Listening to Steven Ellison, who records as Flying Lotus, is hearing a cross-section of music from across the stylistic cosmos — from hip-hop to jazz to rock to R&B and back again, all of them simultaneously expanding and folding in on themselves.
The suburban Los Angeles native went from a boyhood of Nintendo and cartoons to becoming a member of the Low End Theory “beat music” collective, minting a sound that layers spare riffs into multi-dimensional narratives. Ellison released his first studio album, 1983, in 2006, followed by Los Angeles (2008), Cosmogramma (2010) plus a plethora of remixes and audio-visual collaborations. Along the way, he supplied the bumper music and videos for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming, where his work can still be heard.
The steady evolution of Flying Lotus became a quantum leap forward with Until the Quiet Comes (2012), an electronic hip-hop-jazz masterwork featuring vocals by, among others, Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke (a fan and past collaborator). More meditative than Ellison’s previous work, it was influenced by the death of his mother and his subsequent investigation of the devotional jazz of his mother’s sister, Alice Coltrane, the wife of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. (Along with the Coltrane connection, Ellison’s grandmother, Marilyn McLeod, was a singer-songwriter who penned hits for Diana Ross and Freda Payne.)
With his fifth studio album, You’re Dead! , scheduled for release on his 31st birthday, Ellison crystallizes the concepts laid out on Until The Quiet Comes. He makes savvy use of guest appearances by rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, extensive contributions by iconic jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, and, most prominently, the talents of his longtime cohort Thundercat on bass and other instruments. As with Until The Quiet Comes, Flying Lotus harnesses the freedom of jazz improvisation to explore ideas about death and dying. But on You’re Dead! , death is a jumping off point to explore fears of the unknown and spellbinding possibilities in an afterlife.
Colliding genres have been a constant staple for Flying Lotus, but on the new record the contrasting textures are especially fascinating. “Obligatory Cadence” meshes lush strings and techno blips, while “Turtles” blends in chimes with what sounds like Indian tablas. There is the incandescent wash of Hancock’s Fender Rhodes, the rapid-fire tomfoolery of Snoop and Kendrick, and there is Thundercat riding herd on the basses, dancing between the horns. The virtuosic dazzle of fusion jazz mates with the blunt science of hip-hop — what makes Ellison unique is how thoroughly both elements seem to exist in his creative DNA.
The jazz bassist Ron Carter once said that growing up, everything seemed musical to him, whether it was the windshield wipers or the way the rain fell. Your taste is so broad that I was wondering if you experienced the same thing.
Yeah. I don’t think I spent a lot of time worrying about what genres were supposed to be and what mixed well with what. I was exposed to so many different types of music, and I’m really thankful for that. My family members played jazz and they played me rock music and classical music, so I was exposed to a really broad range of music at a young age. I played saxophone when I was 12 in school. I was really into it.
Do you remember the first people who caught your ear and made you think about making music?
When I started hearing Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre and that early West Coast hip-hop sound. When I was younger, I was very inspired by that minimal sound. But as I grew up, I was inspired more by doing complex arrangements on the computers, or at least what was possible on the early samplers.
When you were playing saxophone at school, were you able to incorporate in some of the stuff you were learning at music school?
I didn’t really pursue that much outside school. I felt weird about playing. I was discouraged in that way; we weren’t encouraged to play any of that crazy shit and we weren’t taught to do anything that wasn’t on the page.
Maybe that encouraged that pushback, where you are wondering why everything has to be scripted? That has always felt like a crucial part of your music.
Yes, I feel like I was. Especially when it came to that stuff at school, if shit wasn’t funky. I probably would have pursued my instrument more if I had been given something more interesting. The thing is, the music teachers have to know how to inspire their kids and get them playing things they cared about.
So did you fall in with people who dug Snoop and Dre and went at it that way?
I didn’t really meet any like-minded people until I got kicked out of school and went to continuation school with all the misfits. All these people were alternative lifestyle people. It was really weird, man, because they put me in with all these people who were crazy and people who had drug problems. I didn’t have a drug problem. I got in trouble and shit, but I wasn’t on that level. But those were the realest kids. They were the ones I really connected with and the ones who were really open-minded. They put me on to different types of music. We were misfits, but it was really weird because I felt at home. It was the last two years of high school.
What were you listening to then?
A lot of rock stuff and Li’l Wayne. He was my age at the time — we are the same age. He was doing what I wanted to be doing. He was already making music and he was all around the world doing music videos. It was inspiring to see someone my age killing it so hard. I was listening to a lot of rock shit, crazy shit like AFI, Korn and shit. They had some crazy ideas, and it was really dark. I was attracted to that for sure as a kid.
How long was it before you guys got into those Low End Theory days of your collective?
