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Three Songs No Flash

Flying Lotus Live & The Tibetan Audiobook of The Dead
Gary Suarez , October 28th, 2014 13:30

Gary Suarez was inspired to read Burroughs by Flying Lotus, so he went to see the producer's two recent dates in New York and asks why philosophical questions on death itself so infrequently appears as subject matter in hip-hop

You don't come back from something like death. Those revived on operating tables or in ambulettes otherwise narrowly escaping fatality have narrowly, fortuitously extended their lives. Death is not merely a condition of the body, etc. This is my attempt at mumbo jumbo. Spirituality isn't my beat. I write about hip hop on the Internet, from the safety of my Queens apartment. The point is: what the hell do I know anyway?

When I was a teenager on the right side of consent, a middle-aged woman whose body I craved lent me a then-already crumbling Grove Press collection that included three of William S. Burroughs' novels: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, and The Wild Boys. I never managed to return the book, but I can still conjure up my attraction to her without much trying. The 1980 edition I inherited featured a brief contemporary interview with him conducted by Allen Ginsberg. Presented as postscript, the conversation attempts to shed some light on what came before, with Burroughs sometimes seeming exasperated that his dear friend has missed the point.

Making sense of Burroughs is best left to the academics. It is instead in our confusion that the rest of us yokels can appreciate and find value in Burroughs' body of work. Among the things that struck me when first voraciously reading him were his repeated references to what I'd never encountered: turn-of-the-century thieves with codes of honor, heroin works, the Orient. Beyond mere slang, there was this lexicon Burroughs derived from disparate cultures and communities both real and imagined, the intellectual interbreeding of Salt Chunk Mary and Ah Pook.

One of Burroughs' best known fixations was on The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. A sacred text meant to both prepare the living and guide the departed, the Western world largely learned about it courtesy of Oxford University Press and author W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who'd traveled east to learn what he could of Buddhist practice. By reading and processing the Bardo Thödol, one might better navigate post-death experience, rebirth, and even enlightenment. Additionally, its passages were meant to be read aloud to the departed in a specific order over multiple days so as to aid the dead.

Though discernibly better and more comprehensive translations than have published in recent years, Burroughs likely died with intimate knowledge from one of the Evans-Wentz volumes published in 1927, 1949, or 1957. With the best of intentions, I bought my second-hand paperback copy of the third edition for $4.50 in one of New York's most beloved bookstores. I wanted to read from it as he would have.

Although my appreciation for Burroughs would've been reason enough, I'd actually purchased The Tibetan Book Of The Dead because of Steven Ellison, the Californian recording artist responsible for several mesmerizing albums under the Flying Lotus moniker. His latest Warp Records release, You're Dead!, received no small amount of attention and praise for its musical contents. With contributions from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Herbie Hancock, and Snoop Dogg, it's no wonder why. But beyond knowing the caliber of the players, the overarching theme of death compelled me, especially since Ellison wasn't approaching it in a mournful manner. My first playthrough of You're Dead! confirmed my suspicions, and sent me back to the bookshelf to thumb through out-of-print Burroughs books. Listening to You're Dead! front to back multiple times only amplified that behavior.

The parallels between the Beat scene and the beat scene should be fairly obvious to interested laypeople. Often credited to Brion Gysin and made worthy of popular exaltation by Burroughs, the cut-up technique effectively godfathered the kind audio sampling that birth hip-hop and electronic music, which too have matured into the aural profundities evident throughout Ellison's Brainfeeder label discography. Furthermore, construct a Venn Diagram between the beatnik and the beatmaker and in that shaded shared middle you'll no doubt find jazz.

Indeed, much banal fuss has been made about the jazz content of You're Dead!, but that's surface level observation. Starting with the solemn yet foreboding Eastern drones that introduce opener 'Theme,' Ellison uses earthly sounds to soundtrack our demise, a shared human experience we embark on alone. In an interview with Noisey, Ellison corroborates this by saying, “[T]o me, it sounded like the moment of death.” The track soon descends into Super Mario video game ether and organic improv that sound plausibly like how those seconds after dying might feel.

Death and afterlife must be a multi-sensory experience, a thought that remained at the front of my mind as I attended two consecutive sold-out concerts on the You're Dead! tour, at Manhattan's Terminal 5 and then Brooklyn's much smaller Music Hall Of Williamsburg. From behind a polygon prism upon which video images would soon be reflected, Ellison looked out at the crowd right at the start of his Terminal 5 set and said, “My friends, thank you all for coming, but I regret to tell you all you're dead.” Then 'Theme' began and so did projected visions of cartoon bodies in freefall.

Unfortunately, Ellison on stage was more entertainer than lāma. Despite the copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in my bag, I ought to have known that someone who could fill this room full of beer-drinking ticketholders wasn't here to approximate the journey through death. He danced and wore headgear that replaced his eyes with two glowing orbs. He dropped Rick Ross remixes and swept the room with bass. This was a club experience, Dreamachines be damned.

While the flashing lights and gulping fractals were rather diverting, the live setting might been the least honest way to experience Flying Lotus. Ellison hadn't come to guide us; he came to make us shake our asses. It was a bastardization of psychotropic activist Timothy Leary, who himself had bastardized Bardo Thödol for his own aims. Turn on, tune in, turn down for what.

Though more intimate, the subsequent night in Williamsburg didn't fare much better, the set essentially identical to the prior evening's. About midway, someone wearing a grim reaper outfit replete with fake scythe emerged from backstage to goofily menace the room for several songs. Somewhat dejected, I retreated home to my books and to the record itself. I rewatched the 'Never Catch Me' music video, in which the funeral for two children becomes something beautiful and hopeful. Much like Gaspar Noe did in his stunning hypnagogic Enter The Void, this short film meant so much more than the techno organics and psychedelic window panes that adorned Ellison's live show.

Nobody could've anticipated that Flying Lotus would imagine death in ways hip-hop never has, finding euphoria and absurdism beyond the sinews. Rappers have rarely shied away from the topic as it best describes the perilous realities of everyday life in American ghettos. Still, hardly any have tackled what happens after the deliberate drive-by or the fatal stray bullet or the countless circumstantial hardships that lead to undignified passing. On their biggest hit 'Tha Crossroads', Bone Thugs-n-Harmony sang of reuniting with loved ones someday. Several artists have used their rhymes as pleas to a higher power in the face of death. 2Pac built an entire song around the profound query 'I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto', while Jay-Z made a mockery of it on 'Heaven', a Justin Timberlake-aided cut off last year's hardly artsy Magna Carta Holy Grail.

Ultimately, You're Dead! is more like the book-on-tape version of the Bardo Thödol, the abridged afterlife for the listicle set. The hope, then, is that the album, which achieved the best first week sales of his career, inspires the same sort of countercultural curiosity in this generation that Burroughs' work did for prior ones. The brevity of its tracks belies the album's depth, both conceptually and musically. Perhaps Flying Lotus' legacy will have less to do with introducing jazz to millennials than helping somehow to prepare them for what comes after we're done.

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