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Steve Ellison, who performs as Flying Lotus, is a producer and head of the record label Brainfeeder.

The rise of Brainfeeder, the LA label that could have saved jazz music

  • Home to musicians including Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, hip hop and jazz label Brainfeeder is defining the sound of contemporary Los Angeles
  • We talk to label head Steve Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, on the label’s claim to have resuscitated jazz and who was behind the Brainfeeder “spark”

Producer and label head Steve Ellison, who performs as Flying Lotus, is leaning back in a patio chair behind his Los Angeles home on a recent sunny morning. He is reflecting on a boast that his forward-thinking jazz and instrumental hip-hop record label Brainfeeder made in a press release late last year.

Issued during the roll-out of its 10th anniversary collection, Brainfeeder X, it read, in part: “If the resuscitation of jazz has been one of the predominant narratives of the last several years, it’s unquestionably due to the lasting impact of the Brainfeeder confederation.”

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Now, it’s one thing to tout Los Angeles’ musical evolution, but it could be considered near blasphemous to claim that a jazz resurgence – if there even is one – is the result of a single label’s efforts.

Founded as a venue to release records that reflected Ellison’s aesthetic, Brainfeeder has helped define the sound of contemporary Los Angeles, and the three dozen Brainfeeder X songs illustrate how.

Cover of Brainfeeder X.

Asked if Brainfeeder was taking credit for the “resuscitation of jazz”, the 35-year-old, who is the nephew of the late free-jazz composer and harpist Alice Coltrane, paused before confirming the claim.

“The truth is, when it comes to this hip-hop stuff … it’s either trap [music] or us right now, you know? And when it comes to jazz, it’s either smooth jazz or us. It’s one or the other.”

Asked if New York players would take exception to the declaration, Ellison replied with a laugh: “Well, I think those guys would love to play for [LA saxophonist] Kamasi [Washington].”

Ellison isn’t mistaken. Since Brainfeeder released Washington’s 2015 three-volume album The Epic, the often disregarded LA jazz scene has earned international recognition, and the label that put it out is considered to be among the city’s most artistically striking of the past decade.

After the album’s breakout success, players entangled in Ellison’s and Washington’s creative web have issued a string of albums: bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner); drummer (and Thundercat’s brother) Ronald Bruner; trombonist Ryan Porter; bassist Miles Mosley; keyboardist Brandon Coleman; and others.

In February, Thundercat will take over the New York jazz institution the Blue Note to perform 14 sets across six nights.

The attention isn’t the result of your average jazz dude raving about Brainfeeder. Who knows if jazz traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis would even call this stuff jazz. It’s more like tripped-out, psychedelic fusion music.

LA’s jazz scene has earned international recognition since the release of saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s 2015 album The Epic.

Ellison called Washington’s The Epic “a game-changer for all of us – for the world”.

The same year of the album’s release, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar tapped half a dozen Brainfeeder affiliates for the creation of his 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly.

Brainfeeder is a collection of producers, visual artists, rappers and musicians that has existed in one form or another since the label’s birth in an apartment complex dubbed Das Bunker in the LA neighbourhood of Northridge.

It was a weird place, but it just seemed like a good situation to be around
Visual artist-musician Teebs on Das Bunker

In the mid- and late 2000s, the unlikely site generated the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of an arts commune. Ellison’s friend, KCRW radio DJ Anthony Valadez, introduced him to the complex.

“He was in a transition stage,” Valadez said of Ellison, then in his mid-20s. “He wanted to live on his own. And to see that guy now take care of other people is really awesome.”

At Das Bunker, Ellison worked alongside kindred spirits including Valadez, Brainfeeder label manager Adam Stover, producer-rapper Samiyam and visual artist-musician Teebs.

“They just became the Brainfeeder spark, really,” Ellison said. “We were all there together, and it was at a time when the sound was blowing up.”

Ellison in a promotional shot.

Teebs, real name Mtendere Mandowa, met Ellison around then through MySpace and in person at the Low End Theory club night at Lincoln Heights. He gave Ellison a tape of his music and quickly earned an invite to see the complex. “It was a weird place, but it just seemed like a good situation to be around,” he says.

Ellison’s success as Flying Lotus, which was enabled by his long artistic relationship with the British electronic record label Warp, helped prompt a rush of overseas excitement for the Los Angeles underground scene.

But as that happened, Ellison watched as amateur moguls lined up to sign him and his peers. “They wanted to get paid to be a fan. So it was like, ‘Why don’t we just build this thing and nurture it?’”

Brainfeeder now includes genre-blurring sounds that mix hip-hop, jazz, funk, fusion and whatnot by artists including out-there Austrian free-jazz explorer Dorian Concept, soul singer-producer Georgia Anne Muldrow and the Dutch electronic funk musician Jameszoo. All are featured on the new compilation.

Brainfeeder X also contains a collaboration called Woke. Consisting of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and experimental hip-hop team Shabazz Palaces, the partnership was introduced with a track called The Lavishments of Light Looking, featuring vocals by original funk icon George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Absent from the collection is music by beat producer The Gaslamp Killer, whose debut album came out on Brainfeeder. At the start of the #MeToo movement, a rape allegation was made on Twitter against the artist, born William Bensussen, who has strenuously denied the allegation. In late 2017 he filed a lawsuit alleging that the woman spread “malicious and fabricated rape allegations … based on a consensual sexual encounter” that occurred on July 5, 2013.

The lawsuit is ongoing, and Ellison kept it short when The Gaslamp Killer’s name was brought up.

“We tried to invite everybody who made sense,” Ellison said of the producer’s absence from Brainfeeder X. “Some people, it didn’t work out.”

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Missing from Brainfeeder’s solo roster is Ellison himself, who has released most of his music through Warp. His most recent album, You’re Dead!, came out five years ago.

At his house, when it was noted that he isn’t on his own label, Ellison replied with a certain coyness.

“I’m not yet,” he said, emphasising the ‘yet’ before interjecting, “I shouldn’t have said that.”