The idea of a producer/composer as we now know it is something that two decades ago might have seemed unnecessary or excessive. The rise of DJs as actual musicians rather than jukebox heroes, people who create rather than simply derive, has powered this century toward an electronically-driven, hyper-evolving state in which genres become all but irrelevant. People like Aphex Twin and DJ Shadow blazed a trail for computer-programmed, beat-driven music that incorporates samples and drum machines in experimental capacities. A flood of noise precedes a few identical bars before one element changes, soon leading to a fire sale of sound exchanged for something entirely different.
To call Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, simply a DJ is to miss the mathematical beauty behind the cacophonous waves he creates. On his first four LPs, as well as the handful of mixtapes and EPs in between, he explored rippled soundscapes which tore through the listener’s consciousness so quickly and maniacally that there was hardly time to breathe. On his latest release, You’re Dead!, Ellison finds himself delving further into the infinite influences which have surrounded him since childhood and molded the 30-year-old’s long view.
To listeners who have been around since the masterpiece Cosmagramma or earlier, You’re Dead! serves as a logical progression for someone who wishes for the world to see him increasingly as a serious musician than simply as a guy who presses the play button and lets the music run. The opening track, “Theme,” slams into your ears similar to the way “clock catcher” once did, though with a much clearer programmatic statement. Like a conductor warming up his orchestra, Ellison swells the digital drone before launching into his sonic offering. Musical giant Herbie Hancock guests on “Tesla,” providing fills and shooting through runs on a Fender Rhodes.
The first noticeable break happens during “Cold Dead,” which is probably the closest example we have of what a Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis/Jimi Hendrix collaboration might have sounded like. A manic, overdriven gives way to a sheets of sound saxophone solo before diving headfirst back into the guitar-led “Fkn Dead.” The veritable centerpiece of the album, given the circumstances, is Ellison’s collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me.” For good measure, Lamar’s lyrics certifiably create the atmosphere of a concept album, as if Ellison needed anything more than his beats to do so. In a recent profile with The Fader, Ellison expressed his disappointment in not being asked to contribute to Lamar’s 2012 release good kid, m.A.A.d. city. It’s a damn shame, too, because “Never Catch Me” would have fit in snugly on that album.
“Dead Man’s Tetris” is a plodding, reverberating powerhouse which includes the requisite video game references as well as verses from Snoop Dogg and Ellison’s hip-hop alter ego, Captain Murphy. Hints of midi and a stirring bassline drive the track, which may be the album’s truest form of hip-hop. A romp through time and space follows in “Turkey Dog Coma,” which plays like a spaceship going into warp speed before finding itself lost in the universe.
Playful allusions to his organist aunt, Alice Coltrane, and her larger-than-life husband, the jazz legend John Coltrane, haunt the latter half of “Coma,” and indeed cast a shadow over the entire album. Ellison has said that Aunt Alice was the first and biggest influence on his musical career, and hints of Lord of Lords, the 1972 memorial to John, permeate throughout You’re Dead! That’s probably as purposefully intentional as Ellison will ever get; he has the James Murphy-like ability to take everything he has ever heard, boil it down and use it to create something vaguely familiar but entirely new. He wants to remind you of what you’ve heard before while making you squarely aware that this is his music, and his alone. In “Turtles,” Ellison utilizes The Beatles circa-Revolver and throws in a little Afrika Bambaataa, along with FlyLo-da-bass-god knows what else.
You’re Dead! gradually irons itself into something that isn’t jazz, isn’t IDM and isn’t instrumental hip-hop, though it certainly retains qualities of each and much more. The bassist Thundercat, a close friend and frequent collaborator of Ellison’s, has as much to do with that as any other contributor on the album, and he thumps a noticeable trail all over the LP. It’s as much Giant Steps as it is Miklós Rózsa; equal parts John Williams and Jam Master Jay. The arrhythmic blasts and atonal head shots of falsetto give way to the familiar synthesizers and processed snares that Flying Lotus fans have come to adore.
“The concept is so much more than ‘You’re dead as a person,’ to me. Even calling it You’re Dead! goes so deep into how I felt maybe a year ago, where I was watching the music scene shift and change. People who I came up with, they’re all trying to be pop now — or you just don’t hear about ’em anymore. The scene is kind of fading a little bit; new people are coming in and changing the game and doing it their own way. And so, for a minute I was like, ‘Man, I think this s*** is dead, dude. I think the scene is dead.’ And that’s just what happened.” – Ellison, in an October 12th interview with NPR.
This LP is Ellison’s most thoughtful work to date, an amalgamation of all which has come to pass musically and a foreshadowing of what may lie ahead. As much as anyone else, and perhaps more so, Ellison recognizes the ever-changing terrain of music, both popular and subterranean, and wonders what his place in it might be. The album’s closer, “The Protest,” alludes ever-so-slightly to The Smiths’ classic B-side “Asleep,” which contains the lines, “There is another world/There is a better world/Well, there must be.” If there is room to interpret that in the context of popular music, Flying Lotus is leading the charge by creating that better world. Waiting for something which may never come can only lead to certain death.