When I first met Steven Ellison, I was a bundle of jittery nerves. Ellison is one of the most versatile artists of our time. Not just an innovative electronic musician -- working under the moniker "Flying Lotus" -- he's also a rapper, master producer and frequent collaborator with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Ellison's most recent Flying Lotus album, “You're Dead,” features guest verses from Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and others, and was named one of the top 50 albums of the year by Rolling Stone. You can understand, then, why I was a little nervous to meet the guy.
When I met Ellison earlier this year in a warehouse-cum-office building in Brooklyn, we were ushered into a small room; after polite introductions I took out my phone to record our conversation, and instantly he picked it up and began riffing. Nerves on both ends dropped, and suddenly the room was buzzing.
Ellison’s energy is vital and frenetic; he often communicates with sound effects, and his eyes dance when he discusses his music. This vibrance and intellectual energy is reflected in his music. At this point, “You're Dead” had not yet been released, but he was already moving forward and thinking about his next project. Below is the (lightly edited) conversation that followed.
[Playing with a phone]
I used an iPhone to record some stuff for the album. It was actually an emergency situation that I had to do that because I was literally on the road and I had to fix something and turn it in and whatever. So we recorded some drums with the iPhone at the venue. It was cool. It worked out.
I was actually going to ask you about technology and technology's influence on music. There are so many aspects of it from sharing music and piracy and even creating music and you're -- from what I've read -- pretty much self-taught and you watch YouTube tutorials. What's your relationship with technology?
I've always been a techie kind of person. As a child I remember freaking out. I was a really little kid, and I went to a friend's to sleep over, and they had a Nintendo, but the dad wasn't home so he couldn't set it up, and I was like, "Ah, I know how to set it up. I’ll just get behind the TV and just [tinkering sound effects]." The mom was like, "What is he doing?" And I got it working, but I guess I was just really inclined to that kind of shit, technical stuff. I built computers and stuff when I was a teenager and whatever. I was really into that kind of shit. And so technology, when you can make music on a computer, it really fit me out, because I was already on it.
But it was kind of like a taboo thing to make hip-hop on a computer in the early 2000s, it was like, "No, man, that's not hip-hop. You can't do that. You can't use a damn computer." So I used a computer. When that was possible, it was perfect for me, because it just seemed like an extension of my brain activity anyway, the way my brain was, I was already on it.
Obviously now, we're in a funny time where technology is run rampant and looking at little kids and shit, they're screwed now. The technology has taken them. I was at a friend's house last night and there was a little baby girl on the little iPhone watching cartoons and stuff, like, "What are you watching over here? I gotta make sure you watching the right [show]." The parents are like in their own world, and this kid's got this phone. And I'm just like, man, she's still got a pacifier in her mouth. And I'm just like, shit man. If I had a phone when I was a teenager, it's just like, the things you could do.
Even with this album, it's like a new spin on jazz. You've morphed it with these new sounds and it seems like almost this coming together of two ages. Is that what you were trying to do?
That's the point. That's the point. I always think about Miles Davis coming back. And if he came back to Earth and heard a lot of these jazz cats, he'd be mad. He'd literally be mad, and he'd just go back to wherever he was dead at. I was like, all right, if we're gonna do something like that, we gotta do something a little different and switch it up a little bit. So if Miles heard it, he'd be like, "OK, that's what ya'll doing. Oh, all right. OK." I wanted to do something like that. Make him chin stroke a little bit. “Oh OK.”
So partially it's out of my own frustration of where it's all at, because I think everyone, with jazz, it's gotten so in the box, you know? It's gone quite stale over the past 20 years, and when you talk about it, people think of it as like elevator music now. But there's still people hidden, man. There's still some shit and places to take it. Especially now that we have the technology and capabilities, we should be trying to take it further; we should be trying to change it up.
With your family background, did you grow up listening to a lot of jazz?
Yeah. Yeah. And the jazz thing was always present. My family, they would throw the John Coltrane festival, which would happen every year, and it would be all-day jazz. And I was like, when I was a child, it went on for so long. So it was always there. And my appreciation for it only increased more and more as I got older, and I started learning more and doing my own digging and living and stuff, and then it seems like every five years I get inspired to go back to John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane and Miles and all that. And like have a new appreciation and understanding for the journey of it, the technical aspects of everything, just have more appreciation for it every five years of my own living and whatnot. Go back to it and, "Damn, man. Why do I feel so much?"
But that's the best kind of music. Every time, “You're Dead” hits me with something different. Even though it's just one long track --
Right. But you can hear the breaks but it's still very seamless. What was the process? It took you two years, and it almost sounds like it's composed.
