New York critic Sasha Frere-Jones did the music world notably the West Coast scene a great favor. This spring, on his New Yorker blog, he off-handedly coined the term lazer bass to describe production duo Megasoids noisy, synth-heavy remix of fellow Montreal producer Ghislain Poiriers ragga-hip-hop track No More Blood. By doing so, Frere-Jones didnt just put the music-genre game to shame with the silliest sounding category since emo. He also provided a great metaphor for how the digital generation has zapped dancefloor music back into a realm of destructive, cartoonish fun over the past few years.
As with previous polyglot catch-all terms like future jazz and electronica, lazer bass refers less to a single genre than to an approach that absorbs and abuses urban dance musics most tribalized scenes. Over a months-long flurry of club showcases in Los Angeles and San Francisco, DJs and producers have been playing and digitally treating anything from slow Dirty South and hyphy hip-hop to electro, glitch, dubstep, dancehall, and bassline house. The residents at L.A.s vaunted club night Low End Theory include straight-ahead hip-hop veterans like former Bay Area turntablist D-Styles and expert producer and DJ Daddy Kev on the same bill with more opaquely psychedelic experimentalists like Flying Lotus, Gas Lamp Killer, and DJ Nobody.
Along with its stylistic diversity, lazer bass distinguishes itself via four basic elements: heavy-duty basslines, thumping drums, loudly buzzing synthesizers, and noisy open-field experimentation. In live showcases, producer duos like S.F.s Lazer Sword who named themselves a couple of years before Frere-Jones created the lazer bass tag dont merely play tunes through their laptops. They use a MIDI controller to viscerally tweak the sound on the fly in the great tradition of dub. They splice and twist a cappellas and beats, add layers of twitchy bleeps, and bump up the bass to speaker-rattling levels.
As a metaphor, lazer can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. Local promoter and producer Paul Salva, who organized this weeks Frite Nite, an L.A.-vs.-S.F. lazer bass showcase, sees the lazer method as a weapon of sonic chaos. I see a bit of a punk aesthetic to it, he says. When I play, I get supernoisy and buzzed-out. Plus, dubsteps made it okay to add nasty, dirty basslines rather than to just rely on the smooth, clean bass you get with house and hip-hop.
Matt Earp, who writes for XLR8R and DJs around town as Kid Kameleon, connects the lazer attitude to a childlike nostalgia for an eight-bit animated era. He says most of the scenes twentysomething producers and artists were raised on a mix of rave, second-wave hip-hop, 80s cartoons, and videogames. They fuse those influences with production tools that are easier to use than ever. Theyre saying, We can do anything. We can cut as fast as possible and make this a cartoon world or at least make it sound like one, he says.
As a means to loud, disorderly, and perhaps cartoonish dancefloor fun, lazer bass is steadily making its mark up and down the West Coast, although its also jumping in Montreal and Glasgow strangely arbitrary locales, considering the MySpace-centeredness of the scene. But with artists like Samiam and Dark Party being commissioned by the likes of the Adult Swim TV network, the lazer virus is likely to spread. Chalk it up to the restless kids of the digital age and, ahem, the casual genius of a music writer.