Fly­ing Lo­tus

The vi­sion­ary pro­ducer on a decade of in­flu­ence

The Guardian - The Guide - - Inside -

When Steven El­li­son last saw Ken­drick La­mar, the rap­per was wear­ing what could be de­scribed as the clos­est thing Los An­ge­les na­tives get to a na­tional cos­tume. “Ken­drick had on a hoodie, some bas­ket­ball shorts and some flipflops,” El­li­son, bet­ter known by his stage name Fly­ing Lo­tus, re­calls. “Yeah, he’s an LA moth­er­fucker. He ab­so­lutely de­serves the key to the city.”

And, while there’s no dis­put­ing the debt LA owes to that Pulitzer prize-win­ning hip-hop star, the con­tri­bu­tions that El­li­son and his record la­bel Brainfeeder have also made over the last 10 years to­wards the cul­ture of Los An­ge­les have been vast. Over the pre­vi­ous decade, Fly­ing Lo­tus and his co­hort have drawn from elec­tron­ica, hip-hop, dub­step, as well as jazz, funk, video games, anime, psychedelia and sun­shine, to make some of the best mu­sic to come out of the City of An­gels since The Chronic.

The scene, known by the loose and slightly im­prac­ti­cal term of LA beat, has thrived. And while some lo­cal la­bels, such as Stones Throw, helped it reach a wider au­di­ence, it was only once Euro­pean record bosses started tak­ing an in­ter­est that Fly­ing Lo­tus re­alised he and his friends should prob­a­bly share the mu­sic with the wider world. “Be­fore I started Brainfeeder there were rum­blings in our own cir­cle about cre­at­ing a la­bel

for us all,” he says. “Then I started to see all th­ese other ones from Europe try to cap­i­talise on the scene. It didn’t make sense to me that there were all th­ese peo­ple who were try­ing to build on some­thing that was in our back­yard.”

When El­li­son says “back­yard” he re­ally isn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing. Two Brainfeeder artists, Samiyam and Teebs, used to live in his old apart­ment build­ing in the Northridge neigh­bour­hood of the city. “The place was called Das Bauhaus,” he says. “You know, af­ter the Bauhaus? It was kinda like an art com­mune; hippy vibes, but you still had to pay on time.”

While some A&R in the early days could be done by sim­ply walk­ing across the hall, other artists reached El­li­son through word of mouth. “Thun­der­cat was one of those peo­ple that I would hear about from time to time,” he re­mem­bers. “Mu­si­cian friends would be like: ‘Oh, man, you have to meet him. You and he would be great friends.’” They were right. “We are very sim­i­lar,” says El­li­son with a laugh. “We’re both named Steven; we were both born in Oc­to­ber, and are both Li­bras. Both our fam­i­lies are mu­si­cal, and come from De­troit. We have this kind of dis­ci­pline about us, but we’re both big geeks too, and fol­low anime, as well as be­ing big mu­sic nerds. It’s crazy.”

The two be­came so close, in fact, that when he and Thun­der­cat first be­gan jam­ming to­gether, it wasn’t clear who was record­ing for whom. “To be­gin with, I was just in­ter­ested in him play­ing on my stuff,” El­li­son ad­mits. “Then he was like: ‘I’d rather we work on some of my stuff.’ And I was like: ‘Ah, [pause] yeah, we can do that.’” More im­por­tantly, it was Thun­der­cat who re­alised that El­li­son’s tal­ents might lie be­yond the stu­dio.

“At one point, he looked at me and said: ‘Hey man, I want to be your artist,’” re­calls El­li­son. “I didn’t even know what that meant, but I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber those words.” Though best known as a record­ing artist, El­li­son ad­mits that he is pretty good at spot­ting tal­ent.

“I don’t like to brag about it,” he says, “but there are peo­ple I’ve worked with, at the start of their ca­reer, and they’ve all be­come very, very suc­cess­ful.” Take, for ex­am­ple, his early tute­lage of Odd Fu­ture front­man Tyler, the Cre­ator.

“Re­ally early on I knew he was go­ing to be huge,” says El­li­son. “I re­mem­ber show­ing him some records and say­ing we could make one. The idea of him hav­ing his own mu­sic on vinyl blew his mind. I thought that was so sweet.” This de­scrip­tion of Tyler doesn’t en­tirely tally with the rap­per’s brat­tier pub­lic per­sona. “Oh, he’s def­i­nitely dif­fi­cult to deal with,” ad­mits El­li­son, “but he’s also smart, bril­liant. He’s a very clever guy. He’s just got a short at­ten­tion span.”

El­li­son had sim­i­lar fore­sight when he came across a young Kamasi Wash­ing­ton play­ing to a half-empty jazz club. “I re­mem­ber there were only 20 peo­ple in there, and this guy was play­ing like a mon­ster.” On that night, Wash­ing­ton’s mu­sic took El­li­son some­where else. “I was think­ing about the fu­ture and my whole life,” he says. “The mu­sic kinda drowned away in the back­ground; he made me go on this crazy ride. I thought to my­self: ‘Holy shit! This is what the old-timers would talk about.’”

