In the middle of writing his sixth album Flamagra, Steven Ellison—the experimental electronic producer known as Flying Lotus—took up piano lessons. “It’s never too late!” the 35-year-old tells Apple Music. “It's always nice to have someone checking your technique and calling you on your bullshit.” For the past decade, Ellison’s primary tool has been his laptop, but for this album, he committed to learning each instrument. “It actually made me faster,” says the artist, who is a product of LA’s beat scene and the grandnephew of John and Alice Coltrane. “Suddenly, I could hear every part.” Inspired by the destructive wildfires that swept California's coastline and the deadly 2016 Ghost Ship fire, which broke out at a warehouse in Oakland, Flamagra—a jazzy, psychedelic concept album that spans 27 tracks—imagines a world in which Los Angeles was lit by an eternal flame. “One that was contained, and good,” he says. “How would we use it?'" To explore that heady framework, he tapped some of pop culture's most out-of-the-box thinkers, including George Clinton, David Lynch, Anderson .Paak, and Solange—all visionary artists with specific points of view who, Ellison knows, rarely do guest features. "The fact is, most of these artists are my friends," he says. "I like to do things organically. That's the only way it feels right." Read on for the story behind each collaboration.
Anderson .Paak, "More" "I first met Andy a long time ago. He's a drummer and grew up around Thundercat and Ronald Bruner Jr., two amazing musicians Andy was probably inspired by. So I chased him down and we recorded the demo to 'More.' It was dope, but it was never done. There were things both of us wanted to change. For years I'd run into him at parties where he'd be like, 'What's up with the song, man? Is it done yet? Why ain't it done yet?' It became this running joke with his big ol' toothy smile. Then, finally, we got it done. And now we don't have nothin' to talk about."
George Clinton, "Burning Down the House" "I made this beat while I was in a big Parliament phase. One day, George came through and I threw it on. We sat next to each other working on it—the lyrics, the arrangements. And even though he's so brilliant, I was able to help fill in little gaps that made it work with the album's concept, so it was truly collaborative. It also gave me more confidence writing lyrics, which isn't something I normally do that often."
Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon, "Spontaneous" "I'd been trying to work with Little Dragon for forever. We've always been playing similar shows, passing each other at festivals, being like, 'We gotta do something! We gotta do something!' Finally I was like, 'I'ma reach out and get this poppin'.' The song was actually one of the last to get added onto the album."
Tierra Whack, "Yellow Belly" "Honestly, I was just a fan of hers from SoundCloud. Then, one day, Lil Dicky came over to play some music and brought her along. He didn't really give her the proper introduction. He was just like, 'This is my friend Tierra, she makes music.' She didn't say much, but she was cool and we were vibing out. A couple hours later, Dicky was like, 'Okay, wanna listen to some of this Tierra Whack music?' I was like, 'Wait a second, you mean, you're the—oh my god! I know all your songs. I mean, you've only got two of them, but I know 'em both!' I super-fanned out."
Denzel Curry, "Black Balloons" "The thing I love about Denzel is that he's got so much to prove. He's got a fiery spirit. He wants to show the world that he's the greatest rapper right now. I love that. But the difference is that he actually comes back better every time I hear him. He's putting in the work, not just talking shit. He cares about the craft and is such a thoughtful human. So there's an interesting duality there. He's got the turn-up spirit, but he's very conscious and very smart."
David Lynch, "Fire Is Coming" "This album has a middle point—like a chapter break moment—and David Lynch couldn't have been more perfect to introduce it. You know, initially I thought it should be a sound design thing, something weird and narrative and unexpected. I wasn't thinking about chopping David Lynch on the beat. But when I sent them a version that was basically atonal jazz—you know, weird sounds—they hit me back like, 'Hey, so we think this would be so cool if it had that Flying Lotus beat!' I was like, 'Oh, all right, okay, I got you.'"
Shabazz Palaces, "Actually Virtual" "This one is special to me. He came out to my house, stayed in my guest room, and we worked on songs for three days straight. And the truth is, we made so much stuff that we forgot about this track. When I found it later, randomly, I was like, 'What the fuck is this? It needs a little TLC, but man, it could really be something.' After I spent some time on it and sent it back over to him, he just goes, 'That's hardbody.' Such an East Coast line."
Thundercat, "The Climb" "The thing is, Thundercat is on every track. He's pretty much playing on 90 percent of the album. But this is the only one he's singing on. We started this song the way we start everything: frustrated and depressed about the world, knowing we want to make something that reminds people that most of the chaos out there is just noise. Be above all that shit. Be above the bullshit."
Toro y Moi, "9 Carrots" "Toro is the person I always wind up in vans with at festivals. Somehow, I always wind up in the van with Toro. We play a lot of the same shows, we get picked up from the same hotels, and he's just always in the van, or on the plane, things like that. Over time, I guess I started to feel a kindred spirit thing, even though he's someone I don't know too well. But finally we were like, 'We gotta make something happen.'"
Solange, "Land of Honey" "I'd been trying to make this song happen for a long time. We initially started it for a documentary film that didn't pan out. But I really loved the song and always thought it was special, so I kept on it. I kept working on it, kept to trying to figure out how to tie it into the universe that I was building. Eventually, we recorded it here at the house and just felt really organic, really natural. She's someone I'd definitely like to keep working with."
Honorable Mention: Mac Miller "A couple songs on the album, like 'Find Your Own Way Home' and 'Thank U Malcolm,' were inspired by Mac. 'Thank U Malcolm' is special to me because it's my way of thanking him for all the inspiration he left behind in his passing, and for all the fire he inspired in me, Thundercat, and all of our friends. He made us want to be better, to let go of the bullshit. And now, you know, none of us are out here experimenting with drugs or anything. That's largely because of him. After he left us, everyone was like, 'You know what? Fuck all that shit.' In a way, in his passing, he's got friends of mine clean. He'll always mean a lot to me."