Town techno may be the Bay Area's most exciting new music genre. It takes hip-hop's basis of beats and rhymes, filters them through an uptempo techno influence, and then liberally swathes it all with synthesizer riffs. The music's foremost proponent is League510, a quartet whose backstory has the members beaming down from outer space and landing in Oakland. League510's early anthem, "To the Beat," is propelled by burnished synth lines, frenzied hi-hat patterns, and a chorus that comes over like a futuristic aerobics instructor when it commands, "We're moving and grooving to the beat." But what sets town techno apart from other regional musical movements is that it's a scene you cannot yet physically experience. If you were cynical, you might wonder whether it exists at all — and at least in the traditional sense, it doesn't.
League510, you see, lays claim to a wave of nascent town techno anthems like the aforementioned "To the Beat," "I'm On," and "In My Face (Womp Womp)," simply by virtue of being the only group to associate itself with the subgenre. It's attempting to kick-start a new strain of Bay Area rap rather than acting as ambassadors for an already-established trend — a charge the four readily cop to. "Right now, it's still our own thing, and we're the pioneers," says TK (aka Cory Campbell), who makes up League510 along with Mr. Knowitall, Mont, and DJ Blacksmith. "But when it catches on, I'm sure it will be very big and played in all the clubs." For now, TK says the group's studio, at Pendleton Way and Edgewater Drive in Oakland, is the only place to really "get an earful of what we're building."
This idea of creating a marketing angle first and then seeing whether it spawns a scene differs from most organic movements. Rappers in the Bay Area were "going dumb" in a self-sufficient hyphy scene long before Keak da Sneak found himself featured on MTV's My Super Sweet 16. In Philadelphia, DJs Diplo and Low Budget were holding eclectic, rap-based parties in a Ukrainian meeting hall years before the hipster-hued acts Spank Rock, Amanda Blank, and pop-culture agitator M.I.A. broke out. But if the town techno label seems a little synthetic, League510 definitely has a sound that sets it apart from its Bay Area peers.
Mr. Knowitall describes their blueprint as combining "new age electronic music with us being Oakland natives." Hip-hop has a strong history of embracing electronic sounds, going back to Afrika Bambaataa's Kraftwerk-interpolating "Planet Rock" in the early '80s, but few wear this influence as brazenly as League510 does. As Blacksmith says, "People in California are usually laid-back, but we bring an energy through electronic music that surpasses a lot of people coming out."
It's a formula League510 does well enough to win over even conservative rappers. Its debut album comes out this summer on Clear Label Records, run by Tajai Massey from Souls of Mischief, a group usually associated with a more purist sound composed of soul and jazz samples. The League510 crew came to his attention after the rapper Casual, a fellow member of the Hieroglyphics community, heard "To the Beat" on a computer at a youth center and suggested Massey take a listen. After Massey saw his daughter's reaction to the song, he signed the group.
That kind of break is appropriate for a group that cites "the embrace of technology" as part of its package. With fans experiencing music more vicariously than ever — for everyone who goes to a show, tens of thousands more watch a YouTube clip — League510 may be developing a new strain of music scene, one in which straight-to-Internet videos are more important than a physical meeting point. As the group's career unfolds, the phenomenon of town techno may end up proving that these days that it's not about where you broadcast from, but who's tuning in.