A Tale of Two DJs: Flying Lotus at the Ogden Theatre & A-Trak at Rhinoceropolis
I wasn’t terribly familiar with the music of Ogden Theatre opening act Jeremiah Jae, though I knew he was as much an emcee as a DJ. He started the show with some instrumental tracks, lulling the crowd with his occassional twiddling of mixing board knobs and the triggering of samples. Both he and the second act, Teebs, lacked the assistance of a MacBook and Serato, which suggests the command they possess over drum machines and sequencers. Once Jae established his presence with a few instrumentals, he then bounded out from behind his DJ stand to lay down some vocals. His lyrics imparted observations of class and race struggles rather than celebrating the benefits of material possessions, setting himself apart from the syrup-influenced trap muzik currently dominant on some hip hop stations. This night certainly belonged to a different kind of hip hop producer, especially in the guiding light of Flying Lotus, the Sun Ra of hip hop.
In previous interviews Jae has expressed a desire to stray from more formulaic modes of success and, like other Brainfeeder artists, operate on his own wavelength. As he said with The Quietus, “If you’re thinking about the bigger picture and reaching more people just through the vibrations alone, I think that’s more mystical and cooler than being a star overnight.”
Teebs’ set, a fitting wedge between Jae and Flying Lotus, was often literally reminiscent of the interstitial instrumental bump tracks that you might hear during commercial breaks between shows on Adult Swim. He spoke little and modestly during his performance. An artist focused on making art for his audience, Teebs introduced the songs as fast or slow, not quite letting us in on the secrets of the Brainfeeder language. On occasion, I caught blips and samples that reminded me of 8-bit video games, while at other times more conceptual noise collage artists like Tim Hecker and Fennesz were more fit comparisons. This ability to create headphone worthy bedroom hip-hop settled us in for the main event – the DJ that was about to rattle our entire bodies and keep us visually arrested for nearly two hours.
Just after 11p, Steven Ellison, Flying Lotus himself, emerged. Posed between two translucent, dynamically projected upon screens, Ellison remixed hits of the current and recent past in addition to his own cosmic creations. Ellison teased the crowd with snippets of instrumentals from hit songs before blending them into new, less familiar compositions. Flying Lotus, unlike some of his more mainstream contemporaries (Skrillex and Bassnectar, for example), Ellison forgoes the ease of dropping into the “wub wub wub” basslines so common at large dubstep shows. Ellison prefers to use bass, and for that matter treble, as a tool to create songs as a nod to his influences rather than providing an aural accompaniment to a drug trip. He takes time to pare down and make stand out tracks that often face being overplayed in any other environment. His appeal to the more conscious forms of hip hop were made clear with multiple shout outs to J Dilla, the common ancestor to this style of music. His passion for the message as well as the instrumental showed through as he censored only the word “faggot” from his remix of A Milli by Lil Wayne, a song from an artist known to use colorful language. From that, you can get a sense of how he can balance his party down aesthetic with the higher forms of humanism espoused through music by his aunt Alice Coltrane.
After taking in several hours of cerebral hip hop, I left the venue knowing that my night had just begun and shifted my attention towards the next show. The night before I was to see Flying Lotus a close friend literally whispered to me that on October 18th, there would be a secret show at Rhinoceropolis. I considered this the Flying Lotus “after party”. While this was not, in fact, the after party, this formed a perfect bookend to an already impressive night. A-Trak’s presence here in Denver on Thursday wasn’t unexpected by some as he announced on his website that he would be doing an American house party tour for select fans, though I was obviously out of the loop.
It couldn’t have been a more drastic shift from the 16 and over crowd at Ogden Theatre to the small legion of hip hop heads, some of whom had waited outside of Rhinoceropolis since 6:30 pm that evening. The moment I walked in the door I was blasted with a humid mist only a crowd of several hundred people in a stuffy room could create. Once I defogged my glasses and camera lens, I secured a spot on top of an unused bar top to watch A-Trak and his friend, former Eminem touring DJ, Green Lantern spin the ones and twos for the next two hours. Standing on a stage riser in front of the DJs was emcee Donis of Atlanta. Signed to Fool’s Gold three years ago, he had known A-Trak for several years prior to signing to the label and served as hype man for the event. When not playing instrumentals from Donis’ mixtape “Diary of an ATL Brave” for him to rap over, A-Trak made sure to play his own production credits from Kanye to his mix tape efforts to CyHi da Prynce’s “Ray Ban Vision”.
Given that I had just seen fellow Fool’s Gold artist Danny Brown three days prior, I knew what to expect from an artist like Donis, though his touchstone is more TI than Danny Brown’s Kool Keith. A cool presence, Donis made sure to emphasize the connection to the crowd by stage diving multiple times during the DJ set and inviting some woo girls onto the riser to dance.
It was an honor to see these two legendary producers and their friends in these contrasting environments. While A-Trak certainly could’ve booked the Ogden for a show, he chose to reveal his talents to a small crowd of devotees. Certainly Ellison could’ve done the same, yet Flying Lotus requires a larger space to visually inundate the audience, while A-Trak prefers to create an intimate dance party suitable for basements turned up to 95 degrees F. It couldn’t have been a better situation for both shows to experience the potential of both artists.
Photos and review by Kerry Nordstrom.