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Photo by Matt OttoCelebrated hip-hop producer Matthew "Mumbles" Fowler goes to India for a pilgrimage. He meditates, sees elephants and feels he's making progress on his path to spiritual enlightenment. Upon his return to Los Angeles, reps from several established indie record labels knock on his door, begging the employ of his talents. He picks one with the intriguing name of Sound In Color.
What is Sound In Color? It's a cramped space with a couple of stains on a threadbare carpet and some funky art plastering the walls. A perfect crash pad for a college kid—fitting, since Sound In Color's co-founder is 22-year-old university student Jon Bizarra Ancheta. And in this tiny bungalow by a traffic-choked stretch of Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach, Ancheta holds court, lays down beats, and talks strategy with an array of people ranging from money men to revolutionary turntablists. He says with complete seriousness that this modest hovel could foster the Next Big Thing in electronic music.
And Sound In Color is already earning some high marks with their first release, a compilation called MU.SIC. Kutmah, a DJ with the taste-making Los Angeles-based Internet radio station Dublab, has noticed people's heads nodding to the comp's tracks whether he spins it at urbane rooftop parties at downtown LA's Standard Hotel or at the gritty, venerable hip-hop club Soundlessons in Silver Lake.
"A lot of stuff out now sounds like it came out in 1997. This sounds like it should be out now," says Kutmah of MU.SIC. "The Sound In Color crew aren't copying others—they're doing their own thing, and most of these cats are unheard of."
The music pumping out from the Sound In Color collective lacks any obvious labels. Their songs have roots in the readily identifiable jazz, turntablism, rock, hip-hop, Latin and dub music realms, but their sound is fast flowering into something like bebop sampledelica with a classic '50s jazz vibe (we'll take credit for coining a new genre term there). MU.SIC's closest cousin in the record-store bins would be the Verve label's Remixed series, on which top DJ/producers such as Koop and Felix Da Housecat have reworked jazz greats Astrud Gilberto and Nina Simone. The Sound In Color crew lace their music with a craft that traditional arrangers would appreciate, says Diego Carlin, Sound In Color's Anaheim-bred music engineer.
"We're more akin to a '50s jazz artist than a commercial hip-hop producer," Carlin says. "We don't believe in formulas where we loop something for four bars and reproduce it over and over again. We're trying to bring music back to a time when people wrote songs and thought about what they did before they recorded."
That's interesting thinking for a crew whose ages range between 20 and 22. But they all bring a piece to their ever-eclectic puzzle; MU.SIC's compositions are instrumental, ranging from Ricci Rucker's turntablism technique to GB's R&B-flavored experimentalism to Teck Another's cinematic hip-hop symphonies.
Except for Mumbles' work with budding local hip-hop star Aceyalone, most of Sound In Color's 10 DJ/producers lead fairly anonymous lives in the OC/Long Beach area. A few were college-radio DJs who spun freaky music over the airwaves during late-night shifts. GB was at KUCI; Rucker did time at San Jose State's KSJS; and Ancheta toiled in heavy obscurity at Long Beach State's Internet station, KBEACH, hosting a hip-hop show called The Observatory.
Most of these guys wear the typical b-boy uniform of sneakers and baseball caps, and they are always ready to break into a freestyle rap. Sounds like kids' stuff, right? But they're also convincing as experimental musicians. These guys are studio rats, spending most of their time making beats. And a lot of it has to do with a grouchy guy named Rosario Burns Jr.
Burns was the guy in Ancheta's graphic-design program at Long Beach State who looked like Ice Cube with a scowl tattooed on his face. People respected his menace because his design work was so sought-after by music labels and dot-coms. Ancheta wanted to work with him, but Burns mercilessly teased him. "So you think you can make beats?" he'd taunt. "Bust a freestyle then!" If Ancheta tried, Burns would just razz him more.
Burns mysteriously turned into a nice guy when Ancheta told him he did design work for Newport Beach label Ubiquity Recordings. He approved of the label and even started including Ancheta in his graphic-design projects, grueling marathon sessions during which they frequently pulled all-nighters.
They talked seriously about starting a music label that would emphasize design and new, groundbreaking hip-hop. Things looked great. Ancheta was meeting a lot of DJs who wanted to sign with them. Then, without warning, Burns killed himself in 2001.
Word was that he hung himself, despondent and angry over a breakup with his girlfriend. Ancheta didn't even bother to get too many details about the death. His mom died of cancer the year before, and two deaths in two years were too much for him to take.
"I went kinda crazy," Ancheta says. "I hibernated and started making beats." Many of the DJs who guested on his Observatory show wouldn't let him alone. They dropped by his place to prove their solidarity. "It was cool to identify with people again after all that."