© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Spacebase Was The Place: The Life Of Ras G, Blunted Saint Of The L.A. Beat Scene

Ras G, photographed on Jan. 10, 2017 in Los Angeles. The respected musician died at home there on July 29, at the age of 40.
Robb Klassen
Ras G, photographed on Jan. 10, 2017 in Los Angeles. The respected musician died at home there on July 29, at the age of 40.

At sunset on July 30th, currents of fragrant incense wafted down a stretch of Vernon Ave. in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles. Outside the gated windows of a small first-floor apartment, a group of friends lit dozens of candles, remembering the life and playing the music of Ras G, who had passed away inside the day before at 40 years old.

To friends and fans of his music, that apartment was known as "Spacebase." You can navigate there via GPS, but the coordinates inside didn't adhere to any terrestrial cartographic system. It was so cramped — by shelves crammed with records, electronic samplers and walls of Afrocentric and Afrofuturist art painted in popping primary colors — there was hardly even room for a bed. Here was Ras G's creative sanctuary and muse; in interviews, he referred to Spacebase as his "brain."

"I never went to a music school, I never know what you need to know for music, all I know is the feeling of music and how it should be," Ras G said in 2015, when asked about his process. "I just utilize that with intuition. Out of body experience, spirit controlling the flesh."

Whether he was a Brotha From Anotha Planetor not, Ras G intuitively scored the dance of the cosmos with the beat-driven, speaker-devastating Afrofuturist instrumentals that he called "ghetto sci-fi." His music didn't reach the commercial charts or top streaming playlists, but that's likely because he was light-years ahead of his time, the closest Los Angeles has come to producing a Sun Ra — a prolific creator who embraced the history of black music and projected himself into the future by rejecting one sonic convention after another.

"So many people felt his music and his presence," Grammy-nominated producer, DJ, rapper and Brainfeeder founder Flying Lotus told KCRW the day after Ras G's death. "They recognize him as being part of the movement that we created."

That "movement" was and is L.A.'s orbital community of producers and DJs known locally and internationally as the L.A. beat scene. Attempting to define the scene's amorphous and ever-shifting sound can be a contradictory exercise in illustrating the limits of the English language; Ras G once described it, like space, as "everything and nothing." The list of genres and subgenres that beat scene producers/DJs adopted, fused and (or) deconstructed includes rap, dance music, IDM, trap, drum & bass, psychedelia, turntablism, ambient, trip-hop and jazz. The only constant is a devotion to cavernous drums and chest-caving bass.

"This music is all a part of another tomorrow, another kind of language."

Knowingly or not, you've likely heard strains of this community's DNA in the work of artists like early Ras G fan Thom Yorke (e.g., the fuzz, swirling low end, and futuristic ambient sounds of the breakbeat-driven "A Brain in a Bottle," from 2014's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes); Erykah Badu (e.g., the spacey synths and warbles layered atop the downtempo boom-bap of "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)" from New Amerykah); Kendrick Lamar (see 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, which featured contributions from Flying Lotus); and Brainfeeder alumni Thundercat (also a TPAB contributor) and Kamasi Washington (Ras G performed with Washington for his historic performance of The Epicin 2015). Beat scene titans like Nosaj Thing and Tokimonsta have taken this L.A.-bred sound to headlining stages, and there are now analogous scenes popping up around the world (e.g., Boston). The cognoscenti among them all give due respect to Ras G, his music and his role in shaping the L.A. scene.

"The best musicians have a signature," says Daddy Kev, founder of independent L.A. label and digital distributor Alpha Pup and a co-founder of Low End Theory, the now-defunct weekly L.A. club night that doubled as the scene's undisputed home. "You know when Herbie Hancock is playing. You know a Miles [Davis] trumpet sound. You know when it's a Ras G song. He was inimitable."

With his Roland SP-404 — an electronic sampler that allows artists to loop/manipulate sounds using its 12 rubber pads, wildly popular among producers who classify their beats as "lofi" — Ras G made astral collages of laser-like blips and squeals, fuzz and rumbling from colliding meteoroids in galaxies unknown, fused to decades of bass-heavy beat music; gritty, dust-covered hip-hop of J Dilla extraction knocks beneath the warped, spacey echo and reverb of Jamaican dub and reggae reminiscent of Lee "Scratch" Perry and Scientist. Strains of spiritual and cosmic jazz absorbed from Sun Ra — Ras G's biggest influence, whose work he re-interpreted and whose avant-garde, sometimes dissonant fusion of jazz, blues, and experimental music informed Ras G's sound — share the same space as U.K. dubstep and other floor-quaking electronic music.

