How Shlohmo and his crew of high school friends built an electronic music empire.
It isn't hard to find the WEDIDIT studio, but you have to know where to look. It's located on the long stretch of bohemian shops lining Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, sandwiched between a juice shop and a weed dispensary with a bullet-proof glass window. Show up after one or so on a weekday afternoon, and the space will be slowly willing itself awake. Somebody will be twisting up a spliff. The unmarked door downstairs will probably be unlocked.
It's the second day of March, but the giant dry erase board calendar on the wall in the studio's combined living room/kitchen plots out a facetious itinerary for June. June 7th: Eat salmon. June 13th: Call Mike 4 molly. June 19th: Ask Susan to prom. Were the calendar to be used in earnest, with the correct month, there would probably be a circle around March 19th, the start of Shlohmo's upcoming national tour.
Sure enough, the 24-year-old producer, born Henry Laufer, can be heard in the practice space down the hall, cobbling together a new live set for his soon-to-be-released second album, Dark Red. This time around, perhaps owing to the record's strong metal influence, he's set for himself the task of arranging his laptop productions for a three-piece live band. He and fellow WEDIDIT member Djavan Santos, who is also 24 and goes by D33J, will strap on guitars; Bill DeLelles, a hired gun percussionist flown in from New York, will execute some of the album's contrapuntal machine-drum arrangements with live pads. Learning the music is exacting, time-consuming work—for the past few hours, they've been starting and stopping their way through Shlohmo's bittersweet “Later," the song's signature pitched vocal sample somehow sounding slower and more pained as a result of being manipulated live. Eventually, the moaning stops, and Laufer emerges in the common area, pale and slender in a black hoodie and black jeans, his eyes lidded at half mast from some combination of smoke and fatigue. “We've been having to learn notation in there, like sheet music," he says, smiling wryly.
"If it's normal, it just means that the majority of people like it, and the majority of people are obviously stupid, because everything's so fucked up."—Henry Laufer
It's my third day hanging with WEDIDIT's eclectic-sounding electronic collective in Los Angeles, but aside from these brief cameos, Laufer has been reclusive in a manner that befits his moody music. As other people float in and out of the common space—firing up Ableton in the control room, scrounging for AA batteries in the shelving unit by the door—the only real constant presence is Nick Meledandri, who is currently leaning back in a chair, scanning Gmail. Meledandri—DJ name Nick Melons—runs the label component of WEDIDIT. He also works for Mixed Management, a company that manages "Harlem Shake" producer Baauer and heartthrob singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr., in addition to multiple people in WEDIDIT, including Shlohmo and EDM festival darling RL Grime. Meledandri lives with RL Grime in a big house in the hills of Los Feliz, where they've been known to host the odd Boiler Room show in the garage. Unusually, Meledandri is both a subject of my story and a handler who is helping me to report it—scheduling interviews and shuttling everyone from place to place. With his boyish frame, easy laugh, and animated brown eyes, he comes across as a chattier breed of cool kid than Laufer, eager to help me decode the group's insular existence. "I've always said that it feels kind of like an airplane in here," he says of the studio. "You can never tell what time of day it is."
Meledandri and Laufer have been friends since they were 12 years old, when they met at the progressive-minded Los Angeles private school Crossroads. That's also where they met fellow founding member Groundislava, né Jasper Patterson, now a tall and stocky, happy-go-lucky sneakerhead with a penchant for referencing video game soundtracks in his instrumental pop. They've been calling themselves WEDIDIT since they were around 16 or 17, when they began driving around, smoking weed, igniting bottle rockets, and shouting, "We did it!" at people on the street. Since then, they've leveraged their shared penchant for party music, clothes, and juvenile provocation into a fully functioning music and lifestyle brand, consisting of a record label, a clothing line, and a group of BFFs you can't resist stalking on Instagram. The label generates income primarily via merch sales, and the artists earn their living through a combination of touring and licensing deals. WEDIDIT's unofficial motto is "professionally unprofessional." Their logo is a tombstone inscribed with the name of the collective and a smiley face, both a declaration of success and a nihilistic reminder of their inevitable obsolescence.
