The band was Public Enemy and the venue was the Electric Ballroom in Camden in 1988. It was one of those musical experiences that will live with me for the rest of my life.
Readers of this column will have their own musical highpoints and lows. For some it will be when Elvis Presley swivelled his hips to “Heartbreak Hotel”, for others it will be when the Sex Pistols spat out the words to “God Save the Queen” on Top of the Pops and for younger readers it may have been Jay Z at Glastonbury.
There are bands, albums and songs that have revolutionised popular music and moved it along new and exciting paths. Then there are bands or musicians who cut their own musical paths and sometimes slowly and subtly they influence wider musical and artistic forms – DJ Shadow, Moondog, Lee Scratch Perry and Nick Drake all spring to mind.
Right now Los Angeles is home to a flourishing underground music scene and two of its leading lights, Flying Lotus and Gonjasufi (right).
The third album from Steven Ellison (aka Flying Lotus), Cosmogramma, is a monumental work of experimental dance music. He has a rich musical family history. His mother was songwriter Marilyn McLeod, who co-wrote Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover”, and his aunt and uncle were none other than jazz legends Alice and John Coltrane. Alice’s music runs through Cosmogramma like a golden thread.
One of the highlights on the album is “And the World Laughs with You”, a collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. Yorke’s paranoid rantings and Ellison’s disorientating soundscapes fit perfectly. In fact, the album is a natural melding of sounds from across the globe.
Gonjasufi has just released his first album, A Sufi and a Killer. It is the most eclectic album you will ever hear – a smorgasbord of sound rooted in the DJ Shadow/Spooky style of crate digging (looking for rare songs to sample). It is an infusion of Turkish psych rock, Bollywood, free jazz, Jimi Hendrix and everything in between.
But the driving force of his music is the strung-out blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits, with the Stooges thrown in for good measure. Unlike most other hip hop artists, Gonjasufi has been prepared to delve back into the very beginnings of black music and use the pain and anguish contained in the blues to express his own pain and frustrations.
Gonjasufi was born to a Mexican mother and an American Ethiopian father and raised in a predominantly white neighbourhood in San Diego. His life was blighted by drug addiction, but through a conversion to Sufism and his study of Islamic spirituality he turned his life around. He became a Las Vegas based yoga teacher and hooked up with a number of experimental musicians and artists.
“I’m just a regular guy who’s gone through a lot of shit,” he told one journalist. “The Sufi side of life has helped me with my killer side so I try not to attach myself to any label. There’s a Sufi and a killer in everybody, man, and I’ll be whatever I have to be just to make it through.”
Interestingly the album was produced by none other than Flying Lotus and another key figure in the LA scene, the Gaslamp Killer.
I have encouraged my friends to listen to A Sufi and a Killer and Cosmogramma. I think it’s fair to say opinion is pretty divided. Some love them and have not taken them out of their CD players. A good few others hate them, claiming they are disjointed and musically too complex and dense.
My reply is always the same. You have to give time for any challenging, boundary-pushing art form to absorb into your soul. It is only then that you can follow the music and enjoy the patterns.
Listening to Flying Lotus and Gonjasufi is like looking at a painting by Pablo Picasso during his cubist period. Remember when you first saw one of his portraits or paintings of a room from this period? Although the images are familiar, they too look strange and weird. But when you continue to look at them you begin to see the world through a different, exciting perspective.
In my opinion, this sums up the work of Flying Lotus and Gonjasufi. They use familiar musical themes, but deconstruct and reconstruct them to create a new musical language. And on the way they tell you so much about life in the urban monster that is LA.
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