms and iterations since 2004, is the antithesis of what one would normally expect from a rap party. It’s not scene-y or gaudy, but laid-back and welcoming. The dance floor is huge and if you want to twerk sans smirks and Miley Cyrus references, this is the place to do it (there’s even mirrors on the walls so you can watch your performance).
It’s Friday night, a little after 10:30, and I’m hoofing it through Hollywood to a spot called Las Palmas where Lil Debbie is premiering her new EP, Home Grown. There are stragglers hanging out front and they’re all young, definitely not over the age of 25, some of them probably not even over 21, which I assume is why they are hanging outside to begin with. Because that’s the thing about rap and hip-hop shows: They’re always mired with youngins.
The last — and only — time I saw Lil Debbie was back in 2013 at a place called Venue in downtown Oakland. The Venue is one of those multi-use spaces with a stage and a bar and lots of floor space, and I remember being impressed with the size of the room when I got there. Impressed because I didn’t know much about Lil Debbie, other than the fact that she was in the White Girl Mob, and impressed because I hadn’t been to a rap show since high school.
V-Nasty was there, and probably Kreayshawn, too, but all I can remember is Lil Debbie strutting across the stage in a pair of silk boxer shorts, gesticulating and waving the mic around. Her tiny, 5’2″ frame was a mere wisp compared to V-Nasty, and yet she was just as fierce, just as tough. The rest of the night is a blur — let’s be honest, I probably drank one too many glasses of Moscato — but I remember watching her perform as if it were yesterday.
It’s easy to make friends when you wear pasties at EDC. I would know. I did it last night.
I didn’t plan for this to happen. When I packed for the festival, I chose regular clothes—shorts, tank tops, a sundress. You see, I’m not a raver and I’d never been to a rave before, so I had no idea what to expect. Actually, that’s not true. I once saw a gaggle of girls dressed in tutus and furry boots leaving a hotel in downtown L.A., apparently on their way to a rave. So I knew enough about rave culture to recognize the tropes: the boots, the bracelets, the drugs, the glow sticks. I just had no idea what to expect once I got there.
I barfed and went home early on my first night at EDC. I’d drunk too little water and inhaled too much dust. I was also completely and utterly overwhelmed. The last time I’d gone to a large-scale musical event was back in 1999 to see The Spice Girls at the Forum. (I must admit, even though I am a music journalist, I’ve never been to a music festival — not even Coachella.) Needless to say, I was wholly unprepared for the sheer size, scale and volume of the event.
And then there were the outfits — or rather, lack thereof. Girls were wearing panties and bras and thongs like it was the most normal thing in the world. Of course, it was over 100 degrees outside, and I sure as hell am no Mormon. But still, I was shocked. One girl wore a unitard made entirely of (thin) black duct tape. Others seemed to have given up on clothes all together. (Click here to read more)
It’s a little past 11 o’clock on Friday and the Las Vegas Motor Speedway is pulsing with sound, lights and bodies. Polyester jellyfish and gigantic LED mushrooms hover above the crowd; the smell of funnel cakes and body odor wafts through the 100-degree air on this first night of EDC Las Vegas. Dust and dirt coalesce into one invisible mass, infiltrating the throats and nasal passages of thousands of ravers, their plastic beaded bracelets click-clacking as they record videos with their smartphones and chug Powerades and syrupy cocktails. A never-ending torrent of synths and molecule-rearranging bass tumble from myriad speakers throughout the 2.5-mile-long complex.
At each stage, a different gradation of EDM plays, as artists and DJs spin melodies, adjust volumes, and tweak tempos. The beat drops, building into an explosive climax at one stage, while a steady wave of trance hypnotizes the crowd at another. Elsewhere, a percussive house jam segues into a drum solo. And over there, to the north, a tinkle of bells unfurls into an Indian-laced flute melody and the crowd goes wild as they recognize the beat to Nas’s “Oochie Wally.”
This is not what they were expecting. This is hip-hop, not EDM. But wait. Don’t you hear the bass? The electro tinge? Isn’t what you’re doing with your feet called dancing? And isn’t that, by virtue of its various qualities, the very definition of electronic dance music?
