In the middle of a funeral, two kids rise from coffins and start dancing. A boy and a girl move ecstatically in front of pews of silent mourners who don't see them. They run out of the building, hijack a hearse, and drive off into the distance. They seem to be more free dead than they ever were alive.
That's the story told in the music video for Flying Lotus' “Never Catch Me.”
Shot in 2014 by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, it bristles with contradictions: elegiac yet joyful, reassuring and eerie. It was the video to beat that year. Few could compare to its elegant construction and memorable imagery.
Though “Never Catch Me” is a feather in his cap, it's far from the only eye-catching video in Flying Lotus' body of work.
The beatmaker, rapper, and electronic artist has shown a knack for bringing his songs to life with inventive (and sometimes deranged) visuals. Whether he's creating those images or collaborating with artists like Murai, Flying Lotus has made his work into something that needs to be seen and heard. And that makes the 34-year-old one of the greatest music video artists of his generation.
Considering FlyLo's background, it's no surprise he cares so much about the visual side of things.
Before he became Flying Lotus, Steve Ellison was a film student. He earned a degree from the Los Angeles Film School and studied filmmaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Entering the world of music through an internship with Stones Throw Records (home to Madlib and J. Dilla, two of FlyLo's biggest inspirations), he brought his film sensibilities with him.
It's one of the reasons Flying Lotus albums flow so well.
Even when there aren't any words in his songs, the music is so vivid it suggests the shape of a narrative that your imagination is free to fill in. Flying Lotus records feel like soundtracks to films that don't exist — as opposed to a “here's 40 minutes of beats that knock” mixtape. He'd also throw film shoutouts into his work as rap alter-ego Captain Murphy, sampling from the movies of film legends like Mario Bava and Alejandro Jodorowsky.
That interest in film has made Flying Lotus one of a handful of modern musical acts whose music videos are almost as essential as their records. Like fellow electronic pioneer Aphex Twin, FlyLo's twisted and evocative videos are a big part of his identity. And like the face-warping horror shows in Aphex Twin's video work, FlyLo's videos are instantly recognizable as being “his” — even when someone else is behind the camera.
Certain themes and visual tropes pop up throughout FlyLo's video. Death looms large over most of them.
“Never Catch Me” isn't the only video to feature a dead body cutting a rug. “Until The Quiet Comes” sees a gun violence victim rising from a lawn to gyrate and twist with abandon, lifting up his shirt to reveal bullet holes dotting his torso. Like the kids dancing at the funeral, there's something both beautiful and disturbing about this vision of a dead man joyfully busting postmortem moves.
There's a feeling of transcendence that comes from these videos. Like the story of his last album, You're Dead!, some of FlyLo's videos feel like a spirit's journey from base flesh back into the infinite. There's always been a cosmic feeling to FlyLo's music, even before he recorded the musical equivalent of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The great nephew of Alice and John Coltrane, his skittering beats often tap into that cry-to-heaven mode jazz artists like Coltrane and Albert Ayler played in. It only makes sense that his videos look like a trip into the astral plane – it's exactly how his music sounds.
A grimmer vision of death appears in “Coronus, The Terminator” (directed by Young Replicant). The dead here are covered in chalk dust and ash. Dancing isn't high on their to-do list. And in the animated nightmare of “Ready Err Not” (directed by “Salad Fingers” creator David Firth), the dead are cut into pieces of meat, and body parts transform into spiders and disembodied eyeballs.
While many of FlyLo's videos have a somberly lit, moody aesthetic that matches perfectly with the meditative, jazzier side of his music, shorts like “Ready Err Not” show the other side of his visual style: batshit crazy sensory overload. Videos like the animated “Zodiac Shit” and “MmmHmm” feature shapeshifting imagery, wild stylistic shifts (like “MmmHmm's” detour into 8-bit video game graphics), and bong-friendly vibes.
It's that more visceral, phantasmagoric aspect of his work that's on display in Kuso, Ellison's feature film debut as a director.
Named after Japanese slang for "shit," the horror/exploitation/avant-garde film caused walkouts during its debut at the 2017 Sundance film festival. If so many of FlyLo's music videos are about the mind and spirit, Kuso is focused on the body — what you can do to a body, what comes out of a body, and presenting images so bizarre and gross that it makes the viewer want to leave their body.
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It's a film where a giant cockroach crawls out of George Clinton's anus and a talking neck boils perform fellatio. If that doesn't make you want to astrally project onto another plane of existence, what will?
Ellison also brings a heavy visual live component to his live shows.
On his latest tour, he's putting on a 3D show. Who knows what kind of haunting or horrific projections will flash behind FlyLo as he plays his clattering, otherworldly beats? Hopefully the cockroach from Kuso won't be making a cameo appearance. Some things don't need to be seen twice in one lifetime.
Flying Lotus is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 28, at The Van Buren. Tickets to the 16-and-over show are $30 to $45.