Flying Lotus: The Imperfect Beat
- Words: Brandon Ivers
It’s a hot afternoon in May, and I’m driving a cheap rental car through the awful sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. I’m bored out of my fucking mind. I keep imagining that if a guerilla war broke out around here, soldiers could wear stucco camouflage and a Carl’s Jr. hat, and they’d be practically invisible. I’m also starting to understand why Fast Times’ Jeff Spicoli hit such a nerve with people familiar to this place. Is there anything to do other than smoke pot and drive around?
I’m headed to Winnetka–a weird little ’burb slightly north of Woodland Hills, a nudge west of Reseda. Here, seemingly smack dab in the pit of anti-inspiration, is the production studio of 24-year-old Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison–and the potential staging ground for hip-hop’s next great subversion.
Flying Lotus first appeared on Carlos Niño’s Sound of LA compilation in early 2006, and quickly followed up with his debut album, 1983, on Plug Research that fall. Like Dabrye and Dilla, but more off-kilter, Ellison reinvigorated the idea of an instrumental beat album; 1983 showed him flexing all the elements that backpack rap had long forgotten about: melody, restraint, and the ability to tap influences outside of itself. It didn’t hurt that European acts like Modeselektor saw the album’s title track as a bridge between their own “wonky techno” and the Bomb Squad-era beats that first inspired them.
Speaking of wonky, Ellison’s work is particularly known for that production tic. It’s most evident in his drums–the hits feel human, as if played by hand, but they’re artificial in texture. It’s a technique that creates a kind of floating sensation, with the timing constantly shifting in and out of focus, pulling and repelling the listener all at once.
But describing Flying Lotus’ music as “wonky” is an easy way out. The real thing that makes Ellison stand out is his musicality–a far more nebulous thing to define, but a quality that courses throughout Los Angeles, his recent album for beat boundary-pushers Warp Records. Tracks like “Riot,” with its constant chord changes, sit in the experimental space between dubstep’s bass wobble and the dusty lineage of L.A.’s experimental scene, while album closer “Auntie’s Lock” dispenses with hip-hop completely in favor of an organ-driven, minimal pulse.
Nonetheless, the biggest point of public curiosity about Ellison remains his family lineage: He’s the great nephew of the late Alice Coltrane. However, when I meet him on this hot May afternoon, jazz barely comes up, and Coltrane isn’t mentioned once–although Ellison’s strange surroundings are imbued with traces of Alice’s mystical and meditative leanings.
Ellison meets me at the main gate of his apartment building wearing a baby-blue polo shirt and a cabbie hat. He stands over six feet tall, and has a slight chin beard. As we shake hands, I immediately get the impression that everything this guy does is m-e-l-l-o-w.
I follow Ellison into the building, through a hallway covered in murals and party flyers, and into a massive outdoor courtyard. Wrapping around the open air, three levels of apartments box in the yard like a Vegas hotel; doors hang open, dormitory-style. Overlooking everything, a steel sculpture fans out in the shape of three sun rays, facing east. The place reeks of pot.
“Look at this shit,” Ellison says, pointing to the right of the courtyard. I walk over and find an aquarium made of thick glass which houses a gigantic boa constrictor. It appears to be sleeping.
The sun is just beginning to set, so Ellison suggests we sit on the roof. As we head up, he tells me that the building is owned by an “old hippie” that designed the place to be an artist loft.
“I know this building is crazy to most people,” Ellison says. “Even to people from the Valley. There’s just nothing going on out here, especially motherfuckers being on some creative shit. All we got is porn–this is the porn capitol of the world. Boogie Nights took place down the street.”
I squint west, as if they were still filming.
“I gotta take you to the donut shop where Don Cheadle does the robbery in that movie,” he continues. “It’s right around here. And you remember American Beauty? It’s like that out here, too... the flip end of that. There’s just not a lot of creativity. There’s not a real scene. When I was growing up, I swore that I’d never live here. Fuck this Valley, man. It sucks! But my family is here and I found this crazy building. If I didn’t have any of that, I’d be in Silver Lake or something.”
He pauses for a minute. “You know what’s weird, though? RZA lives right down the street.”
“No shit? I thought he lived in New York.”
“Yeah, me too,” he replies. “But I saw him at this electronics store over by here a while ago. I remember thinking ‘Oh.... There’s that guy.’ But then–this is the trip part–I just did a tour with him in Europe. I geeked out at the last show we did and I asked him what the sample from ‘Ice Cream’ was. He was like, ‘I don’t even know, man.’ I honestly think he forgot. That dude is a space cadet–he was in the stars.”
“Do you like touring? Doing the club circuit and all that?” I ask.
