I am not going to lie. Before writing this piece, I didn’t really get what was happening over at Beats 1, the radio station owned and operated by Apple Music. I mean, I knew. But I didn’t know. The temporality and kinetics of what happens in that studio is something that must be felt IRL to truly grasp what is actually being created in real time while it’s simultaneously live streamed over the world / wide / web.
But before I get all sci-fi, let me set the scene.
The first month of 2019 is coming to a close. We’re on location in Los Angeles at the Beats 1 studio, over which Alexander Zane Reid Lowe, the DJ, producer and host better known as Zane Lowe, currently reigns. You may know Lowe as the guy who came up making (air)waves on British radio over the last 20 years or so at XFM and BBC Radio 1 amongst others, before spending the last three years here in LA as global creative director and host at Apple Music.
The Beats 1 studio is about an hour’s drive from the coastal city of Oxnard. Oxnard happens to be the hometown of the Grammy-winning musician and producer Anderson Paak, who was born there almost 33 years ago as Brandon Paak Anderson. Oxnard is also the name of his sixth and latest album, the closer in his trilogy of records named after beaches, and it’s the first released on Dr Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment.
(For a bit of trivia, it happens to be around the third anniversary of Paak’s 2016 Twitter announcement of his signing to Aftermath. Not only that, it’s also about a week and a half to Paak’s birthday and a few weeks shy of the venerable Dr’s birthday too. Both Dre and Paak are Aquarian. I’ll give you a moment to just imagine that party.)
Lowe is already on set, striding around in the fashions, energy humming. After so many years flying as the middleman, Lowe now finds himself sitting in a multidimensional pilot seat, navigating through spaces unknown. It’s a seat that he continues to shape, each time he steps into the Beats 1 studio. But today, he’s operating in the spotlight usually reserved for the artists. And as a long-time witness to what it takes to make it as one of those, Lowe is clearly aware of what he has to deliver.
On set he is sharp-eyed and sharp-eared, and I imagine he misses very little. He knows when someone is looking at him. When invited to be involved in directing the process of being photographed, Lowe jumps to it, flexing on the position he’s in to have a hand in shaping the image that is now being made of him. And despite his manner, I have a sneaking suspicion that Lowe is a little less comfortable being in the limelight in this way than he presents.
Meanwhile, Paak is running a little late. But that’s fine. We can wait. After all, Paak was on the grind 10 years or so for his ‘overnight success’ to give rise to the legend-in-the-making that he now is. When Paak does arrive, he rolls in with very little fanfare. He is almost unassuming in a way. He even comes across a little shy when he speaks and he uses his signature rasp rather gently when conversing.
He’s also unselfconscious and incredibly comfortable in himself and his role as the superstar on the rise. As soon as he steps onto the set, Paak splits his face into the trademark grin that you must have seen him light up stage and screen with—and if you haven’t yet, it’s only a matter of time.
Put side by side, Zane Lowe and Anderson Paak are two examples of power players in both music and its culture in this day and age, brought together to exist and create in the same room via Apple Music with Beats 1.
“Because I come from a place, where really, there was a room and the artist would come into our room and they would leave. And I didn’t want the artist to leave anymore. Why did there have to be a media room and an artist room? Why couldn’t there just be a creative room—why can’t broadcasting be creative?”
This very question and spirit is what drives Lowe. It’s what drove him to rope Paak in to having his own show on Beats 1, dubbed .Paak House Radio.
Lowe explains: “When we started building Beats 1, we realised we wanted to put a huge emphasis on the artist, the community, and we wanted to give a lot of the real estate and a lot of control to artists to build whatever they want.”
Appropriately, Lowe speaks in a kind of narration style; in articulated chains of thought that can sometimes seem like it has no full stops. He can be quite meta, and expresses huge, almost esoteric ideas at times, about the nature of the music industry today, his role within it and about his own influence. In the same breath, Lowe is also completely grounded by his love and genuine excitement for music.
“Curation is no longer reserved for people like myself or Anderson, you know, if you have your phone in your hand and you like a photo or share a song, then you’re curating your life and your friends. So we start to listen a little more, start to learn a little more, start to add value rather than control the conversation, and start to really be a part of the community as opposed to leading the community of music fans.”
On the other hand, Paak gives the impression that he lives quite tangibly in the moment, on the beat of whatever song is currently playing—and with it, the weight of all the songs and influences that preceded it. There’s something about him that feels fully cross-referenced to me. Paak’s output feels like it comes from a place and like it has been through places before as well as after that. Perhaps it’s because of the life he has lived outside of the music biz. Maybe it’s because his music takes deeply from different genres and somehow manages to fully integrate them all.
I can’t help but feel that Paak’s so-called ‘genreless-ness’ has helped bring about his burgeoning moment. He has previously said that what he brings to the table is “a texture, another colour”; and that it’s something that “needed to be added to the conversation”. With this, he has made a red thread of what he refers to as his “range and dynamic”, and that red thread is what ties together a whole lot of conversations—stylistically, sonically and culturally—leading to his critical acclaim and growing fanbase.
