By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Even though it starts and lives and thrives in Orange County, the story of Abstract Workshop has a little more Hollywood hip-hop in it than you'd think—Suge Knight makes an offstage appearance in the late '80s, hoping to manage DJs Scotty Coats and Jud Nester's baby boy band, and DJ Cocoe suffers a bullet wound outside a club in Anaheim in 1994, shot innocent-bystander style while waiting to get paid for deejaying. But that's just the cheese around the real center: the preternatural ambition of four local producers and DJs—each with experience and resources that together stack into skyscrapers—who eight years ago made the handshake meetings that took them from random sets of dudes spotting other random sets of dudes to the powerhouse collective responsible for the longest-running independent hip-hop club in Orange County.
Before underground venue-packers like Zion I headlined the Knit or Atmosphere headlined the Glass House or Aceyalone headlined the El Rey, they all took an unfamiliar drive down the 5 to meet with the four workmen—Jud Nester, 29; Scotty Coats, 29; Kosta "Cocoe" Tsimahidis, 30; and Josh One, 30—behind the Abstract Workshop. Most famously, Phife from A Tribe Called Quest once plugged more than 700 people into Costa Mesa's Tiki Bar—"A full-on rock club!" says Cocoe—on a Wednesday night. But most tellingly, Abstract is still going, outlasting not just the downer guy who told Cocoe underground hip-hop couldn't be done locally way back in 1998 ("That was my drive," he says) but venues (like the Tiki Bar) and clubs and even certain formats of music: CDs will be obsolete in two years, but Abstract will be celebrating their 10th anniversary. And they'll be celebrating the second anniversary of their own long-time-coming record label, the next logical progression for guys who set up a lasting home for hip-hop in the 714 (before it turned into the 949). First they made a place for the music, and now they're making the music itself.
"We used to invite people in," says producer and MC Jud Nester, whose vocals carry five of the six songs on the very first Abstract Workshop label EP, available for digital download Friday from abstract-workshop.com. "And now we're pushing outward—we're bringing our vibe to the world."
* * *
"To say, 'Yeah, I'm Orange County hip-hop,' that brings a chuckle," says Jud. But that's a bit unfair: OC labels like Ubiquity (officially world-class, thanks to the Label of the Year award they won from the BBC) and Sound in Color routinely release and promote national and international hip-hop/soul/funk artists, even if they don't always get the local shows to go with them. And super-producer Madlib and super-group the Lootpack (which would disband into components still flourishing in independent hip-hop today) came out of Oxnard, which—though it is the lima bean capital of California—can't be much more cosmopolitan than Orange County.
So it's not so much that OC is so awful as that it suffers the short side of the Long Beach/Los Angeles axis—drive toward Leimert Park, and you can be an LA rapper and enjoy the various glories thereof. Drive the other direction, and the freeway eventually empties into a floodplain of bedroom communities long figured to have petered out—if they ever petered in—sometime around the year punk broke. But the suburbs deserve their shot too, and so the lifers in Abstract—all except Josh still live locally—remember a lively local scene. There were lots of little things in OC: the Palace club in Anaheim, says Josh, where Cocoe and Fountain Valley's budding Beat Junkie J.Rocc would deejay, clubs and parties in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley and even Irvine, or Koo's touchstone freestyle nights, where the open mic sessions, graffiti wall and breakdance crew would incubate most of the 21st century's local hip-hop musicians.
"I wouldn't change where I grew up," says Josh, who now lives in LA but admits to liking Long Beach better ("You can put that in," he says).
"It's not where you're from, it's where you're at," says Cocoe. "I feel my knowledge of music is pretty deep, and I'm from Garden Grove, dude—there's no record store there! It's what you go and dig for and what it becomes."
* * *
After Jud and Scotty met in that pre-Knight boy band—really, they were called Kinetic Krew and they were supposed to cheese out New Kids-style, until the producers (who were also supposedly working with DJ Quik) discovered Jud could rap—they found themselves the hardest hip-hop dudes in Mission Viejo ("Coto de Caza, those streets were tough!" laughs Scotty), listening to Melle Mel and breakdancing on their own linoleum while other kids spent recess swinging on the monkey bars. In Garden Grove, young Cocoe—who would become an accomplished enough dancer to join a crew called Tribal Connections and share episodes of Soul Train with Gang Starr and Keith Sweat, though he says now he was pretty disappointed to find out they lip-synced their whole performances—was about to meet slightly less young Josh One, an already distinctive hip-hop fan (Reebok runners and Fresh Jive T-shirt, Cocoe laughs) who also already had his driver's license.
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."
"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."
Test spins (off CDRs) at previous Abstract Workshops are already encouraging; there's a good response from the hometown crowd, and that, says Cocoe, "is where it's gotta start."
"I don't want to come out typical OC style, like get a couple million behind it and look like I'm a rock star already—though I am a rock star; I've spent more time in the studio than any rock star I've ever known," says Jud. "I'm a moment capturer. That's it. I don't want to have a finished product coming out. I want it to be from the bedroom, glitchy, with the grit; I want them to listen to the bullshit to get to the point! I wanna put the baby pictures out. I don't consider us huge talents," he finishes. "I consider us capable of capturing inspiration. And that's beyond talent!"
* * *
There's no demo coming out—they didn't need one. The demo was eight years of wild turntabling and hustle and promotion, of stitching together a hip-hop club in a pocket of the county where no one else thought there could ever be a hip-hop club. "Abstract Workshop: old enough to remember when hip-hop had a smile!" says Scotty. And now hip-hop has a metal mask or a ghost face or a mouth somethin' like a disco ball—a strange crowd to swim in for guys who, like Jud, remember the very early days of hip-hop in OC: "I remember when cats would stop fighting and breakdance it out—I remember seeing it, and it really striking a chord with me!" says Jud. But like they say—the time is finally right. Is there anybody out there that Abstract looks up to? "Berry Gordy, man!" says Jud. And while everybody laughs, nobody disagrees.
ABSTRACT WORKSHOP PRESENTS: JUD NESTER WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR DIGITAL DOWNLOAD FROM WWW.ABSTRACT-WORKSHOP.COM. BEGINS FRI.; ABSTRACT WORKSHOP THE CLUB NIGHT AT DETROIT, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-0600; WWW.DETROITBAR.COM. EVERY LAST SAT., 9 P.M. COVER VARIES. 21+.