The Evolution of Flying Lotus
How did a Nintendo-playing cartoon addict become a Flying Lotus? Stage by stage, we look at the evolution of LA’s modern beat king.
From the humdrum middle class neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley, Flying Lotus flipped a family jazz past and a troublesome school life to become one of the biggest beatmakers on the West Coast. He’s worked with and influenced the likes of Thom Yorke, Erykah Badu, Burial, Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Snoop Dogg, and Thundercat, all the while digitizing soul music, masterminding conceptual dreamscapes, and inventing hellish rap characters.
It was only eight years ago that he broke onto the scene with his debut album 1983, and, since then, each chapter in his life has been represented by a groundbreaking new record. So, how did a Nintendo-playing cartoon addict become a Flying Lotus? Stage by stage, we look at the evolution of LA’s modern beat king.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
If anyone was destined for success, it was Flying Lotus. Born Steven Ellison in 1983, he entered life as the great-nephew of jazz pianist Alice Coltrane and her late husband, the saxophonist, John Coltrane (who actually died before Steven’s birth), as well as being the grandson of Motown singer/songwriter Marilyn Mcleod. And, in the early days, he followed right in their footsteps, playing alto-saxophone and then saxophone through his young school years.
By his 15th birthday, Steven’s cousin had bought him a Roland MC-505 groovebox and a school friend gave him a lend of a R.A.W. mixtape (listen below) from the L.A. drum and bass scene. His musical landscape changed, and an inner beatmaker began to bubble.
Growing up in a suburb in the San Fernando Valley (America’s porn capital), though, the young Lotus experienced a pretty alienated youth, surrounded by a middle class community that didn’t see much worth in art and creativity. In high school, he started hanging out with the local acid dealers, and he quickly got a reputation as a stoner. The situation became overblown, and Steven was relocated to a special school for "recovering addicts" where he was taught English by an ex-crack smoker. In an interview with Village Voice in 2010, he remembered his first day at "addict" school fondly:
“It was really interesting, man. I was just surrounded by all the weird kids. Think of all the weird kids from school back in the days, like all the goth kids who were fuckin' junkies, and the kids who were just too bad, beating other kids up, but now everyone was cool and getting along. I felt at home. For the first time in my life I was like, this is it, these guys are going to be my friends. I had a great time at school after that.”
Later in life, he would go on to listen to his aunt’s music when coping with his own mother’s death, identifying how Aunt Alice’s devotional music had helped her deal with her husband John’s death.
1983 AND SIGNING TO WARP
After that, Ellison hit film school—he later noted that filmmaking taught him to make albums with a story—and the leisure aspects of his life slowly became entwined with hip-hop (The Chronic, Doggystyle), Nintendo, Marvel comics, and Cartoon Network. His experimentation in beatmaking began to churn out genuine songs, and when he made "Toilet Paper Nostrils"—a song about having a bad cold—he realized he might actually have some game. While lying on the couch at his mother’s place one day, he saw an ad on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim asking for song submissions. He sent some in, got accepted, and Flying Lotus (a moniker inspired by lucid dreaming) was born. Soon his woozy beats were all over the channel, like on this opening skit for The Boondocks from 2006.
But Steven still saw music as a very personal and private affair. That was until he started to frequent and perform at some of the clubs that became precursors of what was eventually celebrated as the LA beat scene. He told XLR8R back in 2008:
“Motherfuckers just hung at the Little Temple, this club [in Silver Lake]. There was two cool nights–one was called Sketchbook, the other was called Together. On any given night, you’d see Carlos Niño, Ras G, Gaslamp Killer, Diabolic Dibiase, Georgia [Anne Muldrow], Daedelus, Coleman. It was a beat cypher! We’d hang out, and every week we’d all have some new shit. It was like homework for us. I think that’s how the whole community started on the beat tip–the thing I’m kinda part of.”
At the same time, he was interning at the pioneering hip hop label Stones Throw Records. Days were spent in their offices, and nights were spent at his grandmother's, working on the music that would become his debut album, 1983. This record (released on LA indie label Plug Research) was an early touchstone for his eclectic creative mission, forging compressed, spacey, Eastern-sounding hip-hop beats that summoned Madlib as much as Dntel and sampled as far back as 70s Japanese proto-synthpop and 60s jazz harp. It would also feature Laura Darlington, who went on to become a vocal fixture of future albums.
THE WARP EFFECT
In February 2007, Steven announced on CSU-Fullerton’s Titan Radio that he would be signing to Warp Records, home to acts like Prefuse 73, Nightmares on Wax, Boards of Canada, and Autechre. By this point, the local night Sketchbook had ended and been replaced by the immeasurably influential Low End Theory (flyer below). Hosted by Daddy Kev, the night boasted young regulars like The Gaslamp Killer, Kutmah, Busdriver, Nosaj Thing, Daedelus, and, of course, Flying Lotus. Los Angeles had become the incubator for a generation of talented producers.
