A young black man with a mouthful of bright white teeth stands onstage at Greenwich Village’s (le) poisson rouge in late March, shadowboxing. He bends down to his laptop and grins. Two projection screens behind him flash visual noise: pylons, static, colliding shapes. The guy—Steven Ellison, a/k/a Flying Lotus—snaps upright and starts doing a zombie walk with his arms out in front of him. His eyes swell. A hippie-ish kid with his hair in a bun tries to dance, but the beat is too unsteady to follow: It twists, splatters, and collapses. Bun is out there like a suffocating fish and tries to make body-language conversation: shrug, shrug, shrug. He wants to know what his feet are supposed to do with this shit. Really, there’s nothing to be done, foot-wise—it’s head music.
I have no idea whether Ellison’s actually modifying any of the sounds coming out of the speakers or if it’s all just theater designed to keep our attention, which might drive me into a fit of rhetorical questions about the moral culpability of “performance,” except that unlike most laptop shows I’ve seen, I am actually being entertained and have closed the door on questions for the night. Bun, wounded by the mess, takes a walk.
The set is scattered, but scatter is his thesis. Most of what he plays is synth-heavy electronic hip-hop, with patches of free jazz, video-game soundtracks, and dub-influenced British club music. The crowd mews with wonder when he works in Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” hollers when they hear Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” and luxuriates in the added value that those two songs don’t immediately belong together. Some of the music is Ellison’s own; some is sampled, reconstituted, or just DJ’d.
Flying Lotus is based in L.A., where he associates with a group of instrumental hip-hop producers: Nosaj Thing, Dr. Strangeloop, Flyamsam, Samiyam, and the Tokimonsta, all playful and casually uncool names that sound inspired by cartoons, monster movies, or other cultural accessories to smoking weed. His new album, Cosmogramma, is out on Warp, and he’s also worked with Hyperdub, both U.K. labels with a Harvard-like presence in the dubstep and electronic universe: there from the beginning and presumed unimpeachable, even though not everything that emerges from them is actually great. They are the stamps to have on one’s forehead. Alice Coltrane was also his great-aunt, which is a dishy bullet point for feature writers but also a way to put him on a continuum of cosmic black music—a continuum he describes during the (le) poisson rouge show as “a new reality.” (The phrase itself is complex, a quaint way to invoke the past’s dreams of the future. This is an impulse that the dubstep and L.A. hip-hop communities share, whether it’s via the grave predictions of ’60s science fiction or the celebratory overload of video games.)
As for Ellison’s music, I’m a fascinated skeptic. The ease with which he patches together various styles is impressively fluid, but I sometimes feel like it’s more important than the actual music he’s patching together. Maybe this only exposes my small-mindedness as a listener, but when I hear Cosmogramma, I hear it as a series of references: Here’s my jazz and here’s my hip-hop, here’s my noise and here’s my groove. Thom Yorke guests, but what he sings isn’t as important as the fact that he’s in the room offering his high, lonely, and culturally significant wail. Ravi Coltrane plays some saxophone, and Rebecca Raff plays harp, but I can never remember how their parts go. The music is its variety.
But Ellison isn’t Girl Talk—he isn’t just making a tire fire of all this stuff to prove how deep he digs or how broad-minded he is. He’s a composer, a word that makes me feel like it’s French even though it’s not. A word of weight. Cosmogramma is fusion for short attention spans. Dream music. It sounds fast to me, but also committed. It loves more bodies than it has arms to hug. But welcome to the modern world! I live in New York and I’ve smoked pot before, so I know how it feels to find everything interesting for 30 seconds at a time. It can be horrible or thrilling, depending on whether you’re in it or just trying in vain to remember it.
And this is why I made such a fuss over the question of “questioning” when I left the show: Maybe it’s enough to experience music as an amnesiac, a brain-wipe. Ellison’s neither a messiah nor a sign of the apocalypse. He’s a misfit, a stumble, the embodiment of whoa.