Flying Lotus on bringing the story of the first Black samurai to life with Yasuke
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, David Renshaw speaks with Flying Lotus about his work on the new Netflix anime.
Flying Lotus on bringing the story of the first Black samurai to life with <i>Yasuke</i>

The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and follow The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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For the past fifteen years Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison, has been at the forefront of groundbreaking electronic music. Blending beat tape atmospherics with cosmic jazz flourishes and experimental textures, his maximalist sound has strong connections to his home in Los Angeles, but always with a futuristic vibe. Across six studio albums he has pushed his distinctive style into new musical territories, bringing collaborators including Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Mac Miller, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, and the late MF Doom into his orbit.

His independent mindset extends to his label, Brainfeeder, established in 2008, which has released albums by trailblazers like Thundercat, George Clinton, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Kamasi Washington among many others. And in recent years FlyLo has moved further into visual arts, directing the blood-soaked 2017 horror movie Kuso and providing the score for the anime short Blade Runner Black Out 2022. He’s also behind the new Netflix anime series Yasuke, a medieval story about the first Black samurai in history, featuring the voice of Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield. FlyLo scored the show, as well as writing the story alongside showrunner LeSean Thomas and working as an Executive Producer on the project.

Just before Yasuke’s launch, The FADER’s David Renshaw spoke with FlyLo about adapting his sound to the screen, his deep love of anime, and how Stanfield came to be an honorary member of the Brainfeeder crew.

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The FADER: To what extent was something like Yasuke the dream project for you? Was it something you were actively seeking to work on?

Flying Lotus: For me, I was actively seeking to work in anime in general. Thundercat and me, we would always joke when we’d see anime intros that like, “Man, they need to be hitting us up for this stuff. Why are they not reaching out to us? We should be killing these intros and not a lot of this same old things that you would hear for years and years.” It just came around naturally, thankfully. But I had no idea this was going to happen. Like a lot of creators, for a while, we just felt like the anime industry was for Japan only and then that was just that’s it. If someone like Shinichirō Watanabe knew about you, then great. But otherwise, it felt like a closed industry, in a way.

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Is there any music from your previous albums that you could imagine seeing in an anime or that could maybe even began their life as something that you’ve thought, if I can get this to someone in Japan maybe things will move in that direction?

Honestly, there’s so much of it that I feel could be in anime. I think a lot of the music that I create is pretty visual and some of it gets intense, and I think that lends itself to anime. When I did the Yasuke, everything just felt very natural. Everything just flowed quite easily. Once I figured out what the sound was supposed to be, it all just fell into place. I hope that happens again. It felt like a little miracle that I was able to be very inspired in the thick of the pandemic. As soon as I started seeing images, I was like, “Oh yes, I know exactly what this needs to be.”

Do you see this album, where does it fit in with the rest of your discography? Is it a continuation of what you’ve been working on or is it separate to the previous albums that people will know you for?

I feel like the project that I’ve done, it feels very me. It could be someone’s favorite of my stuff. I feel like there’s certain people who’ve been looking for me to do this sort of thing for a while, because I feel like I’ve taken a lot of my music in crazier directions, but there’s some people who just want that kind of raw beat thing. There’s something about it, I think, that ticks some boxes for people that they might have missed for a minute from me.

Could you tell me about the very early stages of having seen the animation and the story building? What did you take from those in terms of cues for the music?

It was tough. I really was stumped the whole way in terms of what the music was going to sound like. I was stumped from when we were coming up with plot stuff to the end, or until I started seeing the show move. It really made all the difference. Once I saw stuff moving, I picked up the pace of what the show was and I picked up the tone that it really made a difference. In a lot of these cases, I think, the composers are just blindly creating music hoping that it’ll get placed in the different scenes. Especially in anime, a lot of the creators don’t get to work to picture, so the process was a little different. But I was so glad to be able to do that, because seeing it move really gave me all the inspiration I needed.

Is there a key image, or scene, or a section from one of the episodes that you could point to as being particularly inspirational in those early stages of coming up with the music?

