Monday, January 6, 2014

Sounds of the Future#1: Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus and Captain Murphy are the two alias of Steven Ellison, music producer and rapper from Los Angeles, California.
Music has always been of great importance to Steven since very young age; being the grandnephew of the jazz artists Alice Coltrane and husband John Coltrane, Steven developed a very eclectic taste into the late 60’s and early 70’s jazz scene. However, outside the family context, he lived into a very prolific era for hip-hop and rap, not only in Los Angeles, but also all over the US. If the Coltranes were his main inspiration for jazz, then James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, was certainly his main source of inspiration for anything that was hip-hop. It is into this bipolar interest into two different styles of music that we can trace the origins of Flying Lotus as a sort of pioneer of what today is called: glitch-hop. Steven wanted to combine the smooth textures and rhythms of the mid 90’s and early 2000’s hip-hop with the complexity and moodiness of jazz and soul, using electronic music elements as a sort of glue between these two genres.
Flying Lotus has so far produced four albums, various EPs and has appeared on several compilations with some of his unreleased tracks and beats.
Thanks to the foundation of his own label, Brainfeeder, FlyLo has had the opportunity to create a new music movement and culture, gathering many Los Angeles based artists into his music projects.

- Music background - 

As previously mentioned, Flying Lotus’ music is the result of combining his great interest in jazz and soul with his passion for hip-hop, which truly was the main reason for his involvement in music.
J Dilla
Inspired by what a lot of people consider “the late golden years of hip-hop”, which brought up artists like Ice Cube, 2pac, Notorius B.I.G. and many more, Steven started producing as a teenager in his basement, playing with beats, tapes and arcade video-game melodies.
 His great inspiration though, J Dilla, was a music producer from Detroit who emerged in the mid-late 90’s but that reached his peak in the early 2000, before passing away in 2006 due to a cardiac arrest.
Jay Dee had a unique method of sampling and reworking funk and soul tracks, in ways that were often ahead of his time. With the album “Donuts” released by Dilla in 2006 merely three days before his unfortunate death, this artist leaves behind a true anthology that, even though may not be the best portrait of his music, it certainly is a great last evidence of his ability in hip-hop instrumentals. This album also features the track “Lightworks”, a very unique and sophisticated rework of the homonymous track by Raymond Scott that FlyLo also remixed in his “Shhh! EP” as a tribute to Dilla. The elements that Flying Lotus got from Jay Dee are surely a precise and accurate ability in sampling, the experimentation of bizarre rhythms with unusual sounds and most importantly, a solid hip-hop imprint. From Jay Dee, FlyLo also inherited a great love for soul and rhythm & blues, of which we find common features in its productions.

On the other hand, due to his family relationship with Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane, Steven developed more and more interest in jazz and avant-garde jazz.
Steven’s auntie, Alice Coltrane, played piano, organ and last but not least harp, an instrument that Flying Lotus has often used to create his dreamy and delicate atmospheres. Mrs. Coltrane personal life was totally related to her career, so when her husband died in 1967, she retired into the spiritual life of Indian gurus.
Alice Coltrane
But in 2004, after a 25-year break from major public performances and releases, she produced her last album, “Translinear Light”, a great come back LP that also featured Ravi Coltrane (Alice’s son). This album has left an important mark in jazz, not only because it’s the last Alice Coltrane’s work before her death, but also because it’s a magical record that mixes jazz with ethnic vibes. The importance of the spirituality is in fact very evident and present on this album, as the track “Sita Ram” demonstrates with its textures of piano that seem to remind of some ancient Tibetan instrument. It is in the harmony of these tracks that we find the similarities with Flying Lotus’ latest records, where the hip-hop elements generated by Dilla, are almost fading away giving space to more technical and emotional pieces. In these tracks, just like in jazz, Flying Lotus creates a sort of timeless dimension, in which the listener is likely to lose sense of structure and order of the music. Another common feature in FlyLo productions inspired by jazz is the so-called blue note, which constitutes a note that is played, on purpose, slightly detuned compared to its octave of reference. This technique is used not only on Flying Lotus’ instrumentals, but also on the voices, creating a hypnotic and slow-pitched effect.

