Before Flying Lotus was Flying Lotus – genre-defying musical innovator and founder of influential label Brainfeeder – he was Steven Ellison: an anime-obsessed teenager sketching his favourite Dragon Ball Z characters in the margins of his school books. Now, together with The Boondocks co-director LeSean Thomas and recent Oscar-nominated actor Lakeith Stanfield, the 37-year-old is bringing his lifelong passion to the screen as an executive producer, writer and composer for the new Netflix anime series Yasuke.
“It’s weird, I never thought I’d be on some s*** like this ever in my life,” a still bemused-sounding Ellison tells me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I’ve been a fan of anime for forever, but I never thought the day would come where I’d be part of this world.”
Given that much of the anime he grew up adoring featured no black characters at all, Ellison says it’s particularly meaningful to be playing a part in diversifying the artform’s storytelling. “I think something like this is so important,” he explains. “Thinking about representation, and thinking about all these different stories that can be told. I think for so long anime has felt like an exclusive space for just, you know, the Japanese. Now there’s new ideas coming in and it’s so cool.”
Yasuke is loosely based on the life of a real black samurai warrior who served under a powerful lord (known as a daimyo) called Oda Nobunaga in 16th-century Japan. While little historical data about Yasuke exists, what does is remarkable. Likely born in Mozambique, Ethiopia or Sudan in the 1550s, he would have been enslaved and sold to Portuguese traders before winding up as a bodyguard to the Italian Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. In 1579, Yasuke travelled with Valignano to Japan and two years later was taken into Nobunaga’s service. The powerful daimyo eventually helped him become the first African samurai. Yasuke fought alongside Nobunaga in several battles and after the daimyo’s death returned to the Jesuit mission. That’s where the historical record ends.
InYasuke, that story is just the jumping-off point for a wildly inventive tale that finds the famed ronin in later life as a peaceful boatman before thrusting him back into battle with, among others, a mutant priest, a Russian assassin who can transform into a bear and a sardonic weaponised robot. Ellison, who was involved in shaping the show’s storyline right from the start, takes credit for pushing it in a more imaginative direction.
“I don’t think anime is the space to do historical re-enactment. It’s the place to do the crazy version of something,” says Ellison. “I came in with the perspective that since there’s so much of his life that is unknown, I would like to go into the unknown.”
Ellison is credited as a writer on all six episodes of Yasuke’s first season. Fans of his eclectic synthesis of instrumental hip-hop, experimental electronic music and avant-garde jazz will find plenty of overlaps between the show and the universe he’s created for himself on his six studio albums. When the show takes its characters off to do battle on the “astral plane”, it feels like a knowing nod to Flying Lotus’s “Do The Astral Plane”, a house-influenced classic from his 2010 album Cosmogramma. “You know, I didn’t say any of that!” he says with a modest laugh. “I didn’t say that, but I’m pretty sure they might have pulled a few references!”
The show’s score is, by Flying Lotus’s anything-goes standards, relatively restrained. Ellison explains that the sound ofYasuke grew organically from a purposeful decision to work within certain restrictions. “Musically I was stumped for a while because I didn’t want to do something that was expected and I didn’t want to do something that I’d heard already in anime,” he says. “I think what helped was limiting my palette of things to work with. I pulled a bunch of synthesisers that I really love and felt like I could express a lot with them. I limited myself to those instruments and percussion sounds and said: ‘This is it.’”
Chief among those instruments was the Yamaha CS-60, a vintage synthesiser that electronic composer Vangelis used to memorable effect in his 1982 score for Blade Runner. “I must have heard ‘Blade Runner Blues’ more than any other track,” says Ellison. “That was a huge inspiration.”
That combination of a deliberately reined-in musical palette and the framework of Yasuke’s story helped push Ellison’s creativity into new and unexpected territory. “I realised that sometimes you don’t need to have a whole bunch of things playing,” he says. “Sometimes the scene requires just minimal music, just a couple of tones. Some of those things I would have never thought to do if they were just on my album, but because they exist in this space it gives it a context. It was a lot of discovery for me in that regard. Using space and silence, and not having to occupy every decimal of every frequency range in music… that was new for me!”
Ellison hopes Flying Lotus fans will see the Yasuke soundtrack album – which also features regular collaborator Thundercat, and is being released simultaneously with the series – as part of a whole with his existing catalogue. “To me it feels like a new record,” he says. “It feels like new ground has been covered, personally, but I tried my hardest to make it feel like it’s part of the universe that I’ve been building this whole time.”
In fact, he says, it’s already become an album that he relates to in a different way to anything he’s released before. He recently tweeted: “use the YASUKE OST next time u train”, and says this advice came from his own personal experience. “I was actually pretty surprised because I don’t think I’ve ever made an album that I would listen to in the gym before. This one felt really good. I was like: ‘Man, I feel like a samurai training in here right now!’”
Ellison’s one complaint about the series is that the six half-hour episodes fly by too fast. He’s hopeful that there’ll be further series of Yasuke to come, enabling them to go on further adventures while also diving deeper into the real Yasuke’s historical backstory. In any regard, he says, the experience of writing for the samurai – and meeting the strict deadlines of an anime production – has already transformed his process and given him more faith in the power of just following his initial instincts.
“I hope it’s going to make me a person who doesn’t dwell on things as much,” he says. “I’m more confident with finishing things now. That’s huge because I have so much music that I dwell on and think about for way too long: ‘Do I love this?’ ‘Should I put this out?’ I need to get in the process of just finishing ideas and putting more things out, and I think Yasuke is pushing me to do that.”
Five centuries after he first arrived in Japan, Yasuke lives on as a heroic ideal – and a voice in the head of Flying Lotus. “That’s right,” laughs Ellison. “He’s like: ‘Be a samurai… and it’s due tomorrow.’”
‘Yasuke’ is streaming on Netflix, while Flying Lotus’ soundtrack is also available now