I think once I started seeing scenes from, actually more of the subdued scenes and the talky scenes, once I’ve started seeing that stuff and seeing like, oh, okay, it’s this kind of pace, it really made everything click. Because if the show had more of that fast-paced conversation, I don’t know if the more ambient approach would have been right. Catching the pace of dialogue and movement really informs what the sound is going to be.

I understand that the ways in which the animation studios work changed the way you work as well. They work very quickly and efficiently in a very led by the calendar, whereas maybe you take a more relaxed approach. Would that be fair to say?

I would say that’s fair. I think my approach is a bit more meticulous. I like to sit on ideas for a while and make sure that I’m in love with them before I put anything out. I really love to obsess over tracks for months and months and until I’m like, “man, you know what actually, there’s something about this thing.”

I didn’t have the opportunity to do that with this show, which was awesome. It was great, to be honest, because it allowed me to break out of my comfort zone and it forced me to commit to ideas, and it forced me to finish ideas and see things through. It was a reminder that when I work like that, I can make things happen quite quickly. I’m really proud of the soundtrack, so hopefully it kicked off a thing that will keep going in me where I don’t obsess over stuff as long, I guess.

You mentioned a minute ago, in addition to making the music for this, you’ve also worked on the story and been involved very much from early on. Can you tell me a bit about your involvement in the show away from the music?

When the show first came around, there was a premise that was really, really dope. But I think it was more still like a Yasuke for a live action premise. I think they wanted my opinions and ideas on expanding the concepts. So, I helped with structuring Yasuke’s present day story and his trajectory. My involvement was really creating Saki, the girl Saki, her character and her mother, as well as other things.

But, I think most of my influence is in the first half of the show or the first three episodes. It was just an amazing, amazing thing to be contributing ideas along the way. Just being so close to the show, I think, it just allowed me to have a deeper appreciation for my position and responsibility as a composer. When that moment came around, being so close to it I was like, okay, I have to do a good job. Whereas, I think sometimes when you feel like a gun for hire, you’ll just go through the motions and it doesn’t really mean anything to you. But when you’re super connected, I think everyone wants to put their best foot forward.

Yasuke is the archetypal story of the outsider. Is that loner, misfit feeling something that you identify with?

That feeling is very identifiable for me because, I mean, even in this process, just working in the system, trying to work my way within the Japanese anime structure of scoring TV shows. It’s a totally different experience. I’m the guy in California asking people to work differently in Japan and they’re looking at me like, oh man, what are we getting ourselves into now? Along the way, I’m just like, oh man, always feeling like the weirdo in the room. It never changes. I’m used to it though. I’m cut out for this stuff.

Yasuke is set in Japan and is a story of, like we say, an outsider making his way in the country. I wondered what your experience of traveling abroad through your music career has been like, and whether you, yourself, have felt that outsiderdom while making a way in different countries?

Always, always, always. We can even talk about Japan. I went to Japan for the first time when I was 10 years old with my mother, and this is like 1993. It might’ve even been earlier than that when I was there. Hip-hop hadn’t really taken over like it is now. I think back then people see the sight of a tall Black child in Japan, it would freak people out, man. A lot of kids would be just be staring at me and just pointing like they’d never seen a Black person before. They were just, what are you, man? It was a really weird, strange experience, but I’ve just grown used to that kind of thing, man. I’m used to going and traveling to Eastern Europe, playing a show and be the only Black person in the town at all. I’m used to that. I’ve been there before, so it’s nothing for me really. I just see myself as a human being.

What you’re talking about there brings me onto my next question, which is that anime obviously has a huge Black fan base, but there’s a long problematic history of Black characters in the anime being portrayed with racist stereotypes, and animation, and images. How have you as a fan reconciled those differences as you grew up and identified with the anime, but also could see what was clearly a problem with it?

I think at the end of the day, we all just hope that people aren’t intentionally racist. I think we hope that people just have really terrible points of reference, and I think we hope that people just are just ignorant to what they do. I really believe that, and I think even the director of the show, LeSean [Thomas], had mentioned that it’s just that these people who are drawing these images in Japan, that’s just what they know. Their style of drawing, they might not be trying to really hurt anybody’s feelings.

