How Flying Lotus Built Brainfeeder, His Spiritual Little Empire

With a little help from his friends, the L.A. producer’s label took the beats scene to the world (and Kendrick Lamar’s speed-dial).

The day before I call Flying Lotus in mid-July to chat about Brainfeeder, the label the Los Angeles producer has run since 2008, he’s in the studio with fellow FADER cover star Hannibal Buress recording—not music, but the comedian’s new weekly show on Comedy Central. Buress introduced Lotus to his audience as his house DJ, which, it transpires on later episodes, involves providing not only sound effects and musical interludes but also chat show banter. The following week, Buress tweeted a photo of himself with Flying Lotus, rapper Open Mike Eagle (an old friend and his first musical guest), and Brainfeeder’s bass virtuoso Thundercat, who performed with Mike on the show. In it, the three musicians are striking a somewhat braggadocious pose but Buress simply looks thrilled to be lending a mainstream platform to his underground heroes, wearing a smile that says, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this.”

This latest turn in Flying Lotus' career hasn’t come out of nowhere. Born Steven Ellison, Steve to his friends, he has spent most of the past decade as the figurehead of the beat scene, an awkward term for a movement that sprung up in the late 2000s following years of experimentation at the edges of hip-hop and electronic music by artists such as Prefuse 73, Dabrye, and Madlib. A network powered by the internet and manifested through various physical nodes—the biggest of which remains Ellison’s hometown of Los Angeles—the beat scene reconfigured independent hip-hop by moving the focus away from rappers to instrumentals, and drawing on a wider sonic palette. It also helped make Ellison a household name, following a string of critically acclaimed albums on British label Warp Records and regular tours that had him circling the globe. In 2013, he was given his own radio station on Grand Theft Auto V, the fastest selling entertainment product of all time. He started 2015 with a six-month residency on BBC Radio 1. And now he has his own corner of a late night comedy show on U.S. television.

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“As a kid I always thought about starting a label.”—Flying Lotus

For all of his personal successes and accomplishments, Ellison had his eye on helping grow a wider community from the get-go. “As a kid I always thought about starting a label,” he explains by phone in his soft-spoken Californian accent. “I was always interested in the business side and I thought it could be a plan B if things didn't work out.” The idea for Brainfeeder was seeded in the L.A. suburb of Northridge, around 2007. Ellison had recently moved into Das Bauhaus, a residential complex that doubles up as an artist commune inspired by the interdisciplinary German movement of the same name. It’s there that he met Adam Stover, a resident who helped him move in and would go on to become Brainfeeder’s label manager. The two struck up a friendship after Stover, a decade older and a fan of electronic music, discovered Ellison was signed to Warp. Shortly after, fellow producers and friends Teebs and Samiyam also moved into the complex. Ideas of how Ellison could parlay his growing notoriety to help give more exposure to those around him began to emerge, which Stover remembers as being the spark that got the coals burning.

In late 2007, Brainfeeder debuted as the name of a four-hour radio broadcast by Flying Lotus and friends on dublab, a local non-profit station that acts as a platform for the local music community. A year later, Brainfeeder Radio returned to celebrate the release of Ellison’s debut album on Warp. This time they banged out the beats for six hours.

The context for Brainfeeder's extended birth can be traced back to the mid-2000s MySpace era, where the beat scene incubated, as well as the communal spaces of the L.A. underground, like dublab and Sketchbook. The latter—a regular party in East Hollywood set up by local DJs Kutmah and Take—provided an early training ground for Ellison and his friends to play beats to fellow heads and build on a common belief that the music was more important than egos. Around that time Ellison was also interning at indie hip-hop label Stones Throw. “I spent a lot of time just observing how a label I respected operates,” he remembers, all the while daydreaming of a platform to push beat music. “What happens if we did stuff and it didn't matter if there was a rapper on it?” he recalls asking himself with a slight chuckle. The idea stuck and as the momentum of his own career and the beat scene increased he decided it was time to take ownership. “There were all these European labels trying to do our sound, so why don’t we just claim it?” he says, adding after a brief pause, “some Braveheart shit, you know.” Ellison lets out a roaring laugh, the only time his voice rises to a level that could be considered loud.

