It’s a bright afternoon at the gorgeous Studio City home of Steven Ellison, 35, who greets me in cozy house clothes, hair high and freeform, with a tiny pup to match. I’m quickly overcome by my own fandom, the type that had me rapping over his tapes with my friends in high school. I’m sure Steve — as he’s known when directing film, Flying Lotus when producing music, Captain Murphy when he’s rapping — detects my nervous giddiness immediately, and chooses to respond gently with a reassuring smirk: “Just… chill out, man. We’ve got work to do.” The overload of stepping through his long foyer is interrupted by an arresting detail I’ve noticed within my first 20 paces inside: There are pictures of Mac Miller carefully placed throughout my view. The picture in the living room studio has a candle beside it.
The wound remains raw for Ellison; it didn’t occur to me that I was the first person to speak with him in a couple years, let alone the first to ask him about his close friend’s passing on record. Once I graze the subject of how Mac’s death shook me to the point of worrying for my friends, Ellison deadpans a short retort and waits stoically for me to elaborate. Two minutes in, and I’m worried Ellison’s reserved nature will dissolve into distaste for me, like I’m a fanboy reaching over his subject’s dead homie in a weak, insensitive attempt to connect or make a clickable moment out of his grief.
Or maybe I was too nervous. Either way, I hurry to explain myself, that me and many of the artists I know struggle with their mental wellness, and some deal with addiction and substances in tandem with those struggles. Hearing me, Ellison tenderly shares how Mac was his neighbor, how special he was, and how befriending him — and knowing his struggles in flux — meant reconciling with never knowing when you’d see him for the last time. But nothing prepared Ellison for this, even as the thought crossed his mind long ago.
“It’s like a wake-up call for a lot of people,” he said quietly. “The ripple effects of that have been really crazy, though, to see the things that’ve happened post-Mac: the flurry of inspiration, creativity, depression, all of it, just like, [a] big wave of stuff. He was a powerful, powerful person.”
These days, Ellison is slowly gearing up for 2019. He’s finishing a new album, making space for processing his post-Mac feelings right as he was close to finishing. “There’s a couple moments,” Ellison says. “There’s some Mac moments in there that are like, we all feelin’ his spirit in the studio, for sure. But, yeah, they’re good vibes.” Outside of Brainfeeder events and jazz joints, he stays lowkey outside of the mix. Once the legendary beat scene showcase Low End Theory had its final farewell at The Airliner this past August, Ellison’s not sure where one would go to find a scene like that these days. He doesn’t overwork to take the young bucks on for relevancy, nor does he fantasize about what his legacy will mean despite the acclaim he’s received in a career spanning over a decade.
His Brainfeeder imprint turned 10 this past May, his breakout LP Los Angeles turned 10 this past June and his masterwork Cosmogramma will turn nine this coming May. As the latter receives its first reissue via Vinyl Me, Please, it’s odd for Ellison to remember it as the masterwork it was heralded as by the press and listeners alike. He’s not the FlyLo building foreign sonic timelines from his grandma’s house in the Valley, nor the FlyLo hustlin’ beat tapes in L.A. as a Stones Throw intern. Preservation remains important in the work: knowing when to go hard, and when to embrace the flux without beating his own head in when he’s not a competitive machine ready to kill everything. It’s only about breaking things and being better.
“I think there’s pressure to live at that level and to compete at that level, but I don’t believe that it works that way, unless you’re trying to do a certain thing,” Ellison says. “If you want to be Tekashi 6ix9ine, yes, maybe, but… slow and steady wins the race, you just gotta chip away at this thing. And I’ve learned that you can take some time away, come back, you don’t have to always be in the crosshairs and it’s probably better to not be because you keep your sanity. All the things that we go through, all the phases and feelings and all the shit, is OK. I used to be like, ‘Oh, I’m not supposed to feel this way, fuck that, it’s supposed to be like this,’ and it’s like, no: allow yourself to feel shitty, allow yourself to go through pain, to mourn, all of it, it’s OK. ’Cuz nothing’s ever consistent, the feeling is never consistent, you’re never gonna just be happy forever, it’s just gonna be, it’s always gonna be changing. So, let it change.”
