Photograph by Timothy Saccenti
Flower Power: Flying Lotus' music career took root on the Cartoon Network's 'Adult Swim.'
Flying Lotus gives up the goods on cartoons, ego and his blistering live sets.
By Curtis Cartier
STEVEN ELLISON goes by many names, but most people know him as Flying Lotus. The tall, soft-spoken Los Angeles-based producer is Warp Records' newest icon. A lover of cartoons, a designer of video games and a patient of medical marijuana, he's also pushing hip-hop and electronica in a new direction and may just be the most cutting edge musician working on a major label. Just in time for his June 5 gig at San Jose's Blank Club, Santa Cruz Weekly tracked down the beat genius, who laid down the facts on his rise from fanboy to fame.
"It started when Adult Swim had a viewer submission project," says Ellison, describing how, in 2006, he mailed a demo disc emblazoned with a hand-drawn image of Aqua Teen Hunger Force character Masta Shake to Cartoon Network in hopes they might use a few bars of his hip-hoppified electronica for their iconic text segues. "I mean, first off, I love that network. I think they're making the best shit on TV. Anyhow, it turned out they liked it, you know. So yeah, I guess you could say that's my claim to fame."
Pick any night to watch Adult Swim these days and chances are you'll hear a half-dozen Flying Lotus tracks, along with other high-caliber producers like J Dilla, Madlib and Boards of Canada. But Flylo, as he's affectionately called by fans, was destined for greater things than cartoon soundtracks. A close nephew of the late and great Alice Coltrane, who was the wife of jazz legend John Coltrane and a renowned musician in her own right, Ellison knew music was something deeply ingrained in his genes. So when his Adult Swim tracks started getting noticed and the smaller record companies started knocking, he bided his time.
"I never thought Warp would care what I was doing, though," he says of his legendary label, which hosts electronica and indie gods like Aphex Twin, Grizzly Bear and Squarepusher. "I couldn't believe when they called. It was totally surreal."
Part of a new breed of "laptop musicians," Ellison makes music using programs like Ableton Live and hardware like drum machines and samplers--highly technical equipment, to be sure. But while the chilled-out jams he creates are certainly something no human hands could bang out, they have an organic feel that's unmistakable. It starts with the drums. Almost all of FlyLo's tracks have the drums arranged just a hair off-step. Rhythms, therefore, sound just sloppy enough to extend the classic hip-hop head-nod into more of a lip-curling head-grind. Imagine a tribe of bongo players battling their way through level eight of Super Mario Brothers, or a dozen samurais using thick twigs to fight off a herd of drugged Victor Wootens, and you might come somewhere near it. Ellison says there's nothing he'd rather hear.
"A lot of people don't like to say they dig own their shit. I love my shit, you know what I'm sayin'? I mean if I don't like my music, why would anyone else?" he says. "That's how I work on tracks, you know. If I'm digging a track I'll keep at it. But if not, I'll throw it out. I think that's my gift, really, being able to know what works and what doesn't."
Ellison is using his gift to polish up his latest album, the much-anticipated follow-up to 2008's groundbreaking LP Los Angeles. "It'll hopefully be done in October," he says of his progress, before going on to call it "by far my most honest work." The trip from small-time beat dabbler to in-demand international artist was both a blessing and a curse, he says, and when the new disc drops it will chronicle "the spectrum of extreme happiness and sadness" that went along with the year 2008.
A Flying Lotus album, however, is a very different beast than a Flying Lotus live show. Onstage, FlyLo bumps up the tempo and turns his normally relaxed vibe into a frenetic freakout, mixing clips of his tracks, his friends' tracks, countless remixes, movie quotes and live looping into a single improvised and uninterrupted symphony of jazzed-up hip-hop goodness. In San Jose, Ellison says, expect the unexpected.
"It's a different trip, you know, a different energy live," he says. "I got some new shit I'll probably drop, you'll see. I mean I could play the same old tracks, but who wants to hear that?"
FLYING LOTUS plugs in, along with Free the Robots and DJ Basura Goldenchyld, on Friday, June 5, at 9pm at the Blank Club, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $16, available at www.ticketweb.com or 408.292.5265.
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