“I was like, ‘ok we’ll do the leftfield stuff no one else wants to do.’ I wanted to be the one to push that.”—Flying Lotus

It was in 2008 that Brainfeeder officially launched as a label, operating as a low-key, digital-only operation for its first two years. Stover, who had been balancing a day job as a manager at Tower Records with some overdue college studies in graphic design, came onboard to lighten the load and enable Ellison to fulfill his contractual obligations with Warp. Another early boost came from Kevin Marques Moo, aka Daddy Kev. A long-standing figure in the L.A. underground, Marques Moo was one of the Low End Theory founders, the weekly nightclub that became ground zero for the Los Angeles beat scene in the late 2000s. He offered to distribute Brainfeeder releases digitally via his own Alpha Pup label. Stover, for his part, set up the social media profiles and handled all the PR in-house, learning as he went along.

In its first two years the label grew slowly, with Ellison’s increasing popularity drawing it steady attention. They put on shows at home, as well as in San Francisco, London, and Barcelona, and pumped out a regular podcast series that joined the dots of the beat scene’s global diaspora. In May 2008, they put out their very first release: Rap Beats Vol.1 by Samiyam. The Ann Arbor native, real name Sam Baker, was known for a strain of angular, slapping beats as potent as the local medical marijuana. Ellison calls Baker his main inspiration for starting Brainfeeder. “He was always there, we were best friends at the time and so it made sense to build something together,” Ellison remembers with a wistful tone his voice. After Baker's release came other Los Angeles mainstays, all tapped by Ellison for their weirdest stuff. “I was like, ‘ok we’ll do the leftfield stuff no one else wants to do in the beat-driven world,’” he says. “I asked people for the stuff other labels wouldn’t be sure about. I wanted to be the one to push that.” And everyone delivered: Ras G went full Sun Ra on 2009’s Brotha From Another Planet; that same year The Gaslamp Killer amped up his psych tendencies on My Troubled Mind; and Daedelus explored a historical battle through soft and slow textures on Righteous Fists of Harmony in 2010.

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In 2010, Ninja Tune offered Brainfeeder a deal to manufacture, distribute and promote their catalogue worldwide, with Alpha Pup remaining as their U.S. digital distributor. It was a shrewd move on the part of the British label, one of a handful of long-running independents that, like Warp, had managed to adjust to a new digital landscape. It was also validation of Brainfeeder's ethos and recognition of its potential. “We saw the reach Ninja had and realized we could go from a small digital imprint to a much bigger entity capable of being everywhere,” Stover explains. The relationship between the two is more than just logistical support, though—there is a real synergy with the Ninja team that Stover admits is integral to what Brainfeeder does. For Peter Quicke, Ninja Tune's label manager since 1992, it was a logical move. They'd arranged for Ellison's first ever UK show in 2006, commissioned remixes from him, and also held his publishing. “Even though Brainfeeder is a separate label we feel and act like it is part of Ninja,” Quicke tells me by email. “We want to make it work like we do our own imprints such as Big Dada.”

When I ask Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, who debuted on Brainfeeder in 2011, to describe the label he doesn't have to think about his reply. “Exactly like it sounds. Some weird creature from a 1950s horror movie,” he chuckles before continuing in a raspy tone, “a giant brain trolling you and chasing you around the city, destroying your property.” More chuckling and a joke about amoebas follow before Bruner summons a modicum of seriousness and calls Brainfeeder a family, “a real family.” It's a recurring theme among those I speak to. For Mtendere Mandowa, known as Teebs, it's a family because “they were the first dudes to really believe and push my stuff out.” Theo Jemison, who has photographed Ellison and Brainfeeder artists since the mid-2000s and provided all the archive images for this feature, recognized this familial quality at the heart of the label: “It's where it stems from and it continues from that.” Ellison, for his part, seems to believe that by treating Brainfeeder as a family it can remain unconstrained by the business limitations of a label. After seven years, does he feel like he has succeeded in that sense? “I think so, for the most part,” he admits coyly. “There's always [going to be] some weirdness between motherfuckers, but that’s how family is—it can’t always be great at all times. [But] I would consider all the artists to be my actual friends, you know? Everyone's always welcome to the house.”

Despite Ellison's aversion to the business side of owning a label, there are certain responsibilities that come with it—A&R being a key one. While Stover provides a sounding board, it's Ellison who drives the evolution of Brainfeeder's repertoire, in a way he refers to as mostly organic. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the latest addition to the Brainfeeder roster, points to this personal approach as the reason why he joined. “I saw Lotus had a great vision in what he liked, what he was into,” he explains. “The audience he had cultivated shared his open-mindedness.” Both Washington and Mandowa also mentioned being given freedom to create as another important factor in feeling at home on Brainfeeder. For Bruner, it all began not by thinking about joining a label but rather with feeling like “my best friend was visioning things with me,” he says. “It was a very personal experience.”

