Renegade Soundwaves 

Trying to bring ass-shaking back to the scene

This is how Oakland's Concepts spreads its heady bass gospel: from the tops of war-torn punk-rock stages, in the whitewashed galleries of the Bay Area avant-garde, or before crowds of tight-panted, hair-shaking, rock 'n' roll hipsters. From the strange quarters of its chosen venue, the bass-heavy techno three-piece steps onstage and begins to deftly transform the airwaves into simplex beat conductors. The bass throbs, the samples bounce, and the audience, whatever its random makeup, inevitably becomes a loose pool of torso-bobbing bass babies, first-time breakdancing with the unpracticed certainty of toddler deer learning to walk.

A great deal of the Bay Area's most interesting and progressive music is being made by cerebral techno-warriors armed with a couple sample-loaded laptops and complex, electronically-tweaked beats. This Intelligent Dance Music (or IDM) is progressive and complex, allowing producers to explore the roots of techno by cannily tweaking, distorting, and systematically destroying its most basic building block: the dance beat. But as fans of the genre may know, it's near impossible to think and dance at the same time. And that's where Concepts comes in. According to the band, that reliable dance beat, along with the self-abandoned boogying it inspires, is in danger of becoming lost in today's sea of high technology. "A lot of electronic music lacks funk," says Jason Stinnett, who, along with Ben Jerdi, fronts Concepts by wildly manipulating a pair of matching MPC-2000XL samplers. "We're trying to bring ass-shaking back to the scene."

For their performances, the electric pair costume themselves in matching pig masks or robot gear, or hide themselves in a bouncing camping tent while tweaking the bass-heavy, throbbing beats they've preprogrammed into their samplers. Behind them, practiced funk deejay Joe Quixx masterfully scratches in samples of comic-book soundtracks and sexy early-'80s LA electro. Video loops of spaced-out breakdancers and translucent '80s fashion models are projected onstage courtesy of visual artist Dirty Fir. The scene is at once eerily electric, disarming, and dance-infectious; silly but smart. And very, very loud. "We'd love to do a show where every audience member gets to strap their own subwoofer to their back," says Jerdi.

Concepts intends to use the language of dance music and the performance elements of conceptual art to infiltrate what they see as an increasingly arty-farty musical atmosphere. Jerdi expresses frustration with the stone-faced, disaffected head-nodding that seems to plague IDM shows. "We act goofy up there to break down the crowd's pretentiousness," he says. "Next thing you know, they're getting stupid and dancing and just being themselves."

As the work of local laptop-tech labels such as Orthlorng Mursork and Tiger Beat gains popularity outside of the Bay Area, the members of Concepts find themselves making techno-based dance music that differs from those well-known artists less in terms of style than in substance. Although both camps draw heavily upon hip-hop and early electronic influences, Concepts sacrifices the practiced beat-tweaking and layered complexity afforded by laptop artists for what they consider a purer, more direct focus on group improvisation. "All three of us become one collective deejay," says Quixx. This process, along with their straightforward use of two samplers and a set of turntables, allows Concepts to purvey their own brand of raw bass energy.

That energy is a product of Stinnett and Jerdi's years of collaboration in punk bands and the band's mutual obsession with real, dirty funk. Quixx and Stinnett help to oversee the electronica and hip-hop sections of Amoeba, while Jerdi has managed to hobbyize the art of ghetto cassette shopping. "We love dance music, and know a lot about its roots," says Jerdi. "It's helped us learn how to make people move." In fact, Concepts' more physical, dance-oriented electro may be the perfect yin to IDM's yang. The laptop, after all, is nothing but a highly developed, easily manipulated sampler. So while laptop-techno artists use the dance music medium to contemplate the fragility and latent complexity of beats, Concepts focuses on simply making dance music itself, a concept in keeping with the roots of the genre. "If we were really in our heads and trying to be brainy about it, it would probably kill the whole thing," says Jerdi. Meanwhile, all shades of electro are popping up in the record collections of trendy rock hipsters, whose newfound fascination with early-'80s electro and synthpop has pushed artists such as Ladytron and The Faint to the forefront. "I feel like a lot of the retro '80s groups are trying to sound like somebody else, instead of tapping into what's inside them," says Jerdi. "That's why we consider ourselves futuristic instead of retro."

"We do what feels right to us," says Stinnett. "It's not about being a huge commercial success." Concepts, then, will continue to fly solo, self-releasing their recordings (a full-length CD is available at the Berkeley Amoeba) and scheduling their own shows. "I don't mind being a little different," he adds. "It just makes us want to freak it even more."

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