And if he sounds super-confident just now, it's well deserved. In ten years of production, there has never been any doubt that he had talent to spare, but though he came up with tracks, remixes and live shows that bowled over punters and fellow musicians alike, Ellison has never felt like he's nailed the album format—until this year's Cosmogramma. It's a full-length which should repay the faith that many listeners have had that Flying Lotus is a musician of global importance, and proves beyond doubt that the links that have been forming between psychedelic hip-hop, dubstep and the wider dance world are capable of producing valid and living new forms rather than just a confused mish-mash of sounds.
Flying Lotus counts the likes of Erykah Badu, Portishead, Kode9 and Thom Yorke (who appears on Cosmogramma, and asked Ellison to provide tour support for his new band Atoms For Peace) as vocal fans, but he keeps his feet on the ground at home in Los Angeles, where the collective of artists around his Brainfeeder club/label are his most important sounding boards and collaborators. His journey to international fame has meant nothing if not the opportunity to bring Gaslamp Killer, Ras G, Nosaj Thing, Gonjasufi, Daedelus and many more to wider attention, and to also give props to the musicians who came before him, whether that be cosmic hip-hoppers Madlib and Carlos Niño or his own aunt, Alice Coltrane, who is constantly referenced in his music.
His networking ability, and the faculty of his tracks to combine almost impossible sophistication with a raw dance floor wallop, place him right at the centre of a global electronic underground that feels as healthy as it's ever been. But Ellison wears his significance lightly, and his easy-going Californian persona remains completely intact despite an increasingly punishing schedule...
Nah, I was home a day before I had to go off somewhere to do more work for it, then something else, then something else again—I've not really had a real day at home in weeks. Life is pretty crazy, I have to say.
What about when you were recording? You recorded Cosmogramma at home in LA, right? I have to say there's a really powerful sense of heat in this record.
[Yeah...] I took enough time off. There was a bunch of time where I just chilled in the lab and really focused on a bunch of the ideas I'd come up with. It takes some settling into some new space and new inspiration in order to actually finish a project for me. I lived in the Valley at the time [I was recording] and it is really hot there, like ridiculous, and I had no A.C. or anything—but that temperature always inspires me for some reason. I don't know why, but I always make my music in the summer.
Any idea why that is? A lot of your music does have a feeling of almost oppressive heat, of sweat and shortness of breath...
That definitely makes sense; that is when the music was made, and I think it just gives me a pulse, that heat gives me energy—in the same way I suppose as the cold inspires Brits, either a cold feeling in the music or the feeling of protection from the cold, of time to bundle up and go inside and work on shit. That's how I feel when it's super hot—that it's time to work—that's the other end of things I guess.
So do you feel a part of a particularly Californian movement in music?
I'd say, yeah... just because it's my life, it's everything that's around me and I'm just familiar with the pace of California in that way. But I'm sure if I made music and lived in London it would be a different sound coming out, a different inspiration—but I really do feel like you are a product of your surroundings having now seen enough and heard enough to make sense of it.
I remember I talked to El-B, the UK garage producer, and he said when he went to California, he suddenly understood the rhythms of west coast hip-hop when he clocked the way people walked!
[laughs] Yeah, yeah you can see it in the walk, that's crazy! But yeah, absolutely man, absolutely—the way people walk, the way people move is in their music, yeah. I think anyone who gets to know me and sees how I am can come to understand why I do what I do, for sure.
Your live performances certainly show a connection between bodily movement and the rhythms you're making.
Definitely man. I feel it.
Are you someone who dances in clubs a lot? A lot of producers and DJs don't...
Not a lot, man, not a lot—but I will when it's right: there are certain people that if I know are playing when I go out that I should have another drink and fuckin' get down. A lot of the 2-step guys can really pull it out of me, I really like dancing to 2-step and house and stuff. Not really hip-hop or whatever; I really like 2-step, UK garage and all that kind of thing. The last time I really danced when I was out was when I did a gig with 2562, and I really made sure I had some space to do my thing and feel what he was all about. I love that. I love it. That shuffle: they get it; it's something that I find in my music too, but it comes from a different place I think, but it's a connecting thread, that shuffle sound, that extra percussion thing.
Of course it's not just your locality that affects you, the circle of people is important; who were your most immediate influences? We think of Daedelus as someone who particularly brought through super-heavy electronic processing of hip-hop beats.
