In a 2015 FADER story about the rise of Brainfeeder, the Los Angeles-based label that revered electronic music producer Flying Lotus founded in 2008, beloved saxophonist Kamasi Washington points out that hip-hop and L.A.’s late-2000s beat scene — a loose genre-ifying of L.A.-created experimental music rooted in electronic and hip-hop — both have roots in his genre, jazz. “It’s coming from the same place, the musical rebellious nature of it,” he said.
Washington’s take succinctly defines Brainfeeder’s charm. What began as a way for Flying Lotus, fellow beat scene producers Teebs and Samiyam, and close friend Adam Stover to expose the music of L.A.’s brightest jazz-loving electronic artists — particularly those fascinated more by hip-hop’s music than its vocals — is now a globally influential record label. A powerhouse of artists whose music gleams with jazz instrumentation, tones and chord progressions even as their music sometimes veers into unstable, rickety synthetic forms, Brainfeeder has been synonymous with the future of instrumental hip-hop and its adjacent genres for a decade now.
One look at the track listing for Brainfeeder X, the 4XLP box set of outtakes and classics that the label has released to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, attests to the immense breadth of alinear, challenging, imposing electronic music the label has championed since its earliest days. To celebrate the first decade of Brainfeeder’s risk-taking, impossible-to-pin-down musical contributions, below are the label’s 10 best releases to own on vinyl, ordered chronologically.
Not even two years into its existence, Brainfeeder managed to sign beat scene legend Daedelus. A staple of beat scene-affiliated internet radio station dublab, with which fellow Brainfeeder artists Ras G and Teebs (and FlyLo himself) have also been involved, Daedelus had put out a whopping nine albums from 2002-2008 before releasing Righteous Fists of Harmony in 2010.
The release is a deeply logical one for Brainfeeder’s early years. Its sonic template is emblematic of the label’s sound: Across its eight songs, Daedelus weaves machine-like samples, lurching percussive patterns, flamenco-esque guitar runs, relaxed and soulful vocal features and ambient, unsettling synth and bass layers into a bizarre, dread-inducing cocktail. Fists presents a midtempo realm in which trip-hop, jazz, psychedelia, avant-garde and soundtrack music combine into a mildly disturbing, fully enthralling blend. The best part about listening to it on vinyl is that, despite its mere 26-minute runtime, it comes on a full 12 inches of wax, making it feel utterly titanic.
Jennifer Lee, better known as TOKiMONSTA, is one of just three non-male artists to ever release music on Brainfeeder. Now a global production sensation and perhaps Brainfeeder’s most successful affiliate besides FlyLo himself, she released Creature Dreams on Brainfeeder in 2011, years before achieving her worldwide electronic music fame. The collection is both a gorgeous gathering of productions that chirp with the early dawn cheer of birds rising and a display of seething, astronomical glide and rivetingly incorrect-sounding synth and percussive work. Through disorienting arrays of digital loops, foggy vocal samples, echo-filled hazes and phaser-infused synths, Lee creates sounds as ricocheting as they are teeming with desperation. Although Creature Dreams has been somewhat forgotten in light of her later achievements, it’s an LP well-worth nabbing to revisit Lee’s earliest visions.
Martijn Deijkers spent about a decade DJing clubs before releasing any music. About another half-decade passed following his debut 7” in 2005 before Brainfeeder scooped him up. Ghost People, his second album under the Martyn alias, is among the most accessible of early Brainfeeder releases, despite containing the label’s signature cerebral, damaging sounds.
On “Masks,” a house beat drives a sputtering synth into a looping necklace of high-octave drones, meshing Martyn’s love of the bizarre with his background in spinning dance music for late night crowds. Both the album’s crystalline, pulsating title track and colossal, nine-minute, alien, four-to-the-floor closer “We Are You in the Future” are expert walks of the thin line between the familiar and the extraterrestrial. Martyn’s cosmic tendencies, which tie him directly to Brainfeeder’s legacy, abound magically across Ghost People.
Unlike many of Brainfeeder’s staple artists, Taylor McFerrin doesn’t use a musical alias, perhaps because his last name immediately connects him to a living jazz legend: Bobby McFerrin (Taylor’s sister Madison is currently on the rise, also perhaps in part due to her last name). Early Riser, Taylor’s only full-length to date, is rife with the jazz influences his roots suggest, and the album’s shapeshifting, sparse beats impart the nocturnal allure shared among the most enticing of Brainfeeder releases.
“The Antidote” is a gently comforting collection of jazz-infused snaps and soft claps, and “Stepps” glides across Mellotron-esque whines and shaker-led percussive patterns toward a lush shuffle that beams with jazz’s complexities, moods and shapes. Bobby sings on “Invisible/Visible,” a minimal deep cut that feels remarkably spontaneous despite its calmness. Early Riser is generally placid, despite boasting myriad sonic outbursts; it’s the sort of collection that fellow early risers would do great to spin to slowly ease into their days.
Lapalux is one of a few Brainfeeder artists whose music is far more indebted to dance than to jazz. Nostalchic, his debut album, sits on curved grooves, eerie, softly bubbling beats, and vocals that reach across distances so vast they feel almost imagined.
