Regarded upon his 2006 arrival as a promising beatmaker looming in the shadows of J Dilla, Madlib, and Dabrye, Steven Ellison — known as Flying Lotus — nullified all comparisons only two years later with Los Angeles. On that album, his first of five for the Warp label, Ellison distilled a uniquely crisp, spasmodic, and heady sound with elements of hip-hop, avant-garde jazz, IDM, and dubstep. While the abovementioned producers fueled Ellison, he had also been excited as a youngster by the '90s West Coast rap classics that combined programming and live instrumentation. His sound continued to develop as he put his own twist on the approach, recording with a crop of jazz musicians including the indispensable likes of bassist Thundercat and strings master Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. This process began with the turbulent 2010 set Cosmogramma and peaked in terms of acclaim in 2014 with You're Dead!, which crashed the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 and spawned the Kendrick Lamar collaboration "Never Catch Me," a Grammy nominee for Best Dance Recording. Ellison devoted a few years to various forms of film work and the operation of his revered Brainfeeder label, and returned in 2019 with Flamagra, his second consecutive album to top Billboard's Dance/Electronic chart.
Steven Ellison was born in Los Angeles and raised in the city's Winnetka neighborhood. He is the grandson of Marilyn McLeod, a songwriter and producer known for co-writing hits such as Diana Ross' "Love Hangover" and Jermaine Jackson's "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy." Additionally, Ellison is the grand-nephew of visionary jazz artist Alice Coltrane (McLeod's sister) and John Coltrane. His cousins include Ravi and Oran Coltrane, the latter of whom introduced him to electronic music production and gave him his first piece of gear, a Roland MC-505 groovebox. Drawn first to filmmaking — he made stop-motion clips in his youth, using action figures and a camcorder — Ellison obtained a degree from Los Angeles Film School and continued at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. After a short period in the Bay Area, he returned to L.A. and in 2004 started working as an intern for Peanut Butter Wolf's Stones Throw label, which enabled him to cross paths with inspirations such as J Dilla and Madlib. All the while, Ellison had continued to work on music, particularly taken with the Akai MPC sampler. In response to an open call from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block, Ellison submitted tracks, and soon had them licensed for use between segments and commercial breaks.
Ellison debuted officially as Flying Lotus in 2006, the year he connected with Plug Research, a crucial outlet of Los Angeles' emerging beat scene. His "Two Bottom Blues" appeared beside tracks by established contemporaries such as Daedelus, Sa-Ra, and Georgia Anne Muldrow on Carlos Niño Presents the Sound of L.A. A couple months later, he provided a remix for Mia Doi Todd's La Ninja: Amor and Other Dreams. That October, Plug Research released 1983, Ellison's first album. Titled after his birth year, it was created in solitude with the exception of the cosmic "Unexpected Delight," featuring vocals from Laura Darlington — a frequent collaborator for years to come. Signal-boosting support came most prominently from BBC DJ Gilles Peterson. The next year, U.K. underground institution Warp Records signed Ellison and issued the Reset EP — another October delivery — on which Ellison's sound became more distinct. This time, Andreya Triana joined Ellison on the woozy opener "Tea Leaf Dancers," a signature early track.
Meanwhile, Ellison had become a major catalyst in the activity emanating from Low End Theory, a weekly club night — and public salon of sorts for aspiring beatmakers and other musicians — held in L.A.'s Lincoln Heights neighborhood. Local groundswell and an increasing international profile combined to make Ellison's first Warp LP a subcultural event. The definitively titled Los Angeles arrived in June 2008, entered Billboard's Dance/Electronic Albums chart at number 16, and months later was hailed by several music publications as one of the year's best albums. Ellison incorporated vocals from Laura Darlington, Gonjasufi, and Dolly, but he also received co-production input from fellow native Californians and L.A. transplants. Three of them — Gaslamp Killer, Samiyam, and MatthewDavid — soon helped build the catalog of Ellison's Brainfeeder label, launched the same year and named after the opening track of Los Angeles. By August 2009, Warp had also dispersed L.A. EP 1 X 3, L.A. EP 2 X 3, and L.A. EP 3 X 3, a trilogy of short-form releases containing previously unreleased cuts and remixes. One of the remixes came from eventual Brainfeeder artist Martyn, affirming Ellison's enthusiastic tracking of pre-commercial dubstep. Around that time, Ellison also remixed a Martyn production and made his first in a handful of appearances on the Hyperdub label.
One of many formative inspirations for Ellison was West Coast rap — G-funk especially — that integrated programming and live instrumentation. For the producer's next album, he took the concept to the hilt, albeit with a result that moved him closer to modern electric avant-garde jazz than to lowrider classics. Released in May 2010, Cosmogramma was a turning point for Ellison, made with instrumentalists such as bassist and vocalist Thundercat, violinist and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, harpist Rebekah Raff, and Ellison's cousin, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. Darlington, Niki Randa, and Radiohead's Thom Yorke also provided vocals on one track each. Just as significantly, Ellison incorporated sounds from medical equipment recorded in the hospital room of his mother, who died just before the album began to take shape. Even though the placement of those recordings isn't as obvious as, say, a Thundercat bassline, heavy-hearted sentiments were made evident throughout. Cosmogramma reached number three on the Dance/Electronic Albums chart and was the first Flying Lotus LP to hit the Billboard 200, registering at number 88. The supplemental Pattern+Grid World EP was out a few months later.
Until the Quiet Comes, the dreamlike fourth Flying Lotus album, was out in September 2012. Spacier and pared down in relation to Cosmogramma, it still found room for the likes of Thundercat, other Brainfeeder affiliates including keyboardists Austin Peralta and Brandon Coleman, and Atwood-Ferguson. Darlington, Randa, and Yorke likewise added ghostly vocals, as did Erykah Badu. It cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard 200, peaking at number 34, and narrowly missed the top of the Dance/Electronic chart. Ellison then bolted in the opposite direction and reached a new level of acclaim with his next work. You're Dead!, released in October 2014, used many of the players familiar to Flying Lotus sessions — plus Herbie Hancock, rising Brainfeeder addition Kamasi Washington, and Snoop Dogg, as well as Ellison under his rapping Captain Murphy guise — and multiplied the intensity. The thrashing LP scraped the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 and topped Dance/Electronic Albums. "Never Catch Me," featuring Kendrick Lamar, was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Dance Recording. Ellison had co-produced "Wesley's Theory" for Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, a contender for Album of the Year, making him a two-time nominee.
Brainfeeder inevitably branched into film production, beginning with the biological horror-comedy vignette Royal and the 2017 parent feature Kuso, both directed by (and featuring music from) Ellison. Additionally, Flying Lotus was the name credited with the music for the short Blade Runner Black Out 2022, among some other visual projects that reached the public in the mid- to late 2010s. Ellison ended the longest period between Flying Lotus albums in May 2019 with Flamagra. Put together over the intervening years, it threw Brainfeeder signee George Clinton, Solange, Anderson .Paak, Shabazz Palaces, and Tierra Whack, among several other guests, into the mix. A central role was played by director David Lynch, who spun a tale about an inferno threatening to engulf a neighborhood. Flamagra became the second Flying Lotus LP to top the Dance/Electronic Albums chart, and debuted on the Billboard 200 at number 45. ~ Andy Kellman