Yeah, not to mention the fact that he is just a really great friend too! But yeah, Daedelus, also many members of my family who are just great musicians; but also just being around Madlib and Dilla and seeing those cats in action, seeing what they do. I used to work at Stones Throw when I was younger and it was an opportunity to see a lot of people being successful doing beats and shit, to see that it could be a reality for me.
I was doing that shit at the time, but I think before I worked there it didn't seem as possible until I saw the people who were doing it for real. Like, ah man, these guys are making a success of doing this shit, "I'ma fuckin' kill it doing this shit!" —it just made me super hungry being there, like, fuck man, I'm going to do the best shit I possibly can, put the best foot forward, succeed where others are failing, and step in where I think something has been left out... You just see enough and you want to do it.
That competitive spirit, which is very central to hip-hop—do you think that the recent cross-fertilisations have injected that into electronica, which all too often could be self-defeating in being obscure for the sake of it?
I hope so, I hope so. I come from a hip-hop place, that's my background I would say, and it's cool—I think that it's cool that we're all connected now and those connections are allowing us to know more, to find out why this is happening, to know why we're making these noises. But I don't know where all this is going—it's just evolving into this beautiful mess... But the hip-hop thing and the underground thing—I don't know; should we have tried harder to keep all this secret, or what? But I feel that in my position now, if I do the best work I can it can only inspire and keep the conversation alive and keep it interesting. I hear a lot of stuff now that sounds like old shit that I got up to, and it sucks when things get stale like that, but as long as there's people around that continue that conversation it keeps it strong.
Well it certainly feels like your new album is doing that. While your first two were very much in a hip-hop / breakbeat tradition, this one feels to have far more disco, house, 2-step, a whole lot more influences. Was that a deliberate decision to branch out and take in these extra influences?
Well for one it's just living and learning more, diving deeper into the imagination, really. I feel like that with all the success and acclaim and whatever that's happened it's just right for me to take it further and dive further into the ideas that I've had. I feel we're in a time now where people can handle anything, whatever you can throw at them as long as there's something they recognise that they can hold on to, so why not just go at it, really fucking go there? Why not just have all these things from our past as well as all of the newest technology from today in one, and just really come up with the craziest shit we can? Let's just bring people into our imaginations as best as we can—we have the technology!
For you is it a matter of setting up an imaginative process and going with it—or do you have an end in sight when you start a track?
It starts off with a kind of vision, it starts off with a new energy in the studio if that makes any kind of sense—it feels like there's been a new life blown into my being, and even if it sounds superficially similar there's a new energy in the studio, and that's when I know it's time to start the album. Then a bunch of tracks come from that and I'll pull from those and figure out where I want to go from that and how to take it further and how I can get to the heart of what I'm trying to say in the end.
How do you know when you've got there? Do you have a moment of "yes, I've achieved this now," or do you have to force a cut-off point although you know you could take it further?
Mmm, there's a little bit of balance to find there. There was a moment when I thought Cosmogramma was done, it might have been almost seven or eight months before I finished it for real, I thought I was done, and it was totally different to what it is now. But then I realised I just wasn't telling the story that needed to be told, I wasn't saying what I really felt I should say—it's incredibly hard to explain this, but I just didn't feel like I'd been as honest as I should've been.
like old shit that I got up to. It
sucks when things get stale like that."
This is all very much about internal processes, about your imagination and self-expression—but do you consider others' reactions when you're producing?
I try not to, I try not to really—I can't help it sometimes, but I try not to consider any of that stuff, especially when it comes to time to put the album together. When it's time to do that, the label, my managers, everyone knows it's time to leave me alone. I'm the kind of person where it really has to move me, in a visual way as well, I have to feel there's a coherent image to the thing—and when I'm deciding that, that's the time that I don't care about anybody's opinion, when it's time to tie all the threads and get all the loose ends together. I mean, I do think of the listener in that I want to bring the listener in to my head as best as I can...
I guess other people's reactions must come into play a lot more when you're planning your live performances, though.
Definitely... it's hard to pull off a lot of what I do in a live setting. It really sucks because I feel super-limited in that way—I make so much stuff but I can't play a lot of it out, yeah it's really frustrating. But I try and pull out little elements and bits of pieces out from everything I've done to work into the live set...
So is that unwillingness to use a lot of your own tracks one of the reasons you've always worked so many other people's tracks into your live set?