You nod your head “yes” and wave your bangled arms in the air. This is EDM, you decide. And that blue-haired DJ on the stage knows what she’s doing, you realize. She’s blurring the lines between genres. She’s breaking the rules. She’s pioneering a new sound. (Click here to read more)
Most of the time, when people talk about Sawtelle Boulevard, they mention the Japanophile stretch near Olympic, known as Little Osaka, where you can buy authentic red bean mochi, Sanrio knickknacks and mouthwatering ramen. (The general area around the stretch is now technically known as Sawtelle Japantown). But if you walk a few blocks north of that stretch, toward Santa Monica Boulevard, you’ll discover Analog Alley.
It’s where the eight-decade-old Nuart Theatre shows indie and cult films and where you can rent videos from one of the last independently owned video stores in the city. You’ll find a record store with a hammock hanging out front and a used bookstore with a tintype photography studio. Down the side street of Idaho Avenue, there’s another used bookstore, this one filled with gewgaws and doo-dads from yore. If you want a slice of the past, this is where you go.
Two or three years ago, recalls Sebastian Mathews, the owner of Touch Vinyl and Cinefile Video, “there’s these little obsolete businesses around and we were all starting to feel that analog needs to come to the forefront.” As a result, local shopkeepers decided to brand the area Analog Alley, and since then, foot traffic and business in general have improved. (Click here to read more)
It helps to have friends in high places. Just ask Bricc Baby, an underground L.A. rapper who came out with his second mixtape (Nasty Dealer) in April.
Bricc grew up in South L.A., where he befriended a young Kid Ink and Casey Veggies. Later, he moved to Atlanta where he met Future, Young Thug, Young Scooter and Peewee Longway. The Atlanta gang taught him how to freestyle, and he was Casey Veggies’ driver for his first tour. He formed Batgang with Kid Ink, who also helped the young rapper choose his name (he was formerly MPA Shitro, Shitty Montana and Bricc Baby Shitro) and took him on tour in both Europe and the United States.
“Yeah, I’m pretty lucky,” says the 27-year-old MC. “I’m blessed to be in a position where I run into people that are real heavy in the game.”
The KBUU-FM radio studio is in a ranch-style tract house, on a cul de sac on one of Malibu’s few suburban-style streets. In what used to be Emily Laetz’s bedroom, the detritus of a recently moved-out kid is everywhere. Puka shell necklaces hang near the door and a stack of Malibu High School yearbooks is piled on the desk, along with an LP (The Doors’ Greatest Hits) and a wadded up clump of bathing suit. On the wall are a tide calendar from 2011 and a homemade a poster that says “Big Dume September 2007.”
In the middle of the room are two racks of gear, diodes lit and blinking, volume meters flashing, data lines flickering. At a white desk surrounded by computer screens, speakers and a 20-year-old radio console sits Emily’s dad, Hans Laetz. A greying 58-year-old of average height, with a thick slab of mustache and a wardrobe of Hawaiian shirts, Laetz is the guy behind “Radio Malibu,” 97.5 KBU. (He was also formerly this writer’s editor at another publication.)
He perches on a stool and leans into an Electro-Voice RE320 mic to record his PSAs and newscasts. He attempts six different voices — “I don’t always want to sound like me” — and launches into a promo using what he fancies to be his “sexy FM voice.” He reserves the “KNX news voice” for the newscasts between 6:45 and 9:15 a.m., and the “Irwindale Dragway” voice for PSAs. (Click here to read more)
When the Long Beach quintet, The Fling, took a hiatus in 2013, front man Dustin Lovelis kept working. He penned songs and produced demos. In time, he met producer and bassist for Everest, Elijah Thomson, and they began working on a record. Composer and session man, Frank Lenz, was added to the mix and then a session at Elliott Smith’s former home, New Monkey Studios, was booked. Two days later, an album was born.
