Future Roots Forever: How LA’s DUBLAB Revolutionized Online Community Radio
On March 16, 2020, in Los Angeles, only a week before the city declared a total ban on public gatherings due to coronavirus concerns, five electronic and experimental artists climbed into a van with their gear and made their way to a grocery store parking lot.
Using a shortwave FM-transmitter, Marta Sofia Honer, Jeremiah Chiu, Celia Hollander, Booker Stardrum, and Ben Babbitt threw a “Drive-In Concert.” The music was improvised, and around 100 cars showed up. Famed comedian/musician Reggie Watts was there, as were curious onlookers, loyal listeners, and local DJs, while another 900 listeners streamed the performance via dublab.com — the online radio station that has, in many ways, been the heart and soul of the electronic music scene in LA for over 20 years.
DUBLAB was founded by Jonathan Buck and Mark McNeill (AKA Frosty), who in the late ’90s were a pair of respected DJs for the University of Southern California’s college radio station, KSCR (now known as KXSC). Because the station was operating without a license and faced an inevitable shutdown McNeill and Buck decided to experiment with streaming audio online as a backup plan. It worked, and in the months before their FM broadcast was blocked, Buck and McNeill successfully moved its framework to their new online radio channel.
Soon, they realized that virtual radio operated beyond America’s strict Federal Communications Commission regulations. This would allow for far more creative freedom, while moving their station out of the crowded and competitive world of FM/AM radio in one of the country’s most vehicular and populous cities. The station sent out its first broadcast on September 27, 1999.
“At the time, running live audio online was a very novel idea,” explains dublab’s current director, Ale Cohen. “This was the early, early days of online streaming. Still, it was kind of the model of what you see today, with a virtual chat room, a videocast that had people dancing in the background, and an editorial section. Streaming live was this brand new idea of the medium, and it had this very defining look with lots of energy.”
With this innovative approach, dublab received startup funding, setting up its first office in Hollywood, near the Paramount Pictures building, which doubled as an event space and art gallery. Rounding up scores of local DJs and musicians to partake in the station’s inception, including DJ Nobody, Daedelus, and Carlos Niño, the station began broadcasting over 100 hours a week to its growing, global audience. DUBLAB soon became a beacon for the city’s post-rock crowd, house music aficionados, underground hip hop heads, drum & bass fanatics, and lovers of unconventional music alike.
“All of a sudden, all of these super passionate individuals started broadcasting the music that I and just a handful of us loved that didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar,” explains LA techno hero and longtime station supporter, John Tejada. “[They were] always connecting the dots in new and exciting ways. I just constantly thought of dublab as the ultimate kind of tastemakers of what a music scene can be.”
Despite their initial success, the burst of the dot-com bubble forced the station to scale back operations. Money was tight, and Mark suddenly found himself sleeping in the studio, rolling up his sheets in the morning, and getting on with the broadcast for the day. He eventually recruited Ale to help with daily operations, and together they came up with the idea to rebrand dublab as a nonprofit.
“One of our turntables would break down, and we would ask for money to get it fixed, and people would send us money online. Because of stuff like that, the idea of becoming a nonprofit made sense since we were essentially already acting like one, collaborating with a lot of the cultural institutions in Los Angeles. In reality, we belong to that world.”
Without a commercial incentive, dublab could now concentrate on building a like-minded community in Los Angeles around music that was rarely heard on mainstream radio. A move to their current location in East Hollywood put them in the same office as LA-based IDM imprint, Plug Research — a single desk operation run by Allen Avanessian. And artists from across the city were regularly dropping by to play, hang out, and connect, including a young intern at Stones Throw Records.
“I remember when Steve [Ellison] came and told me the idea in 2006, saying, ‘I started this thing called Flying Lotus,'” Ale recalls. “We started listening to his songs at dublab, and Allen decided to put out his first record, 1983.” Flying Lotus wasn’t the only electronic music titan to credit dublab with nurturing his creative instincts. Most notably, The Gaslamp Killer, the late Ras G, Kutmah, and WeDidIt founder Henry Laufer (AKA Shlohmo) have made their way through the station. “Shlohmo essentially got signed via dublab too,” Ale says. “Henry came as a volunteer to help us paint our studio white and put up a mural a few years back. Leo from the label Friends of Friends came by, and after playing him his music, they put out his first album, Shlomoshun Deluxe.”
After starting with just a few DJs, dublab currently has almost 200 residents listed on the website, who run the musical gamut. The station’s shows, which run two-hours each, are left up to the imagination of the DJ, with no guidelines, promotion plugs, or requirements forced upon them. However, the station does have one guiding philosophy: “Future Roots Radio,” a statement that sits above the decks in the dublab studio lit up by a bright neon sign.
