Did the Brainfeeder label revive jazz? Founder makes his case

Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times

Leaning back in a patio chair behind his Laurel Canyon home on a recent sunny morning, the producer and label head Steve Ellison, who performs as Flying Lotus, was reflecting on a boast that his forward-thinking jazz and instrumental hip-hop record label Brainfeeder made in a news release.

Issued during the rollout of its 10th anniversary collection, “Brainfeeder X,” it read, in part: “If the resuscitation of jazz has been one of the predominant narratives of the last several years, it’s unquestionably due to the lasting impact of the Brainfeeder confederation.”

Now, it’s one thing to tout the city’s musical evolution, but it could be considered near blasphemous to claim that a jazz resurgence — if there even is one — is the result of a single imprint’s efforts.

Brainfeeder recently released a 36-track compilation of music from the label’s past and present. Founded as a venue to release records that reflected Ellison’s aesthetic, Brainfeeder has helped define the sound of contemporary Los Angeles, and the three dozen “Brainfeeder X” songs illustrate how.

Asked if Brainfeeder was taking credit for the “resuscitation of jazz,” the 35-year-old, who is the nephew of the late free-jazz composer and harpist Alice Coltrane, paused a beat before confirming the assertion. As he did, the sound of a pianist in Ellison’s studio, who had been improvising as he answered questions, drifted into the scene. It seemed to engage with the birdsong.

“The truth is, when it comes to this hip-hop stuff … it’s either trap (music) or us right now, you know? And when it comes to jazz, it’s either smooth jazz or us. It’s one or the other.”

The sound you just heard? That was surely someone from the jazz and rap worlds doing a collective spit take — L.A. saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s breakout success on Brainfeeder be damned.

Asked if New York players would take exception to the declaration, Ellison replied with a laugh: “Well, I think those guys would love to play for Kamasi.”

‘The Epic’: Ellison isn’t off-base.

Since Brainfeeder released Washington’s 2015 triple album, “The Epic,” the often disregarded L.A. jazz scene has earned international recognition, and the label that put it out is considered to be among the city’s most artistically striking of the past decade.

After the album’s breakout success, players entangled in Ellison’s and Washington’s creative web have issued a string of albums: bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner); drummer (and Thundercat’s brother) Donald Bruner; trombonist Ryan Porter; bassist Miles Mosley; keyboardist Brandon Coleman; and others.

In February, Thundercat will take over the New York jazz institution the Blue Note to perform 14 sets across six nights.

The attention isn’t the result of your average jazz dude raving about Brainfeeder. Who knows if jazz traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis would even call this stuff jazz. It’s more like tripped-out, psychedelic fusion music.

Ellison called Washington’s “The Epic” “a game-changer for all of us — for the world.”

That same year, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar tapped a half-dozen Brainfeeder affiliates for the creation of his 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

Collection: The Brainfeeder “us” of which Ellison spoke is a collection of producers, visual artists, rappers and musicians that has existed in one form or another since the label’s birth in a Northridge apartment complex dubbed Das Bunker.

In the mid- and late 2000s, the unlikely San Fernando Valley site generated the lightning-in-a-bottle energy of an arts commune. Ellison’s friend KCRW DJ Anthony Valadez introduced him to the complex.

“He was in a transition stage,” Valadez said of Ellison, then in his mid-20s. “He wanted to live on his own. And to see that guy now take care of other people is really awesome.”

At Das Bunker, Ellison worked alongside kindred spirits including Valadez, Brainfeeder label manager Adam Stover, producer-rapper Samiyam and visual aritst-musician Teebs.

“They just became the Brainfeeder spark, really,” Ellison said. “We were all there together, and it was at a time when the sound was blowing up.”

Mtendere Mandowa, who makes art and music under the name Teebs, met Ellison around then through MySpace and in person at the Lincoln Heights club night the Low End Theory.

He gave Ellison a tape of his music and quickly earned an invite to see the complex. “It was a weird place, but it just seemed like a good situation to be around.”

Ellison’s success as Flying Lotus, which was enabled by his long artistic relationship with the British electronic imprint Warp, helped prompt a rush of overseas excitement for the Los Angeles underground scene.

But as that happened, Ellison watched as amateur moguls lined up to sign him and his peers. “They wanted to get paid to be a fan. So it was like, ‘Why don’t we just build this thing and nurture it?’”

Today: Brainfeeder now includes genre-blurring sounds that mix hip-hop, jazz, funk, fusion and whatnot by artists including out-there Austrian free-jazz explorer Dorian Concept, soul singer-producer Georgia Anne Muldrow and the Dutch electronic funk musician Jameszoo. All are featured on the new compilation.

Most prominently, “Brainfeeder X” contains a new collaboration called WOKE. Consisting of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and experimental hip-hop team Shabazz Palaces, the partnership was introduced with a track called “The Lavishments of Light Looking,” featuring vocals by original funk icon George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic.

Absent from the collection is music by the beat producer the Gaslamp Killer, whose debut album came out on Brainfeeder. At the start of the #MeToo movement, a rape allegation was made on Twitter against the artist, born William Bensussen, who has strenuously denied the allegation and in late 2017 filed a lawsuit alleging that the woman spread “malicious and fabricated rape allegations … based on a consensual sexual encounter” that occurred July 5, 2013.

The lawsuit is ongoing, and Ellison kept it short when the Gaslamp Killer’s name was brought up.

“We tried to invite everybody who made sense,” Ellison said of the Gaslamp Killer’s absence from “Brainfeeder X.” “Some people, it didn’t work out.”

And missing from Brainfeeder’s solo roster is Ellison himself, who has released the majority of his music through Warp. His most recent album, “You’re Dead,” came out five years ago.

At his house, when it was noted that he isn’t on his own label, Ellison replied with a certain coyness.

“I’m not yet,” he said, emphasizing the ‘yet’ before interjecting, “I shouldn’t have said that.”