Spend a couple of days in their orbit, and you'll find that logo repeated pretty much everywhere you look, from a fluorescent sign on the wall in Meledandri and RL Grime's living room to the tiny gravestone pendants they're always wearing around their necks. All of the members of the collective, at all times, are wearing some item from the group's catalog of black and white tees, hoodies, and patches. When you see them walking down the street in the California sun, the monochrome uniform makes them less like a crew of bedroom producers than a band of punks who survive by sticking close together at all times. Chances are one of them will be wrapping an arm around the friend who's walking beside him, whispering something in his ear.
Laufer grew up just a 15-minute car ride from the studio, in an in-between region of central Los Angeles he says is "too south to be Hollywood but too north to be Mid-City." His mother is a visual artist, his father a singer-songwriter and session man who rolled in Captain Beefheart's circle and schooled the young Laufer in L.A. punk. From his parents, he inherited a reflexive distrust for all manner of conformity. "Why would I like anything normal?" he says to me at one point. "If it's normal, it just means that the majority of people like it, and the majority of people are obviously stupid, because everything's so fucked up." As a child, he loved painting and drawing and hated school. As a teen, he floated between indie comics, skating, graffiti, punk bands, and turntablism, among other subcultural pursuits, eager to find his bearings within the city's vastness. Following Meledandri's lead, he took an informal internship at the Supreme store on Fairfax, and the two even started up a shortlived t-shirt line called Nothing Nice. When he was 15—inspired by J Dilla and Madlib—he started making rudimentary, sample-based instrumentals and posting them to Myspace, where he became part of a community of pseudonymous producers from in and around L.A. Perhaps as a nod to the way he felt during high school, his first producer moniker was Henry from Outer Space.
At its start, WEDIDIT was just an informal coalition of friends—Laufer, Meledandri, and Patterson, plus early members Joseph Cool and Julian Berg, aka Juj—who all occasionally DJed hip-hop on Serato at house parties. "We were the resident high school shitty DJs," Laufer remembers. "Me and Joe kind of became this weird in-house production team for every fucking high school rapper around. There was no reason to call it anything, but you wanna call your friends a crew or whatever the fuck." In its earliest stages, the collective also took the form of a Blogspot, updated frequently with links to their own productions and nods to local contemporaries like Odd Future.
They borrowed an expensive sound system from a friend but never ended up giving it back; within the West L.A. private school bubble where they grew up, those speakers became something of a life preserver. "I remember friends of ours who were selling drugs at the school and then leaving and coming back with a brand new car they had just gone and bought at lunch break," Meledandri says, no stranger to the dysfunction that privilege and boredom can breed. "Both Henry and I—our parents have always had great jobs and stuff, but not nearly on the financial scale of a lot of people that we were in school with," he says. "We weren't necessarily outsiders to it, but we were always, like, 'This is ridiculous.' We were like, 'We're gonna DJ these parties—that's how we're gonna be at these things. And watch it like a fishbowl. Just stand there and enjoy it and absorb it.'"
Parties would happen whenever somebody's parents went out of town, frequently attracting hundreds of young people from all over Los Angeles. "I remember there was a party where—it wasn't a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or an Eames, but someone among those architects," Meledandri says. "And it was just all kids from Santa Monica and Venice stealing tons of art books, being like, 'Yo, this shit is expensive, we could sell this.' Somebody put a hose in the house and turned it on and left. Police helicopters were circling.
Laufer, for his part, chalks up the bulk of his high school DJ career to his introverted side: "I've always hated parties, so DJing was just a way to be at the party and not interact with people." Fittingly, when I cab it over to Beverly Hills one evening to attend a party where RL Grime and D33J are spinning, he's nowhere to be found. It's one of those rainy nights in Los Angeles where, perhaps owing to the lack of heating in most houses, there's no escaping the chill. Some friends are celebrating a joint birthday in a giant, darkly lit rental mansion that looks kind of like a porn set. There are bedrooms strewn with oversized stuffed animals and a crackling fire going in the living room, where a handful of inebriated stragglers are dancing and singing along feebly to Rich Gang's "Lifestyle." Some kids over in the billiard room are wearing masquerade masks for some reason, and though Meledandri keeps reminding me that this isn't a typical night out on the town for the gang, the scene makes the city seem weird in a way that only L.A. natives like themselves can probably understand.
