When the words ‘Low End Theory’ come to mind, most hip-hop purists reminisce of A Tribe Called Quest’s second album, The Low End Theory, which is considered one of the greatest albums of all time. While many of the Tribe albums were highly acclaimed, The Low End Theory was one of the few gems of the time to open the eyes and ears of not only a generation of listeners, but was also one of the first prototype hip-hop albums to break many barriers of race and allowed those of other nationalities to slowly understand the music and experience of hip-hop for the first time. Collectively known as the Native Tongues, ATCQ, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, Leaders of the New School and Digable Planets created an epoch of Afrocentrism, originality, and social activism in the early to mid 90’s. In the eyes of many, The Low End Theory album altered the hip-hop landscape and was the one to truly break open an entirely new mode of thinking. However, that can be routinely debated, as De La Soul and Digable Planets were right there in that mold as well.
Fast forward to 2015 in Los Angeles and you have a new generation of beat makers, emcees and purveyors of hip-hop representing the west coast well. Enter Ras G and the Afrikan Space Program, an experimental DJ/producer from Los Angeles with a long list of albums and acclaim within hip-hop’s current landscape. I met with him at his production studio in Leimert Park, which he calls Space Base, to define the Low End Theory paradigm and long-standing club out of Los Angeles.
“Low End Theory is a continuum of all those great things. Particularly just the ‘Low End’ sound. The sound that got me into it was particularly the 808 music which is a feeling in the music. It’s not a musical note. It’s a musical sound. It’s a feeling and continuum of the 808 sound… It’s a base frequency,” he says. This base frequency and 808 sound are the mantra behind the club, too. The music is truly bass heavy; bombastic with roots obviously schooled in the very thought and theory of classic hip-hop. Venture over to the Low End Theory at The Airliner club in Los Angeles on any given Wednesday night and you will see hip-hop in its purest form. From Q-Tip, to Erykah Badu and from Tom York of Radiohead to Questlove of The Roots, many cornerstones of music have DJ’d there over the course of the function’s 10 year presence. And it doesn’t stop there. Many of Los Angeles’ prodigies of today have come through to bless the turntables and mics, reminiscent of the days of The Good Life era in the early 1990’s underground hip-hop scene, as L.A.’s experimental musical prowess continues to evolve past the corner of Crenshaw and Exposition and the Leimert Park music scene. The Gaslamp Killer, Nobody, Daddy Kev, D-Styles and Nocando have all left footprints there, so it’s assuredly a destination for the present and past to collide and ultimately coalesce. L.A.’s hip-hop scene is in good hands for sure.
Sitting in Ras’ studio felt like I had entered a new construct of slow astonishment. Faint sounds I was hearing were like hidden codes in the form of soundscapes found inside the vault of an art museum to a rare series of Cy Twombly sketches. From the sounds of birds chirping in Moscow to the clicking of a lock mechanism, the ambience had become a mellow sanctuary for healing. I was compelled to ask what lane he was in and what exactly was going on in the music he’s producing. “Everything and nothing,” he says. “I like to stay out of the lane and stay in the spaceship. That way I bypass all the lanes, fly over everything and do anything I will and please with this thing we call music. Like Sun Ra said, it’s based on a feeling. There’s a lot of different feelings to be evoked in music.” So in a natural progression, I asked him to describe his music in his own words. “That’s what I can’t do. I leave that to the people. I never know what they’re picking up on, or which different frequency they love. Some people like Seat of the Soul, some people like Raw Fruit.”
Ras doesn’t sweat it. He’s comfortable in his own skin, in his own words and in his own lane as he flies high above the clouds. Listen to his new album, Seat of the Soul, and you will see. There’s no rhyme or reason, it’s just original music and perverse charisma already having been where most have not.
The Low End Theory’s relevance here is not an obvious solution, title or campy reference. It’s an ode to the 808 sounds of the drum machine Ras G is speaking of; the base frequency emanating from music, especially that of the music during the time of the The Low End Theory, as a continuum and a reference point to a life from past lore. And to Ras G, there’s a lot to look forward to. “As there is more life, there is more creation… life is everything and nothing. It’s hip-hop. It encompasses everything and it started from nothing.”
Written by: Rik Singley
Photo by: Rik Singley