Last but not least is the source of inspiration for Captain Murphy, Steven’s rapper alias. A project that was born roughly a year ago involving artists from Brainfeeder (such as Jeremiah Jae and Samiyam) and secretly keeping the identity of Captain Murphy till after the release, it represents a quite futuristic and modern approach to rap.
Inspired by the dark and rough sound of artists such as Tyler the Creator, Jeremiah Jae and Madvillain, Captain Murphy has surprised his audience with his deep, slightly robotic voice and interesting flow with the lyrics.  
This project represents Steven’s intention to get closer to the world of rap and hip-hop in which he grew up into and that inspired him so much at the beginning of his career.

- The origins of glitch-hop -

The name glitch-hop is the result of the combination of two styles of music: glitch and hip-hop. Glitch is a genre born in Germany, developed in the mid-90s and that, at the time, consisted in noises, crackles and errors, combined with electro, industrial and lo-fi beats. Today, glitch is a genre that seems to be influencing more and more styles of electronic music, even those that are characterized by a clean and neat sound; like house music, techno and hip-hop.
Even tough originated from hip-hop, glitch-hop introduces substantial and important features to this genre.

Hip-hop on the other hand, started developing much earlier, in the late 70’s. It is a genre that was initially born for dancing and for clubbing purposes and was mainly based on funk and disco. The track “Rappers Daylight” by The Sugar Hill Gang released in 1979, it’s a perfect example of what hip-hop initially sounded like. Although, once a culture of rap and hip-hop started developing as a sort of mean to communicate social issues and the street life, artists found inspiration in the vibes of soul and rhythm & blues, to create a more intimate environment for their lyrics. Even if originated from hip-hop, glitch-hop adds a few important innovative elements to it.
Whilst hip-hop mostly keeps simple and clean structures and rhythms, glitch-hop tends to be more rhythmically complex, dirty and experimental.
The rhythms are almost never perfectly synched, but often with shifted claps or snares and counter beat kicks. Hip-hop is known for its use of neat snares and claps to define the tempo, as the drums are essential to keep a regular and precise beat in which the other instruments and the voice can fit in. In glitch-hop, the drums are often off-synch but they fit within the density of the instrumental in its whole. It would sometime take a few listen of a given track to fully appreciate its musicality and complexity.
Voices also constitute another important difference: in hip-hop they are often rapped or sampled, whilst in glitch-hop they are often used in combination with huge reverbs and side-chained compressions to enlarge the sound specter of the track. The lyrics themselves are also different in their meaning and significance. Hip-hop often gets elements from funk and disco in both instrumental features and lyrics, creating happier atmospheres and bright woody textures. Glitch-hop rarely is inspired by funk and disco elements but is rather directed towards soul hip-hop and jazzy vibes, developing a more introversive, “metallic” and moody vibe. Tempo and rhythm also constitute an important difference. Whilst hip-hop is rhythmically limited, because of its need to create a comfortable cadence for the rapper, glitch-hop experiments all sorts of rhythms other that the classic 4/4, going from more abstract and detached to more complex and chaotic.

However, it is also worth mentioning the influence of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) into Flying Lotus’ work. As a style born in the early 90’s and with origins in the UK and Japan, IDM represented all those artists that were not respecting the canons and the structures of popular electronic music styles such as techno or dance. Even though a lot of people, even artists, find the term “intelligent music” a bit pretentious and demeaning towards other musicians and audience, IDM massively influenced ambient and glitch, inspiring artists like Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Jon Hopkins and many more.
Its sense of detachment from the world and its spacey atmospheres created by the peculiar use of sound design, are typical features of IDM that Flying Lotus uses constantly in its moody sound.

- The evolution of Flying Lotus -

Throughout this next section, I will analyze the four Flying Lotus’ albums in their chronological order, focusing on the elements that changed, developed and evolved during FlyLo’s interpretation of music.  

- “1983” (2006)

This is not only his year of birth, but also Steven’s first full-length album under the alias Flying Lotus.
The first track represents the core of the album, as it is the perfect introduction to what sort of sound FlyLo is presenting with this LP. The song has a wonky hip-hop beat, moody and hypnotic “vocoder” synths and engaging changes of rhythms. The album develops track-by-track keeping the listener into a dreamy but yet moving and somehow shining environment. This is given by the ability of FlyLo to incorporate crispy, vivid and sort of brutal drums within emotional and simple melodies obtained by chords or subtle lo-fi distortions. This whole ensemble is glued together with glitches and background noises that even though could be unpleasant to hear in another context, fit very well in the ambience of the tracks.
Although, FlyLo also presents us cleaner and swingy beats like “Sao Paulo”, which gives a sort of tribal vibe broken by the simple synthesizers in the background. 
Slightly detaching itself from the vibes of the ensemble of the album is the track “Unexpected Delight”, which features the voice of Laura Darlington. This song wants to show us the more acoustic side of Flying Lotus and his ability to work with voice and strings creating a jazzy, deep and soulful atmosphere. This LP led to the production of the “Reset EP”, one year after, featuring the collaboration of the singer Andreya Triana on the track “Tea Leaf Dancer”, another great example of Flying Lotus’ love for soul but yet experimental and dark vibes.

