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Celebrating Six Years with SMOG Records

on January 28, 2013, 12:00am

smog logo e1359347256807 Celebrating Six Years with SMOG Records

The majority of human cells cycle out and are replaced every seven years. What does that really mean? Now in the year 2013, we are in many ways completely different beings than we were in the year 2006. Dubstep has just gone through its first cycle.

During the year of 2006, Caspa was a newcomer to the genre, Skream had just released his debut LP, Benga was working with seminal producer Hatcha on the eerie bass waves of “10 Tons Heavy”, and Burial was introducing an American audience to the more ambient side of UK dubstep. As the genre began to saturate the UK underground, American’s Drew Best and Danny Johnson, who would later be joined by producer John Dadzie, decided Southern California was ready to embrace the genre’s pulsing low-end beats and launched a lone event: SMOG.

“New York and San Francisco had some events, but here in L.A. there was no home for dubstep,” recalls founder Best. “If we branded an event with a new style of music that people really know nothing about, we want people to trust our judgment. They may not know much about the genre, but when they see the word ‘SMOG’ they know that it is going to be an event that they would want to go check out because they know that it is going to be quality.”

The genre may have been relatively new to the area, but the leadership team behind SMOG had the insider credentials to quickly establish a community within Los Angeles. As a teenager in Chicago, Best sharpened his teeth in the industry creating events for himself and the group of produces/DJs that he had cultivated. After relocating to California near the turn of the millennia, and following a stint in the film industry, Best cemented himself in the live music industry, initially working for larger companies like Insomniac and their Electric Daisy Carnival. It was during this time that Best and Johnson first began working with one another.

A staple of L.A.’s underground, Johnson understood the need to bring that community closer together and capitalize on the limited amount of resources the various parties had amassed during the first half of the 2000s. “We all sort of became closer,” Johnson reminisces via telephone during what seemed to be an excruciatingly busy pre-holiday series of conference calls, “I had been promoting events, Drew was an amazing graphic designer, and then were a lot of talented musicians. We were all ready for a fresh approach…a new platform for the artists. Before there was even a SMOG, we [Drew, 12th Planet, and himself] gravitated towards one another.”  The experience offered Johnson an opportunity to witness first hand what works and what doesn’t in dance music; learning from mistakes that he knows SMOG will not make.

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Unable to get booked at traditional venues, the team established itself a fierce DIY mentality. The guys didn’t have much money, but each carried a heavy passion for the music and the flourishing community. The success of SMOG’s initial event may not have added significant funds to the coffers, but it helped build acceptance of the genre outside of the key players’ inner-circles.

“Slowly it started picking up steam,” recounts Best on SMOG’s earliest events,”…people starting catching onto what we were doing. It took the audience a little time to adjust, but once they did they really fell in love with it. Before we knew it, there were all these producers that started making their own dubstep. Dubstep club nights started to pop up and all these guys started to say they were in the dubstep crowd – the dubstep community. We wanted to build this community, we wanted to see this happen and this culture came out of it. So at this point you had dubstep culture really flourishing in L.A., and a lot of the guys we had DJing starting producing their own music. One of these guys ended up being 12th Planet [John Dadzie] and some of the stuff he was making was really good and we wanted to put it out there, so we started a record label of our own.”

As a prominent drum and bass producer prior to transitioning toward the 140 half-time of dubstep (check out Infiltrata for Dadzie’s DnB work), 12th Planet and Best knew the most effective home for the electr0-charged dubstep was across the pond. At first vinyl-only (“the preferred choice for DJs”), SMOG Records was established in London during 2008. According to Best, printing and distributing as a U.K. domestic kept costs much more manageable, and allowed the collective to use a higher percentage of their funds for growing the business compared to managing the physical product.