He made the connections explicit, in a sonic tag that was equally indelible — bookending, punctuating, or interrupting many of his songs with a sample of a Rasta shouting "Ohhh Rasss!" followed by an air horn. The former was Ras G's homage to reggae, the latter his way of sonically linking Jamaican sound system culture and hip-hop.

Ras G, photographed performing on his Roland SP-404, rings on hand.
/ Courtesy of Leaving Records
Courtesy of Leaving Records
Ras G, photographed performing on his Roland SP-404, rings on hand.

Unapologetically blunt and perpetually blunted, he was also hilarious, warm and ceaselessly kind to friends, family and peers. If there was a facet of the L.A. music scene that he didn't touch, directly or tangentially, you'd be hard-pressed to find it. News of his death last week — the cause of which his family hasn't yet made public — was a nationally trending topic on Twitter. A shortlist of his mourners could double as the lineup for a Coachella stage: Kode9, producer, DJ, and founder of U.K. electronic label Hyperdub; Detroit techno paragon Carl Craig; internationally renowned DJ, producer and Kanye collaborator Hudson Mohawke; legendary BBC Radio 6 broadcaster and DJ Gilles Peterson.

Born Gregory Shorter Jr. on December 11, 1978, Ras G was enamored with music early. His cousins turned him on to KDAY — the LA rap radio station responsible for broadcasting the thundering electro sets of famed DJ crew Uncle Jamm's Army and breaking rap artists like N.W.A. — and took him to record store Music Plus to buy vinyl. After digging for records in the mid '90s, he began playing J Dilla and Slum Village in DJ sets at Project Blowed, the infamous rap open-mic in Leimert Park that fostered the talents of lyrically incisive and stylistically forward-thinking rappers like Busdriver, Nocando and Open Mike Eagle, with whom Ras G and his compatriots would eventually collaborate. He shopped at Aron's Records, where he discovered Sun Ra and met foundational beat scene artists like Take (now Sweatson Klank) and Kutmah. At Kutmah's short-lived but influential Sketchbook shows from 2004 to 2006, which were some of the first in L.A. to feature instrumental, hip-hop rooted beats almost exclusively, Ras G played and traded new tracks with artists like Watts producer Dibia$e and Flying Lotus.

"It ain't about your background or your race. It's about what the f*** you sound like, and is that s*** bumping?"

From 2004 until his death, Ras G worked at Poo-Bah Record Shop in Pasadena, curating the store's selection, A&Ring releases for its small record label and organizing their in-store performance series, appropriately titled Beat Soup. He played countless sets on pioneering non-profit Internet radio station Dublab, which spun early tracks from peers like Samiyam and Gaslamp Killer before they'd gained traction outside of L.A. or the U.K. Due to his ceaseless output, Ras G released records with several labels heavily affiliated with the beat scene: Brainfeeder (Back on the Planet), Leaving Records (Raw Fruit Vol. 1 - 4), Poo-Bah (Ghetto Sci-Fi), Hit+Run (777), Fat Beats (Baker's Dozen).

Name any recurring beat scene-related event in L.A. over the last decade. Ras G was there at least once, either in the crowd or on stage. If you were a regular at Low End Theory, a night without him was an aberration. On the back patio of the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, he was unmistakable. His sartorial flare reflected the idiosyncrasies of his music, dreadlocks wrapped beneath a knit cap, Polo Ralph Lauren jackets paired with vibrant dashikis. He deftly rolled blunts on the flat of his palm and held them between fingers ringed by gilded Ankhs and wire-wrapped stones. No matter where he was, people gravitated towards his energy as much as they did to his music.

His live sets on the SP-404 were mystical — and polarizing. Either you got it or you didn't. The bass rattled you from your feet to eyeballs. In small rooms, it felt like being body-slammed by two massage chairs. After five minutes, your ears could ring for days. This might sound unpleasant, but his devotees likey thanked him for knocking them out of this plane and into his.

