It's been a while since I posted. DMA life will do that to you! Here's a paper I wrote for my Hip-Hop class though. It's about one of my favorite local artists today, Flying Lotus. I think his music is years ahead of its time - something that will be talked about far into the future when the Chainsmokers are forgotten. Here we go! Ya se armo!
MUHL 588 / Dr. Nye
Monday, Dec. 11, 2017
Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! In the Context of Afrofuturism
Steven Ellison, DJ, rapper, producer, and filmmaker, known by his stage name Flying Lotus, is one of LA’s most prominent artists in the emerging field of primarily instrumental hip-hop. His music resists strict identification by genre but follows in the DJ tradition of early hip-hop MCs in the Bronx, with an updated technological take focusing on virtuosity in live performance based on a laptop and turntables. Born in 1983, he is the grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s wife, who was a jazz pianist. This paper will examine his contributions to the arts from the viewpoint Afrofuturism, as notably propounded in Mark Dery’s seminal article Black to the Future (1994).
Historical precedent can be traced to the field of electro-hop, first appearing in 1983 in LA. Unlike Flying Lotus’s recent albums, this genre was directly dance-based. One thing this music had in common with Flying Lotus’ ouvre was the use it made of the latest technology of the day. In Unkown DJ’s “808 Beats,” he boasts of his facility using the now-iconic Roland TR-808, rapping: “The music is devastating it was easy to create / cause I am the master of the 808” (Jimenez 134). Tricia Rose points out that although the use of such sequencers, sampling techniques, vocoders, and so on constrain Black creativity to some extent inside parameters created in a White culture, the uses Black artists find with such technology are no less legitimate a creation than any older artistic works that might be considered more authentic. The reasoning, hard to deny, is that such works were created under equally oppressive circumstances with the available technology of the day as well (Dery 213).
Flying Lotus’ ouvre is especially meaningful as a psychological commentary on contemporary life. Music critic Brian Reynolds, writing for Pitchfork, sees Flying Lotus as an example of a generation of “maximalism” and “managed overload” in music. In the context of today’s Information Age, he labeled Ellis’ album Cosmogramma as “hip-hop jazz for the ADD generation” (Reynolds 76). Critic Colin McKean, writing for The Quietus, compared Cosmogramma to “hurtling through the digital darkness of Spotify with everything blaring at once.” He expresses confusion but also a thrilling sensation as possible results (McKean). This is related in concept to a broader social concern that Andrew Rollins labeled Time-Space Compression. This is a result evident in the 20th century from technological progress in transportation and communication. Time-Space Compression allows people to engage in historically unprecedented compressed groups of experiences as a result of the ability to travel and communicate faster and faster. Though the phenomenon was originally coined with advances in telephone and fax technology in mind, it has vastly accelerated along with internet and mobile technology in recent years. On the positive side, it allows listeners a richer experience, but disorientation or inability to focus long enough to derive meaning can also result (134). Criticisms of Ellison by critics such as Reynolds or McKean echo sentiments against works such as Mozart’s Jupiter symphony by critics in his day. Author and music theorist Nicolas Slonimsky, famous for his compendious Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, inspiring a generation of composers comprising John Adams at its forefront, also wrote a lighter work entitled The Lexicon of Musical Invective collecting critical reviews of works now regarded as masterpieces. He reports a critic saying that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was a fine work, but succumbed at a certain point to an overwhelming and incomprehensible complexity, and compared it to the Jupiter symphony, in which he writes “…we clearly known Mozart went too far” (Slonimsky 39). Flying Lotus’ music may not yield all of its secrets upon first listening, but listeners to You’re Dead or Cosmogramma should reserve no less judgment until multiple listenings than they would for masterworks by Mozart or Beethoven.
