This piece was originally published on the 15th of September 2014 by The 405. It’s the first of a three-part hagiography of Flying Lotus, written in the build-up to his fifth album, You’re Dead! There was actually supposed to be a fourth piece, covering FlyLo’s fourth album, Until the Quiet Comes, but I never got around to finishing it because of life/university commitments (if I remember correctly I moved house during this time). Anyway, Flying Lotus is probably my favourite musician, so this piece is appropriately fawning. The editor initially wanted one piece about Flying Lotus’s career, but I pitched four articles about each album because one article wasn’t enough, and he said yes because he wasn’t paying me and he’d get more traffic that way. Despite all the fawning, however, I’d say this series represents some of my best work for The 405. The writing about the music itself could certainly be stronger – I was still fairly new to music writing at the time – but I think the research and the reporting holds up reasonably well when reading it now. I loved working on these, and I think it shows. Maybe I should get around to finishing that final piece.
“I think people like what I do because I do what I want to do. So I just try and remember that and stay true to my gut and hopefully people will keep fucking with me.” – Steve Ellison, to Pitchfork in the tour documentary Fly First
Steven Ellison is many things, among them: the head of a record label; a rapper; a student of cinema. For our purposes here, however, he’s one of the most distinguished names in alternative and experimental music under the moniker Flying Lotus. Such a description seem slightly vague, but it’s appropriate all the same; Ellison derived his stage name from lucid dreaming, and it follows that he’s notoriously difficult to pigeonhole as a musician. Does he make electronic music? Instrumental hip-hop? Jazz? Avant-garde? IDM? EDM? Psychedelic? Honestly, I don’t give a fuck, and neither should you. Its more important (and interesting) to establish here that nobody else makes music like Steven Ellison, and that his complete disregard for generic boundaries is not only an uninhibited joy to behold as a listener, but a huge part of what makes him so unique and innovative. That’s not to say this is the only part, however, because the Flying Lotus project is, like the man behind it, many things.
There’s definitely a side — which you’re more likely to find in his live shows, his non-album material, and his production work on other artists’ projects — that’s traditionally mainstream, more gregarious and accessible while still retaining Ellison’s characteristic off-kilter aesthetic. So even if you’ve neglected to listen to his albums, there’s still a good chance that you’ve encountered his music. Maybe you heard him pulling off the remarkable feat of making Mac Miller sound halfway decent; or perhaps you’re into his radio station on Grand Theft Auto V; or it could be that you’re a fan of Adult Swim and have come across his bumper music. That side of Flying Lotus is meticulously maximalist by design, and tends to push sounds and ideas to their absolute limit. It’s also markedly different to what you’ll experience on a Flying Lotus album, which are more informed by Ellison’s introspection and self-consciousness. The album format serves as an arena in which he can examine his current state of mind, explore his psyche’s multiple facets: the California beat maker on 1983; the child of Los Angeles on Los Angeles (no shit, huh?); the spiritual being on Cosmogramma; the human being on Until the Quiet Comes. This reflective aspect bestows upon the project and absolutely vital ritualistic, almost confessional and spiritual qualities. The pattern is noticeable: he releases an album every two years, and on those albums he purges his mind of all his thoughts and ideas and pain.
That’s a good reason why his music has managed to connect so profoundly with people: because it’s deeply personal, because we can instinctively feel it. That’s why none of his albums sound alike, because Ellison can so eloquently articulate his constant voyage of self-discovery through his music. That’s why nobody makes music like him, because, while his sound can be replicated, his soul cannot. That’s why the prospect of a new Flying Lotus album is so intensely exciting: for better or worse, Ellison is always in a different place spiritually, so you never quite know what to expect from him musically. What we’ve heard from his wildly anticipated fifth album, You’re Dead! (due October 6th on Warp Records), attests to this: his free-jazz influences seem more apparent than ever, yet there’s also an undeniable hint of prog-rock, a genre in which he’s never previously dabbled. Which is to say, it sounds unhinged and gnarly as fuck. It’s the sort of music nobody else would make, that very few artists even could make. And out anticipation for this record has got us here at The 405 thinking about Ellison’s career up to this point. Being the hopelessly inquisitive people we are, we wondered how hegot to this place. How did he grow into one of the most celebrated, boundary-pushing names in alternative music? What was his journey? Where did he come from? The previous paragraphs have been largely predicated on his reputation as it is today, but it hasn’t always been this way. So let’s rewind, go back to where it all started.
It would be fair to suggest that Ellison has always been somewhat distinctive. Though he emerged during the early-to-mid 2000s as a key figure in Los Angeles’ electronic music scene, his upbringing marked him as somewhat anomalous within it. He is, quite famously, the great-nephew of jazz monarchs Alice and John Coltrane, and the cousin of renowned saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Those three names alone constitute an impressive ancestry, but I would be remiss if I overlooked his grandmother, Marilyn McLeod, who wrote Motown hits such as Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’, and his great-uncle, Ernie Farrow, a jazz multi-instrumentalist who frequently collaborated with Yusef Lateef. Given that he was born into such a remarkable musical lineage, Ellison’s formative years were suffused with a kind of music beyond the ubiquitous contemporary touchstones, like his beloved Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, or Radiohead.