That happened much later on. I was talking about back when I was 16. Low End Theory got off when I was in my 20s. I was definitely a huge part of that whole thing. There was a whole community of us. We used to have gatherings outside of parties and talk about how we could really make impact. It was like a family unit. It was really a special time, because we were all inspired and we all had each other’s back. I remember there was one night specifically where so many of us met at somebody’s house to talk about forming a label together.
Was Thundercat there yet?
No, he wasn’t in the crew yet. But there are certain people I still hang with today and still talk with. DJ Coupla. Rakim. Eric Coleman. Just a bunch of people. Georgia Anne Muldrow was there. It was called the Sounds of LA. That’s what we were talking about. We knew something was brewing under the surface. We didn’t really have any outlet, but we knew that there was a demand for what we were doing.
Then you eventually began to put out records on your own. When I listen to the first couple of them, they are amazing. I hear some influences like DJ Premier and Pete Rock and it seems like there is that diaphanous but dense thing going on. But the sophistication of the last couple seems like a major step forward.
I heard a lot of death on Until the Quiet Comes and I know that the death of your mom led you to explore your jazz roots via your Aunt Alice Coltrane. Do you see linkages between Until the Quiet Comes and You’re Dead!?
Oh, absolutely. I feel like there were some ideas I was trying to explore that didn’t quite come to fruition. I really wanted to just dive into that concept this time around, just kind of really see the ideas all the way through as best that I could.
This is the first record where the concept came before the music started. You’re Dead! was the standpoint from which I did everything I was working on. I wanted everything to be part of the same universe and the same sonic palette.
In the advance publicity materials, you say something about this record having a “jazz spirit.” Jazz is such a broad term, so what did you mean by that?
As far as the spirit of it, there is a difference between the things I have done in the past and this record. In the past, I feel like I have had hip-hop approach to things, then put a jazz angle on it. This time, I started off with jazz and then brought it to hip-hop. It is a totally different experiment.
Did Herbie Hancock become involved in this early in the process?
He did. He was kind of a gatekeeper in this concept, because his enthusiasm really gave me the confidence to proceed. With everything he’s done, he’s [still] saying ‘Wow, you guys are doing some great shit.” That made me feel good about going in and trying to make it the most dynamic and personal and fun and silly [record] I possibly could.
I hear Herbie especially in the “Tesla” and “Cold Dead” part and then the “Eyes of Above” and “Moment of Hesitation” sections. Is he in most of the record?
No, he is in pretty much the parts you just called out. That’s what made it on to the record. We recorded a bunch of stuff. I don’t know if it is ever going to see the light of day. We recorded a bunch of ideas and I hope there is more stuff to do [together in the future].
I know the keyboards are Herbie Hancock’s. What about the horn and guitar parts — sampled or real?
All real, man. The horns are Kamasi Washington. He plays throughout the record and you know Thundercat on the bass — he played a lot of the guitar parts too. There are different players on each song but Thundercat is pretty much on everything.
It’s a tribute to you that I can see how you relate to Herbie Hancock, both on his Headhunters and Rockit stuff, and also on that earlier classic material like Maiden Voyage and Empryean Isles. I imagine you guys had a meeting of the minds beyond the electronic thing.
Yeah, definitely. Playing with him is also really cool, because he casually drops these stories that are so amazing and enchanting. I mean, this guy has seen so much and heard so much. So it is really special to be in that space with him. As far as the sound I was going for, he has some stuff in his crib, but he didn’t have a Fender Rhodes! I said, “No, no! We’ve got to go to my house, man [and get a Fender in front of him].”
There are so many interesting layers and collisions on the album. The textures you get on tracks like “Obligatory Cadence” and “Turtles” and “Turkey Dog Coma,” that are beautiful and shifting. When you are layering in that stuff, how much is it your purposeful aesthetic that you know going in and how much of it is just monkeying around and finding those collisions that work?
I think it is kind of 50/50. Part of the fun is approaching it all like a puzzle: How do I make this puzzle the most visual puzzle and the dynamic puzzle I can? A lot of the times, the ideas will kind of present themselves just by my toying around. I have this strange philosophy, I feel like every sound that is introduced, it is like you have to bow in and you have to bow out. I can’t explain it more than that. The elements in the arrangements have to bow first and then they do their thing, and then they bow out. [Laughs]. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Okay, one last thing I wanted to ask you. On “Coronous, the Terminator,” it sounds like you got a little P-Funk vibe in there in addition to the sci-fi thing.
Yeah, that’s the way I like to sing songs. That’s my vibe.
I was listening to your “Duality” remix as Captain Murphy the other night and it seems like Captain Murphy is your version of George Clinton’s Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk; the guy who wants to spoil the party and keep everybody in line.
Yeah, yeah, exactly! That’s what’s up, man. You get it, man. I love and have been like super into Parliament during the making of this record, so it is funny you called that.