Instrumental hip-hop artist Steven Ellison has the kind of musical lineage that most ladder climbers wouldn’t even dare lie about at parties. He’s the great nephew of Alice Coltrane and cousin of Ravi, a history that he wears proudly despite his chosen metier of hip-hop production. In that field, early reports indicate he’s been heard by the right people: beats featured on the Adult Swim network and a stint composing for “The Boondocks.”
His instrumental hip-hop debut under the name Flying Lotus has been released by Plug Research, the California label specializing in beat production forged of the most simple elements. Like his labelmates, Ellison begins from basic kick drum beats cooled with a healthy dose of atmospheric chord changes, favoring digital melodies over samples. That’s the substance of the album’s title track. Yet, he advances the front lines throughout 1983, pillaging with unpredictability and originality over 30 years of dance tracks.
Ellison’s music is marked by no one particular trait, except perhaps a tendency to color tracks with exotic elements. Rather than pushing through on one style and variations – funk, say – Ellison’s experiments are variations upon variations. One track emerges as a delicate pop song, cribbing a Tito Puente sample and adorning it with Astrud Gilberto-manque Laura Darlington's soft coos. Yet fast-forwarding through the disc, a listener is as likely to stop on a section of glitch electronica as up-beat hip hop or jungle beats. Freeform knob-turning tricks are abundant, as Ellison’s production re-interprets momentary motifs and consistently develops an interaction between beats and noise. It’s refreshing to hear a beat-maker willing to dispense with his most prized possessions.
Take the second cut of the album, “Sao Paolo,” a pastiched jaunt through the nightclubs of said city. Funk rhythms manifest, wisely restrained by Ellison’s steady hand on the one and three. But restraint doesn't equal stagnation, and soon enough, the song undergoes a subtle metamorphosis; emerging rhythms and melodies develop one piece at a time until you find yourself on a wholly different dancefloor. You’ll hear no verbatim self-quoting: just the ghost of earlier sounds. All the while, Ellison's inner DJ pushes the song ever forward, using occasional lateral shifts in pitch to keep the figurative crowd on its feet.
This record is slight, but intentionally so (just two tracks longer than 3 ½ mins). Ellison claims to think of his music as the soundtrack to non-existent “little films,” and it does share the kind of compelling aimlessness that a non-narrative short captures with potency via brevity. He avoids overusing elements and circumvents monotony with tips of the cap to funk, techno, drum 'n' bass, primitive electronica, even Eno-isms, but he also never opens up his engine to see how far he can take any one of them.
By Joel Calahan