Raised on the ‘90s staples of West Coast, ‘Chronic’-era hip-hop, Cartoon Network, Nintendo, and the spiritual jazz recordings of his great aunt, Alice Coltrane, Stephen Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, has come to produce a similarly eclectic, yet unique range of ragged beats, esoteric dreamscapes, and electronic collages in the course of his decade-long career.
Going from the J Dilla influences of his 2006 debut, ‘1983’, to the afrospiritual futurism of 2010’s ‘Cosmogramma’, and his latest free jazz exploration, 2014’s ‘You’re Dead!’, Ellison has constantly railed against convention, pushing music writers to create outlandish categorisations for his music.
His label, Brainfeeder, serves as something of an encyclopaedic record of LA beat-makers from the past decade, putting out releases from Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus, Samiyam, Jameszoo and more, and playing an instrumental role in popularising the LA beat scene in the process. Meanwhile, Ellison’s collaborative work with Thundercat, Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington has placed jazz firmly back into public (youth) consciousness.
With his debut feature film, ‘Kuso’, set for release this summer (get your sick-bags at the ready), a new LP reportedly on the way, and a live set at this weekend’s Field Day in London, we’re delving into Ellison’s back catalogue for a Complete Guide to the man himself.
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Written while interning at seminal hip-hop label, Stones Throw, ‘1983’ was an indie debut that put Ellison on the map as a formidable beat-maker. Heavily influenced by the languorous drum programming of J Dilla, a Stones Throw artist himself, what ‘1983’ lacks in originality it makes up for in its clarity of purpose.
Composed using a patchwork of influences ranging from jazz harp to Japanese synthpop, Afro-Cuban rhythm and distorted game sounds, it serves as a mission statement, setting the tone for Ellison’s future works. Highlights include the Madlib heaviness of opener ‘1983’, the chopped clave of ‘Untitled #7’, and the South Asian meditation of ‘Unexpected Delight’.
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‘Los Angeles’ (2008)
Now signed to Warp Records, ‘Los Angeles’ was a much more extensive affair than ‘1983’, spanning seventeen tracks. Reflecting the culture-clash of the city itself, ‘Los Angeles’ jumps in short bursts from the ‘Blade Runner’ inspired synth-work of opener ‘Brainfeeder’ to the melodic stoner beat of ‘Camel’, the African drumming of ‘Melt!’, and the bass weight of ‘Roberta Flack’.
‘Los Angeles’ holds in contradistinction both the looseness and complexity of a mixtape release – an LP designed for turntablists and endless remixes, more so than its listeners.
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Where ‘1983’ and ‘Los Angeles’ reveal Ellison experimenting to find his voice as a producer, ‘Cosmogramma’ is the first LP proper to establish the Flying Lotus sound in all its indefinable diversity. Written at the time of his mother’s death and only a year and a half after Alice Coltrane’s passing, ‘Cosmogramma’ is a sonic record of the grieving process.
Moving away from the largely electronic composition of the first two LPs, ‘Cosmogramma’ incorporates live instrumentation and the lush qualities of double bass, harp, strings and saxophone. The record is a family affair, featuring saxophone from Ellison’s uncle, Ravi Coltrane, as well as field recordings of his mother’s hospital respirator which are featured on closing number ‘Galaxy in Janaki’.
The record also marks the first collaboration between Ellison and bassist Thundercat, whose signature frenetic runs are heard on ‘Pickled!’, in addition to a vocal feature on ‘Mmmhmm’. Rather than the too-short torrents of ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Cosmogramma’ is a thoughtfully-executed work, expanding the diversity of the mixtape into the album realm.
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‘Until The Quiet Comes’ (2012)
Following the commercial success of ‘Cosmogramma’, ‘Until the Quiet Comes’ saw Ellison pushing himself further into jazz, composing with live instrumentation and thinking more deeply about harmonic composition, adding electronic elements for weight and texture, rather than as a primary feature.
With a typically extensive list of collaborators, including Erykah Badu, Niki Randa, Thundercat, and Thom Yorke, the record is perhaps the most song-oriented of Ellison’s back catalogue.
Tracks like ‘Getting There’, ‘See Thru to U’ and ‘DMT Song’ all use vocal features to embellish the dream-space of the LP. Strings float, synths bulge and compress, while drums rumble beneath bass frequency to create a work that carries the torch for Alice Coltrane’s spiritual ideals.
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‘You’re Dead!’ (2014)
The latest Flying Lotus release is his most challenging and yet most rewarding listening experience. Resembling the late free jazz work of Alice and John Coltrane, ‘You’re Dead!’ trades off of the afrospiritual psychedelia of the previous two LPs but with an added emphasis on rhythmic instrumentation, rather than just melodic texture.
Thundercat’s bass playing heavily influences tracks like the swinging ‘Tesla’, the jazz-fusion mania of ‘Cold Dead’, and driving force of ‘Turkey Dog Coma’. While tracks like ‘Never Catch Me’ and ‘Dead Man’s Tetris’ display Ellison’s skill for reigning in his eccentric tastes to create radio-friendly singles.
Ultimately, ‘You’re Dead!’ is a work of emotion and restless energy, living somewhere between a polyrhythmic panic attack and a new jazz language.
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Catch Flying Lotus at Field Day on June 3rd.
Words: Ammar Kalia // @AmmarKalia2