I can’t say specifically, but there’s some stuff that I see and it’s like, wow, I can’t believe after all these years we still don’t have a Black Dragon Ball character. There’s so many Black kids who love that show and it’s like, okay, wow, why does there have to be a Black character? I don’t know, because maybe that show just has like universes and universes and universes and multiverses of different types of characters and they’re all got wolf people, you got like all types of like genie people and none of them Black though. You ain’t got no like, angelic beings and aliens, then no Black people though. It’s cool. It’ll happen soon. I feel it.

To what extent do you think Yasuke redresses that balance and was that part of the inspiration behind the show?

I think what’s more interesting to me is that we wish we could have more Black characters in the show, but you can’t really do that with this story. I think it’s supposed to be about an outsider in this place, and you wish you were making an anime with hella characters from all around the world, and I think we tried our best to represent different cultures and whatnot at the time. But, I think Yasuke is just hopefully the start of many more of these Black characters and heroes.

And you mentioned the director there, Lesean Daniels, who people may know his name from The Boondocks. He spent a long time working in Japan, making his way in the anime world, and is part of a small wave of Black creators who are working within the medium at the moment, yourself included. Does this increase of diversity give you hope for the future that things will be different going forward?

Absolutely. Absolutely. I have a lot of faith in the future, and especially now that Netflix is snapped up a lot of the animation studios. I know the kind of moves they’re making behind the scenes and they’re definitely spreading around and they’re snapping up some pretty big IP. So, it’s going to get really crazy, I think, in the next two years. We’re going to see the anime industry just quadruple. I already know it, just the types of things that are going to be made.

Do you feel it has the potential to become more mainstream than it currently is?

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I think, let Yasuke be a thing. That show hit the top 10 on the Netflix charts and that’s no easy feat. There’s a lot of crazy content on there and you have millions and millions of subscribers. That’s mainstream to me. Demon Slayer, that movie, the animated movie is biggest movie in the world right now. That is bigger than Mortal Kombat. The Dragon Ball Super: Broly movie that came out was one of the biggest movies at the time, and it’s just getting crazier. All these Shōnen series anime are showing out right now, making tons and tons of money. Netflix knows and people are seeing it.

The voice of Yasuke is LaKeith Stanfield, who people will know from Atlanta and Judas and the Black Messiah. Could you tell me a little bit, as much as you know, how he came to be involved with the project?

Yeah. I’m the third person who got invited to the party. I think LaKeith was the second and LeSean being the first. He and I would cross paths all the time though. I haven’t seen him in forever, but he and I would always cross paths and we’d be like, “We’re going to work on something,” but and then, funny enough, it would turn into this project. But yeah, I love what he does. I think he’s such an interesting guy. I feel he’s also a Brainfeeder artist in a weird way. I feel like he fits in very, very well with the kind of crew that I’ve assembled, but he’s like the unspoken member.

The theme song for Yasuke is “Black Gold,” which features your longtime collaborator, Thundercat. I wondered if you could tell me what goes into the making of a song that you know is going to be on the opening credits of this project? Do you approach that differently and what did you want to get into “Black Gold” to make it work as a theme song?

I wanted to make something that felt true to what I was seeing. That to me was the most important thing. It was so difficult to do because at first they wanted me to write the theme song without having seen anything from the show. But like I said, as soon as I saw it move, I came up with all types of stuff. The melody just came right out. As soon as I saw it move, I was like, oh, it’s this, da-da-da-da-da-da-da. That was it. That was it. It was easy. As soon as I saw it, man, first thing happened was the melody. I knew once I had a melody for Yasuke and a theme to shoot from and pull from whenever I need, that was my anchor. That helps so much just establishing the theme and the tone, everything else is just spilling out of you after a certain point. But for “Black Gold,” once I had that, man, the whole thing just butter.

Is anime something that you and Thundercat have bonded over the years? Is that a big part of your relationship?

