THE RISE OF FLYING LOTUS: FROM BEDROOM BEATMAKER TO CULTURAL VISIONARY
A life less ordinary
As a producer, DJ, filmmaker, rapper, composer and label boss, Flying Lotus has been on an unstoppable run: obsessively honing his craft while transcending boundaries. Now, with a bold new project on the horizon, he’s digging even deeper.
Flying Lotus’s dog has got some flatulence issues. “Ooh... very deep, right?” says the musician in a low burr, grabbing a stick of palo santo to clear the air. “Jesus. That’s rough!” The dog seems highly relaxed. It’s easy to feel relaxed here. Once you arrive at his LA home, it’s clear to see why the 35-year-old (otherwise known as Steven Ellison) is something of a hermit.
Flying Lotus first signed to Warp in 2007 and has since built his own label, Brainfeeder. In addition to releasing five LPs, he’s collaborated with everyone from Odd Future to Thom Yorke and was Grammy nominated for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
His house in Studio City looks like it’s been lived in for decades: every wall features modern art, every corner is packed with books, records and memorabilia. Instruments take over the front room: a piano, a drum kit. In the adjacent studio, there’s a weed counter as extensive as you’d find in a dispensary. Thundercat – his closest collaborator – is in the kitchen. Mac Miller used to spend time here, too, before passing away from a drug overdose in September. There are framed black-and-white portraits of him – one sitting prominently on the studio’s desk.
Fly Lo is at his most chill today. He walks around barefoot with a knee-length throw swaying as he moves. When he sits down, he tinkers at a keyboard. He’s intimate but doesn’t embellish.
His first album since 2014’s You’re Dead! is due soon, but he won’t give away a date or a title, nor confirm rumoured appearances by Solange and David Lynch. [Update: It has since been announced that the new album, titled Flamagra, will be released on May 24.] Instead he prefers to play the piano – a new passion of his, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that he’s descended from jazz piano royalty. Alice Coltrane was his great aunt. “I wanna be really good at it,” he says. “Really good…”
It feels good. I feel powerful when I play. I’m saying so much that words can’t [express]. I’ve always fiddled with piano. Now I’m obsessed. I have incredible friends who come through and show me shit. When they play, I wanna kill myself.
What’s your lasting memory of Alice?
Damn... I haven’t even thought about the last time I saw her. It’s starting to fade. She was a very generous person, especially when I told her I was interested in creating. You had to work for it. She made you earn it.
Less is written about your other family members: your grandmother Marilyn McLeod wrote for Motown, your cousins Ravi and Oran Coltrane…
My cousins were very influential. I’d see them onstage in shows. Seeing people do it as a kid was huge. Oran was the one I was around all the time. He had a Sega Genesis. I would go round to his house, he’d make music on a computer, show me how to make beats. I owe it all to him.
A theme of isolation runs through your albums. Did you feel alone in your own universe growing up?
Absolutely. I always wanted a big brother. The closest thing I got was Nintendo. I started gravitating towards anti-social things: movies, drawing. I needed to be doing something I could do on my own. That’s how I wound up getting into making beats.
What was your favourite game?
Wow! I didn’t really love video games ’til Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega. They started doing 16-bit graphics; everything felt fast and intense. There was jazz music. It was revolutionary.
When you were growing up, did you feel unrepresented in the gaming world as a black kid?
You know, representation is huge now. It’s a big part of the conversation. But I never grew up thinking about that stuff. The only thing I remember was going to fancy-dress stores and trying to buy a mask for Halloween. I’d be thinking, ‘Where are all the black characters?’
You experienced a lot of death and didn’t have a relationship with your father. Was music like a parent, almost?
A bit. I had the Coltranes. My mom had boyfriends. Music was an escape. I was in love with music. I could create sonic worlds and I was all about it.
How much did spirituality connect to music in the beginning? It didn’t. I didn’t know I was meditating as I was creating, that I was channelling things, trying to understand my feelings through music. I became conscious later. When I was in high school, I was trying to make sense of everything. I was digging into my aunt’s work. I heard something in it. She had a lasting impact on the world. She didn’t create to be trendy. She did it because she was trying to make sense of this existence or the next existence. That’s what I wanted. I wanna help people search within themselves for the answers.
Can you explain the meditative experience of being in the creative zone a bit more?
You’ll be working on something and 45 minutes later you’re like, ‘How the hell?’ You snap out of this trance. Like, whoa. When you’re really in it, you’re not even thinking. You’re a vessel for the idea. The fence is open and all the stuff is coming through. I’ve noticed that I feel better when I’m working. Any anxieties, any strangeness, it fades away. That’s the prime.
What were you like in high school?