A rather fascinating duo to observe, Lowe and Paak could almost be described together as making up the ego (Lowe) and the id (Paak). Similarly, the process of broadcasting a live show is like watching the ego, the id AND the superego all going in at the same time as interacting outside the confines of a single headspace.
In a live broadcast session, there are more human connections happening than at a concert (where a mob mentality rules, commanded by the overarching magnetism of whoever you went to see), it’s more exciting than being in a studio recording a live television show (where you do more waiting than anything else), and certainly more spontaneous than free-to-air radio (which is dominated by endless commercial breaks).
More than just ‘streaming’, Beats 1 is intended to be a live stream of consciousness, with Lowe or Paak or any of the hosts narrating culture as they see, hear and produce it in real time.
In the studio, external speakers put out one soundscape and headphones play another, whilst a constant flow of people go in and out of the room. Lines of communication do the same via a plethora of screens, and various cameras film, photograph and Facetime. All the while, feeds of information and images scroll past, as content is captured, edited, posted and reacted to. I have to tell you, watching a live broadcast happening in the studio is one of the coolest and perhaps even truest ‘live’ production processes I’ve seen in my life.
In the face of the shiny, state-of-the-art fit-out, and in spite of the all-seeing, all-knowing power couple that is The Data and The Algorithm, what surprises me the most is how very human it all is. When I question Lowe about data versus emotion, AI versus soul, he explains his position easily. And frankly, it’s a very powerful one.
“The algorithm is important and it does it’s job. And if you feed it, it will serve you well. I like to influence the algorithm, I like to get in front of the algorithm, I like to lead it and guide it and show it places that it doesn’t necessarily think it knows about… It’s all about being inspired. And I think the algorithm has been inspired by people’s taste. And in order to get there you have to inspire people to change their taste.”
It’s a The Devil Wears Prada moment. The one where you’re standing in the very room with the people who ultimately selected your cerulean sweater for you—and they tell you so.
Lowe continues: “We’re a streaming service. We’re a live feed, we’re a live stream, we try to get in front of the algorithm as much as possible, and we try to feed you things we think you’ll like. We try to sell you music—that remains—but when you like it, add it, listen to it, put it on a playlist or share it, it influences your algorithm over and over again. So we really are an addition to the algorithm as opposed to that initial thought which was human versus algorithm. Which is not the same.”
The livestream broadcast process also somehow feels entirely removed from any kind of audience altogether. Maybe like existing in an Interstellar tesseract. Or you know, like floating around in the vacuum of space where no one can hear you scream, yet you’re still trying to get a return ping from intelligent life out there (somebody? anybody?). Or maybe it’s most similar to JLo circa the ‘If You Had My Love’ music video—minus the lava lamps and PCs, but most definitely including the dance breaks.
For Paak at least, having a show on Beats 1 is about mapping and sharing some of his favourite destinations in musical space/time, and giving shout-outs to his contemporaries as well as those he admires. It’s also a great excuse to just jam with people.
“I mean, I was new to it. I just want it to be a reflection of my musical tastes and how we create, you know. I think there are no real rules. If anything, in this new age of how people receive music, people just want things to be done for them and they want to be able to have a playlist that’s put together for them.
They want the algorithm or whatever to help guide them to the next song and all that stuff too, so we just wanna add to that and give our point of view to it. The way that I was doing the show, I want to be different. I wanted to be able to collaborate with a lot of these artists; have fun, talk, interview them, but interview them in a spontaneous way so we always have the instruments around. So we can have these real moments.”
It’s the epitome of being online, and a place where the parameters of space and time really do cease to exist. And the regular, linear form of ‘on the line’ that the average person can already barely begin to fathom has nothing on this. I often argue that the process of creating art—or anything for that matter—isn’t complete until someone else consumes it.
Let me tell you that hearing the show from your laptop is not the same thing as witnessing it being made. To sit in the Beats 1 studio as they’re streaming live is to behold the complete annihilation of said process into an instantaneous and eternal loop of creator, created and audience all affecting each other at the same time. Multi-layered and multi-medium, a live broadcast sets aside time zones and distance in favour of the eternal here and now.
In no other epoch has the speed of feedback cycles been fast enough to allow the latest crop of creative leaders to not only meet their heroes, but to actually produce in collaboration with them.
Paak mulls over this and rightfully points out the importance of crafting something for longevity. “I think it’s a tricky slope because any artist can get influenced by the fast food way of putting out stuff, but we need those artists to take their time. People are gonna wait for Rihanna, they’re gonna wait for Beyoncé, for Frank Ocean, cos when they come out, it’s going to be different. People are gonna wait for a good, home-cooked meal.”
I recall Paak commenting at some point on the lack of ambition in music these days. What did he mean by that?
“It’s just so easy now to make something and put it out there. Regardless of whether I feel it’s trash or not, people can get on the mic or make a song and then put it out. That’s why the DJs and people I curate now are so important because there’s an influx of music everywhere. I feel the quality goes down because of that.
It used to be way harder to get into a studio, make a recorded project and you had to be really serious about it. Now I think it’s the opposite of that. But I think for better or worse, the cream still comes from the crop. The people who show ambition, the people who put a lot of time into it, I feel like those are the best artists.”
