Abstract Art

Abstract Workshop spent eight years bringing hip-hop to OC: Now they're bring their own music to the world

Between 18 and 21, things would happen. As local groups like Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 and even Ozomatli climbed toward higher profiles, the guys who would start Abstract—who, says Jud, knew all those same cats in LA—would climb toward their own higher profiles as DJs ("I've never played a record I didn't like!" says Scotty proudly) and record-store buyers (a great way to meet people) and engineers—another great way to meet people, particularly during strange noontime college shows, says Jud. Everyone they knew was coming of age and coming into hip-hop, one of those situations where everything starts to harmonize. And then Costa Mesa's Tiki Bar got tired of 10 weeks of the same reggae band and asked Jud (then their engineer and DJ) if he wanted to take over a night.

"We were stoked," he says. "We were 21 at the time, and now we had a place we could play music as loud as we damn well please—drink ourselves silly and play whatever we like!"

"This was the era when I was just fed up with every promoter in OC," says Cocoe, who has been deejaying for pay since about 13 or 14. "I was over it, and this was so cool—positive people on the same vibe."

Scotty Coats, Jud Nester, Cocoe and Josh One. Photo by John Gilhooley
Scotty Coats, Jud Nester, Cocoe and Josh One. Photo by John Gilhooley

"I think that mainstream shit gets old," says Josh. "That's just like a targeted audience."

And so the fledgling Abstract Workshop sessions—the name caught on the first try; "rang a bell," says Cocoe—started out half-assed as a place just to play—in the most playful sense—and quickly ratcheted up to full-assed because of its die-hard no-rules rules. ("I've never said, 'You have to play this at my club,'" says Cocoe. "Never to one person. Just rock the crowd—have fun.") Name DJs like Jason Blakemore showed up to spin all-Beatles sets, as grateful for the fresh air as Cocoe and co., and between five turntables and three mixers—all unloaded from a 27-foot truck and set up and broken down weekly, all by 120-lb.-little-guys like Jud and Scotty!—there was plenty of room for any comers. It really was like a workshop, says Cocoe: "Our friends that dance, that did graffiti, that deejayed—we opened up the microphone, and it started growing."

"And we all wanted to learn from each other," says Scotty.

*    *    *

NowAbstract sitsregally in the last-Saturday spot at Detroit Bar, relocated from the Tiki Bar after a self-imposed hiatus thanks to undue stress on the checkbook and the cardiovasculars—but "I got clubsick," Cocoe says, "like other people get homesick." Detroit's revamped beat-friendly atmosphere plus solid sound system and stage offered the de-stressed respite from the Tiki's weekly grind that Abstract needed. Drama-free, says Jud happily. And now that the early lean years (when 30 people would show up to out-of-town groups like Foreign Legion who otherwise would have skipped OC altogether) would be safely remembered as the "foundation" years, Abstract Workshop could consider a logical next step: releasing music of their own. "We've all done stuff. We've all put music out in other places or done remixes and stuff," says Cocoe, "and this is something we've always talked about. It's always been in the works."

Workshopper Josh One had a platinum record (a remix of Kentucky hip-hop group Nappy Roots' "Po Boy") by 2003, the same year that Cocoe in an OC Weekly profile mentioned getting Abstract Workshop working as a label within a few months. Instead, it took a few years—"just life," says Josh. But not lazy years: Workshop turned to a workshop method, creating and critiquing track after track, sifting through a monstrous pile of potential songs. All four members produce beats, so all four members got those radar ears: "These cats are critical—they listen to records every day!" says Jud. "If it's not 100 percent great, they're not feeling it—and if it feels good, then we want to share that feeling. It doesn't have to be perfect, but we all love these tracks—we don't need to spend $2,500 a day and another eight grand to get it mixed down because I can hear the song just fine!"

Abstract Workshop Collective Presents: Jud Nester debuts online this Friday (and releases to vinyl in May), showcasing a tight six tracks culled from the past year of songwriting (except for "City Lights Dub," a stretched-out, space-y track that Cocoe calls "timeless"). As a test shot at an OC hip-hop sound, it makes a lot of sense: even the beat of "Stop Right There"—which Jud affectionately calls dirty—is glossed up with plenty of reverb and digital starbursts; it's lively and deep but also careful and polished, a song sympathetic toward the smoother releases on Ubiquity and Sound In Color but propelled by an electric energy of its own. From start to end, it's a stylistically airtight EP—subtle, considered, its samples melting gently into dialed electronic effects and Jud's light cadence, a spread-out and spacious record that goes down like a cold glass of something-something after comparatively more agitated post-Blowedian releases.

A day in the life? More like a night: "Why can't we make something happen . . .?" asks Jud on the very first few moments of "Eluding," as much a question by a guy in a bar as a record label putting out its first vinyl, and then runs through a confident but not cocky set of self-aware suburban soul. Sometimes he's at a party catting on girls ("Hey, how you been, how you doin'? Fine? I'm good, it's . . . good to be fine, but I find that our time would be better spent combined/Let's go unwind a bit!") and sometimes he's driving back home on a song that soars along just like those futuristic freeway transition ramps are supposed to do. It's a nice view too: "My city, it don't sleep," he notes at the EP's start, and by its conclusion, he's "caught up in the lights of the city."

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