The Future According to Flying Lotus


L.A.’s chief visionary talks dreams and dystopia, aliens and UFOs, and what’s next

It’s one thing to imagine the future, it’s an entirely different act of divination to create it. For the last dozen years, Flying Lotus has been L.A.’s most dependable prophet. He twinned the liquid infinity of his great-aunt Alice Coltrane with the avant mercury veil of Aphex Twin, and merged it into the crazy visions of an ‘80s baby from Winnetka, raised on Dre, smog, and Dragon Ball. The result was a one-man genre built from the bones of hip-hop and jazz, funk and drum & bass, IDM and ethereal soul, but definitively FlyLo. Raised on Parliament and Herbie, Radiohead and Madlib, he has become their peer and collaborator, the next in the lineage, a generational north star for experimental genius.

If space ships came equipped with rearview mirrors, we could talk about 36-year-old Steven Ellison’s achievements for eons. When Kendrick Lamar wanted to summon the new cosmic slop for To Pimp a Butterfly, he enlisted Lotus. It netted him two Grammy nominations and stamped his interstellar two-step on the most acclaimed album of the last decade. At the Low End Theory, Flying Lotus became the avatar of the Lincoln Heights beat scene Holy See, helping turn it into the most internationally revered club night of this millennium. As a label boss, his Brainfeeder became more than a mere home for elysian beat and modal symphonies; it’s an essential idea, astral rhythms rooted in the belief that the journey to the future often runs through the past.

A decade ago, jazz was having its last rites read for roughly the thousandth time. But thanks to Lotus and Brainfeeder artists like Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and the late Austin Peralta, you’re as likely to see it at Coachella (remember when) as in a small dark club with black-and-white framed photos of Duke Ellington on the wall. Lotus has had his own radio station in GTA games and composed film scores (Perfect, Blade Runner Black Out 2022). His own 2017 directorial debut, Kuso, oozed a cracked black mirror brilliance — a sci-fi dystopian comedy somewhere between David Lynch and Beetlejuice, but with better beats and better drugs. You could not unsee it.

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In the same regard, you cannot unhear Flying Lotus’s music. Every time you listen, you discern new shapes within its sun-damaged fusion, asymmetrical funk, and smoke ring elusiveness. A thousand imitations exist, but there is only one original, posted up in the 818 foothills — taking breaks between mastering the grand piano and memorizing new video game combinations to imagine tricky pockets of rhythm and 29th Century celestial dances. We spoke in the spring around the time of the release of his latest, the instrumentals to last year’s Flamagra, but time and space never really apply to him. Lotus was definitely quarantined at home, but it’s unclear exactly in which galaxy.

Where do you see the future of music going?

It’s in a weird place. When it comes to tunes, I’ve noticed that people are getting more inspired about bands again. They’re excited to see people play instruments and show off crazy musicianship. That aspect is coming back in a dope way. Judging from the stuff that I’ve been watching on Instagram, the next generation of musicians will really care about their playing. All the dope young producers are great finger drummers too. It’s not just kids making beats anymore; it’s kids saying this is how they’re getting down and this is what’s to be expected. It’s important to care about the technology, but it’s about the musicianship too. People just playing beats on the 404 was dope for a while, but personally I wouldn’t sign someone to Brainfeeder who can’t play anymore. It’s also going to be more about what the live show is like. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I’m continually striving to take those performances to the next level. And I want that to inspire the kids and to be a part of it myself. I’m listening to that shit. I want to hear the new shit right now.

What about the future of electronic music?

I’ve been curious myself. As far as the underground is concerned, people are making a lot of house and realizing that people want to dance. But in terms of music, a lot of people are getting into the modular stuff — like how to make the music make itself. As far as the rhythm, I don’t know. If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. I’d be over here making that shit.

The whole A.I. music thing is going to be a big deal. I think we’ll see shows that have just been done by computers.

Flying Lotus

Do you think that Los Angeles will ever produce another underground night like Low End Theory?

Of course there will be another Low End Theory. With every generation there’s a thing like that — a new underground spirit. There will always be kids that aren’t heard who will make something that inspires the rest of us. I’m out here looking for it.

Do you think that the increasing price of real estate and the lack of small independent music venues — even before the pandemic — will make that significantly more difficult?

