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January 9th, 2013 MATTHEW SINGER | Music Stories
 

Diamond Minds

Dropping Gems gives electronic music a human pulse.

music_bigbox_3910PRECIOUS STONES: (Clockwise from top left) Natasha Kmeto, Ghost Feet, DJAO, Gumar. - Images courtesy of Aaron Meola. DJAO and Gumar by Patti Miller.
When Aaron Meola moved to Portland in 2009, electronic music in America was still the province of chin-scratching Anglophiles and molly-whopped rave kids. Dubstep’s infernal wub had not yet infected everything from candy commercials to Taylor Swift songs. Skrillex wasn’t winning Grammys, Deadmau5 wasn’t headlining stadiums, and nobody outside France knew who David Guetta was. In the years since, EDM—that’s electronic dance music—has become, undeniably, the defining youth movement of the late aughts. And that’s been a boon for Meola and his crew of electronic producers, collectively known as Dropping Gems.

Not that the music of Dropping Gems has anything in common with that currently pulsating up the Billboard charts. The artists on the collective-cum-label’s roster aren’t interested in remixing Rihanna or popping bottles in posh Miami nightclubs. In ’60s parlance, the DG sound is “head music”—ethereal, textural, designed to move the mind before the body. To put it another way: “We’re not making dance music for drunk people,” says Alex Osuch, who records for Dropping Gems as DJAO. As detached as the group might feel from this era of superstar DJs, though, they admit the digitization of the Top 40 has had a trickle-down effect on the underground.

Three years ago, if the more mainstream club kid would’ve come out to one of our shows, it probably would’ve weirded them out,” says Meola, Dropping Gems’ bearded label manager. “Now, they’re a little more used to it.”

Still, for the novice electrophile, the Dropping Gems discography must sound like transmissions from deep space. In a genre-obsessed subculture, DG skirts easy classification. Its aesthetic is probably closest to that of L.A.’s “beat scene,” in which hip-hop’s foundational elements are dismantled and fed through a cracked kaleidoscope of various EDM styles. But that description doesn’t quite fit the glitchy future-R&B of Natasha Kmeto, the nostalgic sampladelica of Rap Class or the moody guitar-and-synth duo Ghost Feet. Ask Meola what unites the DG roster, and he doesn’t talk about units of sub-bass or beats per minute.

“There’s a lot of emotion. There’s a lot of soul behind the music,” he says. “It’s not just a bunch of blasts. It’s not just a bunch of wobbles.”

A Seattle native who spent his teenage years listening to radio rap and building car stereos (“My car was actually the eighth-loudest car in Washington state at one time,” he boasts) Meola enrolled at Evergreen State College in 2008, where he fell in with a loose conglomerate of beatmakers operating in Olympia’s barely perceptible electronic music scene. Although not a musician himself, Meola did have a strong organizational and visual sense—he’d previously made promo videos for Diplo and T-Pain—and when founding members Jonathan “Gumar” Tutt and John “Rap Class” Kammerle floated the idea of turning their blog into a label, Meola “just kind of went crazy with it,” Tutt says.

After inaugurating Dropping Gems with a graduation party in Olympia, the crew, then five deep, migrated to Portland. It has since doubled in size, drawing in regional and local futurists like Kmeto, a vocalist and producer attracted by the DG mission statement of investing digital structures with human consciousness.  

“It’s challenging, but at the root of it, I felt like all of their releases are very emotional,” she says.

The crowds have grown, too. “One thing I really like about Dropping Gems shows is we get the hipster kids; we get the burner kids; we get the zoners in the back,” Meola says. This year, the label is partnering with Seattle’s Fin Records to put out their first physical releases. But the best way to measure the imprint Dropping Gems has already made—and the spreading influence of electronic music in general—is to go back where it started.

“There’s always been an amazing music scene in Olympia, but it wasn’t, like, electronic focused at all,” Meola says. “Now there’s regularly scheduled electronic nights that happen in Olympia. And you know all of those kids were the kids who were, like, 18, coming to the first DG shows there…. It’s cool to see a scene sprout out and become more mainstream and not be the fringe anymore.” 


SEE IT: The Dropping Gems Showcase, featuring Natasha Kmeto, Ghost Feet, Rap Class and more, is at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., on Wednesday, Jan. 9. 8:30 pm. Free. 21+.

 
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