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The Fire This Time: Flying Lotus Seeks Rebirth After Mac Miller's Death

Tim Saccenti
Courtesy of the artist

I want Flying Lotus to score my reincarnation.

The thought hit me barely ten minutes into the headlining set of his Flamagra tour stop in Atlanta. As I sat in the balcony wearing plastic 3D glasses, a kaleidoscopic maze of images and flames projected from the screen behind his booth seemed to swallow him whole. At one point a virtual spacecraft that'd give P-Funk's Mothership a run for its money extended overhead and invited me aboard for some trippy astral traveling. I couldn't even blame what I was seeing on the watery cocktail the bartender served me earlier. I was totally sober.

But one doesn't need 3D glasses to feel FlyLo's music. Critics have argued over his genre distinctions plenty: Is he jazz, funk, electro, hip-hop, experimental? It's a pointless exercise because, of course, the answer is yes. Always, yes. Like the trickster god Elegua, he sits at a crossroads where even the cosmic is comic.

Yet the producer, musician and rapper who's soundtracked the afterlife on albums like You're Dead certainly hasn't escaped its grip. Throughout his career, death has served as a recurring source of pain but also a portal of inspiration. The last year alone has been bookended by the loss of his good friends and collaborators Mac Miller, who he pays tribute to with two songs on Flamagra, and L.A. beat scene artist Ras G, who released music on FlyLo's Brainfeeder label.

That trauma belies the enduring sense of hope that underlines his latest release. The fires consuming his L.A. hometown in recent years may have sparked the idea for the similarly-themed album, but he spends more time over Flamagra's 27 songs conjuring new heroes from an "eternal flame."

When I dialed Flying Lotus up around the time of the album's release to ask if we could talk about death, he laughed. "That's where you want to start, huh? That's a hell of a way to break the ice, bro." It was an abrupt opener, even for an artist who's never shied away from confronting mortality. But as we talked about everything from the undying impact of his great aunt Alice Coltrane to the sacred discipline he gained from learning to play the piano, it became clear that the darkness he inhabits is eternally lit for rebirth.

Like the 3D flames that envelop FlyLo without ever consuming him onstage, unbearable tragedy can contain inherent beauty for those left behind to mourn a life and confront its afterglow. What Flying Lotus is conjuring on Flamagra is a reanimation of sorts. "I did really try to make it feel like more of a summoning or more of a spiritual experience," he said when asked how this album connects to earlier works like 2010's Cosmogramma. But the magic doesn't come without the kind of self-sacrifice James Baldwin hints at when he writes in The Fire Next Time: "It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life." It's proof, if anything, that energy is eternal, whether it shows up in a FlyLo LP or a fire James Baldwin quote.

It feels like death and grief tend to play a really big part in your musical output.

Yeah. That's true.

A lot of times it's really serious, but it's also really surreal and absurd. Cosmogramma followed the passing of your mom and great-aunt, Alice Coltrane. You're Dead followed the passing of your friend and Brainfeeder artist, Austin Peralta. Even Kuso, in a way, felt like it was inspired by the idea of surviving something that's really supposed to kill you. And now Flamagra comes on the heels of your friend Mac Miller's passing. How does the music help you process all of this pain?

I'll tell you, man, I'm so, so, so, so, so grateful to have music as my outlet because I'm able to ask a lot of questions with the work and express things that I can't with words or tears or anything. I feel like anyone who was close to me who has passed — Mac's passing especially — has always given me something. They've always left something behind for me to pull from emotionally. Obviously, I don't want people around me to die, but I always pull from that. I don't know why, but I guess it's just I've had a lot of people pass in my life.

That's also changed my relationship with death, too. I really don't take my friends for granted. I really try to remind people around me that I care about them. I just try to just be mindful of how fleeting everything is. But yeah, I think Mac Miller's passing was a little bit different. When he passed, Thundercat was supposed to go on tour with him. [Thundercat] and I planned on not working for a while because he was going to be gone, so we were going to try and blitz and get a couple of things done. But then Mac passed and he couldn't do this tour anymore, and I was thinking about when Mac was alive. He was always hoping that I was making some music. He was always like, "What are you working on? What are you making?" He was always on my s***. So I was just like, you know what, man? What Mac would want — instead of us being all emotional about it, sad and just sitting here being pissed — he would want us to just go. Just go, go. So that's what happened. That's how we honored him.

Me and Thunder, we made so many songs, so many ideas and drafts. We went in around the fall of last year. We spent every day working together, crying together, dealing with that. His passing gave us a lot of energy, too. So, I feel his presence here all the time. Yeah, I was grateful to have had him in my life and be part of his universe.

It seems like L.A.'s creative community is being inundated with tragedy right now. Obviously, there's Mac's passing last year, then Nipsey Hussle and John Singleton earlier this year [and, more recently, Ras G]. The culture-at-large is hurting, but It must be impacting your city especially hard.

Absolutely. And also watching our institutions close. It's all very, very fucking strange. But, at the same time, at the end of every depressed thought I think in that regard, I'm like, OK, well that means it's time for the new people to make something. It's time for someone new to make an impact in the city. At the end of every dark thought I try to take it to that positive place. Because it's inevitable. I believe in that. That's how music has been; that's how culture has been. Things shut down, people die, new people come and rely on the old people. Like, 'Oh s***, what y'all doing over here?" And then everybody gets energized again. We're all just waiting for the day to come, I think.