Outside, the lone European member of WEDIDIT, Purple, is smoking a cigarette by the unlit pool. Born Luis Dourado, he's in town for a few weeks, getting ready to take his darkly romantic electro-pop songs on the road as direct support for Shlohmo, who brought him into the fold a couple of years ago after messaging him on SoundCloud. Something of a drifter-raconteur, he explains in his wispy Portuguese accent that the thing that brings everyone in the WEDIDIT crew together is a certain "fascination with darkness."
Whatever the source of that nebulous unease, it seems to have followed Shlohmo from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he moved after high school to study drawing and painting at the California College of The Arts. He took up residence in a dingy Mission loft apartment with Santos—a musician friend of Patterson's from Los Angeles magnet school Hamilton High who'd soon join WEDIDIT as D33J—and figured out pretty quickly that the art world wasn't for him. "I just like painting, so fucking what?" he says. "I don't want to make a living out of pimping out my paintings at galleries, in the bureaucratic bullshit S.F. art world." A couple of years in, he dropped out; Shlomoshun, an early collection of beat music he'd recorded back in high school, had been picked up for release by L.A. record label Friends of Friends, and he devoted his third year in San Francisco to recording a full-length for the outlet, drawing a kind of inverse inspiration from the "chainsaw brostep and really bad fucking hippy shit" that was dominating the local electronic scene. The title of the album, which is full of delicately manipulated beats and textural guitar, is a pretty good summation of the isolation he was feeling at the time: Bad Vibes. So is the video he directed and edited for the droning album track "Trapped in a Burning House," which features shots of a lifeless body being dragged through the city at night.
In 2011, the year that would have been his senior year of college, Laufer relocated to New York, settling into a cramped East Village apartment with Meledandri, who was finishing up a degree in psychology at The New School. They were living just one door down the street from Ben Persky and Mason Klein, two more childhood friends from West L.A. who would go on to found Mixed Management. Persky and Klein's third roommate—and an early client of theirs—was RL Grime, then known as Henry Steinway, a scraggly haired, soft-spoken NYU music business student. He'd already carved out a busy music career under the electro-house moniker Clockwork, frequently forgoing school exams to take high-paying fly-out gigs. He'd admired the WEDIDIT crew's house party empire from afar back in high school, and the trio quickly became inseparable. "That's how Henry Steinway got inducted into WEDIDIT, because we started hanging out at their apartment every day, smoking weed, not leaving," Laufer remembers. "I literally did not take advantage of my time in NYC whatsoever."
"I think that I'm somebody who was always scared of losing high school and losing college. I want to hold on to that youthful part of our lives, because otherwise it's just so serious all the time."—Nick Meledandri
Looking back at that chapter in Laufer's life, though, it seems New York was the place where things actually started taking off for him. In February of 2012, he put out an edit of Drake's "Crew Love," blunting the track into a molasses-slow slog; guest vocalist The Weeknd got his hands on it and cosigned it as an official remix, and the track got posted on the OVO blog. Later that year, something similar happened when Shlohmo upped a stuttering remix of Jeremih's "Fuck You All the Time" to SoundCloud; the bootleg earned some 9.5 million SoundCloud plays, a couple sexy viral fan videos, and an invitation to join the Chicago-based crooner in the studio for one of Yours Truly's Songs From Scratch sessions. "We were like, 'This is crazy,'" Meledandri remembers of the sudden attention. "You can do stuff, put it online, and then the people that you listen to on your iPod by yourself will hit you up and be like, 'Hey, I want to work with you.'"
