There is a rich tradition of aliens and space exploration in African-American pop music. Sun Ra, jazz pioneer of what has become known as “Afrofuturism”, insisted he was from Saturn, not Arkansas. Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 album Axis opens with Hendrix in the guise of an extraterrestrial visiting Earth to check out groovy happenings “on this here people farm”. In the 1970s, George Clinton toured with a spaceship stage set and described his band Funkadelic as “Afro-nauts capable of funkatizing galaxies”.
The tradition is updated by Flying Lotus, rising star of left-field hip-hop, on his new album Cosmogramma. The title refers to a map of the universe. It was inspired by the Los Angeleno’s great-aunt Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane, an avant-garde jazz musician who was herself a notable Afrofuturist, releasing mystical records with titles such as Universal Consciousness. Her great-nephew is a chip off the old block.
“There’s things that I’ve experienced on this planet that are beyond the day to day,” he says. By which he means out-of-body experiences, episodes of lucid dreaming – even hints of extraterrestrial life.
“I think we’re a very, very ancient species, mixed with something else. Aliens from another …” His gentle voice trails off to some distant galaxy. He summons himself back. “I believe in ancient astronauts,” he says, as reasonably as if he were pointing out the clouds outside.
Known as FlyLo to his followers and Steven Ellison to the literal-minded, the 26-year-old is sitting at a table in the earthbound setting of a London hotel room. Towels line the doors and the window is open: strategies to evade official discovery of Ellison’s enthusiasm for marijuana. “You want some?” he says, proffering a newly rolled joint. It would probably help with grasping his cosmological theories, but the FT demurs.
The Afrofuturism of Sun Ra, Hendrix et al was a response to black America’s dismal history of slavery and segregation. Being enslaved was imagined as a form of alien abduction. Interplanetary fantasies were an escape from the indignities of racial discrimination. But Ellison, who in a 2008 New Yorker profile was interviewed wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt, brings a post-racial slant to the sci-fi imagery. “I believe it in the literal sense,” he insists, “not necessarily as a metaphor for life in the ghetto.”
California’s peculiar psychic landscape, with its cults and mystics and gurus, might also explain his beliefs. “Is it something in the water?” he laughs. “Yeah, maybe. I am a victim of my surroundings, man. I’m going to be as honest as possible, these are the things I believe in. Maybe I am just like a stoned hippy or something like that in someone’s eyes, but this is something I believe in.”
Ellison’s fans include Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who guests on Cosmogramma. He’s lumped under the label “hip-hop”, but he stretches the label to its limits. There are few vocals on his records and no rappers. The music, anchored by bustling beats, has an entrancing, dream-like flow. Bleepy, electronic and sampled co-exist alongside “organic” instruments: the harp features prominently on Cosmogramma, in tribute to Alice Coltrane. There is also a space-jazz tribute to Sun Ra. It is hip-hop at its most abstract.
“I just like to have my own idea of what the story means. I don’t like people to really tell me what it’s about. I try to leave it open to some degree. That’s why it’s kinda difficult for me to talk about what it means to me. Part of the magic is what it means to you, where you go with it. It’s almost like a film in my head.”
The clouds of dope smoke are not the only explanation for his aesthetic. Ellison suffers from a sleep disorder and has a Californian medical permit for the marijuana. “I wake up really early because I feel like the work is calling me – there’s so much to do,” he says. “Whether it’s business or music or just meditation, there’s always things to do. It just calls to me, man. I think that weird sleeping pattern kind of helps me get into those altered states as well.”
Brought up by his mother and grandmother, he grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He characterises his childhood as “up and down”. “My mom had her fair share of problems and weird dudes around,” he says. It was sometimes rough financially, but he was always encouraged to pursue his own interests: music, movie-making, cartoons.
Cosmogramma is his third album. It follows Alice Coltrane’s death in 2007 and his mother’s in 2008. “I feel like I’ve lost all my teachers on earth, all my mentors. That was one of the main catalysts behind the sound. I felt it had to be more of a devotional piece, just to represent the journey that I was going through, that I feel my mum had to go through to ascend on.”
The song with Thom Yorke is one of the few sung tracks on the album. “I need to know you’re out there,” the Radiohead singer croons mournfully. The sentiment reworks Pink Floyd’s “Is there anybody out there?” It illuminates the grief etched into Ellison’s talk of alien civilisations. “I went through a rough patch, man. I’m lucky to have some really good friends, but no one can really get in with you in those times. I just felt so alienated man, I couldn’t be around people. Thank God for music.”
His collaboration with Yorke was conducted via e-mail. He sent the music to Yorke, with little expectation of getting a response. A couple of days later he received an e-mail with Yorke’s vocal. “I was doing cartwheels around the house,” Ellison remembers. Yorke – “my astral brother,” in Lotus-speak – subsequently asked Ellison to support his side-project “Atoms for Peace” in a concert tour in the US earlier this month. “Cartwheels, man, more cartwheels.”
Although Cosmogramma features more live musicians than normal, Ellison’s work is mainly computer-generated. A film school graduate, he switched fulltime to music in the early 2000s when he discovered that it could all be made on a laptop. “I loved the fact I didn’t need 60 people around me to get my ideas out. I could just create my little universe.”
His vision of hip-hop’s future is similarly self-sufficient. “You’ll have these artists who’ll produce their own stuff, do their own covers, do everything. They got their own universe built.”
The music industry may have been torpedoed by the computer age but to Ellison it spells liberation. Asked if it’s possible to recreate Miles Davis’s experimentalism in today’s commercially uncertain age – he has been reading a biography of the great jazzman – his tone grows confiding.
“Man, here’s the thing, people can do so much more than Miles did now. That’s the thing people don’t realise, man, it’s like people get stuck saying Miles is it, that’s as high as it goes. But you can go beyond, man, you can take it further, now we got computers. Miles was trying to do what we’re dabbling in now, like in his later days he was doing electronic stuff. But now you can do anything. Only limit is your imagination at this point.”
‘Cosmogramma’ (Warp Records) is out on May 3