Signing to Warp had momentary effects on Steven's music. The label's predominantly British roster seemed to bring out a UK subculture fanboy within, introducing him to breaking, young UK beatmakers like Hudson Mohawke and Rustie while adding an element of direct assault to his usually squelchy and mind-drifting trip-hop. One performance at a Low End Theory "beat invitational" exhibited this, as a young Flying Lotus unleashes a hefty drum 'n' bass and jungle-infused Squarepusher-esque banger on the crowd.
His first release on Warp, Reset EP, gave his new audience a taster of the steady grooves and darker breaks that had earned him the move. As Flying Lotus's profile rose, he decided to commandeer the limelight by launching his own label, Brainfeeder, to house his friends (Samiyam, Ras G, etc.), and unite a large section of the LA beat scene under one tidy tag. Months later, he dropped the first huge statement of a very loud career; the aptly titled Los Angeles, his second studio album and first for Warp.
The album captured the abundant styles of his city in 17 neat tracks that looked back to golden era hip-hop while introducing recalibrated shards of bass, techno, soul, and samples of his own Aunt's harp playing. It both tipped a hat to the legacy of J Dilla and made a big statement for the new LA generation. He told The Quietus back in 2008:
“I love Dilla, and who knows where this beat thing would be without him. His work ethic inspired so many producers around the world, but when he moved out to LA, it seemed that his presence here inspired everyone to kick things into overdrive. If I had to describe his music, I'd say it were 'imaginative soul music'. I think it's his imagination that appeals to me, personally. Dilla could flip a boring record and make you feel like you were flying.”
DEATH DRIVE AND OVERDRIVE
2008 saw Ellison enter a stage of hyper-productivity, as he followed up the Los Angeles record with collaborative tracks with Samiyam and Gonjasufi, a limited white label run of remixes called Shhh!, and a series of LA-inspired EPs. The third in that series (titled L.A. EP 3 X 3), marked a new atmospheric style in his sound. The song "Spin Cycles," for instance, was an ambient dream sequence steered by twisted analog sounds without a beat in sight, with later track "Endless White" acting as its heavenly counterpoint.
He was also working on his third studio album, but this one would take him over 18 months to complete, as the unexpected death of his mother set in motion a period that would change his life completely. Titled Cosmogramma (artwork below), it became a completely different record: ghosts of grief were grafted into his machines. The recorded bleeps of his mother’s life support, along with grandiose live instrumentation (Thundercat on bass, Miguel Atwood Ferguson on strings, Rebekah Raff on harp) and live vocalists (Thom Yorke, Laura Darlington) all helped communicate the spiritual musical lineage of Ellison’s family (Ravi Coltrane, himself, played tenor sax).
The multi-award-winning Cosmogramma was a hard-hitting afrofuturistic shrine to soul, hip-hop, jazz, and IDM but, with more emphasis on a lyrical message than ever before, it was also a cathartic grieving experience. The release gilded Ellison as a global electronic star, although it famously and inexplicably didn’t earn him a Grammy nomination.
“Going through Trane for a little bit recently helped me understand it more. Same with my aunt's stuff; it really resonated with me last year, how important it was. I took it personally. I can honestly understand why she made the music she made after John Coltrane died. I can see why she'd be inspired to make those sounds. Those specific sounds with those specific instruments totally made sense to me. I feel like she was grieving through the music, understanding his passing. I know it must have shaken her entire universe. I know what she went through. I get it. I'm not the kind of person to shy away from my family connection, we're all really close. I wanted to feel part of that thing.”
THE INFLUENCE OF THUNDERCAT
In collaborator Thundercat, a.k.a. Stephen Bruner, Flying Lotus found a kindred spirit. The two went on to work on the Pattern+Grid World EP and Thundercat’s debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse. Thundercat was much more versed in creating a live band atmosphere on track, as opposed to Flying Lotus's dense beat jungles, and their contrasts birthed a symbiotic creative relationship that changed them both as musicians. Having previously prided himself on a live performance that was a purely electronic show of throbbing and mutating beat tracks with arresting visuals, Flying Lotus decided to assemble the musicians of Cosmogramma and created his first ever live band to help deliver the true sound of the album.