Asking 12th Planet why dubstep has taken off in the U.S. while drum and bass never grew much out of the underground draws an honest response: “The crowd has gotten younger and younger. Live music is a huge part of dubstep, and with clubs now letting in 18-year-olds, dubstep is reaching an audience that drum and bass really couldn’t touch.” And 12th Planet has grown into an expert in the U.S. club culture, performing over 440 times between September of 2011 and November of 2012.

SMOG labelmate Noah D, who actually used to book Infiltrata for drum and bass shows in Portland, OR, adds further insight into the cultural acceptance of the energy behind the two genres:

“I think the 140 tempo was just more appealing to the masses. If DnB was a new emerging genre right now within this huge boom of EDM in the US maybe it would do better than it did in the past. It did pretty well in the US for a while though, especially in LA and I think it will be making a comeback soon. When dubstep gained popularity around the world I saw firsthand how it broke down the genre barriers for many DJs. DJ’s started to play multiple genres and multiple BPM sets more than ever before (with the exception of the earliest days of rave culture.) This was very powerful in my opinion. I was doing it as well as many people around me but you would even hear of Tiësto or someone of that caliber who never played anything underground or urban or bass related, dropping at least one dubstep tune in a set. It was around that time that I knew it was going to be huge.”

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As the genre’s popularity began to boom Stateside circa 2010, a growing market that favored purchasing music digitally, the team decided it would be best to shift the label into a digital-only distributor. The transition propelled the label’s DIY mantra. 12th Planet insists that releasing music digitally “is not a cash grab”; instead, “technology has created a platform where more artists can be heard, and it cuts out the middle men and the red tape. Whereas it used to take four or five months to release a single, producers can now skip that line and release almost immediately.”

Best, seemingly the staunchest business mind of the three founders, reaffirms 12th Planet’s appreciation for the technological shits within the music industry. Moreover, he views technology as an integral factor in creating longevity for SMOG amidst the current massive bubble of EDM. ”Now being a digital-label, we don’t have to worry about paying for printing vinyl or shipping and we can get music out there, be it as a download or via streaming, much more quickly than [90’s electronica]. The traditional way of doing vinyl would take quite a long time to get the music on the shelves, now it’s one maybe two months. If we want to do an exclusive with a particular retailer we can get the music out in two weeks. That has been a big help. Now where we spend our resources is more PR and publicity – trying to get a track on the radio or a particular article written.

“Digital is part of [longevity], but there is also that double-edged sword where because this is something that people can do quickly, a lot of labels have sprung-up in the digital age and there are all these new who can sign up for different programs, find a digital distributor, and then they are putting their music out there. Well, we invest a bit more in our product and we go for quality. We still pay for traditional mastering and engineers, ensuring that we aim for the best quality fidelity wise.”

With a background in media (he founded the underground imprint Media Contender), Johnson understands the necessity for journalists to offer insights into the barrage of new music. “Kids out there are looking for a trusted source to help sort through the ton of shit that is out there,” he vehemently blasts. But more importantly, he urges young consumers to find what it is that they are into, no matter the media or popular appeal that it may hold.

Love it or hate it, dubstep and other forms of progressive bass music, have quickly flourished from the underground: 12th Planet has gained sponsorships from Red Bull and Scion A/V, SMOG has hosted events during Ultra Music Festival for three consecutive years that feature producers from their own roster like Flinch but also up-and-comers from across the bass scene like recent “The End is Near, Pt. 1″ remixers Dirtyphonics, and the team keep Austin rattling with their own South By Southwest events. Given the stadium-filling capabilities of artists like deadmau5, Skrillex, and Amon Tobin, Best views EDM as just another form of popular music. Johnson offers a much more intriguing view of the underground: “There will also be this top side [of EDM], but it is up to the underground to continually push the mainstream into new territory.”

