Flying Lotus - Biography
Obviously at this point much has been made of hip-hop culture’s phoenix-like ascent from inherently underground pursuits to dominating mainstream, well, everything. It seems outright silly to rehash all that here. It’s also worth it to note that no one artist needs to bear the burden of all that history anyway, especially when that artist truly transcends the definitions of the genre. So, getting to Flying Lotus then…
It seems like hip-hop’s development rolls along at a much faster pace than say, rock music. Maybe it's because the style came of age in the 1980’s and new things grow quickly. More likely it has to do with the fact that the music is shaped by the technology used to make it — samplers, synthesizers and turntables in the beginning, and computers today. The pace of technological development in consumer electronics has been nauseatingly fast since the late 70’s, with new ways of creating electronic music surging like an eager tidal wave. This home studio environment has greatly benefited the development of many kinds of pop musicians, especially the hip-hop producer.
With such a rapid rate of stylistic evolution in hip-hop music it seems as if innovators appear fairly frequently. From Mantronix to Prince Paul to RZA, from DJ Shadow to Prefuse 73 to Timbaland, the succession happens quickly. Flying Lotus has risen rapidly to join the ranks of these artists, pushing hip-hop forward.
Flying Lotus, real name Steven Ellison, is a crucial player in the increasingly fertile Los Angeles creative hip-hop scene. Alongside producers like Samiyam, Nobody, the Gaslamp Killer and Ras G, Flying Lotus is crafting some of the most unique hip-hop sounds around. After responding to a contest held by the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program to create incidental music for the station to use for spots, Ellison’s beats were featured on the air. Soon after he released the first Flying Lotus full-length, 1983 (2006 Plug Research).
1983 is a collection of abstract, mostly instrumental hip-hop characterized by hazy atmospheres, erratic off-kilter beats and neon synthesizers. It’s a solid record, if slightly indebted to Prefuse 73’s sound on 2003’s One Word Extinguisher. Although unique enough to gain some attention on its release, 1983 operates within the tried and true realm of jazzy abstract hip-hop beats. There are strong flourishes here though, on tracks like the woozy pitch-bent “Orbit Brazil” and the 8-bit video game bleeps of “Pet Monster Shotglass,” but overall the record seems a bit tame, content to try its hand at running through the IDM-inflected jazzy grooves and head nods of post-Prefuse Warp-hop. Where Flying Lotus does shine on 1983 is in textural detail. Buzzing synths combine 8-bit distortions with analog warmth that recall Broadcast in its unique sound design. The beats on the record are overly compressed, causing a great breathing pulse. The music also takes a cue from the off-beat programming of J Dilla, resulting in a messy and more organic sound. Both of these characteristics, unique synth textures and organic beat programming, hint at the heights Flying Lotus will achieve with his next release.
Signing with legendary electronic music label Warp Records in 2007 (at the behest of Prefuse 73, so the story goes), Flying Lotus released an EP, Reset (2007 Warp). Featuring tracks like “Tea Leaf Dancers” and “Massage Situation” that sound like they could have ended up on 1983, the record still exists under the shadow of Prefuse 73. Two tracks, however, show Lotus' true capabilities. “Spicy Sammich” is a huge track, with growling distorted bass and deep synths zinging noise across the stereo field. The beat starts sloppy and subdued, sounding like you’re hearing it through your neighbor’s wall, before slamming into a huge block-rocking pattern. The last track, “Dance Floor Stalker” shows the breadth of Flying Lotus’ stylistic concerns. It’s essentially a darkly psychedelic disco track with disorienting synths sweeping in and out of the mix.
2008 brought the real proof that Flying Lotus is the genius producer his hype hinted at; Los Angeles (2008 Warp Records) is a total breakthrough. Every element of his style simply locked in to form a flawless record. Focusing on texture and odd rhythm patterns, Los Angeles sounds like truly futurist hip-hop. Honing in on the sound of vinyl crackle that accompanies much early hip-hop sampling techniques, Flying Lotus magnified this sound, deftly weaving it through his compositions like a nostalgic patina. It not only creates a stoned ambient sonic bed (just like Brian Eno always talks about) on which Flying Lotus can construct his songs, but serves as a narrative link to connect the many, often very short tracks on the record. The tracks on Los Angeles often eschew the easy boom-bap head nod of much hip-hop. Not that Flying Lotus has gone straight for the exact and complex beat programming of Warp’s IDM past, but rather the opposite. The organic and loose style explored on earlier releases takes on a life of its own here, beats radically swinging to create a human mess that references the looseness of jazz.
By mixing elements of psychedelic jazz, ambient electronica and classic hip-hop, Flying Lotus has created a genuine move forward with Los Angeles. Hitting such a high mark in his young career will hopefully cause him to continue to raise the creative bar higher and higher.