As the COVID-19 pandemic, Oval Office hysteria and racial tumult raged outside his studio walls, Flying Lotus spent 2020 with a laser focus on, of all things, anime. The acclaimed musician/producer, whose real name is Steven Ellison, created more than 200 tracks for the score of Netflix’s new anime series “Yasuke,” which premiered April 30 on the streamer; an accompanying soundtrack is out now via Warp Records. Beyond its stellar animation, “Yasuke” has drawn attention for its title character, a real-life 16th century samurai of African descent — a truly rare showing in anime. In much the same way, Flying Lotus has spent his career breaking down barriers between genres, from his jazz-influenced work with Kendrick Lamar to strategically dropping the “Twin Peaks” theme song into his psychedelic DJ sets. Variety spoke to the artist about his creative process for “Yasuke,” his recent Grammy win as co-producer of his friend Thundercat’s latest album and what’s next on his musical horizon.
You fell in love with anime at a pretty young age. Do you remember what first really drew you to the genre?
I had a cousin who owned a few anime movies on VHS. They were all stacked up on each other and the pictures looked so crazy. One was “Akira.” One was “Fist of the North Star.” One was “Wicked City.” We watched them, and he was like, you know, these aren’t for kids. I was 11 or 12 years old, getting my mind blown seeing this stuff. That was really my intro — seeing the really volatile, crazy stuff like “Ninja Scroll” right out of the gate. That’s where my love began, and it has blossomed and evolved.
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Even at that young age, did you notice the lack of diversity represented in the characters?
Yeah, but I think there’s something with anime where you’re OK with that, in a weird way. It feels inclusive to Japanese culture, but that’s kind of why we like it. It doesn’t make any sense, but there’s something about the Japanese-ness of it where you’re kind of like, that’s their thing, and we respect it for that. It has been kind of interesting being in this position to do music for anime now, because I think for so long, I felt like it wouldn’t be real. Even doing the intro music for an anime was like, no way is this going to happen. Me and Thundercat would joke about that as a possibility, like, they need to hit us up for an intro! We should be the guys doing that sort of thing. Eventually, it happened.
In the case of this specific project, how did it come together?
“Yasuke” came to me via a producer I worked with on a pilot — a music show for Apple. The producer, Matt Shattuck, hit me up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to work on an anime series about Yasuke. I was like, are you kidding me? You hit up the right person. You hit up the perfect person, actually, because at the time, I was in the deepest anime hole I’d ever been in. I was watching years of anime that I’d missed in a concentrated, mainline-into-my-system kind of way. It was really wild, man. I was like, dude, this can’t be real right now. But yes, I am the person. Let’s go. That was about three-and-a-half years ago. It’s so crazy, because I remember when we started the project and talking about timelines, talking about 2021 seemed so friggin’ far off at the time. Like, is this ever going to happen? Probably not, but let’s just go through the motions anyway [laughs]. Now, here we are. I was brought on as executive producer. I kind of helped out with the story and helped steer things a little bit, but my main thing was music. There was a moment where we talked about there maybe being an episode that I would direct. That probably would have happened if COVID didn’t happen. It kept me here in L.A. while everyone else was in Japan working on stuff. But in terms of working on music, I preferred to be here, and doing the back and forth with everyone else wasn’t too difficult.
Yasuke is a samurai warrior of African descent. It would be easy for that to be a gimmick, but it seems like that’s not the case here at all.
It’s funny. There’s an anime camp that really likes the fantasy element, but a lot of people only want a historically documented version of Yasuke’s life. I really don’t feel like anime is the best space for that. It’s a really interesting thing to hear what everyone has to say about the show. I think it’s just all great — the conversation, and having a new hero emerge. There are a lot of narratives that we don’t explore in Black culture, or that we don’t get to express. Some people just like what they’re used to. They want to see something they’ve seen before. They don’t want to see Black characters in fantasy. They’re not ready for it. But I think it’s awesome to try new things and shake things up. That’s obviously going to piss some people off. But there are a lot of new people that are into anime. Plus, this is a show for 12- to 14-year-olds. A lot of adults may be looking for the live-action movie.
What was a typical day in the studio like? Would you pull up a random scene and get to work, or would you just compose without looking at picture?
That’s a good question. My process was a little bit of both. Once I figured out what I wanted the sound of the show to be, I spent some time away from the picture producing some music. Then I spent some time looking right at it and trying to fill things in. The one thing I found as a trick to scoring is to use the metronome when I’m watching a scene play, because even if people don’t intentionally do it, there’s an implied tempo in every scene, every movie and every action sequence. There’s an implied rhythm. I’d tap the tempo out, and once I had that pulse, I could create from there. I felt very free in this project. It was very fun. Nothing felt like a stretch, musically. Although, the war stuff was really difficult, because I’d never really done a big war scene before. That stumped me for some time.
What cracked that code?
Playing music [laughs]. Actually playing and not thinking about it so much. I could have procrastinated myself into plenty of holes, but when I was working on that opening war battle scene of the show, I felt like I might have been out of my league. Like, what am I doing? I just started working, and all the sudden, there was this whole beautiful thing there. The process of procrastinating can be important. I have to mull over ideas for awhile before I commit.
