Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison represents a new wave of beat production. His style encompasses the French electro-house of Ed Banger Records, classic IDM-techno such as Autchre, the techno hip-hop of Prefuse 73, and the visionary funk of J Dilla. But like all good hybridists who grow into major, influential artists, Flying Lotus has developed a sound that is uniquely breathtaking and widely imitated.
Sometimes music critics fall prey to the same “auteur theory” that saddles film criticism. A style has many fathers (or, to be less misogynist, many mothers). It takes more than one person’s imagination to make it flourish. Many producers have fomented the beat renaissance sweeping through underground music, and it would be foolish to omit Dabrye, Ta’Raach, Dimlite, Kode 9 and countless others from any discussion about the roots of this new variation on the decades-old cross-currents of hip-hop and electronics.
However, with his new album Los Angeles, Flying Lotus has established himself at the forefront. It is not a masterpiece, but it comes pretty damn close. It draws from countless sources, and twists from darkly sexual dubstep blues to funky electronic breakbeat jams. Its songs pop off with laser beams and 8-bit melodies. His vision is kaleidoscopic but never cluttered, though, and he maintains a tone that is indistinguishable from any other.
When I spoke with Flying Lotus on May 9, he had just exited from a plane that brought him from L.A. to San Francisco International Airport. We tried to speak as a car took him into the city, where he was due to play a gig that night, but the phone connection was poor. I was able to catch up with him over an hour later.
Any casual visitor to Plug One during its brief existence has probably noticed I’m a major fan of Flying Lotus’ work. As a result, I glossed over some key details of his life: growing up in San Fernando Valley, being ushered into the L.A. underground through key friendships with Carlos Nino, Daedelus and others, and turning into an phenomenon by posting original beats on his MySpace page. Instead, I asked him about some of the minor controversies he’s dealt with since Plug Research – the same label that introduced Daedelus, Ammoncontact, Mia Doi Todd and other Left Coast thinkers – issued his 1983 debut in 2006. That album drew some criticism for being too derivative of J Dilla and Prefuse 73, as well as considerable praise for devising new configurations of those artists’ long-established tropes. Then there was his new label Brainfeeder and the benefits and problems of being a cult artist on the Internet.
Unfortunately, we didn’t discuss Los Angeles very much, which is ostensibly the reason why the interview happened in the first place. However, you can read more about Los Angeles in a separate review.
Photos by Timothy Saccenti.
Plug One: When we talked earlier (before the phone cut off), you were talking about growing up in San Fernando Valley and not having a lot of progressive musicians to build with.
Flying Lotus: I didn’t know anyone except for my family. My family members were the only ones who were doing music at all around me, and they were on some other shit. They were doing jazz and soul and non-traditional music that wasn’t rock. For me, I’ve been doing beat music. At the beginning, it was hip-hop based, but now it’s electronic.
As far as my family goes, I don’t know if they even know what I’m all about, or if they even understand it.
Plug One: The fact that your aunt was the late Alice Coltrane has been well publicized. Are there any musicians in your family besides her?
Flying Lotus: Yeah. Obviously her kids are grown up and accomplished musicians. My grandmother (Marilyn McCloud) is a writer; she wrote songs for Motown, she wrote Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover.” My cousin Oran Coltrane plays keys and is a singer in a church. It all goes back to the church with my family. [Another cousin is Alice Coltrane's son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.]
Plug One: Did you go to church as well?
Flying Lotus: I did when I was younger.
Plug One: What church did you go to?
Flying Lotus: My aunt had an ashram out in Agoura Hills. We were all going to the ashram. That was our thing. Sometimes we went to a traditional Baptist church, but we mostly went to ashram. We’d all do our thing and play an instrument and sing on Sundays.
I’m a spiritual person. I just don’t believe in organized religion. I mean, making music is meditation, man. It’s a form of meditation. I feel like I’m just a vessel for whatever the information is.
Plug One: What’s the inspiration behind Los Angeles?
Flying Lotus: The whole thing about L.A., man, is that I really wanted it to be a science-fiction soundtrack to a film that doesn’t really exist. I’m a big film junkie, so instead of directing a film, I wanted to make an album that made you feel that same vibe. I want you to get into it the same way you would a movie.