(Ras G and soundmen, however, were constantly at odds. At Low End Theory alone, he blew the speakers at least three times. Daddy Kev thinks one speaker may have even caught fire during a Ras G set.)

"Some of the nights, it was like the ceiling was falling apart because he was just cranking the bass up so loud," explains Brainfeeder label manager Adam Stover. "You almost had to get out of the room because your ears were under attack."

"Aside from the residents, he played Low End more than anyone else. He was our ace in the hole," Daddy Kev explains. "Any time we lost a headliner or someone canceled, he was our go-to. If he was in L.A., he was down. He never fronted on us."

The community of these like-minded producers and beatmakers was, and remains, as sprawling yet interconnected as L.A. itself, a nervous system of producers and DJs, record labels, weekly and monthly club nights, open mics and beat cyphers, record stores, radio shows and more. In many ways, its development and the career of Ras G ran in parallel. By most accounts, he was omnipresent. According to music journalist Laurent Fintoni, who's writing a book about the history of beat music, "G was the connective tissue of the L.A. beat scene, across time and space."

Late last December, Ras G posted about his failing health on Instagram, citing "pneumonia, borderline high blood pressure, diabetes, hypothyroidism, and heart failure" as the reasons for an ambulance ride. Over the next several months, he was periodically hospitalized and forced to miss performances. According to Dibia$e, Ras G's final performance may have been on April 6 at Grand Star Jazz Club. Fittingly, the show was in honor of the SP-404.

On July 26, Ras G missed his set at theHypnothesis one-year anniversary. Hypnothesis organizers called him several times, but had no idea why he didn't pick up. He'd told a few friends and peers in the community that his health was improving.

Ras G, photographed in Los Angeles in 2009.
PYMCA / Universal Images Group via Getty
Universal Images Group via Getty
Ras G, photographed in Los Angeles in 2009.

It's possible that, like J Dilla before him, his death will inspire a more careful examination of his work. The glut of his output means, as with any artist, that there are greater and lesser Ras G projects, but all of them were him. He was a devoted student of music, with innumerable influences but no stylistic predecessor. And while Ras G didn't reach the commercial heights of peers like Lotus, you could argue that that doesn't matter.

"I think G was as big as all the obvious names people will point to when they think of the L.A. beat scene, it's just that his success, so to speak, can't be quantified using the standard metrics of artistry or business," says Fintoni. "His success, his importance, is only quantifiable in human terms."

In the years before Ras G's passing, L.A.'s beat community became increasingly fractured. Artists outgrew the local events. There was off-the-record drama that had nothing to do with Ras G. On August 8, 2018, after 12 years of weekly shows and its fair share of turmoil, Low End Theory closed.

For now, however, Ras G's passing appears to have reunited generations of the L.A. beat scene in a moment of collective healing. On August 4, over 25 producers, DJs and rappers took to the stage for a sold-out memorial fundraiser at the Lodge Room in Highland Park.

Backed by a montage of photos and videos of Ras G interviews, everyone from foundational figures like Flying Lotus and Teebs to relative newcomers like Leimert Park's Linafornia all played short sets. Busdriver freestyled over skull-cracking beats from Daedelus. Gaslamp Killer and Koreatown Oddity, one of Ras G's few recurring collaborators, traded MC duties, starting impassioned chants in Ras G's name and sharing alternately poignant and hilarious anecdotes about their time with him on tour and in the studio. Dozens of friends and family members danced on stage, sometimes grabbing Ras G's SP-404 and lifting it above their heads as the current DJ dropped "Ohhh Rasss!" and the air horn.

At times, being in the Lodge Room felt like experiencing the last decade-plus of the L.A. beat scene in a single night. Time sped up and slowed down, as it often does in Ras G's music. In the moments that the joy of his memory and music outweighed the sadness of his loss, the space felt like a night at Low End Theory during its peak. If you looked in either direction, there was a familiar face. With the room choked in smoke, sweat, and earthy fragrances, bodies should-to-shoulder, you could almost imagine yourself on the Airliner's upstairs patio. If you did, you might've unthinkingly found yourself looking for Ras G in the crowd, ensconced in blunt smoke. His absence confirmed what everyone in the room has known for some time: Ras G lived through the music coming from those Lodge Room speakers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Max Bell