Flying Lotus may come from L.A.’s experimental hip-hop scene, but he has jazz in his blood. As grandnephew of pianist Alice Coltrane—whose second husband was jazz god John Coltrane—Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison) was surrounded by musical mentors. When his career took off in 2007, he crafted his own mix of heady, progressive, beat-based music, but for his fifth album, You’re Dead!, the 31-year-old channels his jazz roots. This concept work, a psychedelic jazz fusion that explores themes of mortality, is performed almost entirely by live musicians, including legendary keyboardist Herbie Hancock. The album’s funky lead single features Kendrick Lamar but is a breakthrough for other reasons: It shows a new side of an already dynamic performer.
PLAYBOY: What was it like growing up around jazz musicians?
LOTUS: My family put on these John Coltrane festivals every year. They’d get a bunch of great artists, and my aunt Alice would play. It was a great way to be musically introduced to jazz and other left-field things that weren’t in my trajectory as a kid. But my family had a lot of different music around. My cousin, who’s like my big brother, put me onto Stravinsky when I was 10. He was like, “Yo, check this shit out.” And I’m like, “Man, that’s cra…actually, wait a minute!”
PLAYBOY: How important was it to have a vocally driven lead single with Kendrick Lamar?
LOTUS: Part of me was really against doing that, especially as the first single. I didn’t want to exploit the Kendrick factor. That’s the obvious thing motherfuckers do: “Oh, I got the hottest such-and-such on my shit. It’s gonna be the first single!” But Kendrick was like, “Do that shit.” I really fought for that song because Kendrick wanted to keep that beat for his album.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a different view of life and death after making this album?
LOTUS: I do. I have moments when I feel like death doesn’t faze me as much as it used to. I had this moment the other day on stage when I was shouting out people who’ve passed away, and I realized, Fuck, man, somebody’s gonna do that to me one day. Somebody’s gonna be on stage or deejaying a party, one of my homeys maybe, and he’ll shout, “RIP, Fly Lo!”