There are many secrets in the House of Flying Lotus. As the esteemed producer behind L.A.’s burgeoning “beat music” scene, Flying Lotus is something of a quiet samurai who wields bass like a sword. The rise to prominence of Flying Lotus, aka Seven Ellison, hasn’t been meteoric. Instead, his career has been a slow burn that was sparked while playing video games as a kid in the San Fernando Valley then conflagrated to dropping beats for bass-heads across the map.
Flying Lotus juxtaposes the big beats of hip-hop with the finely cut, syncopated melodies of jazz into a mixed-up mélange of genres. His tools are the turntable, the computer and the sampler, and his compositions range from headphone soundscapes to dancehall shakers. And sometimes, this tidal shift transpired within the same song.
Ellison pushes the boundaries of electronica, hip-hop and jazz, amalgamating them into a multifaceted scene called “beat music.” In L.A., Flying Lotus has spawned a cadre of followers who join together on Wednesday nights to perform at a showcase called Low End Theory. The showcase, Ellison says, is a kind of producer’s lab, where he could experiment and develop new sounds.
On the precipice of his much-awaited follow-up to 2008’s Los Angeles, Ellison has been lauded internationally by musicians and critics alike, and in the U.K. and Japan, he has earned a devout following of beat aficionados who look to him as the future sound of electronics-based music. The genres of electronica and hip-hop both carry cultural baggage that Ellison doesn’t exactly feel the need to carry—some call him “beat music,” some lump him with the international bass scene and audiences in America still deem him experimental—but around the world, bass is a universal language.
“The ‘beat music’ thing was based off the whole glitch scene that was going on, and people are still trying to wrap their heads around it [in the States]. People have been trying to find a hole for it, whereas overseas, people just want to hear bass.”
One of Ellison’s fans is Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who personally invited him to open for his Atoms for Peace project. If that’s not enough, Yorke asked to sing on a track on Ellison’s new album, Cosmogramma.
“It was such a seamless and organic process,” Ellison says. “There was no talk of money or managers or anything. We just got in touch, then I sent him an email, then I got one back with vocals in it.”
Not too bad for a 26-year-old from the sleepy L.A.-adjacent town of Winnetka. There, the soft spoken Ellison preferred video games and a sampler to activities of his peers. “All my friends played football,” he says, “but I was into beats.”
Ellison absorbed hip-hop and jazz, and gleaned the 8-bit sound from his old Nintendo system for the gristly keyboards that crawl through many of his songs. But, jazz isn’t just a touchstone for Ellison, it’s in his blood. His aunt is Alice Coltrane, the immensely talented wife of John Coltrane. She was a “provider,” he says, of support musically and spiritually. “When I think about my aunt, I used to listen to her musical projects, but now I am inspired by her spiritual studies.”
On Cosmogramma, Ellison chose to explore his roots, commissioning family member Ravi Coltrane to join the album alongside eclectic jazz bassist (and punker for Suicidal Tendencies) Thundercat and harpist Rebekah Raff. For Cosmogramma, Ellison’s second album for left-field U.K. label Warp, Ellison says he wanted to use live musicians for the first time, taking cues from space jazz pioneer Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock, who blurred the relationship between free jazz and electronica.
“I wanted to make a contribution somehow,” Ellison says. “I didn’t want it to be super clean and polished. I wanted it to be raw and off the top. One microphone and a lot of talented people in a room like the old Sun Ra and Coltrane stuff. I wanted to add to the conversation.”
Flying Lotus doesn’t just add to the conversation, he creates a new lexicon and a new vocabulary for music, unbound by genre and unafraid to explore the ever widening inner space. F