When industry megastars like Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke have only great things to say about you, and your bloodline consists of individuals like the late jazz pianist Alice Coltrane and saxophonists John and Ravi Coltrane, it would appear you're likely headed for something pretty impressive.To categorize Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, as a multi-genre musician is both accurate and grossly underappreciating his experimental abilities all at the same time. Sure, he's well-versed in the intricacies of hip-hop (that's what studying the legendary J Dilla's work will do for you) and – as evidenced by his bloodline – jazz, but he's no slough when it comes to the indie world as a whole (which is a terribly all-encompassing term along the lines of what "alternative" used to mean back in the '90s). But based on his body of work as a whole, and in particular Until the Quiet Comes (which came out last week on Warp Records), he's set himself firmly above the pack in terms of instrumental and experimental hip-hop. "That's where I come from, that's been my thrust from the beginning," says Ellison. "I mean, I come from jazz, but I come from hip-hop really."
Much like the trailblazing days of early hip-hop (or punk or dubstep even, for that matter), FlyLo hasn't pigeonholed himself into one succinct category. He's all over the place, putting together what works and knowing what won't. "I don't really have preconceived ideas," he says. "I just sit in the chair and create."
One of the purest examples of Ellison and his creative abilities came in 2010, when he performed a live score for a film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Fittingly, the film was the avant-garde classic Heaven & Earth Magic, by Harry Smith, and was something that helped both define Ellison' abilities and set him aside from the rest of the pack in terms of creativity and ability. "I'm open-minded," he explains. "I'm open to everything. If I'm allowed to do what I want to do, I'm game for whatever. If it happens, it happens – I've just got to go with it."
Another such example, and one that is perhaps more relevant and well-known to the general public, is his work that's been utilized on Adult Swim. And the initial connection came about a lot more easily than one would anticipate. "They were talking shit on TV, like 'If you've got beats, send them in' and I sent them in," says Ellison, "and they contacted me that same week."
It was through that connection that he has put together some interesting collaborations and built relationships with other talented up-and-comers. This past summer saw the release, by Adult Swim, of a FlyLo track featuring Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Ellis doesn't rule out working with anyone. "I'm all over the place," he says. "I'm writing all types of music right now – all types of shit."
Furthermore, Ellison has also done work with Radiohead's Thom Yorke on more than one occasion (his official remix of "Reckoner" from the band's 2007 release In Rainbows received both critical and commercial acclaim), and it comes as no surprise that Yorke appreciates the off-beat nature of Ellison's work – although not everyone feels that way from the onset. "People like to have expectations for what I'm going to do or what they want me to do," says Ellison, "but then they're reminded of why they like me, because I'm all over the place."
Part of the exploration of an all-over-the-place sound comes in the form of Ellison's indie record label these days, Brainfeeder, which was founded in 2008 and focuses on electronic music and instrumental hip-hop. And although he's signed some very impressive and talented acts so far, Ellison still feels that they're on the ground level. "I feel like we're still in our humble beginnings," he says, "but it's got it's share of stress."
Like-minded artists have been flocking to Brainfeeder – The Gaslamp Killer, Daedelus, Lorn, Austin Peralta, Thundercat, The Underachievers and more – and growing their mind-bending style of audio, and it so far has stuck to the same temperament and approach to musical creation that its founder seems to base his artistic philosophies on (two of which, Teebs and Jeremiah Jae, you'll be able to experience for yourself at FlyLo's 10/15 performance at the Majestic Theatre). "I was really certain that we could have something that we built on our own," says Ellison, "without anybody telling us how to make our albums." | RDW
Flying Lotus with Teebs and Jeremiah Jae • 10/15, 8 p.m. • Majestic Theatre • 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit • majesticdetroit.com • 313.833.9700 • $20 advance
Until the Quiet Comes Warp Records
To put things into a context that the general public would find understandable and approachable (somewhat), Flying Lotus is the guy who has supplied Adult Swim with tracks, worked remixes for Thom Yorke and is most closely assigned the designation of instrumental hip-hop beat-maker. Is this entirely accurate? Somewhat. Would it be easier to say that he's talented in the vein of commercial instrumentalist track-forgers like DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky and RJD2 – but without having to use the volume of samples that those guys utilize? Perhaps, but in all honesty, it's easier to just explain that FlyLo is the guy who crafts unique tracks, beats and off-kilter songs that are relaxingly uncomfortable and supremely genius. Until the Quiet Comes is simply an extension of that growing body of work for Mr. Steven Ellison. —Adam o'connor
Worth a Listen: "Electric Candyman" (featuring Thom Yorke)