Anyone remotely familiar with Cosmogramma can recall the intimate details of its creation: the self-described “ascension song” came to fruition in a hot bedroom in Los Angeles immediately after the passing of Ellison’s mother. Her passing came almost two years after the passing of Ellison’s great aunt, Alice Coltrane, wife of John. The title refers to the study of the universe, Ellison hearing the word in one of Alice’s devotional speeches before eventually stumbling upon the meaning. Cosmogramma noted the first time Ellison branched out to include live instrumentation blended with his samplers and drum machines, and was his first time working extensively with outside talents like Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Thundercat, Thom Yorke, Ravi Coltrane and Laura Darlington, among many others. Listen closely, and you’ll hear tracings of field recordings from his mom's hospital room, the bleeps and hissing of the monitors tracking her vital signs.
It’s an album fueled by grief, love, the psychedelic and otherworldly, an effort to decode the world beyond what we can see. His crossroads moment birthed the kind of beauty he always sought to articulate. Upon release, it was tagged with every genre imaginable, and none could quite thoroughly encapsulate what the Flying Lotus project had accomplished in one breathtaking feat. It’s jazz, electronic, experimental, hip-hop, fusion, IDM, avant-garde everything. It’s an epic, a “space opera,” the crown jewel risen from the L.A. beat scene. Looking back, Ellison knew it was unique or special or whichever word is most fitting, but he was certain he’d never repeat that moment no matter how great or terrible it ended up.
“I [wanted to] do something that will last, and try to create something that can help somebody, can move somebody, can, like, help someone try to understand the world through this music somehow, like they can make sense of something,” Ellison says. “And that has been my goal ever since, I think, but I really feel like that, my mission became clear around then. When I think about it, I was listenin’ to a lot of my aunt’s music, Alice Coltrane, I was listenin’ to a lot of her stuff at the time, and got really inspired by the harp and some of the musicians and the community. And yeah, it just opened up my mind to all these possibilities when I started collaborating, like, ‘Oh, wow, it could be so different.’ It just changed everything.”
Ellison’s fully aware of his former brainiac reputation: how many pictured him as a hoodied-up California creature, tunnel-visioned straight into his laptop, making minimal contact with the world. Cosmogramma reflects the intensity of that insular bedroom process, but it also marks the first step into breaking that mold and enabling Ellison to articulate his ideas from the heart, and through the trusting hands of other people. But the heart ain’t always gotta be some deep shit; lately, Ellison attempts to maintain a whimsical quality in his process, granting him the freedom to seek something silly out of the darkest recesses of his experiences. Some of the most morbid Flying Lotus material comes with a goofy edge, prodding at the world’s most grotesque conventions from the other end of a fart joke. That’s how a film like Kuso comes to life: disgusting as it was, mortality was never off the table. That lightheartedness keeps Ellison afloat, despite the world’s discomfort. He communicates to his loved ones through the work, asking all he couldn’t before in this life.
“I think a lot of people who find it morbid, who find me morbid or bad, probably haven’t lost anybody close to them, or haven’t experienced loss like I have,” Ellison says, matter-of-factly. “I feel like my relationship with death is probably unique, but I’ve lost a lot of people. So, I can speak on it a bit more nonchalantly than a lot of people can, and I’ve been makin’ my own plans if somethin’ happens to me. People are all, ‘Don’t talk about it’; it’s not a big fuckin’ deal. That is real, like, one day I won’t be here... neither will you, yeah, so just be OK with talkin’ about that. One thing I wish I’d have done was have conversations with my mom about mortality and stuff before she passed away, but I didn’t. I don’t know how she felt about all that stuff, but I’m curious, and I’ll never know. But I wish that I was more comfortable with that back then.”