I was a C student... just trying to get by, not bother anybody. Just get out. I had friends but it was a diverse social stratosphere. I didn’t have a core. I wasn’t one of the super popular cats. But I wasn’t the kid who hung out in the library all the fucking time either.
Did you have an idea of what life would look like without a creative outlet?
Yeah, I had regular jobs. I worked at a videogame store. But I felt like I was gonna work in the arts even if I wasn’t creating. I’d work in films holding up a light if I had to. I was gonna be on set, gonna be in it. I was determined.
You started out interning at LA label Stones Throw. Were you already idolising the likes of [founder] Peanut Butter Wolf?
Definitely. I was at the Academy of Art [San Francisco]. Stones Throw was blowing my mind. I thought, ‘Fuck living in San Francisco, I’m moving back to LA.’ I had to get in the mix with those people. I started bopping around and met Wolf. I was like, “I’ll work for free.” He goes, “Really?!” I met all these likeminded new people. That’s when I felt I was part of something.
You’re open about weed consumption. How about psychedelics? Do they influence your music?
I was always making off-kilter stuff. When I started taking psychs, it didn’t change my music but it changed my outlook. It made me ask more questions about the world, this life, reality. It helped my development as a person. The music was a result of that growth.
So you don’t create while on psychedelics?
No! I’ll hang with a close friend, look at trippy stuff, draw pictures, go outside for 10 minutes, laugh, that’s it. Last time I micro-dosed was a year ago. I had a bad trip one time but I’ve never had demons chasing after me. Thank God. My only problems have been physical reactions. I’ll get the dry heaves for six hours.
You’ve lived all over LA. Is it connected to your creative decisions? Could you imagine yourself leaving?
I’ve been thinking about it lately: if it’s possible for me to leave. There are a few things that keep me here. First is Thundercat. He’s my best friend and we have a crazy music chemistry. We work on everything together. It would be weird to disrupt that. But I think about that shit more lately. I’m excited about going somewhere else.
Are you and Thundercat still enlightened by each other?
Even more so now because he’s one of my music teachers. I won’t see him for a week and I’ll be chipping away. Then I play him shit and he helps me. He loves to ‘son’ me on that shit. We’re pretty fucking close.
Has he given any advice that you live by, outside music?
[Thinks] I’m a shoe collector. So’s he. He’s the most fashionable person on the planet. There’s some shoes I got that are really dope. I love these shoes. I got mad shoes…
But you’re not wearing any shoes…
Not right now. Anyway I got these Dragon Ball Z Adidas Goku shoes. Super limited. He got ’em too. On day one, he’s wearing them in the street doing his thing. “Yeah, fuck it.” I’m like, “How you gonna wear the Gokus today? We’re not doing shit! We’re just chilling at the crib!” He says, “You gotta treat every day like a special occasion.” You end up waiting around forever and never wear your favourite sneakers. I’m that guy – waiting for the right time. I have to keep that in my mind. Just put on the fucking Pharrell shoes. Buy another pair next week.
You’re connected to so many people across multiple disciplines, including David Lynch. Where did you meet?
I met him a year ago at one of his parties. I was warned beforehand, “You know, he’s David; he’s a grumpy old man.” I’ve dealt with old people, I get it. He wasn’t even that grumpy. The thing about him is that he knows what he likes, what he wants and how he should spend his time. He don’t waver for anything. He’s my favourite artist in the world and I wouldn’t expect anything less.
What are you mutually drawn to?
Elements, shadows, mysteries. I love that there’s always something to unravel for yourself in everything he does. He always keeps something tucked away.
Have you ever meditated with him?
Not in the same room. I started that about two years ago. It’s simple. You have a mantra in your mind that you repeat over and over. I have two. Actually three. One of them is “sleep”. You say it over and over until you fall asleep. It works. But you have to relax your whole body. Just say, ‘Sleep… sleep… sleep.’ Do it. Get to 300. If you’re still awake, then I don’t know.
What records or shows have you been exposed to in the past year that have altered your perception of what music can do?
I saw Georgia Anne Muldrow for the first time last month and it blew my mind. I’ve been watching a lot of jazz lately when I go out. That’s where my head’s been at. I’m looking at people playing piano.
Do you relate to peers like Donald Glover who are active across multiple mediums?
Donald’s a mad genius. He’s figured out ways to be omnipresent. He’s gonna be fucking Simba, dude. He’s gonna be the Lion King in the new movie. Come on, man! Save something for us.
His video for ‘This Is America’ [by Hiro Murai] was one of the most powerful political statements of 2018. Do you want to be political with your platform?
I’m not interested in being an activist any more. I wanna make art. I want my shit to be an escape. I’m not tryin’ to make something Donald Trump-inspired.
