The influence of Low End Theory - the LA club night that just ended its 12-year run as the country’s most vital proving ground for experimental, bass-loving producers - has spread to nearly every corner of the globe. Still, it’s a surprise to hear an LET-style mix of cosmic synths and West Coast boom-bap emanating from a yacht cruising past the bayfront mansions and swanky seafood restaurants of Newport Beach, an Orange County enclave down the coast from LA whose wealthy, conservative residents probably think “Flying Lotus” is the name of a Chinese restaurant.
Aboard the boat, 80 revelers are knocking back Coronas and sparkling rosé and dancing to Wave Groove, one of the resident DJs of Beat Cinema, the 15-member crew that’s hosting the cruise. His set seamlessly mixes familiar trap party-starters with slow-rolling, deeply funky originals. The crowd rides the yacht’s sway to Lil Uzi Vert’s 'Money Longer' and the neon bass lines of Wave’s own 'Jazz Orbital' with equal enthusiasm.
His Beat Cinema cohorts, Rick G (the hyper-focused, quietly ambitious one) and DMM (the laid-back, making-sure-everyone’s-having-a-good-time one), look on with approval. DMM just stepped away from the decks after soundtracking our departure from the dock with a high-energy hip-hop set. “I don’t usually play that turnt up,” he yells over the music, with a grin. “But we’re on a boat!”
A yacht party in Newport Beach may seem like an improbable backdrop for the futuristic sounds of LA’s still-fertile beat scene. But Beat Cinema are old pros at turning any venue, however unlikely, into a party space for underground sounds. Their first home, the Hip Kitty, was a jazz lounge and fondue bar in the LA suburb of Claremont, where the sister of the crew’s founder, Rick G (the “G” stands for Gonzalez), hosted a movie night.
“I started DJing during intermissions,” Rick remembers. “And then the owner was like, ‘Hey, there’s nothing inside if you want to book some of your friends.’” His friends included Low End Theory regulars Ras G, Dibia$e and Daedelus, all of whom were early guests. Somewhere along the way, his sister stopped showing movies, but the name Beat Cinema stuck.
Back then, in 2009, “it wasn’t just Low End,” says Dan Nguyen, a DJ and producer who goes by Demonslayer and who, along with Rick G and DMM (aka Mike Davis, who also worked the door; the initials stand for Door Man Mike), was among Beat Cinema’s first residents. “There were beat shows all over the place. Everyone knew each other. The outside world wasn’t really looking yet.”
Still, Beat Cinema occupied a unique geographical niche. Claremont is in the heart of the Inland Empire, a sprawl of freeways, strip malls and suburban subdivisions east of Los Angeles that’s home to many a bedroom producer, but few places for them to play out. At Hip Kitty, Beat Cinema soon became the hub for a distinctly Inland Empire version of the beat scene — more DIY, more community-minded, more “trippy and experimental,” in the words of Beat Cinema member Margaret “Mousey” McGlynn, who combines moody r'n'b soundscapes with her own jazzy sung-spoke vocals.
As Beat Cinema continued to develop their own vibe, greatly augmented by the addition of a visual artist, Major Gape, with a talent for psychedelic, 3D-mapped projections, word got back to Los Angeles. “The greater L.A. area was really feeling the beat scene, but they were doing their own version of it,” says Daedelus. “As a pure outsider, I felt welcome and felt [it was] a home base immediately.”
Daedelus was especially impressed at the crew’s eclecticism. A night at Beat Cinema could feature anything from Demonslayer’s heavy-hitting trap to Wave Groove’s jazzier excursions to the broken soul samples and laid-back house beats of Jerms. “You can’t in one fell swoop know their sound,” says Daedalus. “But you know there’s a party happening.”
After Hip Kitty closed in early 2015, the party moved to various homes in nearby Pomona, then eventually landed at Tokyo Beat, a karaoke bar in the Little Tokyo section of downtown Los Angeles. DMM says that, after years of trying to get LA crowds out to the Inland Empire, the crew was finally ready to try a more central location — even if it meant competing directly with Low End on Wednesday nights, the only night the club would give them at first.
