How the Producers of Team Supreme Broke Out of OC To Take On The World
Great Dane and Preston James
Stepping into the lobby of Icon Collective is like entering a magical school for the musically gifted. The smell of burnt coffee and ambition fills the air of the modern, two-story building, its walls splashed with artwork and signed posters of its celebrity DJ alumni. Young producers pile onto plush couches, burying their heads in their laptops and shutting out the world with noise-canceling headphones as they scroll through sound waves on glowing screens using music software such as FL Studio and Ableton.
This buzzing mind hive in the bowels of Burbank, an hour drive from OC, has greatness seeping from every honeycomb. The building once belonged to Quincy Jones, who is said to have recorded live instruments for Thriller in a studio on the first floor. After that, it became a foley studio for film and TV before its current incarnation as a music school for producers, artists and engineers.
Inside a top-floor studio, Fullerton-born producer Dane Morris, a.k.a. Great Dane, is bending beats and bass. The co-founder of producer collective Team Supreme is busy collabing with electronic duo Um.. (yes, the dots are pronounced), two of his former mentees who've grown into bona-fide beatsmiths. The glass on the windows vibrates as a hypnotic pattern of tribal drums, bass and percussion fills the studio. Just as things are starting to take shape, Morris opens his eyes and presses the spacebar on his laptop, pausing the music.
"Okay, now go ahead and 'Um..' that," Morris says, motioning to his cohorts to take the reins and put their own stank on the track.
"This beat is about to sound so different," says Greg Gerschenson, Team Supreme's tireless manager and multitasker who started out as a fan of the collective and now has the unenviable task of wrangling the crew's 17 producers together at any given time. Allowing themselves a break from teaching classes for aspiring producers to work on their own music is a key reason why Morris and his Team Supreme co-founder Preston James Walker (a.k.a. Preston James) have found a home here.
Morris: “Nobody’s selfish. . . . We’ve all wanted to keep it growing.”
"This gig lets us be able to tour and go out and do shows," James says as we leave Um... to move next door, into a smaller glass-paned sound booth. "The studios here are amazing, too."
Over the past five years, the members of Team Supreme have experienced plenty of individual successes, such as signing to big labels such as Fool's Gold and touring the world with different festivals. Recently, Henry Allen, a.k.a. King Henry, another co-founding member, produced tracks for stars including Justin Bieber, Major Lazer and Beyoncé. But despite being on top of the world, they never forget to stay humble about their situation. "Nobody's selfish," Morris says of the collective's tight-knit crew. "Everyone's trying to feed Team Supreme. . . . We've all wanted to keep it growing."
That mindset of shared success is what gives the group strength. No matter how far each one gets in his career, all of them are adamant about representing their roots, which started in a music class at Chapman University in Orange and continues to follow them wherever they go. "There's all these different people, but they're still connected through this group, and it's kinda cool because you get to see people work together," Gerschenson says. "It's always been about passing advice from everything I've seen and every experience I've had within the group."
During their early days, the collective's main launching pad was a series of weekly beat cyphers (think rap battles, but with beats instead of rhymes). In this friendly competition, producers get only one hour to make a beat using all the same tempo and samples and guidelines, creating a new track to submit to the collective to show off their skills. The best tracks are used in a series of online mixtapes, which has now stacked up to 143 volumes. In recent years, this mixtape series has caught the attention of big-name producers such as DJ Shadow, 12th Planet and Zeds Dead, all of whom have curated a volume of Team Supreme's beats. Party Favor (another Chapman alum) also contributed a beat to the cypher series.
When Team Supreme started throwing packed shows in LA and OC, the group realized it was something special. "It started out as us saying, 'Let's practice making beats and see where this goes,'" James recalls. "So we came up with this cypher idea to do that, but we soon realized that it was resonating with people."
* * * * *
It was in Chapman professor Steve Nalepa's Intro to Music Technology course in 2010 that several of the original Team Supreme members got their first taste of the music industry. They were asked to not only learn about the history of electronic music, but also produce some of it themselves. That included making their own EP, with cover art and social-media pages and artist bios. Students would create songs each week and pass around thumb drives to share their music in class.
"One of the greatest things about making music is finishing it and being proud of something you made and liking it yourself, and then sharing it with the public and seeing what people's reactions to it are," says David Streit, a.k.a. FuzZ, an original Team Supreme member from Chapman. "Whether you're Kanye West or a 10-year-old kid making his first beat."
Each week, Nalepa would have students apply their lessons in music software toward an actual career—they just didn't know it at the time. "My goal with teaching this class was to not only show and teach these guys the history of music technology and how things come along and artists innovate, but I also had them writing music using all the different applications that are out there," says the Yale alumnus who has since become an official member of the Team Supreme crew himself and tours constantly, most recently with indie R&B crooner Chet Faker.