De­spite his cos­mic abil­i­ties, El­li­son says Wash­ing­ton is re­mark­ably grounded. “He’s not spacey at all,” he ex­plains. “He’s one of those peo­ple that if he ap­plied him­self to do some­thing he could do it. If he wanted to be an as­tro­naut in the be­gin­ning, he could have been one, but in­stead he’s taken up the horn.”

Un­for­tu­nately, not ev­ery Brainfeeder artist has pos­sessed the same de­gree of con­trol over their destiny. Young vir­tu­oso pian­ist Austin Per­alta – son of skate leg­end and doc­u­men­tary di­rec­tor Stacy Per­alta – en­abled Brainfeeder to reach out to jazz afi­ciona­dos for a short pe­riod, prior to Per­alta’s death in Novem­ber 2012. He passed away in his sleep at his Santa Mon­ica apart­ment, aged just 22. The cause of death, ac­cord­ing to the coro­ner’s re­port, was vi­ral pneu­mo­nia, ag­gra­vated by Xanax, Val­ium, al­co­hol and mor­phine, among other drugs.

“He was such a bril­liant player,” re­mem­bers El­li­son, “such a good bridge for clas­si­cal jazz and the elec­tronic sound. It’s a loss when some­one like that dies so young, be­fore they had done ev­ery­thing they were meant to do.”

Other Brainfeeder col­lab­o­ra­tors, mean­while, have sur­vived far longer than many would have ex­pected. “Ge­orge Clin­ton is the best sto­ry­teller in the world,” El­li­son says of the Funkadelic star. “He’s got crazy acid sto­ries, and he re­mem­bers it all so vividly. He’s got a very sharp brain for some­one who has done so many crazy things. I think of him as a grand­fa­ther. In fact, I wanna call him right now, when I get off this call.”

El­li­son dug deep into Clin­ton’s mu­sic while tour­ing the coun­try with Thun­der­cat a cou­ple of years ago. To­gether they worked on ma­te­rial in­spired by Par­lia­ment and Funkadelic, which ended up on Ken­drick La­mar’s 2015 al­bum To Pimp a But­ter­fly. “Then, when I was do­ing the record with Ken­drick, he asked: ‘Who would you like to fea­ture on this song?’ I said Ge­orge Clin­ton,” ex­plains El­li­son. “And it hap­pened. Then Ge­orge kinda started float­ing into our or­bit.”

While he is thank­ful for such con­nec­tions, El­li­son’s re­la­tion­ship with La­mar isn’t with­out its draw­backs. “Ken­drick’s al­ways fall­ing in love with mu­sic that I’m mak­ing for my al­bum,” he says. “The song he did for me, Never Catch Me? [On Fly­ing Lo­tus’s 2014 al­bum, You’re Dead!] He wanted that so bad, I al­most didn’t have it at all.

‘IF KAMASI HAD WANTED TO BE AN AS­TRO­NAUT HE COULD HAVE. BUT IN­STEAD HE TOOK UP THE HORN’

He was like: ‘Well, if I can’t have it, then I don’t know.’ And I was like: ‘What, come on man? I need this! This is go­ing to be one!’”

La­mar’s ma­jor-la­bel power shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated, but Brainfeeder it­self has grown into a well-run ma­chine with an es­timable mu­si­cal pedi­gree. Its 10th-an­niver­sary com­pi­la­tion, Brainfeeder X, and its artists, in­clud­ing Fly­ing Lo­tus and Thun­der­cat, are play­ing a spe­cial Brainfeeder live event at the Brix­ton Academy in Lon­don on 15 De­cem­ber. Mean­while, back in LA, El­li­son has em­ployed a few staff mem­bers to deal with the day-to-day as­pects of the la­bel, al­low­ing him to fo­cus on its creative side, and per­haps draw on some of his ear­li­est mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ences.

Alice Coltrane, the mu­si­cian, spir­i­tual ad­viser and wife of the late, great jazz sax­o­phon­ist John Coltrane, was El­li­son’s great aunt. He can re­mem­ber go­ing to her ashram, in the hills near Mal­ibu, with his fam­ily when he was a small child, to hear her play. Did those trips shape Brainfeeder? “I don’t know,” he says. “Ul­ti­mately, the ashram has had a huge im­pact on me as a hu­man be­ing. The mu­sic that came from there was a unique thing. When my aunt would play, there was noth­ing like it. The en­ergy in the room! Even a per­son who didn’t be­lieve in any­thing would feel some­thing.”

You could say the same thing about the tunes Brainfeeder has spread. Few of us will ever move in the be­atific, sun-soaked cir­cles of El­li­son and co, but you can feel some­thing of the city’s past, present and fu­ture in the mu­sic. “It’s in the air, it’s the weather,” he says. “LA sun­shine, it af­fects us here, the sound, there’s a pace. We don’t have the snow, the cold, the dread.” Hippy vibes, then, and ev­ery­one is get­ting paid on time.

Fly­ing squad: (from top) Ken­drick La­mar; Fly­ing Lo­tus; Thun­der­cat

Alice Coltrane; and(top) Austin Per­alta; (right) Kamasi Wash­ing­ton

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