Dissecting Flying Lotus – Part 3 (Cosmogramma)

Photo by Timothy Saccenti

This piece was originally published on the 17th of October 2014 by The 405. Cosmogramma may very well be my favourite album, so I naturally think that this piece is woefully inadequate. (Well, I think most of my writing is woefully inadequate, but that’s beside the point). The writing about the music itself really should be stronger, although I’m not really sure I could do better today because I still find myself thrilled and overawed by this album, seven years after its release. Also: I should have written more about Thundercat. I should have written more about Thundercat. I should have written more about Thundercat. I think the original plan was to cover their partnership in the final part of this series, which I never got around to completing because of university commitments. I’ve never been fully won over by his solo work, but I’m convinced that Thundercat is one of the most important musicians of his generation because of his work as a supporting player for the likes of FlyLo and Kendrick Lamar. The guy is an encyclopaedia and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the changes in Flying Lotus’ sound on this record were motived by his friendship with Thundercat. Another piece for another time, perhaps.

“In the same way that Jimi Hendrix was completely reinventing what you could do with a guitar, Lotus is reinventing what you can do with electronic tools,” – Mary Anne Hobbs, to The New York Times

To create something resembling a cogent narrative, a number of interesting digressions had to be excised from the second part of our Flying Lotus career dissection. This included: some elaboration on Steven Ellison’s relationship with his new label, Warp Records; more details about the recording process of Los Angeles, his second album as Flying Lotus; the state of Los Angeles’ beat scene, which had been so pivotal in his early career. I mention this not to lament what couldn’t be written, but as a means of establishing and elaborating on that latter point, which, for our purposes here, warrants far more than a mere digression.

You see, there had been many changes in Ellison’s life since the release of his first album, 1983, and they all left an indelible impression on his third, Cosmogramma. As he told The Daily Swarm, “every creative step comes with its own fair share of life.” One of the most significant of these changes — and certainly the most protracted — was that LA’s beat scene became exponentially more popular following the release of his first album in 2006. The music of Flying Lotus and other producers such as The Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus, and Nosaj Thing started  to attract international attention from specialist blogs and the likes of BBC Radio DJ Mary Anne Hobbs, who told the world that something special was going down in Los Angeles. As people heard what what happening, they became inspired to produce their own music, and perhaps even move to the city, meaning that more voices, sounds, and influences converged there. This once local, insular scene soon became the epicentre of an emergent and increasingly accessible global movement of laptop-based music. Los Angeles, once synonymous with rock and hip-hop — with Metallica, N.W.A., Black Flag, Tupac, Beck, Snoop Dogg – was ground zero for a diverse and increasingly difficult to categorise electronic sound. And, interestingly enough, this all happened in perfect synchronicity with Ellison’s own career trajectory.

To be sure, Ellison’s Los Angeles didn’t only garner effusive reviews from both specialist and popular publications, it sold over 19,000 copies during its first two years of release – impressive for something so experimental. With this came more opportunities to play shows internationally, to be interviewed by the world’s press, to get his name out there. He was hardly an overnight sensation, but was as in-demand as he had ever been. However, as a resident of Los Angeles, Ellison still wanted to participate in the scene as much as possible – it was one part of his life that he didn’t want to be completely upended. His most significant move in this respect was the establishment Brainfeeder, a record label that abetted the scene’s growth by giving a home to idiosyncratic LA-based artists that shared in his innovative spirit, such as Ras G and Samiyam. For the sake of brevity (he writes, over 5,000 words into a four-part feature), I’m not going to focus too much on Brainfeeder. What’s more important here is recognising that, in founding it, Ellison assumed the role of the scene’s elder statesman. Music journalists anointed him the scene’s de-facto leader upon the release of 1983, but that was predicated on little more than a bit of internet buzz. At this point in 2008, though, with his growing profile around the world, his distinguished position in the scene, and his new role in developing talent, he could promote and lead the scene effectively.

