Brainfeeder is one of those rare record labels whose name is also shorthand for a conceptual approach: the warping and blending of hip-hop into new forms and new realities. The music of Flying Lotus — aka Steven Ellison, Brainfeeder’s founder and boss — provides the throughline for the label's trajectory and growth, from its early days as a freewheeling sanctuary for offbeat instrumental hip-hop to its current status as one of the primary meeting places of hip-hop and contemporary jazz.
So the announcement last month that George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective would be releasing a new record on Brainfeeder seemed to signal a further departure, perhaps even a shift in approach. But as both Flying Lotus and Clinton showed Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl — at a concert dubbed “Brainfeeder at the Bowl,” a showcase of futurist music in the spirit of Brainfeeder that also included performances from The Gaslamp Killer, Shabazz Palaces and Thundercat — Clinton’s restless future funk is not so philosophically dissimilar from Ellison's incessantly searching hip-hop experimentalism in its urge to bring disparate elements together under one banner.
All of the acts at Saturday night’s fest traded in some form of genre futurism. The Gaslamp Killer, who DJ'd between the sets of the other artists, is, plain and simple, Los Angeles’ most delightful musical presence — his huge mop of Muppet hair bouncing rhythmically, his records vacillating between The Ronettes, Middle Eastern traditional music and dark, slurry cuts from his new album, Instrumentalepathy. After GLK’s first set, Shabazz Palaces slithered out from underneath the interstitial music, the apropos “Space Is the Place” by Sun Ra, turning in a woefully short set of woozy bass, clicking percussion and avant rap. Shabazz rapper Ishmael Butler's exhortations, to take you high, to take you to space — to astrally project you into a funky-ass future — are straight out of the P-Funk lexicon.
Thundercat's set was, as expected, one of the special thrills of the night. He walked onstage in a black shawl and red satin shorts, a massive double-neck bass slung over his shoulders. Stephen Bruner's repertoire is decidedly un–P-Funky — jagged instead of loose, virtuosic instead of frictional — but the Hollywood Bowl stage, with its soft light and big acoustics, was a perfect fit last night for him and his combo. Bruner's bass feels earthen, his solos feel like tectonic shifts, and as he cut his way through “Lone Wolf and Cub” and the gorgeous “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” he seemed to form cracks in the very foundation of the Earth. His singing was honed, too — even holding up to a duet with singer-songwriter Michael McDonald, who, delightfully, led Bruner's band in a cover of “What a Fool Believes” and sat in on “Them Changes.” “Michael McDonald, dude,” said Bruner at the end of his set, beaming, positive seismic waves rippling off the stage.
Years before he became the soul and voice of West Coast hip-hop from Doggystyle to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, George Clinton was himself an avatar for spastic creativity, constructing, very much like Ellison, alternate realities from various genre elements, Funkensteins assembled over a backbone of bouncing bass. The George Clinton ensemble that took the stage Saturday night, billed as “Funkadelic Featuring George Clinton and Parliament,” was, of course, a contemporary iteration, representing Clinton at a much different stage in his career. Newer material, which dominated the first half of the set, didn’t immediately click — a factor, perhaps, of the massive 18-person ensemble crowding the stage. The music was alternately funky — the fog lifted around a wailing sax solo — and sludgy, distinctive and fresh if not totally gratifying. Of course, there’s much to admire about the band’s sound, even if it doesn’t totally congeal — for one, how many others of Clinton’s generation can say they’re still delivering new music onstage that sets itself apart from the classics, that sounds utterly of this moment?
Still, it was the classics that brought the house down. Clinton, who, at 75, doesn’t move around much, lit up as the band bumped from “Flashlight” to “One Nation Under a Groove” to a big, fun “Atomic Dog,” screaming and grinning. “Give Up the Funk” was even kind of touching, watching Clinton, who in the last several years kicked a crack habit and put his life back on track, lead the band with a passion. It didn’t remind too much of Funkadelic’s more trailblazing tendencies, but it more than did justice to P-Funk’s greatest hits. “Funk is anything you need to save your life,” Clinton said in an interview recently. The funk Clinton’s band stirs up is still, reassuringly, lifesaving.
Ellison, of course, is at a much different stage of his perhaps parallel career — still stretching his fingers, accelerating a fusion of bebop and hip-hop that also includes elements of dark ambient, video game soundtracks, harp samples and whatever else fits in the pot. On the Hollywood Bowl stage, he was stationed between two flat screens — in front of one, behind the other — and surrounded by mega–high-resolution visuals, which were projected all around him and onto the proscenium. The effect was that Ellison was largely just a silhouette, orchestrating chaos from behind a curtain as wormholes of fractals or rows of squiggling phosphenes whipped around him, bordered by intense strobe lights, a scene of complete cognitive bombardment. Behind the console, he tightened and compressed Travis Scott’s “Antidote,” played some new music and stitched together tracks from albums like Cosmogramma and You’re Dead, his 2014 tour de force.
For all that bombast, Ellison was casual and fun, sneaking out into the crowd at one point to catch a glimpse of the visuals he couldn’t see from the stage. He vaguely promised new music — possibly under his Captain Murphy rap monicker — as soon as next week. He talked about the film he’s working on and hinted at even darker, more challenging work to come. “I dare you to keep fucking with me in the future,” he snickered.
Ellison's finale was largely a swirl of Kendrick Lamar tracks — To Pimp a Butterfly was, after all, the album that brought George Clinton together with Bruner and Ellison in the first place. He spun “King Kunta,” and “Wesley’s Theory,” which he produced and on which Clinton, as on so many G-Funk tracks before, provides a voice-over. He lingered on “Never Catch Me,” the Kendrick-featuring centerpiece of You’re Dead, a song on which Kendrick and FlyLo looked toward death with all the intense curiosity with which Clinton, in the late '70s, looked toward outer space. He veered into Clintonian funk, and frantic jazz.
Then, he walked out in front of the stage again, shouting out Low End Theory, the club that helped give so many L.A. beatmakers, including him, their voice. He thanked his grandmother, and Herbie Hancock, both of whom were in the audience. He expressed genuine awe at the big Hollywood Bowl crowd. “To bring people together, that’s my main mission in this experience on Earth,” he said. And what is Brainfeeder but the projection of that vision, of one nation under a groove?