Photo credit: Justin Staple
Steven Ellison is a big guy. Like, physically, he is a very large man. Lanky and a bit awkward, the producer, who goes by the moniker Flying Lotus, leans back into the couch at the Warp Records label office in Brooklyn on a Monday afternoon in September. The 30-year-old is here to talk to me about his new record, You’re Dead!—an experimental venture into the worlds of jazz and hip-hop, one that flirts with the ever-eternal question of what the hell happens after we die—but at this moment, the main priority is getting stoned.
But let’s pause for a moment. The evolution of Flying Lotus over the past decade has been a beautiful something to watch. The Los Angeles musician built a career upon being mysterious and bizarre, stepping away from the trends that you’ll find within modern rap music and, moreover, just stepping away from the limelight in general. “I don’t thrive in that environment,” he says. “I appreciate the quiet place.” His five-LP discography (technically six if you count his rapping persona Captain Murphy) echoes this ethos, whether it’s the sleepy twists of Cosmogramma or the swirling Until the Quiet Comes or, now, the bizarre world of You’re Dead!. This isn’t music meant for turning up in the club—this is music meant for conversation, for sitting in a room with a few friends and a few drugs and few thoughts about the meaning of life. It’s like a skilled surgeon performing brain surgery on your ears.
As Ellis rolls a joint and sparks it up, we pass it back and forth as I pester him with questions about the record and, more importantly, what it’s trying to say. After all, this shit is called You’re Dead!. That’s a statement. And this is what it means. Or at least this might be what it means. Or maybe it means whatever you want it to mean.
Noisey: Your record’s out in a couple of weeks, and it’s finished, out of your hands a little bit. So how are you generally feeling?
Flying Lotus: I’m excited, man. I’m really nervous. As usual, I think I’m always really nervous. I’ll always find something to be nervous about. It’s a weird place to be in when you’re in between worlds and people kind of get a glimpse of what’s going on, but don’t really know. I’m just so close to everything. I worry sometimes that people might miss the point of everything. But I think that’s my biggest fear. I’ve gotten over the leak thing. I know it’s gonna happen. Whatever, so, my minds already prepared for that. My whole thing is really just making sure that the point comes across to people. I’ve really spent a lot of time trying to tie everything together and kind of build the story for the record musically.
You’ve spent about two years on this? So what would you say that the point is, then?
That’s the thing is like, I don’t want to just give it all away but I do feel like it’s there, you know what I mean? I’m actually curious; do you think there’s a point?
Alright, thank god. Because, you know, I hate when motherfuckers tell me “oh, it sounds like the new beat tape” or “there’s a new FlyLo beat tape out there.” You didn’t listen. I failed, you know?
You’re Dead! goes against the grain of what’s most popular now. Is that a purposeful decision?
I felt like, the only way I was really gonna win is if I just try and do me as much as possible. I get tempted by everybody else to just go with whatever status quo is. Go with whatever is gonna give me more business, more money, and all the great things we want in life. But you know, I’m always swiftly reminded that I’m not meant to do those types of things. I get reminded of that shit. I do get tempted, just like every other artist, to go for the popular thing. It seems like now more than ever, the underground scene guys are trying to get in on the pop shit, you know? And act like it’s all good. To each his own.
This record is called You’re Dead! so it’s kind of obviously about death. What brought you to that, and what led you to say, “OK, I’ll make this concept record surrounding this vast, big, idea of demise.”
[Laughs.] OK so initially it started out as a joke. Me and Thundercat was listening to George Duke in the car, we listened to some shit like “The Aura Shall Prevail”—a lot of crazy, fast playing stuff on it. We were like “Man, how come nobody doing shit like this? This kinda shit is crazy! Been doing this shit ages ago. Why don’t we make some shit that just kills everybody? Why don’t we just make some shit where when you hear it, your head just explodes.” So when you listen to it, you’re dead. That was the joke. But then, the first track happened. And to me, it sounded like the moment of death. The whole weight of it. This shit really, this is it. This is where we’re going. I wanted to try and continue from that track to go further into that idea. What would it be like to die, and leave your idea of who you are behind? That whole journey. I tried to get in that headspace, which involved getting into my feelings about death, and dedication to friends who’ve passed away, and more.
Are you afraid of death?
I feel like I am to an extent, but I feel like I’m not afraid. But I’m afraid of the physical pain. If I die, I’m afraid of being in pain—dying a slow, gruesome death.
What do you think would be the worst way to die?
Being left in a fuckin’ cave. Like, falling off a cliff or something. In a weird place where no ones there and you’re just left there to rot when someone could actually come sort you out but instead you’re just like bleeding out. I think that would be the worst way to go. It’s like, “He could potentially make it, but now, no.” And also knowing that I didn’t clean up my computer while I’m lying there.
And then the whole world knows about your porn collection. When tackling such a wide subject, did you ever feel overwhelmed?
No. I felt like that more so with the name of it. I was worried about that for a while. I still trip on it sometimes, because there’s like hoodies being made and signs everywhere. Me walking through the airport with a hoodie that says “You’re Dead!” on it. It trips me out a little bit. I hope that my people will understand the concept, that it’s not necessarily all about the dark side of it, trying to be metal. It’s more celebratory. I hope that comes across when people actually hear it. It’s trippy. I’ve second-guessed myself with a lot with this shit. But just go with your gut man. Until the trailer came out, I was like, “Is this gonna come across?” I feel better about it now. I always end up going with my gut instinct. So far, so good. That concept got Kendrick on the album, that concept got Snoop on the album. They were attracted to the concept of it. Snoop came through in like the final hour pretty much and was like, “I have to be a part of this thing.”