All the sounds that I’ve put together are different styles and things I like and toyed with. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put everything on this record. I couldn’t put all my songs on it. But I feel like the tracks I picked out were from a similar mindset. The whole framework of the record is based on a certain vibe that I was feeling. It’s hard to put into words, but I just know it in my heart. I can feel it. It’s deep, and it’s not superficial dance music, man.
As I was working on it, the ideas changed, because I was originally going to make this really dark record and call it Los Angeles. But by doing that, I wasn’t being honest with how I felt about L.A. It is dark, but at the same time, L.A. is very pretty and sunny, and it has lots of different variety and lots of things to offer a person. That’s what I want to have on the record, too. It’s all these different sounds, but from the same vibe and the same journey, different scenes put together to make this movie.
Plug One: You mentioned that movies were an inspiration for Los Angeles. It made me think about how you send out bulletins on MySpace with YouTube videos. You’re always sending out bulletins and updating your page.
Flying Lotus: We’re in a different age now. I like to be able to connect with people, especially people who like what I’m doing, who know what I’m about and who are interested in what I’m working on. I feel a responsibility to communicate with them. It’s weird how some artists don’t. But I think interacting with folks and being available to people are some of the things that benefit my business and my musical career.
Plug One: I interviewed Samiyam last year for XLR8R and he mentioned he met you through MySpace.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, yeah, that’s another thing. We’re all able to connect and build now. It’s such a great tool for us. It’s not just sending out bulletins. I’ve been able to build with folks I would never even build with ever, and been exposed to some great music, too.
Sam is, like, my little brother. He moved out to L.A. recently. He’s a crazy kid. If you ever got to know him, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. He’s a big part of my little universe, man. Beyond a musical relationship, he’s my best friend as well.
Our (FlyAmSam) project hasn’t been touched in a while because we just get really high and don’t work on shit together. (laughs) But I have a feeling that shit will come together pretty soon because everyone’s been asking about it. We’ve been feeling like we should get things going again, and make it really crazy and fuck people’s heads up.
Plug One: FlyAmSam is signed to Plug Research, right?
Flying Lotus: No, there’s no label yet. We’ll probably do it ourselves. Fuck it. I’m tired of labels, man. We can do this shit ourselves now.
Plug One: I looked on the MySpace page for FlyAmSam and it said Plug Research.
Flying Lotus: Yeah, because they were originally courting us. But we don’t have a label. We’re still working on it.
Plug One: I want to ask you about smoking weed. It seems being blunted is a big part of your music – or, I should say, the vibe of the music.
Flying Lotus: I think it’s more of a vibe, man, because I don’t like to smoke and work. It doesn’t work for me like it works for some people who just get really faded and try and make music. I can’t do that. I just sit around and forget what the fuck I’m doing. My thing is to smoke afterwards and listen to that shit high. That’s really where I’m at.
Flying Lotus’ discography: 1983 (2006), Reset (2007) and Los Angeles (2008)
Plug One: When 1983 came out, a lot of people compared your music to J Dilla and Madlib…
Flying Lotus: …and Prefuse and Sa-Ra and all of that shit.
Plug One: Were you comfortable with those comparisons?
Flying Lotus: At first I saw it as a compliment. I was, like, “Oh wow, people are putting me in the same breath as these great people.” But at this point, it’s annoying. I’ve put in my work, man. I’ve established a sound that people are biting now. So I think it’s a little unfair. But people will do what they do. I don’t give a fuck anymore. People are lazy. If they want to compare me to some shit, they can do what they want.
I personally feel like I’ve taken my shit further than 1983. After this record, I hope that people will have something else to say other than comparing me.
You know what? All this kind of thinking and shit is what fucks people’s music up anyway! I don’t give a fuck about what people compare me to, or what I sound like and this and that. It’s all shit to fuck your head up, man.
Plug One: But at the same time, when people are fans of your music, that’s what they’re inevitably going to do, because they’re thinking about it.
Flying Lotus: That’s cool, that’s cool. But the fact that I have to think about it is stupid. I don’t have to think about this stuff, and I try not to. It’s irrelevant to me. People can say what they want on messageboards, magazines and this and that. It don’t matter, dude. I can’t let that affect my mind, man, because you stop and get caught up in all of that stupid shit. It doesn’t do anything but slow the workflow down. I’ll be thinking about my last review. “Oh my god, Pitchfork said this was garbage, so maybe I should do this.” Fuck those niggas, man! I don’t give a fuck about a fuckin’ Pitchfork guy!
