Flying Lotus on Brainfeeder's Strange Decade of Success: 'I'm Seeking the Sound of the Seeker'
As an intern at forward-thinking hip-hop label Stones Throw Records, Steven Ellison was responsible for things like taking out the trash, watering plants and other less-than-glamorous office duties. It was hard then to imagine him as the leader of Los Angeles' experimental beat scene, destined to become captain of one of independent music's most fearless, trailblazing, cross-genre labels.
“I remember going to [Stones Throw co-founder] Egon like, 'Yo, man, I really want to run a label, but I also want to be an artist,'” Ellison says. “He was like, 'It's gonna be hard for you to do both. You should pick one and just do that.' I was like, 'I could do both! I really can!'”
A couple of years later, Ellison released his first album, 1983, under the name Flying Lotus. It put him at the forefront of a meandering movement, one he eventually recognized needed a center. A couple of years after that, he started Brainfeeder out of his Los Angeles apartment.
Ten years later, Brainfeeder is still basically run out of his home, but its musical footprint has become massive. It counts among its roster strange visionaries George Clinton and Mr. Oizo, as well as underground darlings TOKiMONSTA and Ross From Friends. It helped break critically acclaimed artists Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. It's not exactly an electronic label or a hip-hop label, not quite house nor funk nor jazz. It's all of those things and then some, and it celebrates its first decade with Brainfeeder X, a two-disc, 36-track compilation (22 of which are brand new) showcasing Brainfeeder's personal brand of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
“I'm seeking the sound of the seeker,” Ellison says. “I'm trying to find the sound or people that make sense of life. We spend so much time living this crazy life. Just ask all the questions in the music.”
Something was happening in L.A. circa 2008. Ellison paid homage to the vibe with his 2008 FlyLo LP Los Angeles, but there were other voices on its hip-hop-tinged horizon. Sam Baker, aka Samiyam, was releasing off-center beats via Stones Throw. His homie Gregory Shorter, Jr. was making spaced-out, instrumental noise under the name Ras G. The Gaslamp Killer was making vaguely esoteric rhythms to soundtrack psychedelic trips while murdering sets at LA's Low End Theory parties.
“We were kind of building this thing among our community,” Ellison says, “always together, always doing stuff. There were all these little labels popping up around the world, trying to kind of capitalize on the beat music that was happening in LA. It was just like, 'what the hell, why don't we just do this ourselves and build a home for us that we like, run by us?”
Ellison lived in an apartment complex called Das Bauhaus. Baker was one of his neighbors, as was Mtendere Mandowa, a producer better known as Teebs, and avid electronic music fan Adam Stover. They became team Brainfeeder's day-one players as Ellison harnessed Flying Lotus' growing popularity to push the great music around him.
Armed with the lessons and insights of his Stones Throw days, Ellison became the creative leader of the Brainfeeder set. Stover became his operational manager, his right-hand business man, a role he continues to fill to this day.
“The curation part of it is the most fun for me, trying to figure out the tittle piece for the bigger puzzle,” Ellison says. While he leaves day-to-day business stuff to Stover, Ellison is the man discovering and signing artists, bringing the roster opportunities, and helping each artist make the most of their unique vision.
“Part of what I have to do is kind of be a shrink,” he laughs. “I need to help people to create the best work that they can. It's just something a producer should do anyway. You should create a space for people to give their best work and do their best work, and that's just something I'm trying to be more mindful of in all aspects of my life, but especially running the label.”
Such is the story with Thundercat. His debut The Golden Age of the Apocalypse was the first album Ellison ever produced outside of his own. The team celebrated the album's release at LA's Echoplex, and it was an emotional moment for everyone. Ellison laughs today and he admits that he shed a proud tear or two.
“I know all the things that he and I both went through to get to that point, and all the things that he had let out in the album,” he remembers. “It was very overwhelming.”
Now three albums in, not including extensive work on Kendrick Lamar's award-winning album To Pimp A Butterfly, Thundercat has become one of Brainfeeder's biggest stars. The bass guitarist features on three Breainfeeder X tracks, while strangely absent is fellow Brainfeeder breakout and Lamar collaborator Kamasi Washington.