On a recent Saturday night, Lovelis’ premiered the project, Dimensions, at the downtown Long Beach event space, Howl. Over a hundred people arrived at the BYOB event to hear the vintage-sounding guitarsmith’s debut solo album of raw and honest pop ballads. “This is my first effort to do something on my own,” says Lovelis. “And I think it’s the most me out of anything I’ve ever released.
The 11-track album is largely autobiographical and draws from material—emotions, memories, experiences— in Lovelis’ past. “I think it kind of sums up who I am as a person at different periods of time,” he says. Lovelis started writing the songs six months after The Fling broke up, a time in his life that coincided with other negative events, like losing his job, his girlfriend and dog, all in the same week. (Click here to read more)
On Sunday, Carol City rapper, Lil Champ FWAY, headed to the stinky and smoky trade show known as Cannabis Cup in Denver, Colorado, to usher in the unofficial stoner holiday, 4/20. Before surrendering himself to the hazy interiors of Denver Mart, he took some time to talk with New Times about his latest EP, Pray 4 FWAY; what’s next on his agenda; and what he’s doing in Atlanta.
New Times: Last time we talked to you was a few years ago when you were in LA. Are you in Miami now?
Lil Champ FWAY: I’m in Atlanta right now, but I have shows in Miami in June, so I’ll be there in June.
What brought you to Atlanta?
I got cousins that stay up here. And I had come up here for A3C, and I linked up with Coach K from Quality Control — he’s the CEO of the label the Migos are on. I’ve just been up here trying to work with artists. You know, I linked up with Playboi Carti from Awful Records. Really, I’m just up here working. That’s really it. (Click here to read more)
Running a business as large and varied as Oaklandish — ranked 33rd on Fortune’s list of the 100 fastest-growing inner-city companies in America last year — isn’t easy. On the eve of the brand’s recent yearly warehouse sale, with a website revamp under way and spring line about to roll out, owner and founder Angela Tsay sat down to talk about Oaklandish’s circuitious journey.
“I think sometimes people think we’ve had it really easy, but it has been hard,” she explained. “We’ve really done a lot of this ourselves.”
In the last nine years, Tsay has turned what started out as a T-shirt stand at a farmers’ market into an apparel empire, beloved and recognized by an entire city. The Oakland institution now has three store locations, a warehouse in Jack London Square and two offshoot brands, Oakland Supply Co. and NSEW. Instead of mere T-shirts and sweatshirts, it now makes everything from beanies and underwear to knee socks and coffee mugs. The brand, which once had trouble persuading San Francisco stores to sell its gear, is now sold in a dozen stores all over the Bay Area and has customers worldwide.
“Oaklandish has had great success,” Tsay said. “But we did not have some grand plan. It just kind of came together.” (Click here to read more)
Record labels are exclusive by nature. They are purveyors of taste, harbingers of new talent. Getting signed is a milestone in any artist’s career. But what happens if anyone can join a label? Does it still mean something? What happens to a member’s-only club when everyone becomes a member?
At Wiener Records, anyone can be a Wiener. The business model behind the Burger Records offshoot is remarkably simple. Bands pay anywhere from $250 to $650 for the manufacturing of 100 tapes; plus, they get social-media shoutouts and their music sold on its website. “The point of Wiener is that everyone can do it,” says Danny Gonzales, the “head guy” behind the record label. “You can literally burp on a mic for 20 minutes, and I’ll put it out.”
If that bar sounds low, it’s because it is. Wiener’s mission isn’t so much about discovering new talent as it is about making music manufacturing egalitarian. Sure, you’ve got to pay a small fee, but, as Gonzales points out, that covers manufacturing costs. Tapes are cheap and relatively fast and easy to make. Compared to the $1,500 that getting 100 LPs manufactured costs, the Wiener deal is a bargain. Manufacturing takes about two weeks for tapes, while it can take anywhere from 14 to 16 weeks for LPs. And unlike digital files, tapes are tangible. “For your fans who care about you, they want to have a memento or something to remember the show by,” says Burger Records co-founder Sean Bohrman. “For the most part, I think anyone can afford [a tape].”