On Splicing Bebop and Hip-Hop DNA
Flying Lotus is best known for the bumper beats that bring Adult Swim viewers back from commercials into the late-night world of Cartoon Network. It’s a niche audience, and his freeform beats may keep it always thus. Yet the world knows well his Aunt Alice, his Uncle John. As in Coltrane.
True to ’Trane tradition, FlyLo’s atonal, chaotic beats disregard principles of arrangement, songwriting, and engineering. The laptop maestro straddles the line between the bohemias of bebop and beatmaking—Dizzy Gillespie, meet Dizzee Rascal. In fact, “modal hip-hop” might be the term. His synths squeal like Dr. Dre’s, his textures crinkle like DJ Premier’s, and his rhythms trip on each other like Madlib’s, but his improvisational flare is distinctly Coltrane.
When you do a remix, what’s your process?
It depends on what’s given to me. If I have the vocal stem, all I have to do is build a new song around the vocal. Sometimes, I turn the vocal track into an instrumental. No rules, really. Sometimes people are frustrated, like, “Oh, we didn’t want it to be that kind of thing.” That’s the point, isn’t it? Why do the same thing twice? You can build a new universe each time you sit in the chair.
You said you have a “thing.” How would you describe it?
Lots of layers and textures. That’s my signature. The texture can determine the rhythm. If you sample something, and there’s a pop or click in it, you can use that as a percussion thing, and it can inspire the rest of your idea.
You’re related to John and Alice Coltrane. Growing up, what was music like?
It was a very humble thing, but it was always very present as well. There was always some kind of music happening. On Sundays we would go to my aunt’s ashram. She listened to spiritual Indian music, like Ravi Shankar.
One reviewer said that what reminded him about your music of John Coltrane was the meditative-ness of it.
That’s how I grew up: in that same, searching mentality, always striving to be searching within for the sound, for the ideas.
Is what you do in the studio very improvisational?
Yeah. I try to get the meat of the songs done very fast. If it doesn’t come naturally in 20 minutes, I step away.
Working on a laptop is not very improvisational for a lot of people.
It needs to be. There needs to be an urgency, an energy. I can’t produce if I’m feeling sluggish. I have to be kicked up with sugar and green tea.
Any favorite synths or techniques to reveal?
I use a Moog Little Phatty, Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, and a bunch of soft synths like [Tweakbench] Triforce. I like to sample with the internal mic on my computer. I’ll sample anything, my voice or my keyboard. It doesn’t matter—it’s all texture. I’m not really a sound snob. I don’t like things to be perfect. I also sample my Nintendo, and that becomes a synthesizer, too.Drew Hinshaw