Flying Lotus on how J Dilla really did change his life by making music that was deep and heartfelt
Flying Lotus is one of the most innovative electronic producers out right now. Born Steven Ellison but better known these days by his stage handle, the L.A.-based artist began making beats at the age of fourteen, and with his omnivorous taste in music, he's gone on to create lush, detailed music with a soothing flow and depth that could never be classified purely as hip-hop, or ambient, or EDM, or anything in particular, really.
Rather, Flying Lotus makes the kind of music you have to take on its own terms with the ensuing reward of merely enjoying the work of an artist with a truly developed imagination and honed creativity. With a good deal of his recorded output housed at the legendary experimental record label, Warp, Flying Lotus released his latest record, Until the Quiet Comes on the imprint this month. We recently spoke with the thoughtful and poetic Ellison about his new record, J Dilla and Erykah Badu.
Westword: You made a kind of trailer or teaser for you new record. What can you tell us about that?
Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison): I really wanted to figure out a way to introduce the album that would get people into the spirit of what I wanted to say with my music. Because I think there was a lot of speculation what it was going to be like, what it was going to sound like, what it was going to feel like. So I wanted to make sure that the first thing that came out visually would represent the story and the passion and the beautiful moments, too.
Why did you work with Kahlil Joseph. Why him for this video in particular?
In my opinion, he's one of the best guys doing it right now. We've been meaning to collaborate for some time now and we finally got to do it.
Probably everyone who sees the video has mentioned the T-shirt the kind of main character is wearing. You've been a big proponent of J Dilla. Why were he and his music so important to you?
I think my connection with J Dilla's music really justified a lot of the experiences I was having in music. When I heard it, it sounded like someone was having spiritual experiences in the process of making it. I felt like, wow, it's okay to have that experience and you can still be funky and you could still be searching within yourself and you could still be sounding big.
It could be so many things and still be deep and heartfelt. A lot of his music you can hear, and be like, "Damn!" and connect with something that almost makes you close your eyes to hear it. He didn't need any voices on top, and he didn't need any rappers for that feeling. I think he set a standard and an aesthetic that can really come from the heart and can mean something really deep.
How did you come to work with Erykah Badu on this record, and why did you want to work with her?
I've always loved Erykah. Her voice and her whole persona. [She is one of the few] artists that have changed things in this time. I always thought it would be a perfect pairing, but I was really concerned because I didn't want our collaboration, if it ever happened, to be in our comfort zone. Because I think it would have been really easy for me to make something 90 BPM, super soul, jazz, whatever and she'd do her usual thing. I really felt like it would have been a bad idea to go in that direction. I thought it would be cool for both of us to leave what we're labeled with and get into a new place.
There was an interview you did with Clash Music in which you expressed a liking for Beth Gibbons and Trish Keenan. What is it about those singers you find interesting?
I don't know. They have a sound that feels very innocent and very dark at the same time. It's like you hear some tortured people in their music, but it's very beautiful and very flow-y and airy. I feel like they sing into tracks the way I'd like someone to sing into my tracks. I made a track yesterday that I think would work for Beth.
You got started making tracks early in life, was it at fourteen? How did you get started with that?
My cousin bought me a beat machine because I was messing with his. I think I instantly fell in love with it. It was an MC505. I made a lot of stuff on it. It was so much fun. There was no expectation or pressure, it was just fun. Then it became something.
What got you interested in making other kinds of electronic music generally beyond making beats?
I think I was just a fan of all different types of music. It feels natural to me to dabble in everything I love. I don't ever feel like I have an allegiance to a sound. I [like the freedom of] producing stuff that sounds like Kraftwerk and then producing stuff inspired by the RZA. Then making stuff inspired by Weather Report.
How did you come to work with Gonjasufi?
I met him through Gaslamp Killer, his main collaborator. We met up and made some songs. He makes music that reminds me of being in the forest on acid. Or in the desert on acid. There's not a lot of that stuff lately. There's not a lot of people who I believe like that.
You've said "Only If You Wanna" was influenced in certain ways by Stereolab? How so?
Stereolab...Dots and Loops, and I have this beautiful compilation called Oscillations From the Anti-Sun. I love that sound. I feel like it's very California. It feels like where I live. It just feels like it was made in the sunshine.
What got you interested in Odd Future?
I was hanging out with Thundercat, and we were just listening to music, and he played me the [Tyler, The Creator album] Bastard shortly after it came out. I thought it was amazing. It reminded me of the first time I heard Eminem. He's really trying to do something different and dark and fucked up but clever and smart. So that's how I got into it. I tried to sign Tyler a long time ago, and he's been around and in the mix in what they're doing every since. I love those boys. They're really talented, and it's cool that they're from L.A. I have a kinship with my L.A. brethren.
You collaborate with many artists. What is it about that process you enjoy?
The surprise element. They're going to bring something I didn't know or expect. That part of it is fun for me.