Genre-Bending Flying Lotus Is Back for More
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Radiohead, Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar might advise you very precisely to do so.
By Keith Murphy
Steven Ellison was just your normal introvert who grew up in Los Angeles listening to the smoked-out sounds of Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg. But it was an older — weirder — cousin who pushed the future beat visionary to create his own musical tapestry.
“He was an adult who played video games and was kind of rebellious, but he was always a really positive person,” Ellison recalls of the man he credits with sparking his studio obsessions. “He would ask me, ‘What are you checking out? You listening to this hip-hop — well, check out this Prince.’ My cousin made music … rock music by himself on an old Mac machine. Eventually he would put one of those machines in my hands and go, ‘All right, you try.’”
His upcoming album You’re Dead mightily turns up the new age jazz influences while dipping a toe in atmospheric hip-hop stew.
That same cousin eventually brought the kid his first piece of production equipment: the MC505 Groove Box. From there, the story goes off the rails. Not content with just coloring inside the lines of his beloved hip-hop, FlyLo, as he is known to diehard followers, again looked to family for inspiration, as the great-nephew of jazz giant John Coltrane started to incorporate his kin’s storied, improvisational medium into his own adventurous soundclash.
Today, Ellison is a rapper and producer who has manned the production boards for everyone from progressive rock gods Radiohead and soul priestess Erykah Badu to Odd Future spitter Earl Sweatshirt. But it’s his own unpredictable solo concoctions (starting with 2006’s groundbreaking 1983) that have made him one of the industry’s best-kept secrets.
Until now. His upcoming album You’re Dead — out October 6 — a conceptual work detailing the many stages of death, mightily turns up the new age jazz influences while dipping a toe in FlyLo’s atmospheric hip-hop stew. There are guest spots from rap icon Snoop Dogg, jazz legend Herbie Hancock and the lyrical-man-of-the-moment Kendrick Lamar.
Mr. Ellison, get ready for your close-up.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re Dead takes on the subject matter of death with a very pointed instrumental approach. What inspired you to dissect the different stages of taking that very last breath?
I’ve had so much experience with the subject of death. It seems like every year, at some point, I’m reminded of how much people really matter to me. My mother’s death definitely inspired me … it’s still very weird to talk about. But I do approach death playfully as well. No one ever knows what really happens when you die, but I try to assess it from the view of the different cultural concepts.
Kanye West recently said that jazz was dead. What do you think of such a statement given your deep family connection with the genre?
That’s part of the reason why I did You’re Dead. Everyone is chasing that same ’60s jazz sound and trying to sound like John Coltrane, so, yeah … that sound is dead. He did that and if he heard that today he would be so frustrated. But that was why I really felt like I should do this record. I wanted to show that we can change jazz … maybe it can be different again.
Your collaboration with Lamar, “Never Catch Me,” was premiered not too long ago to much hype. How does it feel receiving that kind of mainstream attention, and have you heard any of the songs that you gave to Kendrick Lamar for his next album?
Yeah, all the attention trips me out. As far as Kendrick goes, I think he’s just such a brilliant dude. I’ve heard a few songs, mostly the songs he has recorded over my tracks, but I don’t know what’s going to make it. There’s too many songs.
What of your evolution as a producer? What was the point in your life growing up as a kid when you thought: yeah, I want to do this?
I had turntables and stuff, but I never thought about performing in front of people. I was never attracted to being onstage in front of 5,000 people, which kind of just happened. I love to do it now as a producer, but I had to snap into being an extrovert overnight.
When you work with a band as big as Radiohead do you have to get onboard with their vision or are you allowed to go 100 percent FlyLo?
With Tom [Radiohead frontman Tom Yorke], he’s such a beat head, anyway, and he’s so eclectic in his taste. The things he listened to tripped me out, like, “Really, you fuck with that?” So it’s not really a question of fitting into the right thing.
Let’s talk about some of the other guests on the album. You worked with jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Did you find yourself thinking, “I’m in the studio with a fucking music legend?”
It was super surreal, man. Herbie Hancock came to my house to record on my family keyboard. [Hancock] really gave me the confidence to pursue this album. When I started playing him stuff, he would say, “Yeah, man … this is it right here.”
And someone else amazing appears on the album: Snoop Dogg. You use your alter-ego Captain Murphy rap persona to rhyme with Snoop Dogg. How did you score him for the album?
[Laughs] Snoop got involved the very last minute on the album while he interviewed me for his show. The way “Dead Man’s Tetris” plays out Snoop is the gatekeeper to the afterlife, which he would be one of my gatekeepers because he was my favorite artist [when I was a kid]. So it was cool to get that full-circle thing on my album.
So we come back to stardom. Are you ready to have your music blasted all over radio?
[Laughs] I don’t know, man. But I’m really flattered that people are playing my music. I don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. I’m just doing my part.
- Keith MurphyContact Keith Murphy