“Future Roots is music that looks back at the music of the past as being the roots of today’s music and the music of today, the roots of tomorrow’s music,” Ale explains. “So really, it can be any genre as long as it has that relevance, that power, that longevity that will live on and influence the next wave of musicians.”
Many upstart DJs in the LA underground scene now see getting the chance to play at dublab as a rite of passage. For Serbian born, LA-based DJ Masha, it marked the start of a long and prosperous career in the city’s dance music scene. “The first time I played dublab was when Mor Elian invited me to play her show, Plaza 2 Plaza. It was a Wednesday, and I had a full-time job, so I pretended I had a lunch meeting, went to the studio, played the show, and then drove frantically back to downtown to get back to my desk. It was such an honor, and I needed to make it work.” She was soon getting invited back by dublab residents like Heidi Lawden and Peaking Lights. And she now has her own weekly show, Analogue Players Club. “Going into the studio is such a joy,” Masha says. “It feels like I’m going into this little spaceship, a special zone every Friday. They also present you with so many opportunities, giving their residents paid gigs and a place to perform for a live audience, beyond the virtual airwaves. If you’re in with dublab, you’re in.”
Outside of the station, the fundraisers produced by dublab are among some of the most resplendent parties in Los Angeles. Events like the annual ambient gathering, Tonalism, LACMA’s Muse ’til Midnight show, and the after-hours adventure, Sleepless, at the majestic Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown LA, all explore fascinating intersections in music. These affairs often feature large-scale projections, sound baths, lavish decorations, interactive art installations, and always carry a curated lineup with reputable out of town acts and talented dublab DJs alike. Devoid of agism and attracting everyone from the city’s cavalier art crowd to the nocturnal creatures of LA’s warehouse scene, people turn out in droves to pay respect and support, while also seeking the introspection, collegiality, and fun that dublab is famous for.
For touring artists who stop by LA, dublab has become an essential destination. Local figureheads and dublab DJs like Lovefingers, Daddy Differently & Dirty Dave, Cooper Saver, Aura T-09, They/Them DJ, Wylie Cable, and others often invite internationally lauded acts like Eddie C, Seth Troxler, Jensen Interceptor, Harvey Sutherland, Young Marco, Palms Trax, Kate Simko, Roza Terenzi, DJ Holographic, Ben UFO, FJAAK, and dublab veteran Four Tet to guest-host their shows. Four Tet’s first show on dublab dates back to 2001.
“The dublab name travels far in the form of stickers and taggings. From Russia to The Middle East and beyond, we’ve found dublab stickers in some of the most remote parts of the world,” says Ale. DUBLAB itself has gone global in recent years, with affiliate stations in cities like Tokyo, Cologne, Barcelona, and, most recently, São Paulo.
“Each of the stations had their process in how they came to be, but there are similarities in how we built each relationship,” Ale says. “After meeting communities in places that we felt had the same energy as ours, the same vision, and the commitment, we’d permit them to use the dublab name. After that, we stay in touch and collaborate, but they run their own show with their own website and designs. Essentially, we’d wait for the city to choose us, rather than us choose the city.”
While dublab’s global reach and appeal are a definite point of pride for the station’s team, Los Angeles will forever be its home. They built everything there. It’s where their fanbase is, their residents, and a growing, vibrant scene they’ve had a hand in nurturing. But the station’s “future roots” philosophy continues to spread, paving the way for similar community-driven online destinations around the world that have learned from dublab’s early ordeals and triumphs.
As the world now faces new and unprecedented trials with the arrival of the Coronavirus, the dublab studio lies empty and unused. But the dublab staff has adapted, coordinating with artists to keep the airwaves full. They’ve devised new programming with shows like The Quarantine Tapes, a series that chronicles shifting paradigms in the age of social distancing. “We’ve realized how important it is to evolve, adapt and adjust to the current situation, but we also are determined not to jump into an emergency mode, even if things are not going as planned,” Ale explains. “We’re still carrying on with our mission despite the limitations.”
Currently, dublab’s annual Membership Drive is underway, collecting donations and offering up swag to keep operations up and running. “For over 20 years, we’ve been using the Internet as a way to assist our community,” Ale says. “Now, in this era of isolation, it seems like it’s not just a way to help, but became the primary way of sharing a space. We understand people are going through their own challenges financially, so those who can and are fortunate to have the means, we’re asking for support. Even a small donation goes a long way. DUBLAB is an organization that belongs to all of us. It belongs to the public. What we do, we do for the love of community!”
Cameron Holbrook is a staff writer for Beatportal. Find him on Twitter.