WORDS + PHOTOS: Dustin Beatty
For many of us, our history with music discovery sits somewhere on the spectrum between word of mouth and the spontaneity of a scavenger hunt. Of course the algorithms and streaming services have changed all that, but we all can remember a time where radio was the most traditional way of finding what made you move. Passive listeners just turned a dial and let the station do the rest. That all changed with the popularization of the Internet around the mid-90s where a number of scrappy pioneers attempted to leverage the reach of the latest advances in digital compression. Most of us would consider the content at the time pretty boring until two students from USC had the idea to start dublab not only as a way to disrupt access the general public had to the FM airwaves but to bring more eclectic music to the masses.
At the time, Jonathan Buck and Mark McNeil, better known as ‘Frosty’ to his listeners, found themselves limited by the capabilities of KSCR, USC’s campus radio station, so they bootstrapped the launch of dublab as a beacon for the “camaraderie of geeks,” as Frosty called it once in a LA Record Magazine interview. Keep in mind, that this was 1999 and the only thing more annoying than the overtly scripted voice of the radio DJ was the sound of your own dial up connection so listeners really had to make the effort to tune in. “There is definitely still an element of Wayne’s World and no matter how hard we try to be super sleek and professional we can’t help who we are,” adds current director Alejandro Cohen from their office that looks more like a seasoned record store than cable access channel. That’s what makes dublab so charming. At its core is a clubhouse mentality where half the mission is to carefully curate what booms out of your speakers and the other half to be a platform for the LA music community. There’s no secret handshake, just a commitment to the “tradition of shaping the voice of Los Angeles and offering an opportunity for people to come up with new ideas,” says Cohen. By virtue of their open door policy, dublab’s reach is felt on a global scale. “Being a part of dublab has introduced me to people the world over — fellow DJs and promoters or just wonderful party people that tell me how much they enjoy our station. Having someone approach you in Russia or Berlin or on the dance floor of a club in San Francisco with feelings and comments around music you’ve played, maybe even while solo in the studio reminds me of how connected we are and how powerful radio can be,” adds LA DJ (and Garrett Leight Mixtape alumni) Heidi Lawden.
Online, dublab’s programming predates Red Light Radio from Amsterdam, Lot Radio from Brooklyn, NTS from London and even Britain’s Boiler Room who claims to have streamed 3,500,000,000 minutes of music according to a 2015 article in The Guardian. If you’re good at calculus, it’s a fair estimation that dublab has at least doubled that in their tenure while continuing to run as a non-profit that relies on sponsors and listener donations during two annual pledge drives. Humbly, Cohen also credits their collaborators who also keep their pulse pumping. On any given day, guest DJs range from recognizable LA locals like Devendra Banhart, and DJ Harvey to resident hometown heroes like Jimmy Tamborello, Lovefingers, Cooper Saver and Spencer Velazquez. “I’ve had a constant weekly show on dublab under different names and guises going on now for eight plus years. My show is a necessity for me; I’d be some bozo-hoarder-type from a generation or two ago that just sat on all this amazing music and only showcased it to their select group of other like-minded record trolls. Through dublab, I’ve shed myself of an alternate-self reality; I still get to be a complete record freak but without the self-loathing questions of ‘Why am I doing this? What is this for?’ My cause is exposure, to uncover. I’m a gumshoe record detective solving an unsolvable mystery,” Velazquez adds when asked what dublab means to him.
The collective ensures the station stays fresh in an era of immediacy and quick attention spans. It also helps that the dublab DJs are on regular rotation playing in and around LA at rooftops, art shows, museums, hotels—you name it. To add to that ubiquity, “I still get out and go to clubs to see things that no one else is looking at,” says Cohen. “Lots of places in south LA. I think it’s important to remain vigilant but always in the scenes that are the most excluded. That’s where there’s something exciting.” All of this gives good reason for dublab to celebrate their 20th year in business in 2019. As expected, there are big plans for a retrospective book by local LA publisher Hat & Beard Press, a new and improved website and of course an anniversary party in honor of two decades of duking it out against all odds to stay passionate about a profession in music. Oh, and for anyone just now discovering dublab, Cohen urges you to, “Just start to listen; tune in and throw yourself to the unknown. It’s a wild ride.” Visit dublab.com to listen and support local Internet radio