However, as Ellison presided over his kingdom, he became frustrated. While he was proud that beat music was thriving, and enthralled by the work of the scene’s established names, a problem arose with its rapid expansion. “After [Los Angeles] came out I started hearing a bunch of stuff that was trying to sound like that record,” he told Clash. “I was like, ‘Ah man, why are these kids all trying to bite this shit?’” He was bummed out that young producers, who should have been tearing up the game, expected to find success by doing the same shit as everybody else. In the first of these essays, we established that Ellison’s great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, opened his mind to the reality that music could be both deeply emotional and, well, anything, really. So, here he was, leading a movement which worked almost exclusively with digital tools that brought godlike freedom to the creative process, but people weren’t seeing the same possibilities as he was. “With as much access as we have to all this stuff, to our musical history, our world history, we definitely can be killing shit way crazier,” he lamented in an interview with Resident Advisor. “Why not just have all these things from our past as well as all of the newest technology from today in one, and just really come up with the craziest shit we can? Let’s just bring people into our imaginations as best as we can – we have the technology!”

Not that Ellison was excluding himself from that statement. He also admitted to Clash, that “if these kids can make music like [Los Angeles] then maybe I should go and expand all my ideas.” Any follow up to Los Angeles, he recognised, “needed to be wider and have more scope.” Having started work on his third album immediately after the completion of Los Angles, there were already plans in place to broaden his sound, to make his shit crazier. He envisioned a “trajectory” from the beginning, with “all [his] ideas expanded, more instruments, more textures and more rhythmic ideas.” As he continued to hear more tired music coming from the scene, however, he saw an opportunity to further maximise his sound, to aim for something that nobody else was doing. Not in the beat scene. Not in any other scene or genre. Nobody. He sought to realise the potential of laptop production, to get the most out of his vast set of tools, to tame the infinite beast. The game may have been diluted by young producers who were overwhelmed by the capabilities of electronic music, but they were as much a part of the scene as he was. If he wanted better, more inventive music, he’d have to lead by example and shake things up and make the craziest shit he could.

Well, that’s half the story, anyway. I suppose I’ve been slightly disingenuous in painting the process behind Cosmogramma as one dictated exclusively by Ellison’s wants; he wanted to shake the game up, he wanted a more expansive sound. But, really, it was equally dictated by his needs. I mean, we’ve seen throughout these essays that music was never an unavoidable career path for Ellison; he was a video-game obsessed film student who used beat-making an outlet, a release. So, when Ellison’s mother unexpectedly died not long after the release of Los Angeles, he needed to create as a means of negotiating the grieving process and of saying the things he couldn’t — as he had done with his previous album following the death of Alice Coltrane. Although, from the way he talked in interviews, Ellison seemed to be in a more contemplative emotional state than he was during the recording of Los Angeles. He explained to Social Stereotype [ed. in an interview that no longer appears to be online] that, rather than retreat into darkness, he “thought about a lot of things, and confronted a lot” from his past. You know, the things he needed to confront. He “explored [his] ideas of spirituality and what [he] understands this life to be.” The things he needed to explore. And he shaped the album in such a way as to evoke that process. So, above what he wanted to do, I suppose that Cosmogramma ended up sounding so huge because it was the product of Ellison having to confront the endless racket of Everything. A big record for Big Themes.

It follows, then, that recording Cosmogramma was an incredibly complex and emotionally draining process for Ellison, taking eighteen months to properly take shape and thirteen masters to perfect. Any honest expression of his emotional state demanded that he poured as much of himself into his work as possible, that he reached further into his soul than ever before and prepare it for public consumption. Naturally, this required a lot of cathartic energy and made him feel incredibly vulnerable. So, to guide him through his troubles, he turned to the music of Alice Coltrane. In life, she had been the person his family looked to for guidance, “the matriarch, the elder, the wise person,” as he explained to The A.V. Club. In death, this didn’t change. He revisited her discography while disillusioned with electronic music, and found in her unusual approach to jazz a spiritual guide that shook him to his core. On an album like Lord of Lords, he heard her grieving the death of her husband, John Coltrane, and it made complete emotional sense to him. It was the perfect articulation of what he felt at that time and focused his thoughts about where he was going with Cosmogramma. “I was like, fuck man,” he told Pitchfork, “this is what I want people to feel, not the other stuff, the technical stuff. This is what’s real, this moment.”