There was plenty of jazz around, of course, but his great-aunt Alice’s spiritual music played an equally vital role in his musical education. As an ardent follower of guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba, Alice Coltrane established California’s Vedantic Centre, an all-encompassing spiritual centre in the 70s. Ellison would spend his childhood Sundays at the Vedantic Centre with his family, and it’s there he got to witness his great-aunt in her element. She would give forty-minute spiritual discourses and play the organ for hours whilst the congregation lost themselves in the music around them. Ellison described this to Pitchfork as: “worship, but funky and eastern as well. The ashram singers, they’d have little drums and shakers and stuff, people just getting down and singing.” He’s not experienced anything like it since. At the time, Ellison was a video-game obsessed kid and slightly disinterested in the whole spiritual hullabaloo. It would take him years to fully appreciate how these Sundays influenced his creative output, that he was being exposed to a completely different world of music – one that endowed him with a more attuned ear, a wider range of reference points, and an entirely different conception of what music could mean to people.
While these roots suggest that Ellison’s subsequent career in music was inevitable, there wasn’t any pressure for him to get in on the family trade. Still, he took piano lesson as a child, but gravitated more towards saxophone in middle-school because it was the most common in his family. He played for a couple of years, but lost interest for the same reason he was attracted to it. Conformity is fine when you’re ten, but, when you hit your teens, you want your own thing. He didn’t feel as if he had anything unique to say with the saxophone, it wasn’t really him. Video games, cinema, smoking weed – that was him. At the age of fourteen, however, Ellison started making Dre inspired hip-hop beats for fun. He hijacked his cousin Oran’s synthesizers and messed around with those until Oran, worried about his own music being erased, eventually bought Ellison a Roland MC-505 Groovebox. While this solidified Ellison’s love for making beats, and afforded him the opportunity to express himself regularly via music, he never imagined making a living doing it, let alone the illustrious career that would follow. For all the music in his family, people didn’t make a living out of hip-hop beats where he came from. It wasn’t the done thing. He nonetheless persisted with it through adolescence and college, but it was only ever a fun pastime in his mind.
Despite majoring in film studies, college was a major formative experience for Ellison, especially where his music was concerned. Besides being introduced to the sort experimental music that would leave an indelible mark his sound — Aphex Twin, MF Doom, Autechre, etc. — he learned that he could make beats on a computer. It was a revelation; new tools, new techniques, boundless possibilities. But it wasn’t a transcendent watershed moment that sent Ellison wide-eyed into a career making music. Bear in mind this was the early 2000s, and, in Ellison’s own words: “it wasn’t cool to make music on a computer. You couldn’t do that. […] If you didn’t have an MPC, producers would look at you like ‘Oh, okay. Computer, huh? Right…’” So he just got high, goofed off class, and made beats on a computer for shits and giggles. But as he got better with experience and more confident with time, he started uploading music online (such as his 2005 beat tape July Heat). Through this, he gained some traction: he met other producers through Myspace; got invited to play shows; became a regular in Los Angeles’ burgeoning beat-music scene, hanging out with the likes of Carlos Niño, Ras G, and Daedelus at Little Temple’s club nights (one of which, Sketchbook, would later evolve into Low End Theory, a celebrated weekly club night dedicated to experimental electronic and hip-hop).
Ellison matured exponentially as a musician, a listener, and a person during his college years and the time immediately after. Regardless of that, however, his desire to make a career out of music would only be crystallised during an internship at the iconic Los Angeles label Stones Throw Records. He got to observe artists like Madlib, J Dilla, and Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak, the label’s founder) doing their thing, in the flesh, thriving doing the thing he loved. But he wasn’t just watching these guys in action, rapt in an astonished stupor; no, he was analysing what they weren’t doing as much as what they were. And in the process, he saw an opportunity to shake up the game a bit, how turn an idealistic dream into a reality. Despite his rapid progress in the LA scene, Stones Throw provided a tangible manifestation of everything Ellison’s life had been inadvertently leading up to. So he pursued it: he put more energy into his creative process, working on an album in the dead of night; he played more shows; and even sent demo tapes to Adult Swim, which ended up being used as the network’s bumper music (the beginning of a beautiful lasting friendship between the two). According to Jeff Broadway, the director of the Stones Throw documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, Ellison even tried (and failed) to get signed by Stones Throw while he was interning there.