It’s like anything else — people will have to pack up their shit and head further and further east. The desire to create will always exist, it might just not be in the same neighborhood.

How do you see the pandemic affecting the future?

Handshakes might be over. I feel like I’ve been taken on so many rides that it’s so hard to imagine things 30 years from now. The whole A.I. music thing is going to be a big deal. I think we’ll see shows that have just been done by computers. We’ll be comfortable paying to watch a computer. Masks are going to stay for a while. People will embrace the mask like they do in Japan.

Flying Lotus was quarantined at home, but it’s unclear exactly in which galaxy. (Photo by Eric Coleman; Art by Matt Medina)

Are you optimistic about where we’re going?

In some respects I am. I feel people have become more unified, and that will continue. I hope we won’t regress, but I suspect things will be more fucked up in some ways. As far as social media, it’ll change in that I think people won’t be super comfortable sharing this much of their lives in the very near future. But it’ll take something major to happen for that change to occur — like some crazy data breach that leaves things out in the open. It might be TikTok, it might be Gmail. What happens when you can reverse look up Gmail addresses to search for emails that went to whoever? That could start it all.

What are your favorite L.A. future movies?

Blade Runner is definitely one of my favorites, and the one that I’ve seen the most. There’s a depressed bluesy vibe to that movie. All the rain. As far as flying cars, I don’t think that’s going to be a thing. Imagine all the people drunk-driving flying cars and then crashing into houses. Although I definitely think all of our cars will be automated very soon.

Do you see yourself staying in Los Angeles?

I’ll be stuck here forever. It’s going to be fucked up man. The traffic is too crazy, too many people on the road. I tell people don’t move here anymore, just stay where you’re at and come visit when you feel like it.

Do you have hope for the future of L.A.?

I do hope for another inspiring music community to pop up soon. I really want that more than anything. I want something where everyone is excited to do the thing — “Here’s the new stuff.” I’m ready to be inspired. I think it’s inevitable, but it’s going to take a bunch of kids who are poor and frustrated. I think the new sound is being brewed and bred right now during the quarantine.

What about aliens?

I feel like we’ll make contact with alien life sooner than people think. It won’t be like super-intelligent life — it’ll be kinda like alien bugs first and that will be the first alien. It won’t be the super-intelligent psychic beings; we might meet the weird bug guy first.

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Do you believe in UFOs?

I take the Fox Mulder saying: I want to believe, but I don’t know if I do. I feel like there’s something beyond the curtain, but who knows how far advanced that civilization is. Maybe we’re the one that arrives on them and shows them how they really had it great before we showed up.

Do you consider yourself part of the Afro-Futurist tradition?

I don’t really like that term, personally, but I feel weird when I’m left out of the conversation. I mean, I definitely love Sun Ra and Funkadelic and all that. I used to really love drum & bass back in the day — that was super futuristic; you felt like you were in space. I loved Aphex Twin and breakcore — that felt like the future. Amon Tobin felt like the future. Jungle always seemed futuristic to me — obviously, the artwork, the trippy cyborg girls, and cosmic space imagery.

How did Kuso reflect your ideas about the future?

Kuso is representative of my worst nightmare about the future: a future where everyone has abandoned all hope, a future where everyone has given up on giving a fuck. They’ve full-on accepted that they’re terrible people.

What is your greatest dream for the future, for the world in general?

It would feel something like Blade Runner without the rain. I think there’s something about that, but I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to live in it. It’s definitely someplace I’d want to visit. For me personally, I’m like an island dreamer; I wish I lived on an island by myself, just me and someone to cook the food.

What’s your dream for your personal future?

My dream is to keep going and being inspired and not get stagnant and not dwell on things that I did in the past. I want to keep growing and playing different types of shows. I want to fucking get super old and for people to be like, “What is this cat gonna make next?” On some Rick Rubin shit. That would be nice if I go that far, to be the elder synth god. My piano teacher is 80 and he’s hip and I know the reason he’s still with it is because he still loves playing so much. I want to be like that.

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, theLAnd co-Editor-in-Chief Jeff Weiss will be discussing the Future of Music with Andrea Domanick, Kyambo “Hip-Hop” Joshua, Cypress Moreno, and Rosecrans Vic. RSVP here.