This discovery of the ‘real’ explains the  hybrid sound of Cosmogramma, Ellison’s incorporation of live instrumentation — of bass guitar, saxophone, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s string arrangements — into his digital maelstrom. In his great-aunt’s music, he identified the emotion lacking in the beat scene and sought to replicate it, to marry laptop production’s relentless freedom with the ways in which she wrestled her instruments to express her profound agony. Not being proficient with any instrument himself, Ellison brought in musicians to flesh out his sound, such as bassist Stephen Bruner (otherwise known as Thundercat, which would begin a beautiful friendship) and his cousin, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. This was, however, a new experience for Ellison, and thus brought challenges as basic as learning how to communicate with other musicians — one reason why recording the album was so complicated. He persisted, of course, because he had to, because there was no alternative. So, here we have a perfect example of the wants and needs behind Cosmogramma not being mutually exclusive, of how they performed a dance to create a work of the utmost importance and vitality. While it’s clear Ellison always intended to make a ‘big’ album, the interplay of live instrumentation and vociferous electronics created a racket that could have only come from someone who needed to reach deep within themselves and tear something out. He may have wanted to correct beat music’s emotional vacuum, but there was something intensely spiritual about Cosmogramma that went beyond that goal, like something was being released with a necessary primal fucking scream.

As well as the ‘real’, the idea of the moment was also crucial to Ellison’s realisation of Cosmogramma. Like Los Angeles, the record was a tight, cohesive experience that came from on emotional space; it was not,  however, comprised of discrete pieces of music with a well defined structure in the way his second album was. Instead, it was sprawling and elliptical: it captured specific moments, feelings, and mental states from Ellison’s life and rapidly manoeuvred through them to form a kind of narrative. It played like one seamless piece of music, with each track functioning as a short burst of activity in the same cognitive process. Like one memory triggering another, each burst felt inextricably connected to the last and gradually informed the overall movement of the piece. It’s as if he cracked open his skull, somehow sifted through his brain while the most significant moments of his life — both good and bad — flashed through it and made an album of the experience. So, naturally, there was a lot going on, with over eighty layers precisely woven together on each track and little time for ideas and melodies rest. This  may have created a chaotic atmosphere, like there was no rhyme or reason behind it, but Ellison was so meticulous and intricate in his design that to remove one track would defeat the entire purpose of the album.

While that kind of feeling recalled both Ellison’s and the album’s jazz roots — beyond Alice Coltrane, he was also listening to a lot of Sun Ra and George Duke at the time — it also brings us back to the godlike freedom of laptop production. So many ideas, textures and styles were sucked into Ellison’s existential vortex that I doubt he could have cogently realised his crazy vision with older technology. It’s jazz, but also electronica, and had clearly discernible funk, hip-hop, classical and avant-garde influences; it had a grand, ethereal beauty about it, but also a tactile vitality; it was cosmic yet deeply human. So there were plenty of contradictions, but Ellison made sense of them on Cosmogramma because he could, because he had the technology and dexterity to render the myriad thoughts that pirouetted around his mind as coherent noise. And it was a noise of such transcendence that it almost belied its human origins, that was vibrant and varied, that could claw its way into the pit of your stomach and contort it at will. It was a noise that sounded unlike anything that came before it, that attested to the autonomy of the laptop-producer by opening up possibilities that been previously unopened. Not exactly because it wasn’t possible — the technology had been around for at least decade at that point — but because nobody had the necessary ambition or skill to open those doors.

Not long after the release of Cosmogramma, Ellison confessed to Pitchfork that he’d “never be able to do [a record like it] again.” Not because it was the craziest shit he could imagine, but because he captured a very specific moment in his life. There was a profound personal foundation holding the craziness together, a purpose guiding everything. Out of the chaos of his life — the responsibility of leading Los Angeles beat scene, the pressure of being a successful underground musician on the verge of penetrating the mainstream, the pain of losing loved ones — Ellison wrought a space that could be used as a means of understanding the workings of the universe. And, sure, his unique use of digital tools made the experience appear overwhelming initially; but, in that weird part of the brain that viscerally understands this stuff, Cosmogramma resonated. It was an honest expression of a universal feeling of grief. It represented the mental gymnastics of trying to keep up with all life’s vicissitudes. And, above all, its scope was so impossibly huge that it evoked a perverse feeling of freedom; the kind that only comes with confronting your utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things. There’s something liberating about realising that you’re merely a speck of dust on a tiny cog in the clockwork of Everything, and something equally comforting in knowing that, in spite of our insignificance, we can still come up with works as transcendent as Cosmogramma.


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