You said “any more”. Did something shift?
When I was younger, I was less jaded. But I know what I’m supposed to do [now]. I’m supposed to create the thing that does the thing. Whatever people take from it is on them. I’m no fucking politician.
You defended The Gaslamp Killer when he was accused of rape, which drew a backlash on social media. Did you learn anything from that experience?
I don’t engage with it any more. I don’t know that everybody deserves my opinion.
Do you feel like you can’t participate in the conversation?
Yes. But you know what? I started to notice that I was depressed being on the internet. It made me feel shittier. Not being on my phone makes me feel way happier, way lighter. Something’s in the air when I’m not looking at the news all day. Stop following dumb shit. Start following cool art.
Georgia Anne Muldrow is part of Brainfeeder. Ten years into running a label, how has it been?
It took a long time to get to where we’re at. Now we’re a legit company; we just grow and make it better. It took a while for us to learn how to do shit properly.
Do you think more people should be running labels?
No! I don’t recommend it. I don’t.
Why? What does it mean to run a label in 2019?
It means what it’s always meant. I have a responsibility to serve people’s music as best I can. People expect a certain thing. They should get a certain thing. It’s hard as hell. Labels are important for a lot of artists because they should be focused on creating, not thinking about all the terrible things you have to think about when you’re putting music out. That stuff gets in the way of their process.
Walk me through how you discover an artist. Wanting to sign Georgia, for instance…
Well, Georgia and I go way back. She was signed to Stones Throw while I was an intern. One day I was like, “What you got? Send it over.” I loved what I heard.
Are you proactively looking to sign people?
No. If something amazing crosses my path and I feel like I can help, I’m not gonna turn it away.
What was the last thing you believed in?
It was special to put Kamasi [Washington]’s music out. That was a huge moment. It cemented his place as that guy. The world has that jazz person now. The jazz myth from long ago? He lives again.
You released your first movie, Kuso, in 2017. What are your earliest memories of film?
When I was a kid, I’d learn all the words to Ghostbusters, say all the lines and freak people out. Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, that era. For a 10-year-old child, it opened up worlds and ideas. I fell in love with The Mask and Dick Tracy. Oh, man...
You’re also into Japanese manga. How do you keep up with it?
It’s hard. It’s seasonal. I’ve got a bunch to catch up on at Christmas. I haven’t watched movies in a while. I’m trying to make another movie right now with Paramount. It’s a script they’ve developed. They need a director. I’m trying to get the job. I’m also working on an anime series [titled Yasuke] with Netflix.
Do you see film and music as separate disciplines?
Very much so. Totally different scenes and people. It’s funny when my film friends hang out with my music friends. It’s all love but it’s an interesting dynamic.
How are you feeling at the moment amid all these projects?
I feel okay. It’s always in flux but I feel better than usual because I’ve made more music in the past month or two than I have in the past year. Writing five songs a day and shit. I’m still in that wave. It feels like it’s flowing now that the record’s done. I can’t say I’ve had this energy for music for a while. It’s nice to know I can still fall in love with this shit after all this time. It feels brand new.
I keep looking at your photos of Mac Miller. Has his passing contributed to your productivity?
Absolutely. It’s fucked up. Last time I saw him, I was so excited for him to hear some of this shit and he didn’t get to hear it. Thundercat was gonna go on tour with him. I said, “How are we gonna honour him?” We gotta work every day, ’cause that’s what he’d want us to do. He got so mad at me when I was working on my movie ’cause I wasn’t working on music. I’m gonna work, Mac. I’m gonna do what you want me to do. That energy is intense, feeling him. He’s been here.
When you think of him, where do your thoughts go?
He was the sweetest human and he didn’t have to be. He didn’t have to be that nice and we would’ve still been cool. He was just so kind and thoughtful for a rapper. Rappers are usually egocentric. He was always quick to tell me, “Yo man, I love you, yo.” Always quick to be showing love to up-and-coming artists. A lot of rappers are insecure about that, but he never felt that way. He was like, “Who’s that? Put me in touch. Who’s this producer?” Always open. I’ve seen people be dismissive or a hater. Never him. I’m just grateful to have known the guy. I’m grateful to have put him onto Ableton. I’m glad he was able to build with Thundercat. They fell in love.
You talked about the meditative quality of making music to help people process things. Does visual art do the same for you?
With films, it’s a different expression. You still get the feelings but it comes out differently. I’d love to make a studio movie that has nothing to do with any of these feelings.
Based in fiction?
Hell, yeah! I have a few ideas. I’ll pitch them to you next time
The new Flying Lotus album will be released May 24 on Warp .