“I had my taste of the club shit. It was fun,” he says. “They let me play the same party as Justice? Okay, that’s what’s up. But I realized that shit is bulllllwinkle. Music is a little more spiritual for me. I never did this with the intention of having it played in clubs. I’m not trying to get all caught up in scenes and things.”
“You’re not gonna ride out this ‘wonk-hop’ wave, then?” I ask, joking.
Ellison lets out a forced laugh. “I don’t know about that shit,” he says, shaking his head. “A lot of things happen by accident, and I embrace that. Like Bob Ross, man… I just roll with it. But now, any kid can turn on a computer and, like, not sequence this shit. So I know it’s my position to take the music and do something else with it.”
The sun has almost set. Ellison and I head downstairs to look at his bedroom studio. When we walk in, his apartment is dark, except for the flickering lights of a projector. Beaming on the entire right wall is a silent Japanese monster movie. In the corner is a case of DVDs, double-stacked and six feet high. His production desk sits to the far left.
“Do you leave these movies running all the time?” I ask.
“Yeah, I leave them on when I’m working,” Ellison replies. He’s fiddling around with something in the kitchen, so I continue looking through the DVDs. Ahh, yes, the original version of The Wicker Man.
Moments later, he emerges with a giant blunt in his hands. “You smoke trees?”
After I systematically lose (and find) every one of my personal effects in Ellison’s apartment, we go for a drive.
“I’m gonna play you some Samiyam,” Ellison says as we drop into his car, and he cues up an off-kilter magic carpet of beats knit together by his good friend and neighbor, Sam “Samiyam” Baker (a recent transplant from Ann Arbor, Michigan). “I’ll play you some Ras G too,” he continues. “Both of these guys are on my label [Brainfeeder].”
As we slip out on the road towards Mulholland Drive, a blanket of burning static spreads across the open space of the car, flanging back and forth, moving in waves. Ellison edges the sound up higher, and the swells burst into a ghostly moan, filling the last shreds of remaining space. The volume becomes immense, almost too loud… on the border of punishment. And then, the blanket collapses–punched through by bass hits that get swallowed up as soon as they decay.
Ellison explains the beat is unfinished, something he and Baker have been working on under their Flyamsam alias.
“How’d you meet all these other L.A. producers?” I yell over the music.
Ellison quickly scans through a couple tracks on his iPod, and turns the volume down.
“Motherfuckers just hung at the Little Temple, this club [in Silver Lake],” he drawls. “There was two cool nights–one was called Sketchbook, the other was called Together. On any given night, you’d see Carlos Niño, Ras G, Gaslamp Killer, Diabolic Dibiase, Georgia [Anne Muldrow], Daedelus, Coleman. It was a beat cypher! We’d hang out, and every week we’d all have some new shit. It was like homework for us. I think that’s how the whole community started on the beat tip–the thing I’m kinda part of.”
“Were you trading secrets?”
“No man, it was like a sport!” Ellison says, taking a hard turn. “But there was no hating on anyone’s shit, because everybody had crazy shit. We’d all go home mad inspired.”
He pauses, fishing around for his iPod. “Now it’s a little different. Everyone’s a lot busier.”
Ellison and I continue up through the Hollywood Hills, past Santa Monica, and eventually back east, towards the Valley. With every straightaway, he punches the gas, carving wide-angled swoops through the road, like he was flying a space ship.
As we approach Winnetka, we stop at a long traffic light. Ellison turns down the music. “Look here,” he says, pointing to left and right. “Medicinal marijuana.”
On the left is a small clinic called Northridge, and on the right T.H.C. (Today’s Health Care). Two weed clinics battling it out for corner supremacy. They probably used to be gas stations.
“I heard you can get a medicinal license out here for political reasons,” I say. “A friend of mine claims he got his license as a means of protest.”
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Ellison says. “Look around you. There’s nothing else for motherfuckers to do out here.”
I follow his advice and gaze out, past the clinics, into the red and yellow neon lights. And somewhere, deep in that sprawl, maybe blocks or miles away, I can just barely see a Carl’s Jr.
Flying Lotus’ favorite sources for insane new rhythms.
My new digital label. With folks like Samiyam, Ras G, and more, we promise to bring forth the raw shit that people have been missing in their lives.
Have to throw it up for the team. These folks need no introduction. If you don’t know about Warp by now, just read on to some other shit. These people have been making history for years.
Probably my favorite label at the moment–Kode9 is a silent visionary. He has single-handedly put out some of the most FWD (ahem) electronic music of the past few years.
The little giant! I love that Plug Research gets bored with things they’ve already done. They’re always looking ahead, always willing to take a chance on a new sound. The most ambitious label in L.A.
Daddy Kev is one of the kings of L.A. He throws one of the best parties to ever hit the planet (Low End Theory), not to mention the man’s been making insane productions for over a decade. Somewhere in that schedule, he has enough time to run this heavy-hitting label.
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