Instead, it was independent Los Angeles label Plug Research that released Flying Lotus’ début album, 1983 (the year of his birth), in October 2006, to a largely enthusiastic response. Well, I say largely, but the internet aggregation does have a habit of overestimating the perceived importance most things. At this point, Steve Ellison was a raw, twenty-three year old kid who recorded an album in his grandmother’s house. Flying Lotus was a name in the LA scene, sure, his backstory was nice, and he was doing enough to interest people invested in underground hip-hop and electronica, but 1983 was, realistically speaking, insignificant. Just another small label release that few people actually heard. Granted, those who did were largely into it, which mattered. Listening to it today, you can definitely see why its listeners were excited: for someone so young, he demonstrated a remarkable deft touch and a crate-digging mentality akin to Madlib. It’s a short piece of work, not even thirty-minutes long if you omit Daedalus’ remix of the title track (and you should), but it’s nonetheless a dexterous amalgamation of instrumental hip-hop, jazz, electronica, tropicália, and countless other dumb, obscure genres that shouldn’t fit together. The title track, for example, is G-funk wrought out of a space-opera: it somehow shimmers with an ethereal grace while hitting you hard with its boom-bap groove; some real future shit. ‘Pet Monster Shotglass’ initially appears as a simple yet enjoyable bombastic banger, yet, though its six minutes, it evolves and spirals and demonstrates that Ellison could develop and sustain a compelling piece of music with a duration longer than three minutes; and ‘Untitled #7’ is a minimal yet convulsive paean to Aphex Twin’s ambient work.
Ultimately, though, 1983 felt more like the beginnings of something great than something great in its own right. As an album, it often talked pretty, but didn’t really say a whole lot; it’s a solid piece of work that still sounds gorgeous, but I’m not really sure to what end. See, one thing that sets Ellison apart is that he imagines a Flying Lotus album as a unified, cinematic experience reflecting an idea or a mood, rather than a collection of beats. He would better realise that ambition on later albums, but 1983 was nonetheless intended as a “dedication to [his] generation,” a celebration of the LA beat scene. [Ed. This quote is taken from an interview with Beyond Jazz published around 2006 that no longer appears to be online. So it goes.] Now, that’s a very loose premise, and not a particularly personal one either. Ellison’s later career would be defined by how deeply felt his albums ended up being, but this first album felt more like a hollow statement of how awesome the scene was. Not only does that fail to resonate, but the whole idea of making an album about the scene, about everybody else, was undermined by how much Ellison stood out within it. His upbringing imbued his music with a different kind of energy than that of his peers; he was the guy being wilfully obtuse, not doing the same things as other producers. That’s what made him the scene’s de-facto leader in the eyes of many. Nobody around him could have made 1983’s audacious final track, ‘Unexpected Delight’, which is built on a sample from Tito Puente’s ‘Call of the Jungle Birds’ and featured vocals from Laura Darlington (who has appeared on every Flying Lotus album, often on the best tracks). Ellison’s looping of the sample creates this majestic revolving melody that’s sensual and hypnotic and makes you feel as if you’re suspended in air. It’s weird and wistful and totally enrapturing, the most overt example of his upbringing manifesting itself in his music due to its jazz underpinning.
It also had nothing to do with the sort of music and culture Ellison to which Ellison wanted to doff his hat. That’s fine, it’s a great piece of music, but when the album’s best tracks — ‘Unexpected Delight’, ‘Untitled #7’and ‘1983’ — don’t necessarily fit within its conceptual framework, we’re left with a fragmented and slightly lacking album experience. The tracks still sound good in isolation, don’t get me wrong, but, as a unified whole, the album didn’t work as well as intended. Perhaps more frustratingly, when he did actually follow through on his premise, he ended up flirting with ubiquity with tracks like ‘Hello’ and ‘Bad Actors’, the latter of which is an unfortunate lapse into Madlib/J Dilla pastiche when he often strived to do anything but that. As evidenced by his childhood experience with the saxophone, Ellison wasn’t and still isn’t very comfortable when he’s navigating the same space as everybody else. He has to have his own thing, to occupy his own space. That’s why he made hip-hop beats in a jazz family. That’s why he made music on a computer in a world of MPCs. That’s why he made a song like ‘Unexpected Delight’ on an album ostensibly about Los Angeles beat music. That’s what makes him such a unique artist today: he’s constantly trying eschew conformity.
But perhaps Ellison hadn’t quite worked that out as a recording artist. Maybe he hadn’t yet experienced enough of life to really craft a meaningful, profound statement. If a Flying Lotus represents the exploration of where Ellison currently is in life, then it makes sense that 1983 is the uncomfortable reconciliation between the two main aspects of his life until that point: jazz and beats. So while it serves as an impressive demonstration Ellison’s skill as a producer, advancing and polishing the ideas he had laid down in his demos and beat-tapes until that point, a lot of it doesn’t really stick. And that’s okay, we can’t just expect an artist to emerge as the fully formed package, no matter what they later become. They’re human beings: like the rest of us, they need to live and feel and gain more of an understanding of themselves; and they need to represent that process in a truthful way. Ellison would learn to do this shortly after the release of 1983, as we’ll cover in the next of these essays. And considering what this would result in transcendent work, we can probably afford Flying Lotus one merely okay album in 1983.