With that said, it’s only today that you could ever dream of influencing your idols in your own right to be able to then make work with them for a new era. As is the case most notably for Paak with Dr Dre. For Lowe, Q-Tip is the man.
“I genuinely think that anyone who does get to a point where they turn around and they are standing next to or collaborating or working with someone they’ve admired for a long time and learning in real time as opposed to after the fact, that they did dream it. They did visualise it.
There are times for me, when I’m working side by side with Q-Tip—and he’s been doing abstract radio for like four years now—and sometimes my phone rings and it says Q-Tip on it, and I’m like, that’s Q-Tip! I obsessed over A Tribe Called Quest for my entire life, you know. I wanted to make records with that band, I wanted to be part of the process. I could sit there and think that I never could have dreamed of that… but I kinda did. And I know that might seem a little like you read it in a book. But it’s true. You do dream it up and it does happen.”
One of the tracks on .Paak Radio’s playlist opens with a diss at Soundcloud rappers and their lack. Though for me, Missy Elliott put it the most succinctly with ‘Back In The Day’. She simply sings, “hip-hop has changed”; as it has, as does everything—and as it all should. Being who they are and working with the OGs that they both have, I ask, in their opinions, what has changed in hip-hop the most?
“I feel like perception has gotten even bigger than anything. You know, the way it looks is maybe 80 percent now than actual talent or lyricism or anything like that. People’s story and persona, and how they can make it look in hip-hop is bigger than ever; as opposed to someone with raw lyrics who has the foundation and all that stuff. I think that’s hip-hop’s own fault.
I think that hip-hop in a sense is really young, but I don’t think there’s a lot of respect for what came before. And that’s nobody’s fault but hip-hop’s. That’s how it was built. It’s always been a young man’s sport. It’s always been based on what’s next, the future and about being the best—the cockiest. And that’s what we gave birth to. This new generation. So I feel like that’s probably one of the biggest things I notice is that how it looks is more important than anything else.”
Lowe, the eternal fan, spins it another way—though it is no less true. “Not to be too simplistic about it, but a big part of the reason why hip-hop has become, why rap music has become so successful is because it is, as an artform, a manifest destiny all the time. It’s constantly like, I am striving, I am striving, I want more, I want more, I want to achieve more, and it is actually, through art, creating a reality that becomes true.”
Manifest destiny. Throughout the interview, Paak has been murmuring confirmations whenever he agrees with Lowe; much like a congregation to a pastor. He does so once again just now.
“And that’s the beauty of today. Being able to make your own rules. Not waiting on some other person to be a middleman. You’re the middleman, you are the direct connect now.”
Says the man formerly known as the chubby kid who learned to drum in church, who grew up to call himself Breezy Lovejoy, before (thankfully) being convinced to nix that nom-de-plume ahead of rolling up as an unknown to a studio session with the one and only Dr Dre.
“I think you gotta be a learn-it-all as opposed to a know-it-all, so I’m always trying to be in a position where there’s some aspect that I’m trying to learn, you know? More than the money and all that stuff comes the respect. And freedom. I love being able to do just me.
What I’m doing right now, honestly, is carving my own lane. What we’ve done in hip-hop as far as playing our own instrument, performing at the same time, doing all these different things that are genreless—that’s not something that’s been done before in hip-hop. And I think that’s just a blessing that I’m able to be that dude and help carve that lane for the next generation of artists out there.”
And there you have it. What you’re looking at within these pages, swagged out in the latest Valentino, Heron Preston and Louis Vuitton by Virgil Abloh, is the rise of a new kind of music mogul. No longer sitting behind the curtain, or even simply staying in front of the mic.
Unlike that old line about having ‘a face for radio’, these two have mugs for brands, personalities for live streaming and instincts for hits. And the attitude for a more egalitarian cultural ecosystem to boot.
It’s the last shot of the day and we’re out on the street to get it. We’re even going to be wrapping early because everything has run as smoothly as the moonwalk Paak has occasionally been busting out. The sky is starting to grey, a rare enough thing for Los Angelinos to see that it’s okay to feel a little affronted by it.
Lowe and Paak are being positioned nose to nose, ABBA-style, perpendicular to each other against the fading light. Traffic slows around us, with rubberneckers trying to check the scene. A beat-up wagon brakes to a halt and annoyed beeps echo down the line before the driver hollers out his window to catch some attention. A common enough occurrence. We are, after all, close enough to Holly-shoulda-coulda-woulda to try and bask in its run-off glow.
A dude just wants to break off a piece of the action regardless of who or what is going on. The dude parks his car and hops out to ask excitedly: “What are you guys doing? Can I be a part of it?”
While most of the entourage shuffles around uncomfortably, trying to discreetly push the biggest guy in the crew towards the situation in case anything pops off, Paak, breaking pose, turns to tell the dude gently: “You already are, fam.”
Editor-in-chief and stylist: Norman Tan assisted by Ty Headlee.
Photographs by Vanessa Caitlin Goh assisted by Jalen Turner.
Grooming by Dusty Starks.
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