I think that’s probably the first thing Thunder and me bonded over was anime. The first time he walked into my house, he saw I had a record collection and the first record that he noticed was the Fist of the North Star vinyl that I had, and he made a comment. He was like, “Oh, yeah. Oh, word.” Then he started looking around my place and looking at how nerdy everything was and he was like, “Oh, dude, we should have been hanging out years ago.”

Earlier this year at the Grammys, Thundercat won the Best Urban Contemporary Album for his album, It Is What It Is. That’s, I believe, Brainfeeder’s first Grammy. Is that correct?

Yeah. It’s Brainfeeder’s first Grammy, and the Grammy matters. We can sit around and we can talk about how Grammys aren’t important and how it, whatever this, that, whatever. No one’s going to be mad for receiving one, that’s for sure. I had no expectation. I was not checking for it. I feel like the one year I wasn’t looking for it is the year I got it, and it was really interesting.

I sat on that moment and got to just be like, yes. I cry, man. I don’t know if you saw, there was a video of when we got the award and, man, it all just hit me at once. I just let it all out. The whole journey just hit. It felt really nice to be acknowledged and to be recognized after spending a lot of time doing this, and I’ve been in the game for forever, man. It just, it feels nice to know that it’s all been worth something.

Just returning back to Yasuke slightly, a lot of people found it hard to be inspired during the past year. Creativity is difficult when you’re preoccupied by other things going on in the world. Was that something that you found working on this project, was it hard to motivate yourself given everything else going on?

I was so grateful to have the project because it was an escape and it allowed me to create without having to be heady about it. I was like, oh, okay, I just have to create to what I’m looking at and what I’m feeling from what I’m watching, that works. If I had to create from what my heart was feeling out of nothing with no visuals or anything to work with, it would’ve probably been a little more difficult to come up with stuff. That year took the wind out of all of us, I feel. It was just such a gross, terrible year. But for me, I was just so grateful to have the project to run to and hideaway and just be a samurai for a while.

I wanted it to end by asking a bit about, we talked about the problem, the trials of 2020 and what everyone went through in terms of creativity and that sort of thing. Live music disappeared in the last year, and as an artist who’s live show is renowned as being particularly innovative and boundary pushing, you’re someone who probably felt that more keenly than others. I wondered how you felt taking a year off the road and also how you feel about the potential return of live music in the coming months?

I love playing shows for people. I love that experience, but I also needed that year to collect myself, I think. There’s a lot of people who were thrown out of the mix because of the touring being off, but for me, I didn’t have many things planned to be on the road anyway. It allowed me a lot of time to dig into music concepts that I’ve been trying to grasp with theory and just other personal things in my life I was able to kind of focus on for the year. Whereas, if I were touring around, I probably wouldn’t have been able to invest that kind of time into just getting better and to growing. But so now when it’s time to do shows again, and when it’s time to go back out into the world, I got some firepower. I got some new tricks up my sleeve and things that I’ve been chipping away at over here, and I’m looking forward to getting back into it. But I definitely wasn’t mad at having a little time to go back to the lab.

I think maybe if I had to say one thing that I spent a lot of time doing was programming synthesizers, learning how to really, really dive into a synthesizer. Taking the time to figure out like what every little piece of it would do. That has helped me so much in sound design and all the stuff that I work in. I needed a month to just figure out what every little piece of these things do. Now whenever I go to a board, any of these keyboards, I know how to get busy on them because I know what these things do, all these knobs and buttons do now. I’m not just shooting in the dark.

Thank you for your time. That was my questions. Congratulations again on the show, and the music, and everything. It’s all come together so well.

Thank you so much, Dave. I appreciate it, man. Thank you.

Thank you. Well, enjoy the rest of your day and the rest of your week.

You too.

The FADER Interview would like to thank Lauten Audio for providing our microphones and James Ivy, who wrote and performed our intro music. Our engineer is Tony Giambrone and our Associate Producer is Salvatore Maicki.

Flying Lotus on bringing the story of the first Black samurai to life with Yasuke