I try to pull from all sorts of stuff in the show. More lately it's been mainly my stuff actually, but in the past I've wanted to connect all the threads as best as I can sonically—but now with this album being gone and people proving so open to all this shit I can get away with a little bit more, and now I've got a visual show too it opens up something else to the live experience.
So far your shows are about your virtuosity in rearranging sounds electronically, but having toured with Thom Yorke and played with lots of live musicians on your records, do you ever get a yearning to form a band to play something more expansive?
Yeah... yeah actually I would like the next album to be a band, me with a band officially. That was kind of the case with this record in fact, but it will be much more so with the next one. But as far as the live setting, that's the thing everyone is asking me, and I'd really like to do it, I really want to do it, but I want to make sure it sounds fucking killing. I'll hear a lot of stuff that's too tight almost when people play. I'll go out and hear electronic guys with bands, and they don't get that texture across—and I want to make sure I do, that I achieve that, and that takes time to put together. But I definitely do want to do it.
I don't know man. I hope people stop calling it wonky soon, but I think that this is a time when the real motherfuckers are going to do it. There are so many people doing so much that it's not like back in the day when you could fake it without talent, now you're seeing what happens when kids who don't use instruments but have computers but they're geniuses too. What happens when that happens? What happens when a young kid is a genius at Ableton Live? And then what happens when you have these kids who know Ableton Live and real instruments? So yeah, I think we're in a time when kids have to have real chops, they have to be able to do it, and I think that's real awesome actually.
And of course the pool of talent expands exponentially as technology spreads, so the kids you mention could be from Angola or Chile as easily as from Los Angeles or London.
Yeah man, it's crazy. It's crazy. But with all that said we have to make this shit way crazier. With as much access as we have to all this stuff, to our musical history, our world history, we definitely can be killing shit way crazier, I feel—there's way more room to grow, we're just getting started, I feel.
It seems that part of how things are evolving is in the increasing ease of collaborative working—I mean, so much of what you've done has been as part of collectives... Would you be doing what you're doing now without the Brainfeeder circle of musicians?
Well I certainly would be doing music, that's for sure, without anybody—I was doing that shit before I had friends... at all! The community makes it better, though. Ras G, Kutmah and all those cats from here, they're the people I would play my stuff to first and it's still the same now—when I've finished my album I'll call my homies over first and say "is this ok?" "can we work with this one?" They're the critics I care about most, because they expect me to do something decent!
Have there been key musical meetings that you feel have changed the game for you? For example, I think a lot of people here perceived you as simply another LA psychedelic hip-hop guy like Daedelus, Carlos Niño, etc., but when you did the Rinse FM show with Kode9 in 2007 it suddenly seemed to open up all these connections between different bass-heavy styles...
I heard about that, man, I heard how crazy that show was for people, and I'm so glad to be the messenger, you know? It was such a small room [laughs], I didn't know what was going on but Kode was just "yo, come do it, it'll be crazy." But those moments are important... like you said, when I met Carlos Niño, my life changed man, he was the first person that ever put me on the radio, the first person that ever took interest in releasing my music and I owe a lot to him. He was the first person that ever broke my spirit, like "what you're doing is cool, but what's up? Take it even further and further than that," and I love that. He's the first, the very first person I'll play anything new to; when I had the first draft of Cosmogramma he was the first person I called over.
How do you feel about the reception Cosmogramma has had?
It's scary, it's so scary, I feel so naked! Especially with this one because I really feel I put me in there as much as I have ever, and I feel very vulnerable. But it's been so far so good I think as far as reaction has gone. But I've already got an idea of where I want to go now, so I just want to do this stuff and see it through and move on to the next thing. But I believe in this one, I said what I wanted to say I think. For the first time, I got close to saying what I wanted to say from the start.
It feels very coherent. The promos were sent out with no track breaks, which could have been frustrating, but it just works like that, it's very natural to listen to it as an unbroken piece of music.
Thanks man, thank you. I always set out to do that, I always set out to make movies, to make these records to be like movies and feel like one cohesive thing instead of fragments of ideas or whatever. I wanted them to be as cohesive as possible, but still entering into all these different territories. Just building a universe is the most inspiring thing to me—this is my opportunity to present a world to somebody!
Kode9 says that his ambition for Hyperdub is to "declare independence from reality," which I guess is similar—the desire to make a coherent world.
Yeah, that's the shit. In the end you have all these things that are left behind; we don't stay here forever, and this is something I realise more and more, that time on this planet is super limited, so let our catalogue speak of a place that doesn't exist, and by speaking of it, create it!