UNTIL THE MURPHY COMES
The break between Cosmogramma and his next album saw Flying Lotus's head turned by the new crop of rap crews making waves up both the East and West Coasts. Given his lifelong fascination for hip-hop but lack of a firm position within it, Flying Lotus was inspired by the likes of Odd Future (also aficionados of Adult Swim), A$AP Mob, Spaceghostpurrp, and Shabazz Palaces to get a bit more direct. Soon he was knocking out production for Odd Future’s Hodgy Beats’ Untitled EP. While with Hodgy, he had a moment of rap enlightenment that he shared with Pitchfork:
"I can recall the moment specifically. I haven’t told anybody this and I am so glad to talk to you about it. I feel like it was such a big deal for me personally. [Odd Future] started playing me some of The OF Tape Vol. 2. I asked them, 'Yo, Hodgy, how long did it take you to record this shit? How long did it take you to write this song?' 'Aw, my nigga, it took me like 15 minutes.’ 15 minutes? Are you fucking serious? I was like, 'Nah, nigga. I am gonna do this shit.'"
Ellison saw a new avenue opening, and it didn’t take long for his hip-hop Mr. Hyde to manifest as a fully fledged project. Throughout the summer of 2012, Captain Murphy would make golden-caped appearances, with his true identity masked to the public.
A JOURNEY INTO DREAM WORLD
Behind closed doors, though, the work for his fourth album, Until The Quiet Comes, was pretty much done. A year prior, Ellison had worked with Ann Arbor Festival to live score a surreal and avant-garde 50s animation Heaven and Earth Magic (pictured below), and a fascination with dreamlike states had continued into this record.
Feeling he now had less to prove, Ellison took the opportunity to explore his musicality, taking steps to create a very different album. He took up piano lessons to learn more about chords and progressions, studied melodic refrains, and revisited unfinished work from sessions with Thundercat, Burial, and Samiyam in search of a way to soundtrack his otherworldly concepts. He explained at the time to Pitchfork:
"When I started working on it and making drafts, I was really into the idea of doing a children's record. Well, I really wanted to make a record that had this innocence to it. And it’s not about being naive but being able to harness the feeling of hearing things for the first time. I was really into meditation and mystical states and all that shit, which really, really inspired me. I imagined seeing a whole world you can’t have imagined before and being completely innocent. Those are the kind of images I see. It’s of a young character, but not a kid, just like the youthful parts of yourself coming alive for the first time."
Until The Quiet Comes continued his enduring creative relationship with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, as well as Johnny Greenwood, Niki Randa, Erykah Badu, Laura Darlington, and, of course, Thundercat. It was cinematically captured in a short film by Kahlil Joseph.
THE UNMASKING OF CAPTAIN MURPHY
In late 2012, less than two months after the release of his last record, a website started circulating online: www.captainmurphy.xxx. Press speculated who the rapper was (Ellison? Tyler, The Creator? Earl Sweatshirt?), but nobody had a straight answer. The site hosted Duality, a 34 minute short film mixtape of sorts, comprised of both new material and Murphy tracks that had been leaking all summer.
Hardcore fans soon connected the dots, recognizing some of the instrumental moments as unmistakingly Flying Lotus, and they linked the moniker Captain Murphy with a character of the same name from Sealab 2021, a program on Ellison’s treasured Adult Swim. Ellison, who initially intended to remain anonymous, felt his hand had been forced.
"I feel like the people made me tell them who I was," he told Pitchfork. "They made me reveal my fucking identity. There are some people who were like, 'Oh, you shouldn’t have done it. You should have kept it going.' I was like, Nah, man. All you motherfuckers making websites and shit about who I am and all this shit made it this way."
While the production of Duality was standard Lotus fare, Murphy’s filtered rapping style shone a new perspective on Steven's talents, managing to combine cartoon references with life in porn valley and references to his production career, all in a deep and frantic gruff. This wouldn’t be the last we heard of the Captain.
TO SAN ANDREAS AND BEYOND
A lifelong obsession with Grand Theft Auto merged with Flying Lotus's presence as a producer in April 2013, when he was asked to curate a radio station for and star in the next installment of the game.
"I would drive around and listen to OutKast and Aphex Twin in LA, and I have my own experiences in the areas that they recreate in the game," he told Pitchfork. "I have that shit. I know what it's like listening to Aphex Twin driving down the beach. I get it, and it's special to think that someone else might think that, too. I made this shit for those people."
After that came what was probably the quietest spell on Planet Lotus since he first dropped his debut all those eight years ago. Finally, this past July, the next chapter was announced: a shamanic pilgrimage into the psychedelic unknown of the infinite afterlife known as You’re Dead, and it is destined to summon even more of his musical past than ever before through promises of hip-hop, prog, rock and jazz.
Steven has modernized instrumental hip-hop, turned beat-making into an emotive fine art, and digitally processed the essence of soul. With both You’re Dead and a Captain Murphy album (preview below) promised for October, his next chapter could be the biggest yet.