Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus play surprise DJ sets at Low End Theory
You could tell from the trail of the tweets. All week long, Flying Lotus had been sporadically updating his 50,000+ plus followers on his recording sessions with the reigning queen of psychedelic soul, Erykah Badu.
“Day 3 on the album with @fatbellybella. I'm starting early today. So far it's sounding pretty amazing. I’m enjoying hearing our universes expand….Producer and artist working in the same studio together! None of this emailing.”
His fellow collaborator, the self-proclaimed “Analog Girl in the Digital World,” was more cryptic but no less effusive: “I’m in music heaven.”
So when Lotus coyly opined, “I have a feeling Low End Theory will be trending again tonight,” the house money had Ms. On and On flocking to the house that Beats built.
With the increasing international fame of the local scene, the Low End Theory in Lincoln Heights has been steadily luring larger names into its vortex. First came underground rap legends El-P and DJ Muggs, then Odd Future, which played its first major show at the Airliner in October. The coup de grace was Thom Yorke, who dropped a scorching DJ set full of Fela Kuti, Burial and J Dilla last month.
But short of a Prince drop-in, Badu might have been one of the most highly sought after guests imaginable. With a fusionist streak that spans hip-hop, funk, soul, classic R&B, jazz and electronic, she’s a pure manifestation of the genre-obliterating intentions of the Wednesday night weekly.
No one knew what to expect. A live performance with a full backing band? A DJ set? A seance to contact the spirit world holding J Dilla and the Notorious B.I.G.? Though she’s forthright enough to tweet her pregnancy, Badu cloaks herself with a level of mystery commensurate with expectations of being trailed by a cloud of incense and a retinue of bag handlers, passing out Kombucha, sage and esoteric wisdom translated from ancient Assyrian.
But the entourage was small on Wednesday night -- just three female vocalists who were quickly introduced and faded to the side of the stage. Exchanging singing for Serrato, Badu hunched over her laptop, wearing a Sa-Ra shirt while flanked by Flying Lotus and bass god Thundercat (who wore feathers in his hair and a faux bulletproof vest, looking very much the part of a man named Thundercat.)
Using her debut Low End Theory appearance to spin tunes that covered the far-flung parameters of her sound, Badu started with some instrumental funk nouveau that sounded like what you might imagine En Vogue singing over had they emerged in 2011. The first half of her hour-plus set veered toward the soulful and cosmic -- swooning violins, cosmic vocals and chopped samples -- mellow as morning tea.
Badu spun an amebic gumbo of her styles -- Bill Withers, Nu Shooz, Zapp, Rick James, J Dilla, Low End favorite Mono/Poly and her own music -- an eccentric rhythm and blues that sutured the decades. It subtly placed herself within the great continuum of soul, a transcendent musician unmoored from gravity, using songs to skywrite against a vault of stars. A fire alarm-eyed ethereal cool.
For the hip-hop heads in the audience, the highlights came when she blended in classic cuts from the Notorious B.I.G. (“The Warning,” “Unbelievable”) and Mobb Deep (“Shook Ones Part II). Every time Biggie bluntly rasped, “Damn, why they want to stick me for my papers,” Badu craned her neck to hype the crowd. She even found time to mix in "Licensed to Ill," Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle,” Ghostface Killah’s “Cherchez La Ghost” and Outkast’s “Skew It on the Bar-B.”
Anyone interested in hearing Badu’s influences only had to have a copy of her iTunes playlist. It was all there, and as the night wound down, Lotus joined her behind the Macs and unveiled one of their new tunes -- which harnessed the future jazz of "Cosmogramma" with Badu’s own planetary wail. He played everything from Tyler, the Creator’s “Yonkers” to unreleased cuts from the forthcoming Thundercat album. At several points, Badu even referred to Lotus as “the electronic Alice Coltrane.” If Lotus ever decides to get a vanity plate, that might be the one.
After all, even if universal consciousness wasn't achieved Wednesday night, it definitely breathed a few beats closer.
-- Jeff Weiss