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Flying Lotus: 'Beat Music' And The Coltrane Family Tradition

For those people who generally avoid music made on laptops, the name Flying Lotus may sound like a kung-fu move or a yoga position. But for those in tune with underground hip-hop, Flying Lotus is a household name. His latest album, Cosmogramma, may just take him out of the underground.

Lately, Flying Lotus, whose given name is Steven Ellison, has been making a lot of noise. Music bloggers, hip-hop heads and The New Yorker looked to his last two albums, Los Angeles and 1983, as guideposts to the future of hip-hop.

Thom Yorke, frontman of Radiohead, handpicked Flying Lotus to open one of his solo tours, and even lent his voice to a track on Cosmogramma.

Ellison has earned the props by trying to come up with a new sound.

"I come from a hip-hop place, so it's hard to stray away from that," he says. "But there's a lot of rules in hip-hop that we're trying to break now."

Raised in the sleepy L.A. suburb of Winnetka, Ellison grew up on old-school video games.

"A lot of my friends were athletes, and I was the guy playing Nintendo," he says.

Ellison began creating new-school hip-hop in his bedroom. For years, he traded tracks with other budding DJs and played music in nightclub parking lots. Then the scene got organized, at a club in L.A.'s Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

"Eventually, there was this party started called Low End Theory, which was geared toward this sound," he says. "It was more of a producer's lounge, basically. If you got talent and you got tracks and you hang out enough at Low End Theory, eventually someone will hear something and you can do something."

All About The Music

For Ellison and his friends, that something is called beat music. And it's not just for dancing, according to Low End Theory co-founder William Benjamin Bensussen, aka The Gaslamp Killer.

"Beat music, it's all about the music," Bensussen says. "Like jazz, there were no singers; it was just a three-piece, a four-piece, you know what I'm saying -- it was just the raw backbone of music. And that's what beat music is: simplicity."

Ellison has jazz in his blood. His great aunt is the late Alice Coltrane -- the jazz musician, composer and wife of the legendary John Coltrane. On his latest release, Ellison chose to explore his musical lineage after a death in his family.

"Right when I started working on it, my mom passed away," he says. "Really unexpected. It just changed everything, man."

To cope with his mother's sudden death, Ellison turned to the songs of "Aunt Alice" for guidance.

"I'd listen to my aunt's stuff, and I could hear why she made this devotional music," Ellison says. "I could hear her dealing with John Coltrane's passing in her music. It made sense to me. It was something I tried to capture, as well."

Alice Coltrane wasn't the only family member who helped Ellison. He also turned to her son -- his cousin, jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.

"I happened to be in Los Angeles for a few days, and I basically went to his apartment and recorded my tracks right there in his crib," Ravi Coltrane says. "He has that great ability, like a painter. He adds one color, then changes that particular shade and changes the energy of it all. So I was one layer in this wild composition."

This wild album was also a wild emotional ride for Ellison.

"[I've] gone through a lot since making the last album," he says. "Good things, bad things -- thank God for music."

His fans might say the same.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Drew Tewksbury