Steven Ellison is a man of many talents. Since making his breakthrough as Flying Lotus in the latter half of the 2000s, he’s gone on to become one of experimental music’s leading figures. Aside from releasing a string of acclaimed albums for Warp Records, he’s also turned his label, Brainfeeder, into one of electronic music’s most-checked imprints, set up a film production company and rapped as Captain Murphy.
Ellison began making beats as a teenager on an MPC-style workstation given to him by a cousin. He was initially keen to pursue a career in filmmaking so went to study at the Los Angeles Film School. After college, he began working for the John Coltrane Foundation, which was run by members of his family. (Alice Coltrane was his great-aunt.) He later secured an intership at Stones Throw Records, and it was during his time at Egon and Peanut Butter Wolf’s label that Ellison attended Red Bull Music Academy Melbourne; his debut album, 1983, soon followed on Plug Research.
Since then, Ellison has been on an upward trajectory. Following the success of his own albums on Warp, he established the Brainfeeder label in 2008. Designed initially as an outlet for music by fellow members of the Los Angeles scene, the imprint has since become a go-to source for experimental electronic music of all descriptions. The label’s film division launched in 2016, with Kuso, Ellison’s directorial debut, appearing in cinemas a year later.
In this edited excerpt of his recent interview with Red Bull Radio host Frosty, Ellison talks in depth about his formative years, the beginnings of Brainfeeder and finally making the move into filmmaking.
There was music all around me growing up: Spiritual music, disco, songwriters, jazz musicians and stuff. But I never really thought that that was my thing. I never thought that would be me. I never felt comfortable in that kind of way. Eventually one of my cousins got me into producing hip-hop music on little beat machines, I got interested in that and it just started blossoming. I was inspired by the possibilities of making the kind of hip-hop music I always wanted to hear.
When I was young I listened to everything. Stevie Wonder was pretty big in the house and then we’d have John Coltrane playing. Then it would be Diana Ross. I didn’t hear a lot of rock or country – it was all black music, I guess.
My grandmother is a songwriter who used to write songs for Diana Ross at Motown. I guess her biggest song was “Love Hangover.” Her sister is Alice Coltrane, who was an amazing artist and spiritual force on Earth. She was once married to John Coltrane, who was considered one of the great musical geniuses of our time. Jazz music was our family’s business. When I was growing up, my grandmother worked for the John Coltrane Foundation and festival. My mom also worked there sometimes.
I was also exposed to some really cool classical stuff early on, too. My cousin got me into Stravinsky before I was a teenager and that music made me feel all these different emotions within a song. There are so many different visuals you can make in your mind [while listening to that music] – it is magical. You can tell that John Williams’ music was inspired by his work. Stravinsky’s music seems like he had a boundless imagination. That’s what I got out of it.
After hearing such diverse music as well as sound collages, and hearing what could be done with hip-hop and sampling, it made me want to bring magic to my tracks. That’s the best way I can explain it. My biggest motivator has been bringing some kind of magic to people – something that doesn’t exist yet. I always try and find that place, because it’s fun for me to do.
When I’m making music I really want to create a mood. When I make albums, sometimes it’s not necessarily about the sound. Sometimes it’s about the whole picture, the mood and the ebb and flow. I’ve been told that’s not the best way to make music in 2017 with the “shuffle” culture, but for me albums should make some kind of sense. If it was just, “I’m putting out a bunch of cool tracks,” then I’d have put out two or three more albums by now. There’s something about the overall picture and journey, right down to the cover art, that just matters to me.
The first album that showcased the creative potential of hip-hop to me was Snoop Dogg’s debut, Doggystyle. I love Snoop on that record, but it was the production that most influenced me. Having that kind of musical sensibility in hip-hop was really groundbreaking at the time. Instead of breaks and short little vinyl samples being looped up, that had actual musicians playing parts. It was a bigger, more expansive concept and it opened my eyes to what was possible with production.
By the time I heard that, I was already interested in production. I really love Dr. Dre – he was my biggest influence as a teenager. He was this guy who built this whole universe and he was rarely seen. He was behind the scene and he got to be the wizard. I felt like he was a technically-minded person and I felt similar in that way. I saw him as someone I would love to be. Compared to other famous people, he was the only person I could relate to. He was a role model.