I ask Ellison to define his A&R approach but he brushes off the question by saying that he tries not to sign artists anymore. “There’s always problems, people move on to other projects at other labels, naturally, so…” he trails off before almost contradicting himself by saying that he now simply signs acts that he feels make “sense,” an ever-evolving concept defined by Ellison’s frame of mind at the time. He recounts an early attempt at signing Tyler, The Creator, before Odd Future had become a thing: “[Tyler] was tripping, like ‘you'll make vinyl copies of my music?!’” Ellison’s plan was to team him up with Baker for an EP. Had that happened, the expansion of the L.A. beat scene could’ve gone in a very different direction. “I also wanted to sign Chance The Rapper back in the day,” continues Ellison. “A few artists who have gone on to do huge shit slipped right through my fingers.” He lets out another laugh before admitting that it's all for the best. There's a sense that Ellison simply can't reconcile the harsher realities of A&R—the money, the promises, the failures—with his own personal beliefs, and, I assume, his own fame. So he chooses not to. Instead he sticks to “trying to do right by everybody.”

Having built a reputation as a home for the beat scene’s more leftfield output, Brainfeeder took its first noticeable stylistic turn in February 2011 with the release of Austin Peralta's Endless Planets, a jazz album from the son of Z-Boys skateboarder Stacey Peralta. A prodigal piano player, Peralta, alongside Washington and Bruner, was part of a loose group of local jazz musicians quietly seeking new ways to push the genre forward. Peralta’s joining of Brainfeeder placed him at the nexus of hip-hop, electronic music, and jazz. In his hands was the power to bring jazz to a new generation of beat heads. Ellison had met Peralta through David Wexler, aka Dr. Strangeloop, another Brainfeeder artist. He signed him on the spot, sensing something in Peralta's music and vision. “Austin's record was completely off the track from what we were doing,” Stover recalls. He asked why they should put out a jazz album by a pianist, to which Ellison replied: “this is where we need to go.” It was the first of many calls that Stover remembers felt weird at first but turned out to be “the right releases.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Brainfeeder would take this direction. As Jemison points out, there had always been a jazz undercurrent to the label: Ellison, Bruner, Washington and Taylor McFerrin, who also debuted on Brainfeeder in 2011, all have jazz lineages through their families and personal practices. “It would make sense that Brainfeeder would go back to that,” Jemison argues, “because it was also an initial spark for hip-hop.” Washington concurs, pointing out that, at their core, the beat scene and hip-hop have a direct link to jazz by virtue of how they repurpose existing musical ideas. “It’s coming from the same place, the musical rebellious nature of it," he says. "Imma do whatever I want! I don’t care! You know? The real essence of jazz for me.” In August 2011, Brainfeeder released Thundercat's debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse, produced with Ellison and featuring contributions from both Peralta and Washington. It was another one of those "right releases," an expansive fusion of styles that reconfigured traditional jazz, funk, and soul for a generation raised on anime, video games, and the internet.

Over the following year Brainfeeder continued to expand like the cartoonish monster Bruner had described to me, gobbling up artists and styles that, on the surface, seemed to have little in common aside from Ellison’s support: shapeshifting dance music from Dutch producer Martyn; futuristic R&B from the UK’s Lapalux; raw bars from Chicago rapper Jeremiah Jae; and distorted experiments from L.A. tape fanatic Matthewdavid. In January 2012 Brainfeeder was voted “Label of the Year” at renowned UK radio DJ Gilles Peterson's annual Worldwide Awards in London. That summer they took over one of the daytime stages at the Sonar festival in Barcelona.

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“I saw Lotus had a great vision in what he liked. The audience he had cultivated shared his open-mindedness.”—Kamasi Washington

But then in November 2012, tragedy struck. Peralta passed away at the age of 22 following a bout of viral pneumonia. His death cast a somber mood over the various Los Angeles communities that had claimed him as one of their own. Peralta’s signing had marked a key turning point in the short history of Ellison's label and while his promise to redefine jazz went unfulfilled, his friends decided to carry that torch in his name. A move that was initially deemed a risk has gone on to yield the label’s best successes in jazz-inspired albums by Thundercat and Kamasi Washington.