Were there any musical Influences or reference points that helped get you going creatively?
Vangelis was a huge inspiration for the entire series. I’d been listening to his music for the past couple of years pretty diligently, especially because I’d fallen in love with synthesizers as well as the process of playing synthesizer to picture. I found his process to be super inspiring, like watching him look at the screen and playing, and not sitting down writing. I wanted to do that — to have all the tools at my fingertips to help me say what I’m feeling versus what I’m seeing. It was so much fun. To be fair, the “Blade Runner” soundtrack has been with me my whole life. There’ve not been too many months pass by without me listening to it. “Blade Runner Blues” specifically was a big inspiration for the whole “Yasuke” soundtrack. I borrowed a lot from that vibe.
How many total hours of music did you make for this?
I haven’t properly calculated it, but I did about 200 tracks for the whole show.
Were there any eureka moments where you felt like you made something so good that you might want to save it for your own album?
There were a couple of those moments, but only because those pieces didn’t sound like the show at all or fit that world. I was excited to create them, but I was so in this thing — it was all I was watching. I only ate Japanese food. I only watched samurai movies. It was a full-on immersion, as much as is possible being in L.A.
Did the world around you creep into the creative process last year?
There are micro parallels with what’s going on now, but the series was written three years ago. You wish you could put some details in from the present moment, but you’re running with some things you may have felt awhile ago. I’m an escapist, man. I used the music, and this opportunity, to escape the reality of what I was hearing, seeing and feeling. It was the worst of times, last year. It was very uninspiring. But I was grateful to have this project to look at and work on. It was worth it, and it really kept me going. For a lot of creative people, when we lost the opportunity to go on the road and do shows, we had to examine our worth and our value. Suddenly, the way we made money was upended. A lot of people had to figure out other ways to make money. It made a lot of musicians feel worthless. I hate to say that word, but, yeah. Getting this project going and winning the Grammy during the pandemic was huge for my morale.
Can you think of a specific cue from the score that fell into place right away?
“Kurosaka Strikes” — that moment in episode four. There’s a forest fight between Yasuke and this demon warrior lady. I knew that moment had to be engaging. I was little nervous, but as soon as I started working on it, it fell into place easily. I was like, wait a minute. Am I actually done with this? I can’t have just finished it in an hour. When you work on a show, you have to move so fast that it pushed me into this place where I felt like I could crank things out, especially once I had the melodies and themes down.
What are you most proud of in the finished product?
I’m really proud of so many things with “Yasuke.” I’m proud that it’s the first foray into hopefully a lifelong career in this world of music for anime. I’m proud of everyone, even behind the scenes, who had to step out of their comfort zones to help put this together. Hopefully there are opportunities that can come from this show, even for the next producer or beat-maker. So many positive things will come from this moment.
You got Thundercat to sing on “Black Gold,” which is the intro music for each episode. He’s a known anime fan, so it must have been fun to share this experience with him.
It’s just part of my nature when something happens for me that I have to bring my homies along too. That’s always been my thing, even if it’s not always for the best [laughs]. And that’s his thing: Mister Heart on His Sleeve. In this case, I think it worked out really well. He and I are sometimes surprised too, like, wow, this is what we do. Niki Randa is a singer I’ve worked with on a lot of my projects, and we hadn’t done a song in awhile. To do this one was really fun, and I know the fans were happy to hear that she and I were working together again. Denzel Curry is also a huge anime fan. People would have been mad if I didn’t bring him into this thing, and I would have been mad myself, knowing how big of an anime head he is. I was gunning for him to be a part of it from day one.
Denzel did the voice of Darkseid Batman on the recent DC Comics “Sonic Metalverse” series.
I’m waiting for those calls, man — the DC and Marvel calls. This week, it’s going to happen [laughs]. Hey. I’m trying to put that into the air right now.
Could you ever see this music working as a live score performance alongside the episodes?
We actually thought about doing something like that. I would love to. I’m really proud of the work I did, so I’d love to do something like that if it came up.
How far along are you on new music? It’s been a couple years since the last proper Flying Lotus album.
To me, this is that moment. I feel like I’ve invested as much of myself as I would have anything else. But, I do have more music coming that I’ve been working on. Hopefully it won’t take too long to finish it. I’ve been talking to Freddie Gibbs about doing some stuff. I’ve been talking to T-Pain about doing some stuff too.
You mentioned Thundercat winning the best progressive R&B album Grammy for “It Is What It Is,” which you helped produce. The Grammys have been mired in controversy of late, but I imagine it must still be a good feeling to have your work acknowledged in this way.
It feels great. It feels great to know that people have a chance, especially as they’ve been adding these new categories. The alternative category was so vast. When people hear that name, they think alternative rock. But it could be me, Hiatus Kaiyote, Thundercat or even Run the Jewels. All those things are so different. I think it’s great that they’re expanding. I feel like a lot of it really comes down to the voters. I’d imagine a lot of the people who complain probably don’t even vote. I need to actually vote next time, because I didn’t last time. The actual Grammys know who makes the good stuff. It’s the people who vote who aren’t always caring about our interests.
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