Plug One: Well, let me ask you this: Do you feel like there’s been growth between 1983, the Reset EP and Los Angeles?
Flying Lotus: Yes. When I made [1983 and Reset], they were already old by the time they came out. I was lucky enough with Los Angeles to be making the music along the way and putting the record together, as opposed to [collecting] some tracks that were already finished, and then saying, “This is what [the album] is going to be.” I was actually, like, “I want to make a record that sounds like this, and this is what I need to do. I can build it the way I want instead of dealing with pieces that are already there and putting them together.”
Plug One: It seems like there’s a lot of sounds on Los Angeles. There’s a little bit of dub, and electro-house…it’s very dense musically. Did you have a philosophy guiding you when you made these tracks? Or did you just try to soak up whatever you could, and then throw that into these songs?
Flying Lotus: I tried to figure out the flow of the record, moving it around like a jigsaw puzzle. At the same time, I was trying to figure out the story, too. I got a nice rough draft together, and was like, okay, these pieces need to go. This isn’t right, this doesn’t fit. I ought to make pieces that will fit here, or I have to find pieces that will fit here.
I tried to make sure that [overall] it was a cohesive piece without being too same-y, you know? That was the thing that was fucked about the original draft. I felt like it was in the same tempo the whole time, so dark and dense. I was like, wait, people need a chance to breathe. They need to feel a little sexy here, you know what I’m saying? It needs to be kind of bleak in this section here.
It’s fine whether people get the story or not. I just felt, for me personally, in order to enjoy this, it needs to flow a certain kind of way.
Plug One: Who is Dolly, the woman that sings on “Roberta Flack”?
Flying Lotus: Dolly is a girl from Turkey that I met on MySpace. She’s a DJ as well, and she’s the one who told me to get involved with Red Bull Music Academy. We started building and talking about stuff, and she ended up sending me some tracks with vocals on it. I was like, “Hey, I like this! Let’s keep doing stuff.” [Her name is Ahu Keleslogu – she and Flying Lotus are developing a project called Dolly.]
Plug One: So I want to ask you about the song-trading and bootlegging that’s going on with your work. Can you speak on that?
Flying Lotus: You know, I was bugged out, man. Like, people have been leaking my shit. My record leaked two months early, and I was, like, whatever, it happens. The fact that people give a fuck enough to bootleg my shit is flattering. The only thing about it is that I wish people could get the whole experience before they listen to a bunch of MP3s. Look at the artwork, really connect to the images, and listen to it and be part of the whole experience that I tried to create for you.
I feel like people are spoiling it for themselves. They’re saying, “Oh, look at the artwork, this and that.” You haven’t even seen the whole piece yet. You’ve only seen the front part of it. It’s a gatefold piece, so the artwork folds together, and it makes this thing that people haven’t even seen yet, and they’re already talking about it, man. It’s frustrating, but I let it slide, like, fuck it, man. There’s so much music out there. The fact that people care enough to listen to my shit is cool.
Plug One: I think it’s interesting, especially in regards to Raw Cartoons. I’ve seen the same thing happen to other groups like Girl Talk and the Cool Kids, where people will compile these tracks and make these bootleg albums, and the bootlegs get so popular that everyone thinks they’re real albums.
Flying Lotus: Don’t get it twisted. … (Raw Cartoons) was demos that leaked. The fact that stuff is out is fucked up because they’re not even finished. It’d be different if these things were complete, or I approved it. But I don’t know what’s out there. People have these half-finished tracks, and it’s embarrassing. I’d rather, if you steal my shit, at least it be finished. It’s like people stealing my trash.
I just know now that if I do post something on MySpace or anywhere that I just should consider it gone and leaked. Anything I pass out to anybody, I should just consider it gone and leaked. I try really hard to keep a lid on things I’m considering for albums.
