The electronic artist, real name Steven Ellison, in nominated for two Grammy Awards this year, one for “Never Catch Me” (best dance recording), which features Kendrick Lamar; and one as part of the small mob of people who were involved in the making of Lamar’s groundbreaking album To Pimp a Butterfly. His own release, the equally groundbreaking You’re Dead, was one of 2014’s most daring and genre-bending recordings.
Ellison/Lotus comes from a musical family in more than one sense of the word: He’s the grand-nephew of the late jazz pianist Alice Coltrane (husband of saxophonist John), which makes him the first cousin once removed of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. His grandmother is Marilyn McLeod, who wrote “Love Hangover” (a hit for Diana Ross) and “I Get High (On Your Memory),” recorded by Freda Payne.
But Ellison is part of a slightly more contemporary family, one that’s quietly pushing the borders of where hip-hop, jazz and electronic music meet. He founded the independent record label Brainfeeder in 2008, and the label is home to electric bass virtuoso Thundercat (né Stephen Bruner) and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, both of whom you can hear, again, on To Pimp a Butterfly. (Lamar, it should be noted, is an L.A. native as well, having grown up in Compton.)
Something all of these musicians have in common, besides talent, are deep roots in L.A. – Ellison’s second studio album is titled Los Angeles, and both Thundercat (who for a time played with L.A. thrash metal icons Suicidal Tendencies) and Washington grew up in the city. Their shared upbringing has made all three – four, if you’re counting Lamar – men’s contributions to each other’s music difficult to pull apart.
Washington, whose own three-hour jazz album The Epic was rightfully one of the most critically acclaimed jazz albums of 2015, told Billboard that, “It’s all family. Most of the guys that worked on Kendrick’s record and on Lotus’s record, we’ve known each other since before we played music … L.A. is like a really big little town, where New York is like a really small big city.”
But back to their talent. Thundercat/Bruner’s own single, “Them Changes,” caused major ripples when it was released in 2015; a smooth, danceable track from a man previously best known for virtuosic, million-notes-a-minute flights on his six-string electric bass. His bass work is all over To Pimp a Butterfly, as well as Lotus’s album.
What Ellison, Bruner and Washington all have in common is a shared vision of their respective genres as malleable ideas, capable of being pushed in whatever direction they want. You’re Dead is nominally an electronic record, but it features contributions from Lamar, Snoop Dogg and Herbie Hancock, warp-speed jazz soloing and long stretches of oblique soundscapes that share more with ambient music than not. While Bruner’s most recent music is rooted in R&B and funk forms, his band is made of truly formidable players, and they’re capable of stretching songs out through seriously impressive improvising.
All told – I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – a win for Lamar in any category – and therefore a win for any of his contemporaries – is a win for music. For creative, boundary-pressing music and the people who make it. And for Flying Lotus, and the rest of the Brainfeeder collective, while they may not be making music for awards or recognition, they deserve both. Even if they are dead.