Reggae on the Mountain (ROTM) is Los Angeles' very own world music and culture festival. Produced by Label 27, it was conceived seven years ago by two young men from Topanga Canyon, Amit Gilad and Brooks Ellis -- best friends who grew up loving music and throwing backyard parties for their close-knit group of friends. That's where the idea was forged. Now, it has blossomed into one of Los Angeles' biggest reggae festivals and is a place where the city goes to be one.
Growing up in the hills of Topanga Canyon, with its long history of music and celebration, does something to the residents of the canyon. With that spirit taking hold, the founders felt they had a responsibility to keep the musical traditions of the canyon ever growing and evolving. It was a passion and a belief that turned into a way of life.
KingstonToLA recently sat down with the two businessmen to hear how their dreams, hard work and determination turned into reality.
KNG2LA: How did it all start? The beginning of what today is known as Reggae On The Mountain?
“As two young kids growing up in the canyon, we would throw big backyard parties with our funk jam band. It was the high school party band. We would cover songs, including reggae songs, and bring all our friends together at these events. From there, we got involved with the Topanga Community Club (TCC) for the annual Topanga Days festival and acquired a stage for the 3-day event called 'The Canyon Underground.' On that stage, we got our start booking bands and young, local talent. It went well and we were gaining a lot of experience and knowledge, so we thought we would propose an even bigger event. We talked with the TCC about our interests in developing an event that would bring the entire community together, in unity and love, and that also celebrated diversity.”
“That's what impacted us the most. Going to the Topanga Days festival as children and it has been running now for 42 years,” chimed Brooks.
With so many blues, rock and hippie jam bands in the area, the pair thought the city needed something different. This is when the idea of throwing a reggae and world music festival came to mind. They wanted to bring a different vibe to Topanga with the hopes of bringing Angelenos, from all walks of life, together in unity.
“It's cool to throw an event where people come together sharing their cultures, all having a good time together. That’s the best thing for society. Create a place where everyone can have a good time together, learn from each other's culture and celebrate music, positivity and love,” added Amit.
Their company, Label 27, contracts with the TCC for this event. ROTM acts as a fundraiser for the TCC and is a non-profit event. "It's been a beautiful partnership over the past seven years. The TCC is a vital piece of the Topanga community and has been so for over 60 years." Bringing music and culture to the small town, countless acts have played at the community club throughout the years, adding to the "special vibe" in the canyon. Nowhere else in Los Angeles can one experience this kind of atmosphere and vibe. Amit described it as, “a portal into Northern California and its only 45 minutes outside of the city.” Only a few choice concerts are thrown a year at the TCC, adding to the allure of the venue and location.
Amit expressed, “It is nice to raise money for the community. This event supports the youth and senior programs, sports, as well as AA and NA meetings that are held here at TCC. In LA, and in general, the community centers are few and far between, so that's what makes this place so special. Anyone can get involved and can go to a meeting, be elected and get on the Board. It's a unique, cool place. It’s a gem and a gift that we can give. We throw a family-friendly event. We see reggae as a multi-generational genre, so a lot of people bring their kids and that's why we made it free for youth 12 years old and under. That’s our aim. For the kids to enjoy themselves at a great event, thus starting them young enough to absorb the deep message of the music. We also get to hire our 'homies' who we grew up with and get to hire people from the community. This brings a lot of economy and growth to the canyon."
Brooks went on to say, “From the beginning, we established ourselves as a roots and culture event. It's a grass roots event. We like artists who stand for love, community and positivity. We are selective about the brands that we associate ourselves with. We aren’t taking a political or religious stance, but we don’t promote hate.“
Amit continued by saying, “We’ve been learning a lot about reggae and Rastafarianism since we started this festival and, just as in any religion, there are moderate and extreme beliefs, but what's beautiful, and shines through in reggae music to the general population, is that it’s about uplifting your spirits. It's about fighting through oppression no matter who you are and what you are facing in life."
Brooks reminds us, “Like with anything, we have experienced some challenges along the way, but you can’t let a couple of bad eggs ruin such a beautiful message, so our efforts are based on love. You have to stand for some things and we definitely believe the way of love and progression is the unity of all people.”
When we asked them to describe what they see ROTM as, Amit said, “It's a real Los Angeles festival that we created, but that now has a life of its own. We are just the guardians of it now. It belongs to the community. It belongs to the reggae community. It belongs to the people and we are just the caretakers of it, trying to shape it and move it along. We have been really blessed to have grown with every year. It's a passion and it is so great seeing people have a good time and getting to sit back in that moment and take it all in. That definitely makes it all worth it."
The amenities have grown to accommodate the increasing popularity of the festival. One example is the use of LA charter bus and shuttling service RastaBus.com to help get festival goers up the mountain. This has changed the experience for attendees, making it easier to get to the venue. The minute you get on the bus, the reggae is playing and the mood "irie", setting the good vibes for the day.
Brooks noted that “Rasta Bus was so enthusiastic to join the ROTM family. They get a lot of business with their tours in Hollywood, but they are so generous to break off for those two days for us, making less money and just doing it for the love and support.“
Last year, the festival took another progressive step towards growth. Not only was a second day of music added, but also a new stage at the top of the hill in the TCC building. This has increased the number of artists exposed from the LA community. The Hill Top stage is reserved for local reggae acts and DJs and it allows the attendees a place to get some food, listen to local LA bands and enjoy the hilltop views. This year there will be a brochure and map, which will encourage festival-goers to explore the whole venue, check out the different vendors and partake in all the offerings throughout the event.
“It was a natural progression. Our goal was to expand and create a sustainable festival for many years to come,” said Brooks on the recent growth of the festival.
"Two days and two stages was our 10-year plan. You have to be bold if you want to thrive and create something big. We took the jump and added a second day and the second stage last year and now that's our mission. By the tenth year, we want to make sure it's completely done right," added Amit.
Brooks told KNG2LA, “The 10-year plan is to provide that infrastructure to make a safe, fun, family-friendly and enjoyable legacy event. We want to set it up to run almost autonomously within that structure. Year after year, we work hard to get the look, feel and artists who we and the patrons want to see. We don’t want to grow and balloon and take this experience elsewhere. We want to stay at this location. We hope that one day we can say the 43rd Annual ROTM, just like Topanga Days.”
They have become successful by being good people who stick to their word and by running a good business with clear communication. The hard work and perseverance each year is challenging, but they believe in putting the artist and the community first. Having a business mindset at such a young age has taught them many life lessons, namely doing business with dignity.
“We run a tight game and just because you are tight and structured doesn’t mean it takes away from the love. You can have it all the same, but you still have to get your permits,” Brooks expressed.
Amit continued by saying, “People thrive on good organization and mapping a clear path of a shuttle here and a box office there is important to us. We strive to make things run smoothly to keep everyone happy. It’s been a big learning process for sure.”
Starting at a young age, just out of high school, the two have had to overcome adversity and prove that they have what it takes to succeed. Through their journey together, they have gained skills and real world experience, which is helping them navigate life in the real world. Music and art are of the utmost importance to them and they are inspired by promoting culture and love. ROTM is more than a place to party or watch live acts. It's a place where the city, and really the world, finds peace on a mountaintop.
Join us this weekend at Reggae On The Mountain's 7th annual festival. Watch the trailer below for who will be blessing the stage:
Images courtesy of Parker Bartlett and Denis M.Hannigan. All rights reserved.