- “Los Angeles” (2008)

Considered by many the album that put Flying Lotus on the map, this LP takes the concepts developed in “1983” to a new level of experimentation.
Because of its great impact on glitch-hop and electronic music, this album gave birth to a series of three limited editions EP that gathered the best artists of the genre to remix FlyLo’s productions. Tracks such as “Camel”, “Golden Diva” or “Roberta Flack” shortly set the standards for glitch-hop as a well-defined genre. The album develops into a very mellow and smooth selection that shifts the vibes from melancholic, airy and spacey to messy, wonky and glitchy. Keeping the ethnic and tribal vibes of the first album is the track “Melt!” which with its clean and reverb percussions and jungle-like sounds and noises, truly seems to transports the listener into another dimension.    
After this album, the very harsh, crispy and saturated drums became Flying Lotus’ trademark and signature. However, tracks such as “Testament” and “Auntie’s Lock/Infinitum”, featuring respectively Gonjasufi and Laura Darlington, constitute FlyLo’s interest in jazz, soul and in the willing to combine these genres within his own glitchy productions. In this album, he also tributes his auntie Alice Coltrane using samples of one of her unreleased harp solos.

- “Cosmogramma” (2010)

After giving a proper sound to glitch-hop and inspiring artists all over the world with his previous album, “Cosmogramma” manages to improve even more the sound FlyLo presented in the “LA” series. Often portrayed as the best Flying Lotus’ album ever, this truly is a unique gem of its kind.
For the making of this album, FlyLo collaborated with over ten artists including Thundercat (bass) and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (strings) from Brainfeeder, Radiohead’s front man and singer Thom Yorke and his cousin, Ravi Coltrane (saxophone). Starting off with a not so calm intro in pure style FlyLo, a complex rough beat combined with the bass scales of Thundercat follows in, and it almost seems like we are attending an electronic jazz “jam session”. Very experimental, messy and rough, it almost seems unbearable towards the end, until the vibe-switch brought by “Nose Art” kicks in with its theatrical filtered strings and glitchy beat. Going on track after track, we experience groovy and crunchy beats switching into warm and airy atmospheres given by silky instrumentals with just a touch of saturation. The sense of separation we felt in the previous records, where the melodic, jazzy and soul tracks were played at the end of the album, is now broken. The vibe of the album takes the listener from electronic and free jazz tracks smoothly into more crispy beats with sort of Asian atmospheres given by harps, strings and loud crashes. The tracks switch smoothly one after the other, but we get a sort of “sense of urgency”, given by the incredible variety of the tracks’ rhythms and experimentation that, even though have a common emotional vibe, differ in structure and tempo.   
This album is artistically crucial to Flying Lotus, as he had never before been so far from J Dilla’s hip-hop vibe that inspired his music at the very beginning.

- “Until the Quiet Comes” (2012)  

Considered one of the best electronic music albums of 2012, this LP represents Flying Lotus’ peak of creativity as well as a perfect fusion of free jazz, electronic and glitch-hop.
Until the Quiet Comes” is the resulted collaboration with Erykah Badu featuring on the track “See Thru To U”, in addition to most of the same artists that worked on “Cosmogramma”.  
The expectations from this record were very high from the beginning, not only because of a second cooperation with Thom Yorke on this album, but also because of the great advertisement and preview of the LP. A short film directed by Kahlil Joseph that came out a month before the release, introduced three of the “pillar tracks” of the album. Very emotional, artistic and perfectly fitting the FlyLo vibes’ of the tracks, the trailer of “Until the Quiet Comes” started respecting the expectations of the album even before its release.
Flying Lotus knew that topping the level of experimentation of the urgent and brutal sound he developed in “Cosmogramma” would have been difficult, so it embraced the same level of variety with a new minimalistic, dreamy and almost timeless approach.
Even though the sound remains rough and glitchy throughout the majority of the album, everything seems polished and cleaner, especially in “Tiny Tortures”, where very clean and loud sub-bass create the perfect mellow environment for crackles and moving chords.
Defined by many with the concept of “dream within a dream”, this album is a true piece of art that brought significant changes even in Flying Lotus performances. Since the concepts of dreaming and detachment were prominent in the album, FlyLo wanted to bring those emotions in visual form during his performances. The project “Layer3” was born for this purpose; it consists in the use of two 3D projectors working on two different transparent screens, one placed in front of the performer and one behind. The idea was to create a trippy and interesting environment that would allow the audience to visualize and eventually enhance the emotions given by the music. Two different engineers, Timeboy and Strangeloop both from Brainfeeder, elaborate projections and designs “live” during the performance. 

