Beat makers thrive in Pittsburgh’s underground scene

Photo by Mick Stinelli
Orlando Marshall who produces music as Buscrates, makes a beat on the spot with his Korg minilogue synthezers and a Roland SP-404 sampler

Written By Mick Stinelli , Co-A&E Editor

Orlando Marshall sits in his home studio, nodding his head to a new electrofunk beat he’s just made. Shade Cobain pounds out boom-bap – reminiscent of ‘90s hip-hop. Charlie Scott spins house and disco records in a dimly-lit club.

There are a few in Pittsburgh who spend their days making beats. This seemingly isolated practice has become a widespread form of music not only in Pittsburgh, but across the world.

Cobain started making beats after joining a rap group at age 18.

“I was in a group called Biani,” he says. “We would try to find beats, and we couldn’t afford none.”

He soon became the only one in the group making beats.

“The one friend, he would sit there and try to make beats,” he said. “And I would be over his shoulder, like, ‘No! Why don’t you add that? Add that, do that.’ And he would just [say,] ‘You do it then!’ So I sat down and learned.”

Marshall, who makes music under the stage name Buscrates, also began making music in the ‘90s.

“I would always hang out with one of my good friends… his name is Geeman,” Marshall said. “I would always go on record shopping trips with him, because he was making beats back then. Over time, he saw that I had an ear for music and he encouraged me to get my own little sampler and start making some joints.”

Marshall has just recently moved back to Pittsburgh after a stint in Atlanta. He says he felt unsatisfied with the city’s music scene.

Ironically, 24-year-old Andrew Andrle, who releases music as Derlee, moved to Atlanta to take part in the city’s scene. He began making music in his bedroom. His tracks flourished from there.

“I just started making music that I personally enjoyed,” Derlee said. “Pulling in from modern hip-hop, especially in the drums, and then sample-based ‘90s golden-era stuff. I mixed it with electronic music and it fused into what it is.”

His music blends the boom-bap style of sampling and rhythm with a modern glean. He says he decided to move to Atlanta because he felt unsatisfied with Pittsburgh’s music scene.

“There is and there isn’t a music scene in Pittsburgh, compared to a lot of major cities,” Derlee said. “But it’s on the rise.”

La Squadra (LS), a local label started by Dario Miceli in 2016, saw this problem, and put conscious effort into helping local Pittsburgh artists thrive. Throughout 2016, LS put out 12 instrumental releases by local artists, mastered by local engineer Tom Holroyd and featuring cover art taken by Pittsburgh photographer Ryan Michael White.

“More people had to see the music scene in Pittsburgh,” label head Miceli said. “I always say there’s so much talent per capita here.”

La Squadra’s releases cover a variety of genres, from house to boom-bap to footwork.

“There was an event called the CDR parties,” Charlie Scott, who refers to Miceli as his manager, said. “From there, I started meeting all these other people who are making dance music, leftfield electronic music, footwork, all kinds of stuff. When I met those people, I realized I had a lot more in common with those people musically than a lot of hip-hop people.”

He began adding house beats to his repertoire, and started DJing in addition to production. Scott released his EP “The Warm Cut” on LS. He began making hip-hop, but as his music evolved, he began adding influences from other genres. The EP showcases this, with an even balance of house and hip-hop.

Elsewhere, artists in Pittsburgh have been getting inspired by some of the most important scenes in other parts of the world.

“I studied abroad in Berlin,” said Luke Starcher, who makes music as Good Dude Lojack. “I had no idea the kind of rich electronic music that is encompassed in Berlin. Every day, it was like, you go to a café, and you hear incredible electronic music that I was not ready for on any level.”

Starcher was inspired, and began making music on his laptop. When he got home, he bought a hardware sampler, and began building his home studio. He released his “Sevenandtwenty” EP on LS. The album fuses techno’s pounding kicks and searing bass with classic house chords and melodies.

“It was a great time,” Starcher described working with the label. “This project [was] just another thing Pittsburgh needs.”

Ray Miller, who releases music as 0h85, said the experience of working with LS opened him up to new musical approaches.

“I was exposed to a lot of people making music in a different way,” Miller said. “I had always been just using samples and drums. Hearing other music from those guys and seeing how some of them make music – I’ve been using more sounds that I make myself.”

Miller makes footwork, the breakneck-pace dance music pioneered by Chicago DJs like DJ Rashad and RP Boo. This relatively new style of music leads to a bit of confusion on dancefloors.

“Anytime I’ve ever had a footwork night happen, it doesn’t go off like house nights do,” Miller said.

His most recent release, “Heatcheck 001,” features samples from recognizable songs under pounding kicks and scattered hi-hats. The music, he said, is “jarring.”

“You kind of have to respect the fact that it is so fast,” he said with a laugh. “It’s so, so hard to do that dance to it.”

Beyond that fact that the music is more akin to drum and bass than disco, Miller said one of the biggest problems with the Pittsburgh scene is the lack of venues. Others agree.

“The Pittsburgh scene needs a new hub,” Starcher said. “Everything is kind of bar-focused. So anytime somebody plays a show, or puts a tremendous amount of effort into one night, it means a lot to them. They show up and sometimes the entire audience is just more focused on the bar and drinks than they are the music.”

He praised Hot Mass in the Strip District, but lamented that it was only a single night event.

“Nothing is very, very music-oriented, besides Hot Mass,” said Miller. “Any other place you DJ is like, a restaurant, or Ace Hotel. Ace Hotel is great, but it’s still just a hotel lobby.”

Miller, Starcher and Scott all mentioned one place that used to be a hotbed of musical activity: the Shadow Lounge.

Founded in the early 2000s, the Shadow Lounge was a place where artists outside the mainstream could gather and share ideas. It closed in 2013. Its influence on the Pittsburgh music scene, however, remains nearly five years later. Some have even suggested its influence goes beyond music. 

An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published when the venue closed, went as far as to say the Shadow Lounge was the “catalyst” that started East Liberty’s revitalization.

Even without a central hub, the region’s scene continues to grow in the underground. But why? Cobain has a definitive answer.

“Everybody loves the groove,” he said with a smile. “It’s raw. It’s good to just listen to a producer in his moods, within his music, without a rapper screaming on top of it and all over it.”

Andrew Sauerland, a student at Point Park, has a similar philosophy on his music.

“You gotta give it a couple of tests,” Sauerland said, describing how he knows if a beat is good or not. “You gotta play it in the car, play it on a good set of headphones, but as long as you can bump it, as long as it’s something you can really vibe to and find yourself getting lost into – that’s how you know it’s good.”

Known by his friends as Asau, Sauerland releases music as Sau.

“In middle school and high school, I was always in the band and the choir and stuff like that,” he said. “Last summer, I got Garageband on my computer for free and just started messing around with it.”

Since that summer, Sauerland has released an 11-track beat tape on Soundcloud titled “The Wave Project.”

Speaking on what makes beatmaking special, Sauerland said it’s “the fact that you can put any instrument in there at once, that you’re not limited by what you have.”

In many ways, it’s this idea of resourcefulness that keeps the beat making scene alive in Pittsburgh. Despite a lack of venues, living in a smaller city and lacking a core musical identity, the Pittsburgh beat scene has been able to become one of the country’s most exciting and varied.

“There’s been a lot of people putting in a lot of work underground,” Starcher said. “Putting in a lot of effort. 2018, I feel like there’s just going to be so, so many eyes on Pittsburgh within the next coming years, just for people who were on La Squadra. And even if they weren’t, there’s still so many people who weren’t even on La Squadra…it’s crazy.”