By that point, he and Laufer had already started channeling the momentum around Shlohmo back into WEDIDIT. "We were like, 'Let's start releasing music as a label,'" Meledandri says. "We have all the people who make music, so we should put it out." Their first release was an EP from RL Grime, a new, stylistically free-form alias for Steinway. Grapes was a giant, wriggling electric eel of a dance record, merging punishing trap beats with warped R&B samples and the caffeinated buildups and breaks of EDM. Taking cues from the cult streetwear brands they'd grown up with, the boys put it up for sale on Bandcamp as a download you'd get when you bought their first piece of limited edition merch: a black and white WEDIDIT tombstone patch. Grapes was followed by an early EP from Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth, this time accompanied by a patch picturing a hand covered in Russian prison tattoo-style doodles and the slogan "1-800-KILLURSELF." The patches were cheap to make and cheap to mail. Both of them sold out within 48 hours of their release.
"It was just us really taking a piss, basically," Laufer says of the label's iconography, with its smirking appropriation of smiley faces, yin-yangs, and other "uncool" relics from '90s. "It's all just clowning on shit and clowning on design." Looking back at these juvenile design antics, Meledandri takes a more sentimental tone: "I think that I'm somebody who was always scared of losing high school and losing college, and how fun it is to not take everything so seriously and have to be so concerned with real world stress. I want to hold on to that youthful part of our lives, because otherwise it's just so serious all the time."
Three years in, that appeal seems stronger than ever: the week I'm in Los Angeles, the boys keep getting tagged in Instagram photos of fans brandishing freshly inked gravestone tattoos on reddened skin. "WEDIDIT fans fuck with WEDIDIT artists," Nick tells me. "They are down to listen to all of them and experience all of them." That cult fanaticism seems all the more remarkable considering the label's roster, which, especially for the electronic world, spans an unusually wide spectrum of sounds and scenes. On the level of sheer money-making ability, it's got an MVP in RL Grime, whose career has grown to encompass a life of mainstage festival play and Vegas residencies. When I interview him at home in Los Feliz, he tells me that people in him and Baauer's particular tier of the EDM hierarchy—much smaller than Avicii, but big enough to play direct support for a headliner of that size—can make between $20,000 and $100,000 a show. That's a far cry from an artist like Shlohmo, who typically plays medium-sized concert venues and says he's only just recently started making enough money to bring a live band on the road with him and break even. Not that selling out shows is necessarily a goal of his, anyway: "Fans-wise, as long as they get it, I'm down—but I don't need my name echeloned into the next platform for dumber people to see," Laufer tells me one day, when I ask him if he wants to be famous. "If you're smart enough to know about it, you know about it already."
Especially as it continues to grow, WEDIDIT would seem to encompass too many different sounds, live contexts, and levels of commercial ambition to be seen as strictly DIY or strictly business. Since 2013—after Laufer, Steinway, and Meledandri had all moved back West—the label has been distributed by Capitol subsidiary Caroline Music. That's not common knowledge, but it's an affiliation they don't seem particularly worried about disclosing, probably because they're temperamentally incapable of putting themselves in a situation where they'd have to cater to somebody else's vision (Meledandri says WEDIDIT is actually in the process of switching over to an independent distro). As Laufer once put it, "Whenever I leave anything up to anyone else, they fuck it up."
WEDIDIT's unique positioning in relation to the music industry at large—using the business to its own advantage while retaining ultimate control—is perhaps best encapsulated by the story behind No More, the collaborative EP Shlohmo ended up cutting in the studio with Jeremih, and that was originally slated as a WEDIDIT co-release with Def Jam. According to Laufer, the record almost didn't come out: after Def Jam put the project on indefinite hiatus, he and Meledandri took the matter into their own hands and surprise-released it for free. Perhaps because the response to the album was so enthusiastic, Def Jam didn't pursue legal action.
On my last afternoon hanging out at the studio, I walk in the door to find D33J leaning over a desk, twiddling his short dreads and scribbling down answers on a printed-out questionnaire. He's scrambling to finish up an application for the roving artist residency Red Bull Music Academy before the post office closes, and in typical WEDIDIT fashion, he's wearing sunglasses as he works. "Basically been filling out this college application," he tells me. "I haven't slept all night." Over in the control room, behind a closed door, the rest of the crew is crowded around a giant desktop computer, free-associating production suggestions as RL Grime messes with a funk sample on Ableton that includes the words she's a bad mother. "Here's where you gotta bring in that Mustard bass!" "Put that acid line on it!" At somebody's request, he adds in a grating happy hardcore melody. Meledandri leaves the room to take a call from his actual mom.