- Captain Murphy – “Duality” (2012)

This is the second album Flying Lotus produced on 2012, this time, challenging himself into the world of rap with his new alias: Captain Murphy.
This project initially came out with the single “Mighty Morphin Foreskin” extracted from this album. Featuring a bright, colored video with psychedelic effects, this track really attracted some attention, especially since nobody knew who this new artist was. Flying Lotus managed to keep his secret double identity for quite a while even after the release of the album.
“Duality” carries this title mainly for this reason, as it symbolizes the double artistic identity of Flying Lotus. Although characteristics like short tracks, movie quotes samples and rough sound, give it more the aspect of a mixtape rather than an album, this was a very successful experiment for FlyLo.
With “Duality”, Flying Lotus demonstrates to be a complete hip-hop and rap artist, not only for his well known ability of making beats and rhythms, but also for his talent in rapping and writing. 

- Brainfeeder -

As we have seen during the evolution of Flying Lotus’ career and sound, this label became more and more of vital importance, given the collaborations of all the artists taking part into the making of albums like “Cosmogramma” and “Until the Quiet Comes”.
The artists involved into Brainfeeder represent an elite team of people that want to develop music highly related to Flying Lotus’ sound and experiments, giving different interpretations or emphasizing certain elements more than others.
In fact, whilst we find artists like TOKiMONSTA, Dibiase or Daedelus, heavily based on hip-hop, we also come across Teebs and Lapalux, which explore more spacey, trippy and jazzy tendencies.
Today, Brainfeeder is considered one the best label of its kind, probably because of its unique vibes, moods and textures.
The label got even more popularity since the release, this September, of the video-game “GTA V”, in which Flying Lotus has his own radio station, playing unreleased tracks from Brainfeeder artists and guests.
This label has unfortunately also suffered a big loss when 22 years-old Austin Peralta, jazz musician and pianist, passed away in November 2012.
Thundercat, as tribute to this close friend, has dedicated his latest album to him.

- Description of a representative track:

Flying Lotus feat. Dolly – Roberta Flack (“Los Angeles”)
Choosing one sole track that represents on its own Flying Lotus’ music is not easy task. Even though FlyLo has kept his distinctive drums and sound, he has always been able renovate himself over the years. Although, I think this track represents FlyLo more than any other probably because it simplifies the essence of the artist and of the glitch-hop genre.
The record has a fairly downtempo beat where shifted claps, misplaced shakers and counter beat kicks give the perfect swing to the sweet and delicate voice of Dolly. Keeping a very mellow, delicate and slightly detuned atmosphere given by the lo-fi bass line and the background noises and glitches, this record communicates a variety of different emotions. Although the beat keeps the vibe towards a more “metallic” feeling, quite intimate and slightly nostalgic, the voice truly lights up the textures giving it a very airy, spacey, almost happy and carefree feeling. Despite the sadness of the beat itself, the voice manages to turn melancholy into reflection and relaxation. The slight reverb and delay on Dolly’s lyrics, underline the soul tone of her voice especially during her hoarse falsetto, giving a sort of supernatural and angelic feeling to it.
Guided by this tempo and this dreamy atmosphere, we can almost walk with the singer during her “way home”. The tempo is kept quite simple with a classic 4/4, enriched by noises and sound effects. Very interesting are the last fifty seconds of the track, which witness a complete change of pace typical of Flying Lotus’ productions. Much faster and complex, this beat also features a massive distorted bassline as well a change of rhythm, reducing the tempo from 4/4 to 1/4 for a quick outro break. The track wants to celebrate the famous jazz and soul singer Roberta Flack, demonstrating one more time the love of Flying Lotus for soul and jazz.   

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