Flying Lotus: "I Wanted To Make a Record That Reminded Me of Madvillain."
Steven Ellison is on his way to another installment of the Red Bull Music Academy. It's early afternoon, and his quiet, grizzly voice sounds like it just awoke from a nap, but his mind is alert. He explains how he's spent the past week in the city, taking meetings and enjoying the sunshine. He talks about upcoming projects. He mentions his excitement of the future. He really hopes that Joey Bada$$ uses one of his beats for his upcoming record.
In other words, Ellison sounds happy. Content. Pleased.
And why shouldn't he be? The L.A. producer released his most recent Flying Lotus project, Until the Quiet Comes, this past fall to critical acclaim. Shortly after, he revealed himself as the mysterious hip-hop artist Captain Murphy. And then in January, his short film tied to Quiet won the Jury Selection Award at Sundance.
Tonight, New York gets another taste of him, as he takes over Terminal 5 for the second night in a row. Ellison chatted with us about the reception of his record, trying to make a modern day Madvillain, and his upcoming jazz album with Herbie Hancock.
Looking back on Until the Quiet Comes, how are you feeling about the project?
I'm really happy about it. I'm proud of everything that came with it.
What are you most proud of?
The videos--obviously outside of the music. It was great that we won at Sundance. It was really nice that it wasn't all about the music. Obviously, at first it's all about the music, but it's nice that there's this big body of work. I'm really happy about it.
You sound happy.
I never know what to expect. I always wonder how the excitement levels will be for a new project, or if people even give a shit or if they like it or what. I'm never too confident. I'm never overconfident about anything. There's always an element of, "eh, I don't know." I guess that's okay.
A few months ago it came out that you're Captain Murphy. How do you approach that project versus Flying Lotus?
It's funny because I did the Murphy record while everything was in production for the Lotus album. I was trying to occupy my thoughts with something else, because I spent so much time doing that. It's funny. I was doing promo for all the Until the Quiet Comes stuff, because I was working on the Murphy stuff, and I was much more excited about that, because it was the current thing happening. A lot of the music from Until the Quiet Comes was already about two years old by the time it released.
The transition into Captain Murphy becoming known was tough because part of me didn't want to say anything about who it was or anything.
Why didn't you want it to be known?
Well, for awhile it felt cool because it was all about the music. I also was worried about any kind of backlash of, "Oh, he's gonna be a rapper now." I didn't wanna do that kinda thing. If people are genuinely curious and interested, I'd like it to be about the music and not about the game of transitioning, like "what's he gonna do now." Also for the entertainment of it. It was fun for people, I think, for people to speculate. But after awhile it became more effort than I could handle, just to keep the secret. So I figured I'd have to tell people eventually. I'd have to figure out the best way to do it, and I thought a show would be the best way.
How do you feel now that everyone knows it's you?
I feel good about it. I don't get people being like, "yo man, you suck." I don't get that. It's cool. It's nice when people are like, "What! I didn't know you could spit." It's cool. Looking back on it still, even though it came out last fall, I'm still really happy with it. People are trying to collect the vinyl. It feels really special. I wanted to make a record that reminded me of how I felt when I heard Madvillain for the first time. That was my intent with the thing. I felt like that element was missing in hip-hop. I remember being in college in San Francisco taking so many buses to get the Madvillain album, and then just being at home, like "Oh my god! What!" I wanted to try and make something like that for the new kids. Maybe they'll like it. Maybe they won't. But that was my intent.
That seems like a lot of pressure to put on yourself. How do you get through that creatively?
Well, it's just the spirit. It's just the thrust. I didn't want it to be exactly like Madvillain because I think my record is a lot darker than that, with the themes, cartoons, and stuff. I really wanted to get cool samples, things that I'd never be able to clear--I wanted to take advantage of the fact that it was going to be a giveaway album. I went for some more obvious samples. Loop based stuff that I wouldn't get in trouble for. As much as I do all the quote-unquote electronic stuff, I'm still hip-hop at heart. I make a lot of hip-hop music. People always say, "Why don't you make hip-hop anymore?" And, well, here it is. I'm rapping on it.
What are you able to get across with your art as a rapper versus a producer?
Words, man. Words. It's a big deal. There was a long time where I was very self-conscious about words and the things I say, or if they would be able to be brought up in conversation. Like, what does this mean? Or I don't really believe that--I was just kidding around. Words are very powerful and I always had a phobia of saying things I'd regret because I was immature, or I'd look back on things and it's like, damn, I was really abash in my 20s. I had to get over that and just be like, well, this is a document of where I was at. Whether it was funny or from a dark place or whatever, that's how I was feeling. The new one's going to be way darker.