Future present

Pub date October 29, 2008
WriterMosi Reeves
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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"I remember in the beginning I used to fuck around and not care about anything at all," says Steven Ellison, who records under the guise Flying Lotus. "But now it’s, like, Thom Yorke likes my music, dog. Now I think, oh shit, will Thom like this beat?"

It must be a happy conundrum to wonder if one of the world’s biggest rock stars will like your new song. Tinkering around his studio in Winnetka, a sleepy suburb in the San Fernando Valley, Flying Lotus works on a long-distance project with Burial. When he’s done, he’ll send the track over to the United Kingdom for the junglist producer to tweak. News of Flying Lotus collaborating with Burial, two of electronic music’s freshest new stars, will probably make some fans smile with pleasure. From Radiohead’s Yorke and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow — who recently noted in an interview with Remix that Flying Lotus makes "pure, mad music" — to the beat heads who ravenously scoop up any new Lotus material, everyone seems to love FlyLo.

So how did Flying Lotus become the so-called Chosen One? Los Angeles teems with a renaissance of kindred spirits. Carlos Niño (whose range includes Gaby Hernandez’s progressive folk valentine When Love [Armed Orphan] and Lil Sci’s rap treatise What’s the Science? [Shaman Work]), Daedelus (who blends early 1990s zoo rave with film soundtrack compositions) and Nobody (whose Nobody Presents Blank Blue: Western Water Music Vol. II [Ubiquity] eyes ’60s-ish psychedelic pop) all use electronic music as a starting point for forays into various genres.

Andrew Meza, who hosts BTS Radio on CSU-Fullerton and was an early champion of Flying Lotus, compares the scene to the vaunted "New Hollywood" wave of American directors in the early ’70s. "It’s a really small group of people doing really cool things," he says. In his opinion, Flying Lotus stands out in part because of his studio techniques. Although the artist records in a bedroom, his music sounds as polished as a major label product.

"People used to say this about Dilla — and I’m in no way comparing him to Dilla — that [when he finished beats] it sounded like everything was already EQ’ed and mastered," Meza says. "With [Lotus], his shit seems so much louder and bass-y."

Now, as a leader of the flourishing beat movement, Flying Lotus has launched a digital label, Brainfeeder, to issue projects from like-minded friends such as Samiyam and Ras G. To promote the label, he’s throwing a Brainfeeder Festival Nov. 8 at 103 Harriet St.

The best music often sounds like everything and nothing before it. Flying Lotus’ work evokes comparisons to J Dilla and Madlib and fits neatly into flavor-of-the-moment trends like 8-bit and dubstep, yet it is also excitingly unique. He utilizes standard bedroom production equipment, including a MacBook Pro and a Novation 25 MIDI controller, to make hauntingly fluid and improvisatory sounds. "My whole setup is probably less than a couple of Gs, man," he says by phone from Winnetka.

He samples other people’s work, then renders the sounds so unrecognizable he often can’t remember what they originally were. On Los Angeles (Warp), Flying Lotus pays homage to his late aunt, the great jazz pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, by appropriating material from her 1968 debut, A Monastic Trio (Impulse!), for "Auntie’s Harp." "I tried my best to transform all the harp stuff so it didn’t sound like the original, but still had the essence," Flying Lotus says. "SexSlaveShip" builds on a more obscure source: ambient/acoustic folk artist Matthew David’s Spills (Plug Research). Another track, "GNG BNG," draws inspiration from DJ Shadow’s breakbeat experiments of the late ’90s.

As a result, Los Angeles, released in June, is part modern-day homage to California’s holistic vibes and progressive utopianism, and part science-fiction film, making for an arresting future present. "It’s the classic hero’s journey kind of thing, basically a story like a film," Flying Lotus says, adding that the movie that initially inspired him was Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 dystopia Blade Runner. "It’s the soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist."

The recording’s mood ranges from the deeply reflective vibes of "Golden Diva" to the steel drum-speckled techno funk of "Parisian Goldfish." There are a few vocal pieces on Los Angeles, particularly the lushly sensuous "RobertaFlack" with Turkish artist Ahu "Dolly" Keleslogu, whom Flying Lotus met online. For the most part, however, its liquid hip-hop instrumentals sing louder than words. As FlyLo puts it, "I wanted to make music that didn’t need a voice."

With Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Kode 9, Hudson Mohawke, Ras G, Samiyam, Kutmah, and Martyn
Nov. 8, 9 p.m., $15 advance
103 Harriet, SF