“Flower” rattles with a just-above-mid-tempo shake that bleeds melancholy, dread, and hope in equal measures. “Guurl” eventually makes its way to a Knife-like crawl outlined by dreary synthetic gurgles and dimly clattering percussion. “The Dead Sea” aches across a modestly unfurling abyss of deeply demented, processed saxophones. “Kelly Brook” rides an unsettling mess of synth-drum interplay into a sphere where robotic sounds clash intensely with human noises. Heavily modulated vocal samples tie the tracks back to their creator who, to this day, continues to excel at fucking up familiar sonic elements just enough to conjure a fear that lies beyond human description.
Kamasi Washington is a straight-up jazz musician, not a jazz-adjacent producer. His legacy-cementing 2015 collection The Epic contains shouting saxophones, glo-lite percussive pitter-patter, complex brass and woodwind layers, starlit and wisp-thin keys, and harmonized oohs and aahs (with occasional full-on singing and lyrics).
The Epic arrived just over a month after Kendrick Lamar’s immediately iconic To Pimp a Butterfly. That album was extolled for K Dot’s newfound jazz influences, and Washington’s playing across it massively informed this direction. The Epic thus broke the boundary between indie and jazz fans upon its release, in part because indie folks can appreciate a collection that’s truly this epic, a whopping three-hour 3XLP. The album includes whirring ditties (“Clair de Lune”), riotous lyrical adventures (“Henrietta Our Hero”) and expansive, celestial freakouts (“Change of the Guard”). Rarely do The Epic’s songs clock in at under seven minutes, a properly unrestrained approach for Brainfeeder’s most no-holds-barred jazz release.
Since Flying Lotus has never himself released any of his official studio albums through Brainfeeder — he signed to the one and only Warp Records before founding Brainfeeder — Thundercat may well be the label’s most visible current artist. He’s long been deeply beloved for his insane bass work — this man plays a six-string bass — as part of punk band Suicidal Tendencies and on highly regarded records by Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, Flying Lotus and, of course, Kendrick Lamar. Drunk expanded his audience the most of any of his albums, perhaps thanks to his Pimp-era K Dot co-sign.
Across the LP, he leans into his unabashedly juvenile sense of humor, love of soul textures that wrap around the listener like a silk blanket, fascination with the loneliness that a lack of romance and sexual activity can bring and ability to just absolutely shred (again, this is all on bass). He makes even the deepest heartbreaks hilarious thanks to his soulful croon and stoned-as-shit lyricism, all atop endlessly groovy bass riffs. The low end just rips on vinyl.
Unlike many Brainfeeder artists, Iglooghost makes music that suggests a background in high-BPM electronic music. Like many Brainfeeder artists, he disregards conventions about what makes a melody memorable. Neō Wax Bloom, his debut album, may be the single most chaotic release in the Brainfeeder catalog. Its songs are usually built on rapid (to put it lightly) drum programming that shakes with the intensity of an animated action video game score. Above these percussive turrets, Iglooghost takes vocal samples, pitch-shifts them as high as is humanly imaginable, deploys them through (and at the speed of) a blender, and has them play the role that instruments might play in a rock band. This all goes down over distorted, energizing, synthetic soundscapes that are at once super funny and a bit terrifying. His music is the kind to which the notion of words being unable to fully describing music truly applies. Give Neō Wax Bloom a spin on Wax (pun extremely intended) and find out for yourself.
Felix Clary Weatherall records homespun dance recordings as Ross from Friends, a name you either love or hate. His music, though, is pretty impossible not to love. On his debut album, Family Portrait, he delivers nearly an hour of expertly produced, lo-fi house music that’s as impossible to resist popping off to as it is to fully discern.
Ross from Friends’ beats tend to arrive shrouded in a Cosmogramma-esque haze. If “Thank God I’m a Lizard” weren’t titled exactly that, the song’s recurring whispers might sound like random mumbling rather than utterances of this phrase, one that’s appropriately offbeat for a Brainfeeder artist. “Pale Blue Dot” feels compressed under an ambiguous, robotic weight, but this pressure can’t hold back its engrossing shuffle. Even milder tracks such as “Don’t Wake Dad” would fit into a more modest club’s Saturday night soundtrack. A good spin on LP helps to clear the record’s fog and vaults Family Portrait into the storied hall of Brainfeeder classics.
Georgia Anne Muldrow, another one of only three non-male artists whom Brainfeeder has signed in its decade of existence (and also the label’s most recent signing), represents nothing short of a legendary addition to the label’s roster. Many household-name visionaries have gone on the record to praise her output, including Blood Orange, Mos Def and perhaps her closest associate, Erykah Badu. For over a decade, she’s been a staple of the L.A.-based music scenes that Brainfeeder surveys.
Overload, an album as vital as it is recent for Brainfeeder, is a potent cocktail of protest anthems and love songs, all delivered across a cocktail of jazz, soul and electronic sounds. “Play It Up” and “Blam” blare like a siren just as effortlessly as “Conmigo (Reprise)” and “Vital Transformation” allure with solely minimal, rudimentary sounds. Although it’s taken over a decade for Brainfeeder and Muldrow to fully unite, Overload masterfully refines the label’s appeal.
Max Freedman is a music writer with bylines in FACT, Paste, Bandcamp, Under the Radar, FLOOD and more. Outside music, he really likes trying any chocolate-based desserts he's offered, telling people that Six Feet Under is worth making the time for five seasons of 12-13 hour-long episodes, and riding public transit routes he hasn’t previously taken.
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