Flying Lotus: ‘Kendrick Lamar absolutely deserves the key to the city’

Steven Ellison, otherwise known as Flying Lotus, on unearthing new talent, LA beat, ‘difficult’ Tyler, the Creator and ten years of Brainfeeder records

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.”

Thundercat. Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images for FYF

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.”

Kamasi Washington.
Kamasi Washington. Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Observer

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. 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.
Alice Coltrane. Photograph: J Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images

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.

Six key Brainfeeder records

Teebs Why Like This? (2010)
Want a quick primer on LA beat? Stick on this hazy, near mystical, downbeat, analogue-synth instrumental number, which opens the new Brainfeeder X compilation, composed by Flying Lotus’s former neighbour.

Daedelus Righteous Fists of Harmony (2010)
With its breathy vocals, campfire acoustic strumming, slushy samples and occasional welcome intrusions of jazz flute, this deeply Californian concoction shows how LA beat’s peculiar range of influences work so well together.

Austin Peralta Endless Planets (2011)
This child prodigy jazz pianist recorded just three albums during his short life, and was only truly pleased with this last recording, a hybrid of contemporary jazz and electronica, with additional production and cover artwork by fellow Brainfeeder artist Strangeloop.

Kamasi Washington The Epic (2015)
It may have been Washington’s fourth album, but this three-disc, three-hour-long reaffirmation of jazz’s cosmic potential served as the saxophonist’s introduction to a wider, global audience. Thanks for the hook-up, Brainfeeder!

Thundercat Drunk (2017)
The six-string bassist’s 2017 album takes mid-century soul and funk conventions and twists them into spooky new shapes, with a little help from Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington, as well as more unexpected collaborators including Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald.

Louis Cole Time (2018)
Ellison says this young multi-instrumentalist reminds him of Napoleon Dynamite, if he could “play his ass off”. Any doubters should listen to this, or type “Thinking (live sesh) Louis Cole” into YouTube and watch Cole’s 20-plus jazz ensemble squeeze themselves into a modest suburban house for an impressive jam.

Brainfeeder X is out now. Flying Lotus, Thundercat & Ross from Friends perform at O2 Academy Brixton, SW9, 15 December


Alex Rayner

The GuardianTramp

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