“It hasn’t really been our decision,” says DMM of Beat Cinema’s frequent Wednesday night events. “Venues operate more than anything on the basis of money. … Sunday [to] Thursday are the slower nights that are reserved for the ‘artsy’ events.” Eventually Tokyo Beat also gave them one Thursday night a month, which “tended to do better than the other nights because of no competition with Low End.”
Tokyo Beat brought another new wrinkle to Beat Cinema: breakdancers. “There’s a really great scene in Tokyo Beat of professional dancers,” says Mousey. “And they’d come to Tokyo Beat every night to practice their chops.” She contrasts their presence with the more “head-nodding” crowd at Low End, saying it’s created a more “whimsical” atmosphere — especially after the breakdancers followed Beat Cinema to yet another new home base earlier this year, a Koreatown club called Apt. 503, with kitschy white decor and a DJ booth shaped like an ‘80s boombox. True to Beat Cinema’s penchant for odd locales, it’s tucked away on the top floor of an office high rise, across from a private banquet hall and a rooftop driving range.
You can find Beat Cinema at Apt. 503 on the first Wednesday of every month — but at this point, the collective’s activities stretch far beyond just a monthly club night. The boat party is one of several one-off events; others have included outdoor barbecues and club takeovers as far afield as San Diego. They also host beat battles, at which producers vie for cash prizes by using controllers, drum pads and other hardware to recreate their best instrumentals live; after winning twice, a young L.A. producer named Linafornia became one of the beat scene’s rising stars. They’ve started a label to release music from their own members and like-minded producers. And for the past five years at Coachella, they’ve hosted an ambient music tent in the festival’s campgrounds called the Turndown, a showcase for Major Gape’s mind-bending visuals and the crew’s most abstract, expansive sounds.
As Beat Cinema became more active, Low End Theory’s popularity ebbed -- a trend exacerbated by last year’s controversy surrounding former resident The Gaslamp Killer, who was accused via social media of drugging and raping two women in 2013. (Gaslamp has denied the allegations and filed a defamation suit against his accusers in November.) In June, Low End announced that August 8 would be its final night, a decision founder Daddy Kev acknowledged, in a recent LA Times article, was hastened by fallout from the Gaslamp accusations.
“Low End Theory ending does mark the end of an era. It does make me sad. That was like our church,” says Dibia$e, a beat scene veteran and Low End regular who has also, over the years, played Beat Cinema “around eight times.” “At the same time, if you’re from LA, you know that Low End Theory is just part of the journey.” He cites earlier clubs like Low End founder Daddy Kev’s drum ‘n’ bass night, Konkrete Jungle, as well as legendary hip hop open mic Project Blowed and embryonic beat scene night Sketchbook, as examples of the continuum along which Low End Theory existed. “This is not the end; it is the beginning of something new.”
Back in Newport Bay, Beat Cinema resident Coby is putting on a finger drumming show with a Midi Fighter 64, whose buttons cascade with light as he nimbly taps out a groove. On the upper deck above him, Rick G, DMM and Major Gape take a moment to clink beer bottles and quietly celebrate another successful event. When asked how his night’s been going, Rick says he’s been spending it “just walking up and down, getting different ideas for the next one. Maybe do it during the daytime, see how that goes.”
As avowed longtime fans of Low End Theory, all the members of Beat Cinema are careful to pay their respects to the long-running club, and hesitant to claim any sort of “heirs apparent” status. They cite other clubs nights and groups around LA — Boombox, a long-running Chinatown hip hop night; Juke Bounce Werk, a footwork crew; the future bass scientists at Shlohmo’s WeDidIt Collective — as vital carriers of the Low End torch.
“I think everyone in the scene feels like once the last Low End happens, there’s gonna be this really interesting energy,” says Dragonslayer.
“A vacuum, man,” says DMM.
Daedelus thinks Beat Cinema, for all their humility, are the best ones to fill that vacuum. “Inadvertently or on purpose, they’re the future,” he says. “They’re next up.”
Andy Hermann is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, follow him on Twitter here