Heavy Water

By Frere-Jones, Sasha | The New Yorker, December 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Heavy Water


Frere-Jones, Sasha, The New Yorker


Steven Ellison is a tall, soft-spoken twenty-five-year-old who works under the name Flying Lotus. As part of a peer network, with outposts in Los Angeles, Montreal, and Glasgow, Ellison is helping to lead a small group of producers toward a new strain of hip-hop. He has been signed to the highly regarded London-based label Warp, which made a name in the nineties by releasing esoteric electronic recordings by Autechre and Aphex Twin. Ellison and his contemporaries have come up with a fusion of the extreme detail allowed by software programming (fractal spidering of sounds, a backdrop of crackles, and prickling, feverish rhythms no human hands could play) and the bedrock thump of hip-hop, the grounding beat that has bled into almost all pop music in the world. Ellison's Flying Lotus releases this year--an album titled "Los Angeles" and a series of EPs--are a good index of how one branch of hip-hop is going to move into the next decade, detaching itself from traditional hip-hop rhyming and forming new splinter genres.

In October, I met Ellison at his apartment, in a small housing complex in the Northridge area of Los Angeles. Two levels of apartments faced an interior courtyard filled with odd metal sculptures and a Roman bust sitting in what looked like a barbecue. Flames were painted on one wall. Ellison, wearing an Obama T-shirt and dark plaid pants, greeted me warmly and led me up to his studio-cum-home. His setup is typical of the twenty-first-century musician: a collection of laptops, keyboards, and processing units, none of them large and most of them portable. A series of pharmacy bottles lined the wall behind his equipment. The clear orange cannisters were familiar, but not the names on the laser-printed labels: Grape Ape, Purple Haze. "Medical marijuana," Ellison explained. He showed me a water-operated "gravity bong" made from a bottle--a birthday present.

Ellison began his life as an artist making films in college, and has worked on a documentary about his great-aunt Alice Coltrane, who died last year. (There is a meditative sprawl in many Flying Lotus recordings that is not far removed from the work of the Coltrane family.) The hip-hop producer Ellison is most often grouped with is the late J Dilla, who worked with a wide variety of artists, including A Tribe Called Quest and Erykah Badu. Though Ellison shares J Dilla's love of placing a hard, simple backbeat inside an indistinct wash of background noise, Ellison's work is more extreme, pushing toward almost total atomization. His music is both resolutely calm and firmly noisy, and the results are sometimes very Grape Ape, even for the soberest listener.

Several months ago, Ellison was invited to remix "Reckoner," from Radiohead's "In Rainbows" album. The result, which can be heard on the Flying Lotus MySpace page, is a perfect example of how Ellison's generation is trying to combine the musical equivalent of the figurative and the abstract. The voices sound like voices, and the instruments more or less sound like instruments, set in a frame of noise that refers only to itself and unfolds in irregular rhythms that almost, but not quite, get the upper hand over the steady time holding the music together.

The "Reckoner" remix opens with what seems to be brushes or, possibly, handfuls of sand being dropped on an open snare drum. The center of the beat keeps shifting as a lower sound stays central, retaining straight time. Keyboards drift through the mix. Around the original Thom Yorke vocals a louder motif repeats, which could be another keyboard or Yorke's own voice, doubled up on itself, as if wrapped in plastic. When the beat finally engages, it is not a particularly heavy moment. This music is stoned structurally--you can't necessarily fix what is supposed to be repeating or not repeating. …

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