“Truly, none of us were prepared for what Kamasi ended up doing and what he became,” Ellison says. “I was hoping for like, a cool release at best. I just wanted to build the situation, give him his first thing and go from there, but he turned into this behemoth. It's amazing. We're all so happy for him.”
Washington's album The Epic was released on Brainfeeder in 2015 to rave reviews. It's rare for a jazz saxophonist to make headlines from Pitchfork to Billboard, but the range of his success sunk in crazy when FlyLo and Washington shared the bill of North Sea Jazz Festival in 2016. Ellison played on a side stage, while Washington performed on the main to thousands of people. Ellison remembers fighting through the swarm just to catch a glimpse of his boy. He couldn't help but break into laughter.
“A lot of artists think they're going to be able to do the things that a Kamasi do or a Thundercat could do, just because they're associated with us, but that's not the case,” Ellison says. “It takes time … There's like six times the competition there was last year. It just gets crazier and crazier. I try to be pretty upfront about things we can do and some surprises happen along the way … We can't call it, but we do give a shit. That's the difference.”
Emotional honesty and creative openness is what brought Brainfeeder the legendary frontman of Parliament Funkadelic. Clinton wasn't happy with the way major labels treated his later work, and after getting to know Ellison and the Brainfeeder family, he happily jumped on board their indie train.
“He's just a cool motherfucker,” Ellison says. “it's like getting high with your grandpa, but your grandpa is the best storyteller of all time. He's seen everything. Everybody throughout the history of music that he's been around has embraced him. Rock musicians, jazz musicians, pop musicians - they've all taken him in. He's got random stories of hanging out with Quentin Tarantino, people ODing at his house, famous people that I won't name.”
Brainfeeder X is a stark showcase of the label's colorful cast of characters. It's a wide breadth of music tied together less by genre than by a pioneering spirit. There's a dynamic mood to Brainfeeder. One minute, you're lying on a fuzzy carpet, staring idly into a lava lamp, creating stories in your mind. Next moment, you look up, and there's a dance party in your basement. A sense of lopsided strangeness ties the room together, because at Brainfeeder, weirdness is encouraged – but only in the studio.
Ellison has seen what weirdness can do to a budding family. If there was anything he could change about Brainfeeder's last 10 years, it would have been getting the accounting system figured out a lot quicker.
“I don't want any weirdness with money when it's time for me to get paid,” he says. “I want everything to be 100 percent transparent. It took a little too long to get to that place … You could have a falling out with somebody over this – and it doesn't even have to be money, just a miscommunication, like 'oh I heard from this person, this that whatever,' and its like 'yo, I love you! How did this happen?"
A decade of trial, error and awkward conversation got Brainfeeder to a place that's “100 percent legit.” They've got money in the back. People get paid on time. They're even making movies now.
Brainfeeder's debut feature film Perfect was released in March of this year. The dark scifi thriller received was screened at Austin music and film festival SXSW. Ellison made his own directorial debut in 2017 with the horror-comedy Kuso, and Brainfeeder Mr. Oizo has been making surrealist movies since 2002.
“He was my film mentor,” Ellison says. “He would always invite me to the set and I could see what he was doing. He's one of those people, he knows what he wants. He's got It all figured out, it's really interesting to watch.”
What's next for Brainfeeder? Well, it could be video games. It's definitely working with more bands. Soulful beacon Georgia Ann Muldrow just dropped her first release on Brainfeeder, a 13-track collaborative effort called Overload. There was a party at Ellison's house the day she finalized the papers. He cried then, too. She's got a song on Brainfeeder X too.
“We have such a good balance of artists now,” Ellison says. “They're constantly inspiring me - just as a fan of them. I'm like 'Oh okay, all right, wow, we're going there? OK.' It's been great. Certain things I would have changed of course. but it's not easy to pull off, especially for so long. There's been plenty of times where I thought 'Well shit, if a major label wants to buy a Brainfeeder, I'll sell it, because damn, this is too crazy. I didn't expect for this to happen like this, but I'm glad that I never did, and I'm glad I stuck with it. We pushed through the hard times, and we keep pushing.”
Brainfeeder X is out now. Listen below.