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Flying Lotus reflects on a decade of Brainfeeder: ‘It’s either smooth jazz or us’

SANTA MONICA, CA - AUGUST 23, 2016: Flying Lotus listens during a round table with George Clinton,
Steve Ellison, who performs as Flying Lotus.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Leaning back in a patio chair behind his Laurel Canyon home on a recent sunny morning, the producer and label head Steve Ellison, who performs as Flying Lotus, was reflecting on a boast that his forward-thinking jazz and instrumental hip-hop record label Brainfeeder made in a press release.

Issued during the rollout of its new 10th anniversary collection, “Brainfeeder X,” it read, in part: “If the resuscitation of jazz has been one of the predominant narratives of the last several years, it’s unquestionably due to the lasting impact of the Brainfeeder confederation.”

Now, it’s one thing to tout the city’s musical evolution, but it could be considered dang near blasphemous to claim that a jazz resurgence — if there even is one — is the result of a single imprint’s efforts.

Brainfeeder recently released a 36-track compilation of music the label has issued since its birth. Founded as a venue to release records that reflected Ellison’s aesthetic, Brainfeeder has helped define the sound of contemporary Los Angeles, and the three dozen “Brainfeeder X” songs illustrate how.

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Asked if Brainfeeder was taking credit for the “resuscitation of jazz,” the 35-year-old, who is the nephew of the late free-jazz composer and harpist Alice Coltrane and the cousin of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, paused a beat before confirming the assertion. As he did, the sound of a pianist in Ellison’s studio, who had been improvising as he answered questions, drifted into the scene. It seemed to engage with the birdsong.

“The truth is, when it comes to this hip-hop stuff ... it’s either trap [music] or us right now, you know? And when it comes to jazz, it’s either smooth jazz or us. It’s one or the other.”

RELATED: Resonance Records resurrects jazz history once again with Eric Dolphy »

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The sound you just heard? That was surely someone from the jazz and rap worlds doing a collective spit take — L.A. saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s breakout success on Brainfeeder be damned.

Asked if New York or Chicago players would take exception to the declaration, Ellison replied quickly and with a laugh: “Well, I think those guys would love to play for Kamasi.”

Ellison isn’t off-base.

Since Brainfeeder released Washington’s 2015 triple album, “The Epic,” the often disregarded L.A. jazz scene has earned international recognition, and the label that put it out is considered to be among the city’s most artistically striking of the past decade.

In the wake of the album’s breakout success, players entangled in Ellison’s and Washington’s creative web have issued a string of albums: bassist Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner); drummer (and Thundercat’s brother) Donald Bruner; trombonist Ryan Porter; bassist Miles Mosley; keyboardist Brandon Coleman; and others.

In February, Thundercat will take over the New York jazz institution the Blue Note to perform 14 sets across six nights.

The attention isn’t the result of your average jazz dude raving about Brainfeeder. Who knows if jazz traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis would even call this stuff jazz. It’s more like tripped-out, psychedelic fusion music.

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Ellison called saxophonist Washington’s “The Epic” “a game-changer for all of us — for the world.”

That same year, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar tapped a half-dozen Brainfeeder affiliates for the creation of his 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Washington composed the album’s arrangements.

The Brainfeeder “us” of which Ellison spoke is a collection of producers, visual artists, rappers and musicians that has existed in one form or another since the label’s 2008 birth in a Northridge apartment complex dubbed Das Bunker.

In the mid- and late ’00s, the unlikely San Fernando Valley site generated the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of an arts commune. Ellison’s friend KCRW DJ Anthony Valadez introduced him to the apartment complex.

“He was in a transition stage,” Valadez said of Ellison, then in his mid-20s. “He wanted to live on his own. And to see that guy now take care of other people is really awesome.”

At Das Bunker, Ellison worked alongside kindred spirits including Valadez, Brainfeeder label manager Adam Stover, producer-rapper Samiyam and visual aritst-musician Teebs.

“They just became the Brainfeeder spark, really,” Ellison said. “We were all there together, and it was at a time when the sound was blowing up on like a worldwide kind of thing.”

Mtendere Mandowa, who makes art and music under the name Teebs, met Ellison around then through MySpace and in person at the Lincoln Heights club night the Low End Theory.

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He gave Ellison a tape of his music and quickly earned an invite to see the complex. Mandowa was skeptical at first but followed his gut. “It was a weird place, but it just seemed like a good situation to be around.”

Ellison’s success as Flying Lotus, which was enabled by his long artistic relationship with the British electronic imprint Warp, helped prompt a rush of overseas excitement for the Los Angeles underground scene.

But as that happened, Ellison watched as amateur moguls lined up to sign him and his peers. “They wanted to get paid to be a fan. So it was like, ‘Why don’t we just build this thing and nurture it?’ ”

Brainfeeder now includes genre-blurring sounds that mix hip-hop, jazz, funk, fusion and whatnot by artists including out-there Austrian free-jazz explorer Dorian Concept, the South London house producer who performs as Ross from Friends, soul singer-producer Georgia Anne Muldrow and the Dutch electronic funk musician Jameszoo. All are featured on the new compilation.

Most prominently, “Brainfeeder X” contains a new collaboration called WOKE. Consisting of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and experimental hip-hop team Shabazz Palaces, the partnership was introduced with a track called “The Lavishments of Light Looking,” featuring vocals by original funk icon George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Absent from the collection is music by the beat producer the Gaslamp Killer, whose debut album came out on Brainfeeder. At the start of the #MeToo movement, a rape allegation was made on Twitter against the artist, born William Bensussen, who has strenuously denied the allegation and in late 2017 filed a lawsuit alleging that the woman spread “malicious and fabricated rape allegations … based on a consensual sexual encounter” that occurred on July 5, 2013.

The lawsuit is ongoing, and Ellison kept it short when the Gaslamp Killer’s name was brought up. “We tried to invite everybody who made sense,” Ellison said of the Gaslamp Killer’s absence from “Brainfeeder X.” “Some people, it didn’t work out.”

And missing from Brainfeeder’s solo roster is Ellison himself, who has released the majority of his music through Warp. His most recent album, “You’re Dead,” came out five years ago.

At his house, when it was noted that he isn’t on his own label, Ellison replied with a certain coyness.

“I’m not yet,” he said, emphasizing the ‘yet’ before interjecting, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

The artist, though, tipped his hand this week when, in a series of tweets, he alluded to frustrations with the handling of his forthcoming album, which is the last due through his contract with Warp. He wrote in one, “Imagine spending years creating your best project, u finally finish it 120% then only to have to waiiiiit quietly watching the clouds pass.”

From the open window, the pianist kept exploring the melody’s nuances. Whoever was in there knew how to play. Ellison, however, was intriguingly mum. Asked who was responsible for the morning’s soundtrack, the producer replied politely. “A friend,” he said, and bid farewell.

For tips, records, snapshots and stories on Los Angeles music culture, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter and Instagram: @liledit. Email: randall.roberts@latimes.com.


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