On days when he taught class in Orange, Nalepa drove down from LA almost four hours early to not only beat traffic, but also have plenty of time to spend with his star students, grabbing coffee, bumping their beat projects in his car and talking about music. Even after students graduated, he'd make time for them by hosting barbecues at his house, with Team Supreme members playing a sort of show and tell in his home studio.
For Nalepa, who's held multiple jobs within the tech and music industry as well as acting as a publisher of art books, it felt for a while as if he'd found his true calling. "I offered my help up to everybody, but there were definitely students who were way more on top of it and took me up on every opportunity," he recalls. "I always gave them a heads-up, like, 'Next week we're gonna have this artist named Nosaj Thing coming in, and here's a link to his music, and you guys should, like, read up and study, so when he comes in, you can ask good questions and connect with him.'"
A pivotal moment came when BBC Radio 1 host Mary Anne Hobbs was turned onto the group by Nosaj Thing and Boreta from the Glitch Mob. Both veteran producers guest lectured for Nalepa's class and were impressed with the music they heard coming from his students. Hobbs played tracks by Virtual Boy (a duo at the time composed of James and Allen), Djemba Djemba and several others on her show, which is listened to by millions of people around the world. "It kinda started this whole chain reaction of events of opportunities for everybody," Nalepa says. "What ended up happening was . . . they decided to keep paying it forward to younger artists because they were so grateful when those opportunities happen for them. I'm glad that's at the core of what we're doing."
James’ keys to success
For Morris, who'd actually taken the class the year prior to James and the rest of Team Supreme, watching his friends' success after college inspired him to get into production. Both Morris and James went to Chapman on a classical vocal scholarship and sang in choir but never wound up taking that route in music. Although Nalepa's class was a huge stepping stone for his peers, Morris says, he wasn't able to learn as well as they did in a classroom setting. "I learned mostly everything from other Team Supreme members, stuff that they learned from the class," he says. "I learned better off-hand on our free time how to do stuff after college."
A night of boredom and inspiration from a Notorious B.I.G. sample were the catalysts to creating the collective in 2012. As the story goes, after graduating from Chapman, Morris was living in Orange and decided to record himself saying Biggie's line "My team supreme stay clean" from the late-'90s hit "Mo Money Mo Problems." Morris and James used that as a basis to create separate tracks, and when an hour was up, they compared beats. That night, Biggie saved them from the potential humiliation of some pretty terrible crew names that were in the running. "We were gonna call ourselves Beat Farm at first," Morris says with a look of embarrassment. "We looked up [the domain] online, and it was like the grossest porn site. I think it still is, probably."
It didn't take long for Morris and James to build the Team Supreme crew. They started with friends from Chapman or the beat scene, and by the time they were finished adding, their 17-person roster had enough depth to put even Wu-Tang Clan to shame. The core includes AWE, Dot, ELOS, FuzZ, Djemba Djemba, Goodnight Cody, Great Dane, Hoodboi, JNTHN STEIN, Kenny Segal, King Henry, Mr. Carmack, Nalepa, Preston James and Mike Parvizi (known as Penthouse Penthouse), Promnite, Tk Kayembe, and Two Fresh.
The styles behind these monikers include an eclectic range from exotica-fueled jazz-hop and mind-crumbling glitch beats to shiny club bangers and raw, gun-toting trap style to an uncategorizable mix of everything in between. The extended crew gets even more daunting when you factor in the up-and-coming producers who've contributed to cyphers since the collective opened up the ritual to the public through a tedious submissions process. Fielding an average of 300 weekly beat submissions from various producers, designated beat sifter James is responsible for parsing through the good, the bad and the ugly. He typically listens to all of the submissions, then handpicks a fraction of them to appear on the mixtape. "We give him a week to do it, but he does it in one night sometimes," Gerschenson says.
James curated the tapes for 125 weeks straight before he and the crew decided he needed to take a break. However, even when they weren't putting out beat tape mixes (which they recently restarted again), fans at the members' individual shows were obsessed with them. "I was touring as a DJ, and I'd go play a show, and people would yell, 'Team Supreme!'" Morris remembers. "That's sorta what helped our resurgence because even when we stopped, we still saw all this love at shows."
Aside from hosting a community online, Team Supreme grew its rep by throwing group shows with some or all of its members, starting at the La Cita bar in downtown LA and later migrating to the Echoplex, where team members and their fans can connect and talk shop. Inspired by their experience driving up from OC to Lincoln Heights for Low End Theory, a weekly club night catering to cutting-edge producers and indie rap connoisseurs, the crew mix it up with fans, friends and aspiring producers who show love for what they do. "Low End Theory has no backstage," Morris says. "But they have the biggest acts come through, so we always had that in our DNA, like, 'Fuck being exclusive.'"
Team Supreme built on that idea through the event Pass the Aux, for which the collective invites amateur producers to play their own beats through an auxiliary cable onstage that connects to the house sound system. Gerschenson conceived the idea as a way to get people to come out early to a special one-off Team Supreme show featuring all 17 members at the El Rey.