On the first song on Flamagra, the first voice we hear is you saying: "The time of heroes has come again." What do you mean by that?

It's kind of like my little chipping away at wanting to change the world, I guess, in a superhero sense. One thing we've been lacking is heroic imagery, aside from the Avengers and stuff, you know? I just felt like in such dark times we need to be reminded that we can do good things. That we can leave good things behind for people.

I wanted to set the album off on a good vibe. I wanted the whole thing to be consumed by really good energy because that's what I put into it. I want it to be a love thing and I wanted to remind people of that, but not in a very deliberate way. It comes across in that moment. It was all kind of improvised, but that's exactly what it's supposed to be.

As bad as we could use some heroes right now, it kind of feels like we're not worthy of them.

Yeah, right. Yo, we can go way deep into that. It's all part of it. That's what I kind of mean, too. I feel like people are still waiting for Obama to slip up. "Oh, he's out of the White House now. He's going to do something!" Come on, man, let the cat be a hero. Let the dude just be great. Can he just be awesome? Can his family just live? Like his daughter, she goes out to a party and gets high and it's like, "Oh my God. The Obamas, they did something. They actually got him. They doing some s***!" Let these people live.

In terms of heroes, does your aunt [Alice Coltrane]'s legacy — her music, even just her spiritual vibe — still influence you in tangible ways?

All the time. When I listen to recordings, all the time. I think of her all the time and I'm just so grateful to have had such an example of a hero. She was just an angel on Earth. And when people talk about her, it's like you want people to talk about you like that. Hopefully, I guess. You want people to want to say those things about you. And not just in a creative [way] and all that, but just as a human being. The types of things my aunt did for me and my family — she really took care of us. I feel like there were times when we would have been out on the street if it wasn't for her. And beyond all the other stuff, I have some other examples of how amazing this human being was. What an example. I feel like in a weird way I'm kind of becoming [her], in a financial [sense]. I have to take care of my family now because ain't nobody else going to take care of my grandma and my sister. And my extended family, I started looking out for them, too, now.

What else did she mean to you?

I think about my aunt and how she didn't twitch when it was time. Somebody needed this; somebody needed that. It's an incredible thing. She got me my first beat machine when I was a kid. She was like, "Oh, you want to make music? You're really trying to do this? All right. Well, you're going to need this right here." We couldn't afford that in my house. I think people have this vision of my relationship with her in this cosmic, spiritual jazz thing. But my connection to my aunt was like real, real, way deep. It wasn't just music. You know what I mean? She took care of us.

Is your art the closest thing that you have to a religious practice nowadays?

I would say, but in a strange way I feel like I'm becoming a bit more religious in a traditional sense. I feel like I'm starting to understand why people do. I'm getting it. It's starting to make more sense to me.

Break it down for me.

Well, I don't know how deep I want to get into this stuff, but I do feel like ever since I started pursuing my instrument — playing piano and stuff — ever since I really started really, really going in I feel like I've been more of a witness to God than I ever have been.

I'm like visually seeing it, you know, and hearing it. It's a trip. It's been a trip. Producing and all that stuff [is one thing]. I just feel like when I'm playing an instrument I understand why a lot of musicians are spiritual and I understand why a lot of the best musicians believe in God, because they're seeing this thing that is happening through them. It's watching the fingers, like, I'm not doing this anymore. I see it. I totally see it. I don't know. I feel way more connected to it than I've ever been. That's for sure.

You've talked about zoning out during a Kamasi Washington solo once and how rarely that happens. When you're creating, does it hit you like that? Are you seeing visions?

It does, it does. Because those moments will be like, "Oh wow, an hour passed by. What just happened? What am I hearing? What is this even?" You just snap out of it suddenly and you're just sitting in front of this crazy loop. Like I said, there's something about playing an instrument and the real time-ness of it. It's like when I wake up, I'm better than I was yesterday, or worse. But then, a day from now that I'm way better than I was. It's not about ... You see the separation between the technique, the hard work and the ego. Then there's the other thing that comes in — in the rare moment — that you can't quantify. You don't know when it's going to happen but it happens and it's like, "Holy s***! It's happening."

Do you play an instrument?

I should say no, but I used to play the saxophone when I was a kid. I did not get very far, which is why I should say no.

Well man, I'm telling you. I'm not going to sit here and say I'm crazy on the piano or whatever, but I'm definitely starting to see the parallels a lot more. Like I said, I'm watching my fingers. I'm actually seeing it. Which is different than just hearing it and being in the space and being zoned out.

How did playing piano for the first time this much make your approach to this album different than the last album?

I feel like I can just get to my ideas a lot quicker. That's been the biggest help. I'm not in the place where I'm really that comfortable yet. Especially when I recorded that album; it was way early days. But I'm getting there. It just feel like getting to ideas used to take way longer just because I didn't know what I was doing and I was just experimenting and tinkering. It's like you've got a whole bunch of puzzle pieces and then you know how to stitch them together really well. Now I feel like I can make better puzzle pieces, if that makes sense. More intricate puzzle pieces to play with.

You've said in the past that your biggest motivator has been to bring some kind of magic to people. Do you feel like you're accomplishing that?

Trying my best with what I got. I still care. I still care a lot. I feel like I care more than I ever have. At this point in my life, I feel really connected to the work and connected to my art and I just want to give it my all while I've got the energy and while I'm feeling good.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
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