You know how it goes. It’s 2008, or 2010 or whatever, and you’ve been dragged along to watch some producer do a “live set” at a nearby club, having been told he does “that twisted, instrumental hip-hop like FlyLo”. The description alone has set alarm bells ringing, and by the time you get to the place and see some skinny guy nodding away behind a laptop with some headphones on, playing some distinctly average, off-kilter beats while occasionally attacking a sampler in a manner he hopes looks “possessed”, you start looking nervously to the exit and wondering how much of your entrance fee you could haggle back if you left now. “It wasn’t always like this”, you sigh to yourself as your mind drifts into the not-too-distant past, and wavy lines appear down the screen to indicate a flashback…
When Steven Ellison released his debut LP back in 2006, the producer who called himself Flying Lotus (now often abbreviated to FlyLo because syllables are difficult in the 21st century) quickly became the poster boy for an expanding instrumental hip-hop sub-genre known variously as Wonky, Street Bass, Aquacrunk, Purple, Broken Hip-Hop, Jerk, Post-FlyLo (confusingly), and any number of other misleading misnomers. Invariably, these descriptors referred to anything with a viciously swung drum pattern, a combination of either dusty keys samples or overdriven bass and synth lines, and disorientating, experimental arrangements.
The album in question, 1983, documented the style so accurately that its legacy has possibly been blown out of proportion to the quality of the music it contained. Sure, it’s a great listen. The opening title track pairs opulently warm synths with that tell-tale jerk in the beat, while ‘Unexpected Delight’ closes it off with a near-lullaby voiced by singer Laura Darlington. In-between these bookends are no end of skipping drums, frantic basslines and manipulated jazz samples all twisted into attractive instrumentals. Yet, there’s nothing so musically special in there to justify its landmark status; that comes from the proceeding fallout.
At its best, early inversions of the sound were thrilling. Some of 1983’s more attractive offspring – albums like Onandon and Lemurian by British producer Lukid and Lone respectively – briefly justified its omnipresence by giving glimpses into how the style could be developed and taken forward. At its worst, it was regurgitated ad nauseum amongst producers with a similar prolificacy to the influx of wobbly basslines and half-time beat drops that were thrown over every track in the wake of dubstep’s mainstream explosion.
It was also quickly acknowledged that the sound was by no means original. Another of its monikers shamelessly refers to the style as post-Dilla, and just one glance at the late James D Yancey’s back catalogue would confirm this: from instrumental classics like Welcome 2 Detroit, to collaborative efforts as part of production teams that reach back far into the ‘90s (The Ummah with A Tribe Called Quest, Soulquarians alongside the influential behind-the-beat or in-the-pocket grooves of Questlove). Strains of Champion Sound, Dilla’s collaboration with Californian producer Madlib as Jaylib, can be detected in tracks like ‘Sao Paolo’ from 1983, while Q-Tip’s post-Tribe solo offerings or RJD2’s classic Deadringer surely touched tracks like ‘Shifty’ and ‘Bad Actors’. Nevertheless, FlyLo solidified a hip-hop sub sect that until that time had no nucleus; firstly musically with 1983, and then physically with the introduction of his Brainfeeder imprint.
Brainfeeder became the home of a number of underground LA musicians who combined jazz, soul, and bass under that all-important beat shuffle, eventually expanding to take on new signings from across the globe (recent inductees like Lapalux bely Flying Lotus influences as faces in a new emerging generation). The name ‘Brainfeeder’ itself has become another shorthand term for the style its artists create, and like all sub genres (however small), the Brainfeeder sound owes a large debt to a particular club; in this case The Airliner in Lincoln Heights, and its ‘Low End Theory’ club night. The likes of Daedelus and Nosaj Thing can doff their collective cap to the night as a stakeholder in their success, and splinter sects of the night have popped up everywhere from nearby San Francisco to New York and Japan.
Like it or hate it, the Brainfeeder sound is now part of the instrumental hip-hop fabric, its influences stretching across multiple genres globally. While its spaced-out jazz and twisted beats have elevated the label’s status, some of its artists have expressed dissatisfaction with the pigeon-holing they’ve received, not least the boss himself. After the release of 1983, Flying Lotus spent the next few years desperately trying to detach himself to any genre, let alone Wonky et al, which thankfully resulted in both the progressive Los Angeles and the terrifyingly imperious, if stylistically schizophrenic, Cosmogramma. But his legacy still remains that ubiquitous jerk; that twitching shuffle; that twisted, off-centre groove; 1983.