Musically, it isn't all that hard to wrap your mind around the WEDIDIT crew's signature eclecticism; they all grew up in the '90s, digital natives and poster children for a generation of electronic music producers for whom everything you like is fair game for a flip. When they decide to take me across town on a shopping excursion, though, trying to keep up with the particulars of their aesthetic sensibility can feel a bit intimidating. We're at Slauson Super Mall in South L.A.—a giant retail outlet with aisle after aisle of discount streetwear, dead-stock sneakers, and cheap jewelry—and everybody seems to be looking for some very specific item. Meledandri wants a thin gold bracelet that looks kind of like a dog tag chain; Patterson buys a bucket hat and gets it custom embroidered with DOTA, in honor of the online game Defense of the Ancients. Shlohmo goes down a vintage sneaker rabbit hole, seemingly bent on finding the silliest, most off-trend kicks in the store. Instead, he ends up settling on a pair of white women's flip-flops with a giant cursive Skechers logo scrawled across the strap. "That's the problem with shopping with Henry," Meledandri tells me, frowning, when he hears about Laufer's purchase. "He always finds all the tightest shit before everybody else does."
"I think I'm into the shitty things," Laufer will tell me later. We're wrapping up our final interview in the back seat of a car, on the way back to West Hollywood. Gazing out the window as houses and strip malls and gas stations fly by, he's telling me about his fondness for the sort of badly designed store awnings and food menus you can still spot pretty much everywhere you look in the city, its manicured reputation aside. "Things that regs like tend to be highly mediocre and inoffensive, no which way either here nor there. I just imagine how yoga studios look, you know? Papyrus font or something? That pisses me off. I'd hate to live in a place where everything looked like Beverly Hills or something. I'd hate to live in a place where everything is kind of flat, mediocre, and nice."
More than anything else, it's Laufer's love for imperfection that forms the basis of his particular brand of cool. It's there in the reliably creepy stream of images he projects into the world via his Instagram feed (on our first day together in L.A., he posts a photo of a row of palm trees, looking uncharacteristically sinister against a stormy sky). And it's there in his new full-length Dark Red, with its overdriven layers of sludge guitar, bass, and warbly old organs, occasionally glomming into a nadir of expressive ugliness. Laufer says he recorded the album—a joint release with Matador imprint True Panther—during a two-year period when he got really fascinated by the psychology of serial killers. And though he doesn't want to go into it, he says the tense mood of the music can be partly attributed to some difficult experiences he was going through in his private life: "There was just a bunch of family health issues and just some funerals," he says. Like his personal temperament, Dark Red seems better suited to an evening curled up watching horror movies on mute than a night popping molly in a warehouse. In the context of Shlohmo's wider career, there may be a level of provocation to the record, too; when you've established a name for yourself as a purveyor of mutant party music, shredding a guitar onstage is probably the most contrary thing you can do.
It can be hard to decode the insular aesthetic logic that governs the WEDIDIT universe, but listening to Laufer speak, I can't help thinking that maybe it has something to do with growing up when he did in Los Angeles: it isn't easy to find something to hold on to—or people to hold on to—within its endless sprawl of isolated worlds. "We live in a weird fucking time," Shlohmo says, adjusting his sunglasses. "There's a lot of fake weirdos out there, and nothing is sacred because anyone can look up an entire history of a generation's style and copy it in one fell swoop."
The youthful instinct to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing can be confusing when you live in a culture where nothing means anything anymore and everything has already been done. For WEDIDIT, surviving means going on a never-ending reconnaissance mission for the things that have yet to be co-opted by all the regs and the yuppies and the hipsters and Michael Kors girls and the fuccbois—the people Laufer says "try hella hard to fit in." It means proudly staking a claim in the things that you do and do not like, even if you sometimes have to do so arbitrarily. Maybe most importantly, surviving means knowing when to move on when something doesn't feel meaningful anymore: as the car swings back onto Melrose, I ask Laufer what would happen if all the kids in Los Angeles started wearing all black. "They did," he says. "We've gotta start wearing all white now."