Clearly, Steve Ellison is a weirdo. And he still is. Once we dive into why, there’s an unspoken fictive kinship of Black kids deemed othered within the others. Issa code we both quietly abide by: as he subtly vapes the weed, we discuss the normalization of face tats and ponder the dying validity of the Worldstar moment. He finds the new Suspiria remake boring — and the original overrated — but loves what Thom Yorke did with the score. Speaking of weird, it’s a wonder why Ellison didn’t run further with the Captain Murphy rap project since no one was convinced it was him. (He could’ve pulled DOOM imposters off with ease!) After Duality reached near-instant cult status among underground nerds, people started false-claiming themselves as the MC behind it, bloggers and fans ran amuck with conspiracy theories, and Ellison even emailed the producer Clams Casino to work on a project when Clams had no idea who he was, until Ellison tipped him off in an email chain. In under a week after Duality’s release, Captain Murphy revealed himself at the following Low End Theory, as the mystique reached its fever pitch, something he credits to never having a true plan for his rap rollout to begin with.
“It was gettin’ to a point where like, it was just gettin’ absurd and it felt like the mystique of it all was overshadowing the music,” Ellison says. “And I guess, you know, maybe that was part of it, but it started gettin’ frustrating to me. Because I knew when people found out, they really didn’t wanna know. I guess I didn’t know that at the time, but I feel like I should’ve been more mindful of that. I did have fun with it, just now that it’s known, I appreciate the fact that it is what it is… I have a weird feeling about all that stuff, still. I don’t know if I did the right thing; I don’t know if I did the wrong thing. But it was becomin’ really difficult, to keep it goin’, and, like, also do Flying Lotus stuff. So, eventually it was gonna get out, one way or the other.”
As someone with no real direction when he started out with a drum machine, Ellison’s taken the big homie role in whatever capacity he could. He reached out to Tierra Whack two years ago from finding her on SoundCloud, aided in connecting her to industry folks, and took her on tour, recalling a festival in Calgary where she rapped for 10 people. He took a similar background role with the likes of Chance the Rapper, and Tyler, The Creator back when Odd Future trailblazed through L.A. Considering how all the aforementioned Black weirdos had their breakout moments to take the internet by storm, it’s saddening to remember how the press treated Ellison’s work back when Cosmogramma was being canonized as brilliant. Flying Lotus is the project of a Black man from a long lineage of radical and progressive Black artists, with a groundbreaking oeuvre expanding upon these traditions, and to this day, Black outlets rarely turn to celebrate him unless he collaborates with rappers operating in a mainstream space.
“I thought to myself that, ‘I wish that black people cared more about what I was doin’,’ Ellison says. “That was my thing, I wished, I was like, ‘Damn, where’s BET?’ Like, ‘Where is REVOLT TV?’ It just felt like I was bein’ embraced by white people and that whole electronic community and all that stuff, but like hip-hop didn’t really embrace me as much. Because I was avant-garde, or whatever, and that was really frustrating to me, I think, more than anything, because I was like, ‘It’s still hip-hop, it’s still Black, like, what the fuck?’ Like, how come there’s no black people at my show? There’s like a pocket of them and they’re all over there, I see y’all. But that was, it’s still a frustrating thing… [I think] maybe it’s slowly becoming cooler for black kids to be weird, it’s slowly becoming OK.”
Alas, there’s hope. As the modern teenager blends their influences across genres and eras, today’s Black kid can skateboard and play guitar and do whatever they desire without being reduced to “white boy shit.” The irony’s never lost on Ellison: how all the music deemed white came from Black folks, and how that disconnect still permeates the communities that lifted him up. And these attitudes certainly don’t stop at music: currently, Ellison’s pitching an unnamed horror-thriller film project (“not nothin’ like Kuso”) which may be marred by the ongoing quest for diversity points. He’s unamused by how the inclusion factor skews how a work’s perceived for how many non-white bodies it can fit on-screen instead of how good it actually is, but this may very well land Ellison the gig. He’s indifferent, insisting we (Black folks) get the money anyway.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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