Say what you will about the glitch-hop gang, but SoCal’s experimental beatmakers are riding a wave the likes of which hasn’t been seen since trip-hop’s mid-’90s ascent. And while lines can easily be traced between Flying Lotus and producers like Ras G, Samiyam, and Take, there are just as many less-easily categorized MIDI warriors bashing the android rhythms out.
Chief among them is Jason Chung, who continues to sling bangers and mash under the name Nosaj Thing. While plenty of folks assume he’s yet another Fly Lo disciple, you’d be better off filing his music alongside Burial, Plaid, Black Dog, or even good ol’ J.S. Bach. On Chung’s Alpha Pup release, Drift, impressionist classical nuances share space with brittle percussion and drum rhythms. The Danny Elfman fan and former music-store employee chatted up our sister publication Earplug, explaining how he was inspired by The Smell, what it’s like to roll with Flying Lotus, and what the chat room beatmaking scene is all about.
Earplug: Where were you raised, and what were your interests growing up?
Nosaj Thing: I was born and raised all over different areas of LA. I started listening to hip-hop when I was in third grade. The bus driver who drove me to elementary school used to always have Power 106 on. The Beat Junkies were filling a lot of slots on the station and doing a lot of beat juggling and tricks. My ears caught that, and it was all I wanted to listen to. In high school, I played the quad [toms] in the drum line, and during that time as well —1998-99 — I got introduced to the rave scene, drum ‘n’ bass, and house music. At the same time, I started messing with Reason and Fruity Loops.
EP: What did your first tracks sound like?
NT: Pretty much like bad four-on-the-floor dance music. I was just trying to figure [the process] out. I really wanted to be a hip-hop producer like Dr. Dre or Timbaland. As I got older, around 2003-04, I was getting more into indie rock and going to shows at The Smell in downtown LA, seeing bands like No Age, Health, Abe Vigoda, and Mika Miko. Seeing DIY acts really inspired me to do my own thing. I started experimenting more and trying to do something more progressive and interesting.
EP: Who were the first electronic artists you liked?
NT: The Books, Prefuse 73, a bunch of the Warp artists. I really like Boards of Canada. I was always an Internet geek, online in the chat rooms asking people, “I like this, what else is similar?” I was downloading music all the time, through dial-up connections.
EP: When did you start playing live as Nosaj Thing?
NT: I played a few shows at the The Smell around 2004. At first I didn’t have my own equipment, so I had to borrow a friend’s laptop and controller. The live set evolved to include an MPC and I would scratch — I was all over the place.
EP: How did you meet Daddy Kev from Alpha Pup?
NT: I used to watch all the Invisibl Skratch Piklz videos, and even though Qbert is probably the best-known member, we used to follow D-Styles. His website had a message board that I would follow, and I found out that he was going to play a one-off show in LA. The lineup was Daddy Kev, Daedelus, edIT, and D-Syles, and the flier said whoever showed up first with records or gear would open up the show. I thought, “That’s frickin crazy!” So I showed up early and was the only one with gear, and they let me open up. A few months later, Low End Theory was announced, and I started emailing Kev and going to those nights. I definitely felt like that was the music I was looking for.
EP: So you found kindred spirits at Low End Theory?
NT: Yeah. Slowly, more people started hearing about it in LA, including all the Project Blowed community, and all the people involved in beat battles. I met all these other amazing producers, like Flying Lotus and Nobody. That was the hub, the meeting place — kind of like The Smell for this movement.
EP: What do you make of all the media interest LA producers are getting?
NT: I just feel very proud. I think it’s amazing that we’re getting attention. I think it happened as a result of Low End Theory and everyone coming together, so it became more of like a movement. I’m excited about it.
EP: How many laptops have you gone through in your career?
NT: Four. I kind of try and buy and sell them as upgrades come out, and minimize my equipment. When I first started out, I had an Apple G5 Tower, but I had to sell that. Now I roll with two laptops. One for the live show, and one for the studio.
EP: Have any new tracks been produced on the road?
NT: Yeah, I’m pretty much always working on new stuff. I actually wrote the skeleton of a lot of tracks on Drift on the airplane. The album is works I’ve compiled together since 2006. I started by moving all the tracks I like to a certain folder, and I noticed that most of those songs were ones with more melodic elements.
EP: There are certain songs on Drift that sound almost neo-classical. Are you influenced by composers like Ravel, Bach, or Philip Glass?
NT: I took a bunch of music classes at community college. In the Theory and Harmony classes, we studied a lot of classical composers. I have a song on Drift called “1685/Bach,” which doesn’t actually have any chords; the bass line is the melody. For some reason, it has a mathematical feel to me, and I know that a lot of Bach’s work is mathematical, as well. At home, I like listening to Chopin, Debussy, and Erik Satie. Certain songs that I write, for me, I think of as therapeutic. I start off by doing some basic sound design and try to sculpt a sound to fit the mood I’m in. Then I add a chord progression or melody; I rarely start with drums.
EP: The vocal elements you use on songs like “Coat of Arms” are more choral than singing actual lyrics or words. Was that intentional?
NT: Yes, it was. I think of this as more of an electronic album, but I didn’t want it to be stale. I wanted there to be a human element to it, so I added vocal sounds. While I was making the album, Edward Scissorhands was on TV, and I really like Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. I like how he uses the vocal choir, the “ahhs.” Even the [vocal sounds] in like movies like Lord of the Rings — my ears are just drawn to that, and I wanted to incorporate that in my music.