That's the fun. The way it works generally is a lot of ideas will come out, and then it's, OK, how do I make these ideas better? Then it is how do I tie it all together? It's like a little process, and I enjoy each part of it so much. But it was funny this time, because I feel like I've been listening to these songs, only these songs, for like a whole year and a half. Hearing them over and over and over and over and trying to figure out, Is this done yet? No. Is this done yet? No. Is this done yet? No, God, it's not done yet. It's so much work.
Do you still feel that when you listen to it?
No. No no. It's definitely done. There's definitely some things I'd change now, but I'm overall happy with it. I don't want to be like George Lucas and fuck with my favorite works or whatever. Just leave it alone. It's done. No going back. Actually I might go back and do a remaster five years from now. No, no. [Laughs]
With “You're Dead,” was there any sort of preoccupation with death?
I definitely did. The album concept came before the music. So it was like everything that was made was made from that world, from this concept. And if it didn't sound like the world, then it just got pushed to the side; maybe for something else, leave that for something else. This feels like “You're Dead.” Doesn't mean it has to be dark or grim or whatever, but it just feels like the next experience or something. I've tried to think about it.
There's no fear?
No. And I kind of wanted to think of it a little bit playfully too. I wanted it to be kind of tongue-in-cheek. The [song] I did with Snoop is supposed to be kind of silly and funny, you know? And there's a couple moments throughout where I wanted to let my sense of humor stick out a little bit, because I don't want it to be just this grim, death, dreary, suicide album. I want it to be more so taking from my own personal fears, confronting them, poking fun at myself, and all that stuff.
There are some moments that make me sad when I listen to it. Like, "Oh, yeah, that song. Fuck." But there's still some happy ones too that I hope the spectrum is there. And the ending is the most important, and for the whole concept to really come across, you need that ending, because the ending is the realization and just kind of like the understanding and acceptance, where it's like, well actually, we don't ever die. Our influence, the love that we leave, everything that we've left behind, that lives on forever. That's what I wanted to end on. I wanted the whole trajectory, man, yeah we're dead, you're dead, it's dark, it's dark, but wait a minute. Actually, yeah, I get it. You'll go on forever.
You think about the album title “You're Dead” and my expectation was that it was going to be darker. But it was really more of an experience.
It's better that way. I'm so curious to see if the point comes across. Talking to you and talking to people about it, cause I could just go on and tell you all day, and that's what I do with my friends, when I say, "All right, so, before I play, I just want to say ..." It's cool to hear what people have to say about it. The most important thing to me is that the story comes across. The trajectory of it comes across without it feeling like a mix tape of just a collage of tracks. I want it to be a journey; I want it to be visual for people.
You have an ability to seek out or attract all this talent. You and Thundercat, and you've worked with Thom Yorke, you've worked with Kendrick. How do you find people for your label? And what's it like working with all these people and collaborating?
Collaborating has been so rewarding over the past couple years, because I'm just so used to working alone. So being able to open up the world and knowing what to open up, and learning more how to get on certain people's sensibilities, musical creative sensibilities, like understanding someone's strengths and weaknesses and learning and adapting and stuff is really fun to me now. Whereas before I was a little bit more nervous and didn't want to reach out to people.
But collaborating is a lot of fun now. It's funny, because I always see people in their little pockets doing things, and I always wanna be like, "Well what if we got him and him together!" And I think that's something that I've been trying to learn from my heroes like Dr. Dre and Timbaland and a lot of the great legendary producers. They're more than just putting tracks together; they know how to put people in a room together and make things happen that way, even if it's like your influences saying, "Hey man, you know what? She's dope. Ya'll should work together." And when it happens, it's like, that's producing too.
That's so important, though.
It is. So I've been really enjoying that side of things. In terms of the label, I'm just lucky enough to have a lot of friends around who got an ear out, and I try to seek out new things too, and try to be moved by stuff. We have the technology to reach people.
Does working with computers influence the way you layer? How would you say that your brain works to make music?
I think I could tell you. I feel like when I start working, I throw a bunch of puzzle pieces on the table. That's what it feels like. I just get a bunch of things and it's like, OK, [sound effects]. How do I make the most dynamic picture out of these pieces that I can? That's how I feel, for some reason. It feels like a puzzle after a while. You get a few sounds together, and it's like the edges of the puzzle, almost. And then you kind of, well, here's this, and then there's that, and it really does feel like that for me. And I don't know, for everyone it's different, I guess, but I do feel like it's kind of a game in a way. And when it becomes too clear is when it's time to break it. If I can predict all the steps, I fucked up. Get to that place where I can see it all, and break it, and then change it, and then do something else, and then eventually it reveals something to me that I didn't expect. "Ooooh. Aaaaah." It's so nerdy.
Your eyes light up when you talk about this.
It's cool because you can verbalize it. I was a dancer, so I connect with music in a very physical way. I think everybody's brain processes music differently.
Yeah. It's funny. Because I really do wish I was more connected to dancing, because I think that it would help me to connect to people better.
I think you do it very well with music.
I feel like it would be better if I danced.