Today, Stover frames Brainfeeder’s evolution as a departure from their beat-minded roots towards “a future more open to different types of musicianship.” But there’s also another way in which Peralta's record helped the label progress. “Maybe it's a sort of spirituality,” Stover says. “I think that's the connection Lotus has to this music and why we're doing it. It's not about the hot new thing in the club, it's about something different.” While the meditative grooves of early Brainfeeder releases by Ras G and Teebs hinted at that spirituality, the label's more direct engagement with it was sparked by Ellison's own musical journey. On his second album, Cosmogramma, released in 2010, the hip-hop snap and crackle of his 2008 debut, Los Angeles, was replaced by denser productions that had the ambition of compositions, rather than beats, and attempted to answer metaphysical questions about life and death, spurred on by the passing of his mother and great aunt, Alice Coltrane. While Ellison has recently spoken publicly about his own spiritual quest, there have always been clues in his work as an artist and a leader. When I relay what Stover told me, Ellison concurs. “I feel like I’m attracted to artists who are looking for the meaning of life, people seeking to understand the universe through their work," he says. "I feel like I know when you hear it.” Mandowa furthers the point: “Everyone [on the label] seems like they’re searching for something through music," he tells me. "Whether they wanna try to be shamans or just understand where they fit into this grand scheme of things.”

“I’m attracted to artists who are looking for the meaning of life, people seeking to understand the universe through their work.”—Flying Lotus

Earlier this year, I visited Cosmic Zoo in the Atwater Village neighbourhood of Los Angeles, a recording studio run by Marques Moo, Brainfeeder's go-to engineer and the man Stover jokingly referred to as the label's “ghost employee” due to his quiet involvement since the start. Cosmic Zoo is the sonic home of Brainfeeder, where albums such as Bruner's 2012 second album, Apocalypse, which was dedicated to Peralta's memory, were mixed and mastered. Ellison relies on Marques Moo because he knows that the engineer understands the label’s sound like no other. With a career spanning close to twenty years, Marques Moo has a unique perspective on where his music and that of his peers lies within the legacy of the city: they have “a vision for Los Angeles," as he refers to it. “Steve and I [have a shared] appreciation for Los Angeles, for our friends and family here,” he explained. “We talk about the idea that the music we do isn’t our own; it’s a reflection of the people around us, the influences we’ve been able to catch. All we’re doing is channelling that back.”

Music often draws on the surroundings of its creators, and for Brainfeeder that means a sound that’s as open as a city nestled between the ocean and the mountains, and graced with year-long sunshine. “You can evolve [here], it’s very supportive,” reflects Mandowa. “People want you to push yourself.” For Bruner, Los Angeles is “the place where you're supposed to dream. It’s why Hollywood is here.” And dreams sometimes come true, as they did for the Brainfeeder crew when Kendrick Lamar called upon Bruner, Washington and Ellison to join the production team on his 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly. While many in rap’s mainstream opt to play it safe, Lamar delivered a major label record that was sonically anchored in the city's teeming underground. As a result of its success, many came knocking on Brainfeeder’s door. Washington's debut, the fittingly-titled, 3-hour jazz opus The Epic, was released a few months after Lamar's record and has proved to be one of Ellison’s best label successes to date. “People are coming to us saying they listen to top 40 hip-hop but after hearing Kendrick's record they checked us out and love the music,” Stover explains. “That's sort of the beginning of our next chapter—the light is shining back on us a bit and people are seeing the connections.”

“This is the beginning of our next chapter—the light is shining back on us a bit and people are seeing the connections.”—Adam Stover, Brainfeeder

Ultimately, words can only go so far in framing musical experiences. The limitations of language is one of the reasons why Washington thinks people might struggle to understand how jazz virtuosos, beat kids, and other sonic weirdos can happily co-exist in a space like Brainfeeder. “The terminologies are worlds apart in their social functions but the music is really close,” he says. “All the pioneers were pioneers because they broke the rules.” The first generation of hip-hop artists used the music of their parents as building blocks for their own. Today, Brainfeeder is using hip-hop’s approach to introduce a new generation to what came before while releasing music that hints at what might be next. What you call it doesn’t matter, it’s how it makes you feel.

How Flying Lotus Built Brainfeeder, His Spiritual Little Empire