Sun Ra positioned himself in the center of Western tradition with the album cover of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume One (1965). Conversely, Afrofuturism has also made use of new forms of technology, at least in the imagination of science fiction writers, to claim its place. When the original Star Trek series launched in the 1960s, Nichelle Nichols played the only African-American on the show and one of the first major roles in American television up until that point, portraying the character Lt. Uhura. After she announced her plans to leave the show after the first season in order to pursue offers of a career on Broadway, she was tapped on the shoulder at a NAACP dinner by a staff member who told her she had a secret Trekkie admirer, who turned out to be none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded to stay by Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King explained that the show was one of the only ones that he and his wife allowed their children to watch, and that by removing herself she would remove any trace of African-American women from the future (Brooks 152).
Flying Lotus’ unique voice through all the eclectic influences recalls Sun Ra’s perspective on rejecting stereotypes of blackness that he considers to be based in slavery and colonial oppression. As much of his sound throughout the album is based on his friend Thundercat’s jazz riffs and improvisations, and his collaborations with Herbie Hancock on keys, there is a unique digital virtuosity behind the work that has little precedent in technology or in history, Black or White. Dead Man’s Tetris is one example to begin with, as a high layer of machine sounds emerges in the middle of the song whose only clear precedent is in the original bass line Tetris theme. The song feels as distant from the jazz-inspired opening as one could imagine. It fits into Eshun’s idea of the emergence of sounds from other sounds themselves as opposed to what he regards as an overemphasis on a search for precedent and tradition in Black music. Rather than the legend of rock in the 60s emerging from Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones, which he regards as a myth, or as an assignation of something not authentically Black, he points instead to George Clinton’s Star Child, which originates from technology rather than any race of humans and is neither White nor Black (178). He holds this outlook on music in common with Janelle Monáe, who has stood firm throughout her career disproving the notion verbalized by Ytasha Womack that ‘fatalism is equated to blackness’ by incorporating historically non-black genres of music including rock, punk electronica, orchestra and folk music. To this extent, she has said that she feels the need to embrace things that make her unique, even if they sometimes make her uncomfortable (Gipson 94). Tricia Rose was quoted in “Black to the Future” on this note, over the contradiction between Sun Ra’s respect for ancient Egyptian-centered tradition related to traditional African ancestor worship, and the need for Black culture to evolve with the times. In her opinion, the ‘Frankfurt model’ of equating a certain period of time with the golden age of Black music, typically the delta blues or an agrarian past, is a problematic way of viewing the nature of Black artists. She points out that blues singers and instrumentalists in the 1920s were still using the best technology of the day, and that Black musicians today should not be thought of as any less authentically Black for their use of technologies largely invented by whites (Dery 215). Twitter usage in the African-American community, especially the Hip-Hop community, is just one example of a thorough and meaningful appropriation of technology from the dominant culture. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center report, 26% of African-American Internet users use twitter, compared to 14% of non-hispanic White American internet users (Duggan and Brenner 2013, quoted in Gaskins 31). This provides a helpful perspective on You’re Dead!, as an authentic Black voice despite the numerous influences from diverse genres of music. In this light, even the contributions of White artists such as Mac Miller and Niki Randa, who came through on “Coronus, the Terminator” (itself a song whose music video depicts an android-centric humanoid figure absent of any defining racial characteristics).
Kodwo Eshun’s discussion of ‘Sampledelia’ at the end of his book was also far ahead of its time when examined in the context of You’re Dead. It involves a focus on micro-sized elements of sound, even those transitional in nature. In the context of 90s technology, he wrote that much of sampledelia was based on sample memory, which was 4 or 9 second hooks. This compressed scope of emphasis remains in this album, where tracks are as short as 30 seconds. The album goes through 19 tracks in 40 minutes. The emphasis on digitized popping and scratching sounds is a clear parallel, as are so many other effects. One interesting effect which is traditional in sound quality but used transitionally is the guitar that enters partway through Eyes Above. In a highly atmospheric track without obvious melodies so far, the guitar enters with a melodic fragment reminiscent of Childish Gambino’s Redbone, though it could not have been inspired as it was released two years prior. Following this is goes through the pitches in order, C, G, D, E-flat, A-flat, G, B-flat and F. The pattern of fourths and their inversions, and the third between B-flat and G (although minor rather than major) resemble the open strings of a guitar. If we adjust the chromatic pitches upwards a half-step, it would also include the pitches E, A, G, and B, four of the guitar’s open strings. Semiologically, this serves as another sign of transition, as the guitar begins a more chromatic solo that leads into the next track. Here, in Moments of Hesitation, we are again in a different sonic world, the transition and its signals being complete.
