J Dilla wasn't the first producer to recognize the potential for rap beats to evolve from a backdrop for MCs into a freestanding art form, but the records he made before his death in 2006 have done more to guide that evolution in the past decade than any of their predecessors. Following in Dilla's footsteps is a loose but growing coalition of producers who slip the bonds of traditional hip-hop boom-bap with their drum programming and largely forgo melodies in favor of dense atmospheres compounded from organ snippets, field recordings, video-game bleeps, and whatever else ends up in their samplers. Though this coalition has global reach, it also has localized centers of activity. Not at all by happenstance, one of them is Los Angeles—also home to Dr. Dre, DJ Muggs, and a wealth of marijuana dispensaries.
The best-known musician in this scene is Flying Lotus, but the LA-based Brainfeeder crew he anchors includes several other notable talents. Among them is RAS G, whose BTS Radio Live Set #001, released last month and credited to Ras G & the Afrikan Space Program, sounds like a dialect of hip-hop:despite familiar elements like booming bass and the occasional rap, it's tweaked so far that it's barely recognizable. (Like all the mixes I'm reviewing, it's online only: btsradio.com/html/ras-g-bts-radio-mix.html.) The tracks he's chosen bear the influence of Sun Ra's cosmic jazz voyages, King Tubby's dub odysseys, and Aphex Twin's deep glitch expeditions, but those artists' willingness to disassemble their music and tinker with its structures seems like just as big an inspiration as their sonics—Ras G and artists he's mixing are like kids who take apart their favorite toys just to see how many different ways they can find to put them back together.
Fellow LA producer SHLOHMO made a 15-minute set last month for BBC Radio 1 host Mary Anne Hobbs (www.wediditcollective.com/2010/01/shlohmo-mary-anne-hobbs-bbc-radio-1-mix_29.html), and like Ras G's mix it ought to come as a free gift with the purchase of any weapons-grade bong. The 19-year-old strung together five original pieces of post-hip-hop that owe a debt to both Dilla and Lotus, but he's already developing a style of his own—his sonic palette is especially original. He doesn't let a single preset sound get past him without some sort of processing: the drums sound like they're being played two rooms away, the synths are degraded with thick applications of distortion and noise, and if he can't get things tweaky enough for his liking he'll drop in a sample of what sounds like VHS playback with extremely bad tracking.
If there's a British equivalent to this kind of Cali-kush post-hip-hop it might be purple, the most recent in a line of descendants from 90s drum 'n' bass. (Its genre name may also be the most arbitrary in all of music, thanks to Joker, one of its most hyped producers—who says he came up with it for that very reason.) Purple is closely related to dubstep, which halved the superfast tempos of drum 'n' bass but kept its syncopated beats, chilly atmospheres, and miles-deep bass. Like their predecessors, purple producers show a preference for cool, clean-toned analog synths, but they wring warm, organic funk out of them. (Ironically the movement is based in Bristol, the dreary birthplace of bum-out trip-hoppers Portishead and Massive Attack.) Bristol-based GEMMY released his Purple Pictures mix (sonicrouter.blogspot.com/2010/02/download-gemmy-purple-pictures-mix.html) in late February, and it sounds like someone gave a vintage mainframe a spliff and a copy of Prince's Controversy on punch cards. Its tangled pile of rubber-band bass, electronic squiggles, and tight, complicated beats could stand up against the tweakiest shit Timbaland did in his prime.
LA-based Montreal-based blogger and DJ Sacha Orenstein includes dubstep (and drum 'n' bass, techno, and hip-hop, among others) in the list of genres on the Soundcloud page for All Your Bass Are Belong to Us Vol. 1 (soundcloud.com/son_raw/all-your-bass-are-belong-to-us-vol-1), his first mix under the name SON RAW. But so-called bass culture is increasingly making genre distinctions irrelevant, even at this coarse level of granularity: it's a sort of all-embracing worship of beats and low frequencies that's less about sorting dance musics by style and more about throwing as many of them as possible into a mix. The genres included in All Your Bass originated in Atlanta, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, the rave tents of the English countryside, and many more disparate places, but Orenstein's mix transitions between styles as smoothly as it does between songs—it's a 58-minute vision of a postmodern, postcolonial global dance-music utopia. At one point a track laced with funk carioca (which collides traditional Brazilian drumming and Miami booty electro) fades seamlessly into UK funky (which complicates the four-on-the-floor beats of house with African polyrhythms)—in other words, a first-world producer mixes third-world music influenced by first-world music and first-world music influenced by third-world music.