Mad science

Pub date February 16, 2011

Is the Bay Area’s experimental beat scene finally coming together? After a few years of lagging behind the explosion of beat conductor talent in Los Angeles, and suffering a steady exodus of potential down south, the Bay Area’s time for creating a forward leaning psychedelia — composed from the bass-infused backbone of instrumental hip-hop — might have arrived.

This week, San Francisco’s DJ veteran Mophono releases his debut full-length, Cut Form Crush, on his upstart CB Records. It’s a colossal experiment in deconstructed percussive patterns and warped synth keys, washed with distorted textures, panning effects, and field recordings. Since 2006, Mophono has hosted the weekly party Change the Beat, guided by only one principle: blow up the soundsystem with unlikely combinations of sounds.

Last week, Change the Beat resident and SF mainstay Salva also dropped his first full-length effort, Complex Housing (Friends of Friends), an excellent dance record that glides across an array of genres infatuated with the interplay of bass, groove, and melody: hip-hop, house, UK funky, Chicago juke, and ghetto-tech all get equal treatment.

Here’s the rub: Although Salva insists that the Bay is still home, especially through his SF-grounded imprint Frite Nite, which supports bubbling acts like Ana Sia and B.Bravo, he was practically unpacking boxes in his new L.A. crib when I spoke to him on the phone before writing this article. On the other hand, another L.A. force of sonic gravity, Low End Theory — Daddy Kev’s acclaimed weekly, which helped form the social fabric that pushed Flying Lotus, the Gaslamp Killer, and Daedalus, among many others, to international attention — has kicked off a monthly residence in San Francisco. Ultimately, both cities can benefit from creative exchange, so let’s just say that California’s got it going on.

Born Benji Illgen, Mophono has been rocking parties in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years as DJ Centipede. His early obsession with digging for records — one that’s amassed a vinyl vault of around 6,000 records — defied genre and era for a love of percussion in all its forms, including conspicuous absence. “I’m drawn to rhythm, both as a DJ and as this metronome-carrier-guy who maintains turntables,” Illgen tells me over the phone, as raucous noise and strange bangs reverberate in the background.

Cut Form Crush could be called a study of drums: percussive patterns unfold and disappear, giving rise to new formations set on their own uneasy path toward self-dissolution. While the drums, crunchy and multilayered, degenerate, a barrage of synth noise and warped textures dance frenetically around the pockets of space jarred open by the percussive momentum. This record alarms as much it disorients.

In many ways, Cut is the product of all the music Illgen has absorbed over the course of the past two decades. From closely following the development of hip-hop and U.K. electronic genres and digging into psychedelic rock, musique concrète, jazz-funk, Kosmische, and post-punk, Illgen became interested in the way imaginative music is made through improvisation. “Bands in the ’60s would get in these zones, really rhythmic areas, and they would tap into a minimal expression,” says Illgen. “I’m interested in those minimal, odd breakdowns, when these cats just jam out on some craziness.”

Rather than just sampling loops and bits from these sources, Illgen decided to reproduce the creative environments that shaped their genesis. “I’d get groups and musicians together in my little studio who aren’t necessarily band mates but are involved in the same sort of music community,” says Illgen. “Then we’d just vibe out. We’d create these recordings that later I’d access and reconfigure the sounds.”

One of the outcomes of this recording process is the dizzying song “Cut Form Crunch,” extracted from multiple sessions with Flying Lotus and later edited into a condensed can of musical psychosis. Thick-bodied synth keys vibrate over muddled bass thumps and compressed percussive claps as if dubstep’s basic components were thrown together into a washing machine, cycling in rotation. “Electric Kingdom” maneuvers through dubstep’s signature helicopter wobble, curdling an off-kilter rhythm with sequenced claps and blips. In “Cut Form Crush Groove,” Illgen reworks the early disco breaks that established the basic framework of hip-hop in circa-1980s South Bronx. A Vocoder-dissimulated MC channels the cosmic frequency of Afrika Bambaataa, calling us to respect the foundation. But even these more conventional drum patterns and familiar vocal refrains wisp away into static and gurgling fuzz.

What Illgen emphasizes in his recording technique is a preference for textural environment over the clarity and crispness often associated with quality. “I see experimentation as an open-minded direction to making music,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m going to find, but if I open my ears, I’ll find something. And I’ll let that dictate where the music goes.”

Paul Salva takes a similar improvisational approach to music production. “Without all the theory and formal training, I have to relish this time where I’m feeling out the instruments and learning what to do with them,” he says. “As amateurs, and coming from a place of ignorance, kids are doing amazing shit — by accident.”

Despite his Chicago upbringing, Salva initially gravitated to West Coast backpacker hip-hop and the East Coast stylings of the Diggin’ In The Crates (DITC) crew before taking an interest in his hometown-bred house and its ghetto-tech offspring. “Record store culture really helped solidify my eclecticism,” he says. “Through working at Gramaphone Records in Chicago and also in Miami, I got into IDM, drum ‘n’ bass, and whatever else caught my ears.” Recently, as genre allegiances have begun to dissolve among young musicians and listeners, Salva grew comfortable with the idea of consolidating his diverse tastes and producing a record on his own terms. Although Complex Housing takes influences from a flux of emerging ideas and sounds across the spectrum of today’s future bass and beat scene innovators, it finds an enduring coherence in being, very simply, a well-crafted dance record.

“Wake Ups” has Salva showing his chops on the synthesizer and the drum machine, layering lush boogie-funk chords over a skittering rhythmic grind. In “Keys Open Doors,” he anchors dirty disco arpeggios with poly-percussion pilfered from the odd-shuffle of UK funky and grime. In these songs, the gritty underside of club music — recalling its many places of origin and evolution in abandoned warehouses and neon-lit bars, juiced from electric outlets in public parks and now the outer zones of the Internet — emerges from layers of shimmering production. The record reaches toward its apex with “I’ll Be Your Friend,” a future-funk rendition of Robert Owens’ early ’90s house classic of the same title. Salva edits Owens’ longing hook into a repetitive chant, spliced around a minimal rhythmic knock and atmospheric washes of sound that delicately grow and just as softly decay.

What consistently stands out within the record is Salva’s ability for crafting effusive melodies over rolling bass lines. It’s an absolutely seductive combination that hinges on a resilient tension in the music: a mechanistic but unsteady beat underpins the expressive quality of the chord progressions. Salva owes this effect at least in part to his recording technique of combining live instrumentation on the keyboard with laptop robotics. “When I’m making music with live instruments, I have more of an open palette,” he says. “When I’m in the computer, in the sequencer — the options are nearly limitless — anything goes. And because of that, my creativity can be stifled if I don’t place restrictions on myself.”

Salva and Mophono both figure out surprising and compelling ways to tap into the elusive formula of creativity. In the end, the search for the future beat is more of a mad science than an exact one.


With Shlomo, B.Bravo, Epcot, and more

Thurs./17, 9 p.m.; $8

222 Hyde

222 Hyde, SF

(415) 345-8222


With Gaslamp Killer and Citizen Ten

Sat./19, 10 p.m.; call for price


2925 16th St., SF

(415) 558-8521