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As artists who push these boundaries, 12th Planet and Noah D share similar mentalities on the current “underground”. “There will always be some element of an underground,” states Noah D. ”To me underground is basically the stuff that someone has really search for. Not what is shoved in their face on the daily. But it used to be different in dance music for sure. If nothing else you had most of the good music in any dance genre only released on vinyl so you really had to dig, spending a lot of time and money to get the best music. This was time spent out of your chair, away from your computer, out in the world, and to be honest that shit was mad fun. I miss the days of spending hours listening to the new releases at a record store, only to hurry off to the next one when you were done. Then going home, grabbing some herb and listening to all your new treasures. It was more of a ritual back then and it made music more rare, which in a sense made it more underground.”

Dadzie sees the underground more as a challenge. Having played all over the world, recently visiting countries across Asia, Dadzie continually discovers new sounds and new approaches to add an evolutionary quality to both his 12th Planet productions and the SMOG label and compilations. Whereas Noah D continues an appreciation for vinyl, Dadzie sees technology as a key factor in remaining underground, allowing artists to easily switch between tempos and sub-genres, adding opportunities for improvisation, and tearing down the walls of what the term “dubstep” even continues to mean.

To experience this proactive approach toward running SMOG, fans of bass music can turn to 12th Planet’s latest album, The End, which features Skrillex, Antiserum, SPL, and Kill The Noise, or spin the nine-track Smog City compilation which spans from the trap-influenced “Bass Salt” to Flinch’s more ethereal “All Night” and the funky stylings of The Juggernaut on “Nudrobe”. Needless to type, this dubstep is a much different beast than the one that came across the pond with Burial.

Although the crew were happy to celebrate their six-year anniversary with a raucous live performance, the trio is certain that the label’s best years still lie ahead of them. “It has been six years, but I really feel that we are still just getting started. This is the year that we have really taken steps forward. Like last year I quit my day job to star the motions of making this more real,” admits Best. “We got an office this year and have some volunteers that are working with us. They are passionate about the label and are learning a lot about the business from working with us. We finally have a home now. 12th Planet has put his own money into building a recording studio, so we can do that now. This has been the year where we really got the business tied down, and we are now a team of people instead of just all the weight being on one or two people we can delegate tasks now.

“For most businesses [building a trusted reputation] would be the hardest thing to achieve, but we have kind of ran it backwards and are now working to get into the business for real. It’s exciting, it’s brand new, and I am for sure getting ready for the next six years. Whether dubstep is our focus or the related genres of music that have stemmed from it, our artists are expanding their scope and developing their own interests.”

Dadzie goals for the next six years are a little more concise: “Someone from SMOG is going to win a Grammy, maybe not myself but someone, and we will continue setting the bar”.

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And by establishing what they like to call “The Compound”, the SMOG team is helping insulate themselves against the corporate entities that threaten the independent nature of EDM (read: Live Nation Buys Hard Events). “We want to create a situation where we don’t have to rely on other people. 12th lives here, his studio is here, my office is two blocks away and Drew doesn’t live much further than that,” Johnson divulges about the label’s base. “At first we didn’t think too much about it, but we have created an infrastructure where we can sustain not just plateau.”

Best already has a plan on how to tackle competition in 2013 and beyond.

“It seems crazy, but instead of selling out to a major label, we want to keep everything internalized and operate as if we are a major label,” he explains. “We started our own publishing company so we can self-publish our own music and not have to rely on a major to have that support. The same thing with our events. We would like to keep it internalized and evolve our brand. We see what they have, and besides money, we can’t think of anything they can do that we aren’t already doing. From my experience working with some of these major bureaucratic systems, things just take forever to get done. We think, by being small we can be more agile and operate on a level where we can act more quickly. Whereas with larger systems, that may not be the case. We can seize things on the ground floor that larger companies are just too big to see.”

After more than 90-minutes speaking with the collective, the statement didn’t seem crazy at all, more like a mission statement to propel SMOG Records through to 2020. The collective of Best, Johnson and Dadzie have become curators for the future of American bass music, and while they might not have been the global originators, they sure have made it, as Noah D. says, “a lot more interesting.”

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