Within five minutes of Flying Lotus’ set on the Red Bull Music Academy stage at Movement on Memorial Day, it was obvious why he was closing down the stage for the weekend. Flying Lotus (born Steven Ellison) came in with a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. After rumors that he might be late (no one wanted to see his much anticipated set reduced), Ellison arrived like he had something to prove.
Just a few days before, he expressed that same mentality from his Los Angeles home studio.
“You can’t bring some half-ass shit to Detroit,” said Ellison. “People go there with the mentality of destroying -- destroying the party, destroying the DJ before them, whatever. I like to have fun, too … but when you’re in Detroit, you can’t fuck around.” The sentiment is made that much sweeter knowing Ellison’s family still resides in the area (his great aunt, the great late Alice Coltrane, was born in Detroit).
You can’t bring some half-ass shit to Detroit.
Ellison rocked like the stage with the excitement of a rookie, like he’s never seen 1,000+ people in front of him. Each sample he dropped, he lip-synched along with it like there was some deeper meaning within each track (his fondness for Lil’ Wayne was evident throughout the hour-and-a-half performance). Ellison also brought his sense of humor, bumping his way through Radiohead’s “Idioteque” as a way of answering rumblings that he might be remixing an upcoming Radiohead record.
Before Ellison arrived to rock the Red Bull Music Academy stage and close out Movement 2011, we caught up with him at home to discuss his upcoming work as a producer, his growing interest in the written word and the pressures of running his own label, the aptly titled Brainfeeder.
Word on the street is that you are busy producing the new Thundercat record, one of the artists on your Brainfeeder roster.
I think it’s going to be one of the most important records out this year -- not because of my involvement, but because it’s music that we are not hearing right now. A lot of the stuff that we’re hearing this year is very, very familiar. You can talk about mainstream stuff or you can talk about the underground stuff, but it’s all real familiar.
But with Thundercat, I can say with full confidence that you haven’t heard nothing like this. But you’ve been wanting to (laughs). It’s very exceptional, you know? But it’s still challenging. There’s lots of jazz playing on there. At the same time, there are lots of ballad-y songs. It’s such a pleasure to work with the guy because he’s an amazing musician. It makes the work that I do very, very easy. For anyone who is wondering, that album is expected to drop at the end of August.
That plays into the idea that you are taking on more and more production work.
This year I am. I’ve been working on other things. I don’t feel the need to make a record for myself right now.
A producer can easily become a fifth member of a band. If you look at a guy like Jon Brion (Kanye West, Fiona Apple), you can always tell when he is on a record. What’s the role of a producer to you?
It’s definitely different for the two projects I’m working on -- one being the Thundercat record, the other being the Erykah Badu record. The Thundercat [record] is more of a Quincy Jones situation…where that record was almost complete before I was brought in. What I did was help flesh out the ideas on some of these tracks and put the record together in a way that is cohesive.
It’s definitely different for the two projects I’m working on -- one being the Thundercat record, the other being the Erykah Badu record.
With Badu, I’m starting from scratch. It’s really interesting to deal with two different people. It’s a fun learning process for me as an artist. I’ve never really felt the need to step out on my own, but now, I really like the idea especially at a time when I don’t want to be producing my own record.
There is always a risk that you can get lost in your own work when producing a record you wrote and recorded yourself. It’s like a screenwriter directing his own movie.
FL: My year without making a record is like me being a student again. I’ve been studying piano more and studying motion graphics. I’ve been applying myself all over again. It’s definitely one of those years where I’m back in the cocoon.
Are you picking up techniques and practical skills you’ll apply on future projects?
Absolutely. More than anything, I’ve been fascinated with songwriting because it’s an area I haven’t really dived into much. I’ve lived a crazy life and, for a long time, I’ve been really terrified of words.
What do you mean by “crazy life?”
Well, I mean, my life is crazy, dude. I’m sure yours is, too. I’ve dealt with a lot in the past five years. I finally feel like I have enough life experience to write songs and not regret the words that I wrote down the road. Right now, I feel like if I write something, I’ll mean it. I might not feel like that ten years down the road, but I’ll be able to say, “Well, shit. That was the true shit at the time!”
It’s like a tattoo. You don’t want to get one you’ll regret.
Absolutely! I’ve been comparing songwriting to that for a long time because I don’t have any tattoos and I’m terrified of getting one. I’m afraid that I’ll get all buff and the tattoo will move out of the place from where I put it, you know? I’ll put it on my shoulder and it’ll end up on my triceps or something (laughs).
As time goes on and you accomplish more as an artist, do you find that it’s easier to get the things done that you want to do?
Absolutely not. It’s tough to do everything now because there is so much risk and responsibility. It’s not so much about creative voice, but more about the fact that I’ve got a label and other peoples’ reputation on the line. It’s weird (laughs). It’s like being a dad in the way. I gotta make sure the kiddies eat.
You’ve got brand to protect now.
Even if I don’t want to pick up the phone, I still have to do it for other people. It’s awesome, but at the same time, dusk rolls around and all I’ve done is check e-mails. But I don’t have to work a regular job, so I can’t complain about shit, can I? There’s more work to do than just showing up at the party, that’s for sure.
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