In a meta-sense, some of these tracks, such as the ephemeral ‘Stirring,’ are transitions between more central tracks themselves. Eshun draws parallels to the emergence of scratching by early breakbeat pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash, which was a new, entirely transitional sound. The bubbling sound effects in “Ready err Not” are a good analogue, as they frequently serve as transitional materials between the different layers that emerge, from the high percussion at 1:16 to the bass at 1:27 to the warped bass drum at 1:30.
Much of the album emphasizes a strong sensory element. Eshun mentions the importance of rhythmic psychedelia in its ability to speak to certain body parts that may be more developed than others. For example, he asserts that part of the appeal of drum and bass music is the ability to speak to the feet and hands before the head. Conversely, his general opinion of hip-hop is primarily as head music before stage music. He speaks of Cypress Hill as an example of the drug-tech interface and suggests a classification of hip-hop fans as hippies. The sensory aspect of psychedelia is nowhere more important than in a track like Eyes Above, which opens as a seeming attempt to simulate the interior of the listener’s head. The popping sound effects simulate a feeling of moving from inside to outside. Other tracks, including the terrifying first-person death account The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep, simulate states of mind within the head resembling pharmaceutically altered states of consciousness. The one thing this album is definitely not is music for the feet, or dance music, as the progression of ideas and compact scale is too tight to be practical.
Circling back to the original notion of psychedelia, another important aspect that Eshun brings up is that of hypersensitivity. One aspect is his self-described hunt for new perceptions which have existed but not been articulated, fully understood or connected to other areas (191). He draws a connection between music and science in our times and describes the current generational understanding of science as a hypersensitivity to the world rather than a cold, analytical reductionist approach. His interest in maximal rhythmic psychedelia plays directly into Flying Lotus’s work, in direct agreement with Simon Reynolds of Pitchfork, mentioned earlier. The music is packed with different sensations and proceeds at a rate at the border of intelligibility at times, in the same sense of a John Coltrane track from the 1950s or 60s. This mirrors the state of consciousness as induced by psychedelics. Users commonly report an increased sensory awareness and sensitivity to the point of overload, as reported in well-regarded accounts such as Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Here there is a transhuman aspect to the music as well. Just as Eshun talks of the virtualization of the body, Flying Lotus’ music can be seen as a means of reaching or symbolizing this state of consciousness without the use of drugs. He is acutely aware of the dangers of heavy drug use and combinations. Several friends of his have died from drug overdoses, including the brilliant pianist Austin Peralta, who died in 2012 at the age of 22 as a result of untreated viral pneumonia and numerous depressants in his system. Peralta played the piano line in Ellison’s DMT Song from his previous album. Flying Lotus dedicated the song The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep to him, remaining hurt and incredulous over his death at the time of the album release (Beta). A more enlightening connection is that with psychedelics. This is arguable in every track, but especially the final one, The Protest. The high sheen of treble effects around the lyrics commemorating immortality in the collective memory mirrors the halos and light effects that users of LSD often experience around the heads of people they see. A chicken-and-egg situation could apply here, as the music may never have been written in the first place or appreciated as intended without the use of psychedelics, but at the same time, it can arguably lead symbolize or lead the listener to this state independent of any chemical effects. Just as the psychedelic revolution was kickstarted by the invention of LSD in the mid 20th century, continuing the evolution of human consciousness, his music can be seen as a technological reflection of the times.