"If I were a producer, what would make me wanna buy a ticket to come out to the show and see everybody?" Gerschenson recalls asking himself. "I would love to play my music for everybody on a stage like the El Rey, which is legendary."
The idea drew about 600 beat-makers and represented the beat scene as a living, breathing community, one in which friendly competitiveness reigns. "That's how our cyphers have always been," Morris says. "No matter how big you are, you never know who your beat is gonna be next to, and you could get shit on. But I think that's the driving force behind the cyphers and why they're good."
Various members of Team Supreme have taken Pass the Aux on tour with them, compelling plenty of basement-dwelling producers in places such as Australia and Hawaii to come out and mingle with dozens of others in their small niche. And as other non-affiliated groups adopt the idea, the crew that originated it are more than happy to let the format spread far and wide. "People are like, 'Oh, we met at the show, and we know each other in real life now. We live three blocks away from each other in this small town; why don't we hang out and actually make music?' Which is the whole point of Team Supreme," Gerschenson says. "It's giving you a platform to meet people."
* * * * *
On a recent Thursday night, the line to get into the Echoplex for 143, a monthly slow-jam party, stretches over blocks of jagged sidewalk for a good quarter of a mile from the venue as people wait to join the crush of bodies swelling inside the Echo Park venue. Early in the event, crew members Hoodboi, Tk Kayembe and Great Dane spin inventive, slow-burning remixes of '90s R&B classics from Jodeci to Erykah Badu. The crowd of mostly twentysomethings writhe and grind on one another in the darkness. Though it wasn't exclusively a Team Supreme night, the love was definitely not lacking, but such shows have become more and more sporadic as of late.
The crew's time is mostly focused on studio work, touring or contributing to the collective's latest venture, a sample-pack label they launched with Splice Records. The first Team Supreme entry features samples and sounds used by crew members including AWE, Djemba Djemba, JNTHN STEIN and Penthouse Penthouse. Most of what's sampled are live, organic sounds played by the artists themselves, including drums, standup bass, guitar—even harp, thanks to Goodnight Cody.
"It's just not like a typical EDM pack," Morris says. "There's definitely some very talented DJs who are musicians, but we have a little heavier ratio of musician producers—people who were musicians before they were producers."
It's another outlet for a crew that seems hell-bent on giving away all their secrets. In today's music industry (or lack thereof), the traditional rules of labels and producers being secretive about the tricks of the trade are gone, especially when a kid with GarageBand on an iPhone can make a song that goes viral.
"We're a democratic system, which I think is a really good model going forward," Morris says. "A lot of labels are stuck in their old ways, like, 'Send us some demos,' and it's very private. I think a lot of things are gonna slip through the cracks like that. With us, it's a more direct route to get on the cypher, surround yourself with producers and keep working on shit."
Producers pack a Pass the Aux event
That ethos was definitely an inspiration to up-and-coming producer Connor Irias, a.k.a. Auralponic. Irias grew up playing drums in Northern California and earned a scholarship to USC for classical percussion. But just prior to his first semester, he was involved in a brutal car accident that left him with limited use of his neck, arms and shoulders. "I was about to walk in to play all these percussion classes, and my arms don't work," Irias says.
He found new inspiration in groups such as Infected Mushroom, who combine live instruments with electronic beats. Irias decided to learn how to compose music on the computer and start making tracks on apps such as GarageBand. His longtime friend, Team Supreme member JNTHN STEIN, introduced him to the beat cyphers. "I could hear the freedom in it," Irias says. "Everyone else was trying to put themselves in a box, but here are these people making whatever they wanted, and it was working because it was so authentic and so fresh."
Never in his wildest dreams could Irias have predicted that his remix of the Zeds Dead track "Too Young" would be heard by the Canadian EDM duo themselves, who put the track on the Team Supreme beat cypher they curated. After hearing his remix, the group sent out a tweet giving the track their stamp of approval. "I don't even know how many beats I submitted before that one finally made it in," Irias says, "but when it happened, I was just over the moon."
For the young producer, it was like winning the Lotto. Though, Irias says, he already felt that way from the minute he decided to follow Team Supreme and learn from the crew. "What they're doing really seems real, and that's reflected in the music that they make and the music that they pick up," he says. "So to be alongside people like that is really exciting for me, and it's a kick in my ass to get the rest of my songs done and continue growing."
Having a network of people that go beyond the music, who support you, is the legacy Team Supreme hopes to leave. "Subconsciously, sometimes you don't wanna [push yourself], and then you play a track for friends and people that you trust, and they're like, 'That's dope; keep going!'" James says. "And then it creates this momentum, and you start to feel confident in yourself. I think that's what that class at Chapman did, and that's what our cyphers continue to do for young producers who want to learn and get to the top of their game."
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