Oct 05, 2015
interview
Jason Bentley

As the host of KCRW’s esteemed “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” an avid DJ, and ultimately a curator of culture through art, Jason Bentley has earned his spot among the most influential figures in the music industry. We sat with him to get an inside look at his humble beginnings in the dance scene, how to break the barrier between art and commerce, and the secret behind that perfect radio voice.

LessThan3: For those who may not know, please give an intro on what you’re all about.
Jason: Basically I’m all about music, culture, arts. Growing up, that’s what I was always drawn to. Even before I could figure out how to make sense out of that, or make a career out of it, I was always drawn to music and graffiti art and street style.

The first area that I could start to express myself was college radio, where I started playing dance music. I discovered house music the summer after high school when I was in Europe backpacking. That trip was hugely influential because I discovered all this music that ironically was house and techno out of Chicago and New York. When I came home, I basically threw myself into playing this music and getting into it and finding the underground parties. At that time, there was a thriving LA scene; it’s kind of funny how big the rave scene has gotten now with Insomniac and companies like that. Your group of friends would go out and be on a mission to find these parties. A lot of them would be super imaginative and totally illegal–it was an adventure. I think we knew that we were onto something.

Even though we were just having fun and doing what felt good, we understood that we were re-imagining how people could experience music. It wasn’t a concert, it wasn’t a ticket and a seat and a band–it was totally reinventing that. Whoever you were, whether the promoter or the flyer designer or the DJ or an attendee, you were bringing this creative energy to it that was really important to you. I met a lot of my very best friends to this day in that scene. Even my peers who are at the highest level in the scene, like Pasquale from Insomniac, he was a flyer kid. You’d come out of a party at five in the morning and he’d be standing out front passing out flyers.

When you have a sense of being part of a movement in music, you feel a sense of ownership. I think my role ever since has been to help shape that scene, be a guiding figure. I love it, I love the sound, I love how it brings people together. The kind of energy that you see in those environments can’t be compared to anything else. It has the chance to create positive change for the world.

Obviously now my responsibilities have changed–I’m the music director of a radio station, I work on major projects, but I still and try to take a little bit of that in whatever I do, even if I’m interviewing rock bands. It’s not that I don’t like that music, it’s just that my formative experience was dance music.

LessThan3: How have you stayed involved in the dance scene?
Jason: For whatever reason, this year I’ve had the best year as a DJ playing CRSSD, Coachella, EDC, and Lightning in a Bottle, among others.
LessThan3: How did DJing start for you?
Jason: I just like sharing music with people–the reaction that I get, the buzz that I feel. I think it has a little to do with my personality growing up. I was a bit more shy and reserved and didn’t know how to express certain things, and being a DJ let me be a superhero. The music gave me a way to communicate with people in ways that socially I would be like “uhhh, I uhhh, I…”
LessThan3: Speaking of that, what personality traits or personal values got you to where you are today?
Jason: Real dedication. A Rolling Stone writer last week, just conversationally, gave me the best compliment I’ve ever gotten, which is that my radio show is “consistently excellent.” That’s it. If I can be consistently excellent, I don’t know if there’s anything better than that. Being consistent over the years is key. In the club culture, there are a lot of pitfalls, like people get hooked on drugs or become alcoholics or their priorities change–being really committed to an idea or a vision over time has been a big deal for me.
LessThan3: How do you view the intersection between art and commerce, and how do you strike that balance with your Morning Becomes Eclectic show?
Jason: I feel like without commerce, there’s no infrastructure for art, so I embrace it. That doesn’t mean I play commercial music or I sell out. I think there’s a lot of space for independent projects to get funding and support. If we can meet halfway, it works.

We depend on sponsorships at public radio, but there are potential sponsors that I’ll turn down because it doesn’t feel right. You just have to trust your gut. I’ve never had a corporate job–I think that’s a whole different world, and there’s a skill to being able to navigate that world. But I could never survive in an environment where every idea you came up with was second guessed and analyzed in terms of “how much money will this make us?”

The beauty of public radio is our number one purpose isn’t making money–our number one purpose is serving the community, and money helps us do that better. When you take money down from the top to priority three or four, it’s really liberating.