This is central to the issue of Time-Space Compression in Ellison’s music. Administration of psychedelics has been clinically known to greatly exacerbate symptoms of information overload in users to the point where even normal life becomes uncomfortable. Users anecdotally report a need to turn lights down, associate with fewer people, or leave urban environments for nature in order to cope with the experience. Rather than creating music that relies on drugs to be appreciated, it seems that You’re Dead is instead a musical path to the same state of mind. Paralleling the roots of this album in jazz and in Ellison’s family lineage, Eshun reports an acid trip as in influence in the work of John Coltrane in his 1965 album Ascension, which subsequently became a milestone in the history of free jazz. It is thus in Ellison’s blood to create music that brings humanity to a higher state of consciousness without the need for drugs.
You’re Dead reflects Murray Forman’s analysis of hip-hop from a spacial and geographical perspective. One obvious way is in the geographical representation of many of the closest artists. Although some who worked on his tracks such as Mac Miller flew in from other cities, many influences of his who were closest were local to the LA scene, including Earl Sweatshirt, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. One of the leading influences is now deceased, the LA-based piano legend Austin Peralta, son of professional skateboarder Stacy Peralta. Furthermore, the softer jazz-influenced style of the album as a whole parallels the popularity of Snoop Dogg himself and his West Coast G-Funk sound since the early 1990s. Not only does the sound emerging from the album sound native to LA; the popularity of his biggest hit so far is also centered here. A cursory youtube search reveals that Never Catch Me, the track featuring Lamar most prominently in creation and performance, has by far the most views on youtube, currently standing at 9.7 million. When the New York Times did a survey in conjunction with youtube streaming data, Kendrick’s fan base was reveled solidly to be in the Western half of the US, especially around LA, his hometown. This suggests listeners in LA are tuning into his biggest hit more than in any other part of the country.
Additionally, beyond simply featuring artists, he acknowledged openly and gratefully how much he is indebted to the local producers based in LA he worked with for the sound they brought to his voice and the album, especially in Coronus The Terminator (Okplayer). This echoes Samuel Delany’s observation that software skills are overtaking hardware skills, and users of technology are becoming more and more distanced from it at its lowest levels. Delaney said (in 1994) that at the material level, our technology is becoming more and more like magic. He observed that the importance of software engineers was growing, people who know how to use what he compares to spells and incantations to get the technology to work; however, those with technical competence in fixing the hardware are getting fewer and farther between (Dery 192). The degree technological mediation needed to alter this music is noteworthy in this light, given its creation in Ableton Live. It would be hard to cover this music, although the local Debut Chamber Orchestra under the direction of music director Yuga Cohler is trying next year. Indeed, Ellison said that the session file for “Siren Song” is corrupted. Since he can no longer easily open or edit the track, he regards the version on the album as the final, unalterable product (Okplayer). The struggle of Black musicians making great art at the receiving end of a stream of technology created by Whites is one that Flying Lotus surely identifies with, but at the same time, his path points to a way forward.
Indeed, a common thread in Ellison’s work is his pursuit of the transcendental. Columnist Mike Rubin of the New York Times quoted him as saying, in speaking of his role among similar new hip-hop artists:
''I think that the common thread that connects us is that we're all kind of seeking through sound…Seeking the perfect beat, trying to find ourselves, trying to understand God through the sound, that seeker sound. You can hear people looking for more’ (Rubin).
Andrew Rollins’ emphasis on the Black Pentacostal tradition in Hip-Hop is possibly relevant here. In his analysis, it plays out in terms of the import of intuition as opposed to reductionist science deriving from the enlightenment. The Bible verse commonly quoted in the Black neo-pentacostal tradition is Zechariah 4:6, which reads, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of host.” Rollins’ opinion is a profound musical reflection on the repurposing of technology, in that artists such as Flying Lotus can repurpose the science behind their musical production to serve such higher purposes (Rollins 141). We could ask at this point if it even serves a higher level of scientific achievement than originally anticipated. Tricia Rose’s emphasis on imagination in Black science fiction of how technology would look if designed outside the white male paradigm is a parallel question worthy of our consideration (Dery 217).
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