It must feel amazing to have someone legendary like Snoop be like, “I need to be a part of this.”
It’s deeper than that. When I was a kid, he was my hero. And then the song he did, he’s the gatekeeper. So it’s perfect. It was full circle. And I needed that.
This is your fifth record. What would you say to yourself five records ago?
Nothing. I don’t wanna say nothing. I hope I don’t even run into myself, you know? “Oh shit! Oh shit! Is that me?” I would just run and jump out the window. [Laughs.]
That would be pretty freaky.
That would be fucked up.
That would probably be the worst way to die.
For real, I’m really grateful for all of the things I’ve had to learn along the way, you know? I don’t know if I would want to say anything to my younger self. That way, you know, it really means something. If you have to go through it all, it really means something. Are you an uncle?
Yeah, but my twin nephews are only five. I feel like I want to impart wisdom on them but also let them kind of figure it out.
Yeah. It’s a balance. You know it’s those things that no one is gonna get unless they go through it. No matter how many times you give your friend advice about a chick then he goes and does that thing and you’re like, “Ugh,” and he goes through it.
Photo credit: Justin Staple
You’ve learned a lot in the last however many years. What do you feel like it has taught you, looking at yourself now?
Well, that’s a fucking deep question. That wasn’t even in the notes, was it?
Actually, there is one that asks, “What is life about?”
Noisey man, we get deep.
No shit. You should have brought your own weed, man. [Laughs.] I feel like I’ve learned a lot about producing. Not just making tracks, but more so what it means to really be a producer for this whole thing that I’m a part of, this whole scene, whatever influence I have. I appreciate being the person people call for advice. I’m glad to be able to have had my experience and help people, and to be able to put two people in a room together. I really appreciate that. Some things just make sense, and sometimes there are barriers—people, managers, egos—that block people from connecting with each other. I really like to, even if it has no benefit for me, I just want to see it happen. The internet makes it possible for everyone to collaborate. You’re thinking, “Oh man, what if we got so and so. I’m gonna give you that email, man!” Then y’all hit each other up and get it going.
I feel like the internet has been good and bad for music. It allows this incredible opportunity for so many collaborations and, like, some small rapper in Sweden who’s cool can make it in the States because of Soundcloud. But at the same time, your record is probably gonna leak.
It is funny though, man. I definitely feel like there’s a beauty and a horrible disadvantage that we have is to have all this crazy noise happening. It’s really made the artist a little bit more self-aware than they need to be. I think we kind of appreciate the connections that we make more. Everyone’s tripping because Aphex is back. Because you can’t reach him, he’s not around. He doesn’t have Instagram. It makes you appreciate what you can get from him. That’s like a reflection of where we’re at with the technology. It makes everyone so accessible. How many times have you gone on Twitter and followed somebody and been like, “This motherfucker is an asshole. He tweets about the dumbest shit. How could he be so petty?” That sucks.
Mystery is definitely something you’ve played with in your career.
Personally, I’d prefer to kind of be out of the light, you know. I don’t thrive in that environment. I was at some fashion week shit for like ten minutes yesterday. Just couldn’t handle it man. I could not handle it. I just appreciate the quiet place. You know? I like to stay in the space of creativity and I want to go towards that all the time. Yesterday, I went to Joey Bada$$’s house, his mom’s house. He lives with his mom still. He makes music in the basement. That was the most fun I’ve had in so long. Just being in that space where I know there’s things happening and there’s a vibe and a family and stuff. That did it for me—in a good way.
Those moments probably get more rare with the more success you have, so it’s sort of like a double-edged sword.
It’s funny. I think we do have a choice of where we can put our energy. It is funny when we have to do so much that’s out of character for us to sell records now. That’s another shitty part of it. People are not able to just make music anymore; we have to do things that don’t necessarily make the art any better. But that’s just how it is.
Coming back to the record, it’s fairly short—38 minutes, but 19 tracks long.
There were a lot of tracks that were considered. The most important thing to me was making sure that the theme was present throughout it, without it being too dark or too anything. I didn’t want it be too jazz. I didn’t want it to be too hip-hop. Let me just keep all the elements, and try to trim as much fat off it as possible. I didn’t want to overdo it, because it’s the kind of record that should be experienced in one listen, straight through. I didn’t want to overdo that either. I feel like even asking that is a lot. So, if it’s not gonna be a whole bunch of singles, then they should just move really fast and cover a lot of ground. I feel like even though it might be 38 minutes, it might be kind of exhausting. There’s like a lot to take in.
Is there anything that you as an artist or person just feel misunderstood about?
Yeah, I think people think I do drugs a lot. [Laughs.] I think people think I fuckin’ take acid and do DMT every week. Those moments aren’t as common as people assume. I do psychedelics maybe once or twice a year, if that. The world I dabble in, people might assume that I’m just a tripper or some shit, but that’s not what I do—that’s not how I get down.
What’s the experience of introducing jazz flavored music to a generation that perhaps doesn’t even know who Quincy Jones is?
It’s different, man. Only now that people are asking me stuff like that am I really thinking about it. You know? Like, I just kind of did what was second nature to me—then now I have to analyze that sound and the landscape that we’re in, and the world that we’re in. When I was with Joey, Kirk Knight was there too and was like, “Yo man I grew up listening to you; I heard your shit when I was 12!’ And I was like, “Oh my god I’m old! That’s it! It’s happened! That’s it! That was the one! That was the one! I’m a vet! I’m a vet!” Yeah. It’s a totally different generation now. I guess I’m glad that I can bridge a gap or connect some dots or be a gateway to this shit. That’s a cool thing to do.
Eric Sundermann is probably afraid of death, but only when he's stoned. Eric Sundermann is on Twitter.