LessThan3: And the money just flows in or…?
Jason: I think people sense it. They pick up on stuff that’s got bad intentions. I’m sure you look at Facebook or whatever, and you probably self-edit in real time, and as soon as you see something that looks like an advertisement, you probably don’t even pay attention, right? I think our audience today is very shrewd, especially in dance music. Case in point is the recent failure of the We Are Your Friends movie. The community itself saw it as fake and inauthentic.
LessThan3: What do you see for the future of KCRW and radio industry as a whole? How are you combating the forces against you?
Jason: There’s only so much you can do. The only thing you can control is the quality of your own work, so I believe in that. We are moving to a new building that’s actually being constructed for us, so that’s very exciting–we’ve been in a basement for 30 years under the student cafeteria at Santa Monica College. We’ll have all this other flexibility like performance spaces and an outdoor courtyard for shows, so it’ll really be a renaissance for us.

As far as other entities, I am competitive, and you know, I want everyone else to die [chuckles]. I think based on actual industry ratings and research, radio is actually very healthy. I know everyone thinks radio is dead, everyone’s listening to Spotify or Beats or whatever, but they’re not!

LessThan3: What is the music discovery process like for the show?
Jason: I get serviced a ton of stuff, just because I’ve been doing this for so long. I’m pretty disciplined about reviewing it. The process is pretty brutal–it’s quick, if it catches my ear or I’m feeling the vibe. It’s very much an intuitive process, but I’m trying to be mindful of the ecosystem, so I will sometimes emphasize new albums, artists coming to town, shows going on sale, things that are buzzing topically.
LessThan3: What was the most memorable reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?
Jason: I pulled into Whole Foods in Venice a couple days ago, and no joke, I think somebody was obviously trying to f*ck with me, but they had made a sign that said “Parking for Jason Bentley.” So at least I have parking at Whole Foods.

I was in Istanbul recently, asking for directions at the front desk of my hotel, and this couple recognized my voice. In Istanbul! Can you believe it?

LessThan3: So were you born with a perfect radio voice or have you refined it over time?
Jason: I think I just made it. You know what my secret is? The “proximity effect” is the terminology for it–you come closer and just lower your voice, then it’ll sound deeper.
LessThan3: What are some general best practices that you utilize to keep up with your various roles?
Jason: Stay healthy, exercise, don’t hang on negative energy, know who you are, don’t get bogged down by people who want you to be someone you’re not. Be prepared to be totally committed to something if you want to be successful.

Don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself. Find your crew, or your scene, because there are different people who are good at different things. Some people have the instincts to be a manager type of person, other people are just about creative ideas. It’s important that if you have a vision or a hope or a dream, if you can just find other people who are like-minded but offer different skill sets, that’s ideal. One of my great faults, through my whole life, is being too much of control freak and wanting to do everything when you really can’t and you shouldn’t–it’s impossible. Learn to delegate and be a good collaborator.

LessThan3: Is there anything you haven’t done, career-wise or not, that you still want to do?
Jason: I think my goal is to be one of the greatest curators of music and culture in Los Angeles…ever [chuckles]. I want to look back on a legacy where I’ve created great public programs and institutions. It’s sort of getting to that level where I have a lasting effect. I’m not a billionaire, so I can’t do it with money necessarily–I just have to do it with passion and drive. I don’t know what shape that will ultimately take–I just want to do what I have been doing.
LessThan3: What up-and-coming artists are you excited for this year?
Jason:LessThan3: I think Bunny Tiger is about to surpass dirtybird. Similar sound–that bass-y, G-house-y kind of thing–mainly a guy named Sharam Jey who’s been producing for a long time. I like some of the Claptone remixes that I’ve been hearing. I think the Disclosure record will be really big. I think the Duke Dumont record will be really big. So much good music.

What dance music sounds or trends do you predict will thrive next year?

I think that the EDM binge is on its way out and has been for awhile. A lot of the predictable sounds and styles have hit a saturation point where people are just not that interested in hearing it anymore. In place of that will be more interesting, deeper sounds, and hopefully songwriting and instrumentation. I think it’ll get rid of the fat, it’ll get rid of the fluff–the people who aren’t in it for the right reasons. I think tempos have been shifting down–we’re hearing more interesting things in like 115 BPM. Artists like Jungle with a funky, retro sound. It was nice to see a young artist like Jamie xx come through recently DJing vinyl and playing old school house records.

LessThan3: What shows and projects do you have coming up this year?
Jason: I’m DJing at the Backyard BBQ as part of Red Bull’s 30 Days in L.A. and The Viceroy in Santa Monica for New Year’s Eve. I’m going to the Amsterdam Dance Event next month.
LessThan3: If the world were ending in LessThan3 minutes, and you had an iPod with every song ever made on it, what would you listen to?
Airplay enabled