I know things are leaking sometimes through my best friends. I know they’ll pass it to somebody. I know this. I’m not stupid. The thing about it is that it keeps my name in people’s mouths. People still have something to hold on to. If I make eight beat tracks a month, I’ll pass out two of them, and hang on to one of them, or something like that. And then I have some shit no one’s ever heard when I play a show. Sometimes it’s hard because lately I’ve been moving around so much that I haven’t had a chance to work.
But it’s cool, man. I’m not tripping on this whole digital nonsense because, just as much as it’s nonsense, it’s beautiful at the same time.
Plug One: Has it affected your record sales?
Flying Lotus: I don’t know. I started in this shit when it was already in chaos, so I can’t tell you about the days when everybody was buying records.
I live comfortably, man. I’m living proof that the industry is not fucked. It’s not dead. I think that because I have this interesting cult following, it also helps me, too, because people – real fans – will buy my shit.
Plug One: Do you plan on doing any standard hip-hop production?
Flying Lotus: My heart’s not there right now. That’s not to say that I won’t do it. It’s not where my head’s at.
I can’t wait to get excited about hip-hop again. It kinda died in me when Dilla passed away. I sure I have a lot of hip-hop at heart.
It’s really depressing when I hear all these cats trying to sound like old Dilla. It’s like, dude, cats did that already! Let it go. Let’s pick up where he left off. Let’s take this shit to next levels, man. It’s not impossible.
Plug One: Do you feel like that’s what you’re doing?
Flying Lotus: I’m doing my best. I’m not trying to hang out in anyone else’s fucking legacy. I’m trying to make my own legacy, man. I’m trying to do my own thing. That’s why I don’t feel the need to have all these guests on my record, man. I didn’t want it to be about all these other people that I don’t care about. They’re like, “Oh yeah, get M.I.A. to get on your record!” I’m like, “It’s not about M.I.A.” It’s not about her, and I don’t need her to shine, dude. I don’t want to be associated with someone I’m not really tripping off of, either.
I’m like, let’s make our own shit. Let’s make something for us, my crew, my peeps. We don’t need all these other people just because it’s going to give us a better hook. It’s like, “Oh yeah, since you hang out with these people, these other people are going to give you a try.” Well, fuck all those other people. They haven’t hollered at me, but they’ll holler at me after I work with M.I.A. or Santogold or whatever? I like [Santogold’s] shit, don’t get me wrong.
But yeah, I didn’t really feel the need to jump on anyone else’s bandwagon.
Plug One: How about Brainfeeder?
Flying Lotus: Brainfeeder is the label I started. It’s a digital label that I started a week ago when I released Samiyam’s Rap Beats Vol. 1 on iTunes and all the other suspects.
We’re going to start putting out a bunch of beat records this year, more avant-garde left-field beat music that some friends of mine are working on. It’s a labor of love. I’m not trying to take any money from it. I just want to put [any profits] into the label, put it into the artists’ pockets, and just try to build a nice little home for my extended family.
We’ve got Ras G coming up next, and Matthew David, and probably do something with Hudson Mohawke. I might do a project under a different name or something. Maybe do some FlyAmSam stuff.
We’ve got a cool team, a great artist on the squad. We’ve got Andrew Meza from BTS Radio. I don’t know if you know the artist – Ques, the Illlord.
Plug One: One last question – how did you come up with your name?
Flying Lotus: Ha ha ha. A lot of people ask me that question, man. I wonder if people ask motherfucking Lightspeed Champion where he got his name from, or Panda Bear?
My name came from lucid dreaming. Have you ever had a lucid dream before?
Plug One: Yeah, definitely.
Flying Lotus: You must have them often then! So what’s the first thing you imagine when you have a lucid dream? When you’re asleep, when you’re dreaming, when it’s all lucid and you’re controlling it, do you ever fly or anything? That’s the one thing I have to try and do: Try and fly to the moon.
Plug One: It depends for me, though, because I have them often. Sometimes I’m stuck in a movie, and it’s a plot, you know what I’m saying? Then sometimes I can fly and beat people up and that kinda stuff, like a superhero.
Flying Lotus: That’s crazy. That’s dope. That’s crazy that you turn into a superhero. I think that’s what we all want to do at some point – super lucid lives, man.
Plug One: So is that how you got the name? It came to you in a dream?
Flying Lotus: Yeah, lucid dreaming. Also through drawing characters and things like that. There was a character that I made that I based on myself called Flying Lotus.