They all know Thundercat at the ramen spot. He’s not the kind of person you forget. I first saw him about seven years ago playing bass for Erykah Badu, wearing intergalactic shoulder pads and an eagle-feathered Cheyenne Indian war bonnet. You couldn’t tell if he was 23 or 230, the son of Bootsy Collins or Sitting Bull, a legendary session player or an Afro-Futurist anime hero.
The answers still aren’t entirely clear, but this much is crystalline: Thundercat is Stephen Bruner, a bassist with perfect pitch who has released two brilliant albums on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint. Splitting the difference between Bowser’s Castle overtures and George Duke, they encompass jazz, funk, soul and the occasional love groove to ecstasy or a pet cat. And sometime in the last 18 months, Kendrick Lamar recruited the South Central native to supply the celestial ecclesiastical architecture undergirding the year’s most talked about album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
“A part of me almost didn’t feel comfortable talking to anybody,” Bruner says, shortly after sitting down at his go-to noodle spot, not far from his Koreatown home. He’s wearing a phalanx of turquoise rings and necklaces and a T-shirt of his Saturday-morning-cartoon namesake underneath an open woolen cardigan. “I wanted Kendrick to get a chance to speak first — having spent so much time working with him, it’s clear that everything he does is on purpose,” says the consummate session man. “I was kind of taking his cue.”
Until recently, Thundercat, 30, was a half-secret with a staggering résumé. Before he was old enough to vote, he joined his brother, the similarly prodigious drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., in Suicidal Tendencies. Their father drummed for Diana Ross and the Temptations, raising the budding jazz prodigies across South Central, Compton and Watts. When the riots hit, Thundercat remembers going with his dad atop their apartment and watching a crowd torch a nearby gas station.
During the middle of the last decade, Thundercat linked up with Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra and became a permanent fixture at the group’s Silver Lake studio that briefly served as the Los Alamos of the L.A. underground music scene. Everyone from Ty Dolla $ign, Badu and Bilal passed through the sprawling nerve center. Thundercat fit right in, playing video games, cracking jokes and sculpting bass lines in endless jams. Badu eventually plucked him for her live band and New Amerykah studio sessions.
“I was like Billy Preston in the Rolling Stones. ‘Who’s that black guy with the Afro?'” Thundercat says, laughing. “I was like a little mouse in the house. My bass set up somewhere, curled in the corner playing Xbox or Playstation.”
The full scope of Thundercat’s talent only became apparent after meeting Flying Lotus. He’s compared their connection to Jay and Silent Bob — an inseparable duo telepathically bonded over a love of jazz-fusion, anime and South Korean cult films. The bassist’s influence and instrumentation are all over Lotus’ last three records — last year’s You’re Dead was Rolling Stone‘s dance album of 2014. It was Lotus who convinced Thundercat to sing, make solo records and eventually introduced him to Lamar.