I’ve always preferred to be behind the scenes. When I did my 3-D live show, I wanted it to feel cinematic. The visual aspect is important to me. The best part of the show now is witnessing the audible gasp among the crowd when the 3-D visuals first get going. The reaction on people’s faces is just incredible. They just bug out.
When I was a teenager, I honestly didn’t think anything would happen with music. Now I’m the old guy, talking to beat-makers saying, “You’re only 15? Wow!”
When my cousin gave me my first beat-making sampler, I started by trying to make a two-bar loop. I wanted to make something that made sense and understand the technical aspect of the equipment. That’s my usual approach: Understand how something works and then get musical and creative. I must have made 200 beats on that machine.
I’ve not thought about this for a long time, but when I was 15 I was in a rap group. We never recorded anything, we just rapped over beats I’d made. I’d say, “One day we’ll get some studio time and we’ll make an album.” The group was called the Unforgiven. It was awesome.
Around then I was pretty broad in my influences and things that were in my vision. I can remember a snapshot of my room back then and all the pictures and posters – Master P, the first Blade movie, Return of the Jedi and Reservoir Dogs. There was a futon in the room and I was probably wearing gray sweats all the time.
When I was that age, I honestly didn’t think anything would happen with music. I just thought it would be fun. It was just so cool. I was at that age where some of the older kids around and doing stuff in the Valley would hear about me and say, “You’re only 16, man – for real?” Now I’m the old guy, talking to beat-makers saying, “You’re only 15? Wow!”
I don’t think I really started believing in anything I was doing until I got on MySpace right when that was popping off. I had a MySpace page and eventually my music was spreading all over the place. I was seeing all the plays and was like, “Wait a second – people are actually checking this out.” People wanted to buy beats CDs, so I’d take them to Aron’s Records in Hollywood and they’d sell out.
MySpace was a great hub and we also had the Little Temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, right by where the Dublab headquarters is. That was huge for us. Everyone was so welcoming at that time. I think we all knew that there was this thing that was brewing. I remember how united everyone was. It was so beautiful. Everyone giving each other their moment to play beats in the car outside the club. There was a scene that was built from that.
I heard so many exciting beats that way. Dibiase was doing really cool stuff at the time, as were Ras G, Take and Sa-Ra. They were on the cusp of a deal with Kanye at the time when all of this was popping off. We also had what the Stones Throw dudes were doing over there and Madlib, Legend and J Dilla. We were kind of on the outskirts of their movement because their scene was a bit inclusive, but we all spun their music and it was all love, really. But it was good because we got to build our own thing.
There were some amazing people back in the day that gave me hope. People like John Robinson, Carlos Niño and Del the Funky Homosapien. I remember that we were AIM buddies – like iChat friends. I was very flattered that he was a fan of what I was doing and then there were guys like Jneiro Jarel, Madlib and Doom that were responsive and supportive once they’d heard my stuff. Once Stones Throw guys like Dudley Perkins started showing love it was very validating, because those were the cats I was really looking up to at the time. Just to be associated with that was amazing. It was like, “Cool, I have a seat at the table and now I want to do even more.”
My first appearance on vinyl or CD outside of the little CD-Rs I was doing was part of a Plug Research compilation called The Sound of LA. The track was called “Two Bottom Blues.” Carlos Niño put it together and it featured a lot of people who were in the scene back then.
It was around that time that I remixed Mia Doi Todd’s “My Room is White.” That was a huge thing for me in my early days. It was just perfect timing. I don’t even know how it happened, I just started sampling the song and then it became something. A whole remix album happened on the back of it. I’ve still got a lot of love for that piece. When I hear it now, it stirs good memories. That was one of the ones that hit MySpace pretty hard back then.
At that time, I still had a day job. And you know what, I have never been as productive musically as I was when I had a job. Then, I had to hustle out of it [the job] because all I wanted to do was make music all day. My philosophy back then was, “I don’t care if I have a studio apartment as long as I can make music all day. I don’t need anything else.” That was my attitude. I guess I still feel that way.
When Kamasi started soloing I drifted off into thought. It was like my past, present and future. It’s a bit like going to church when I hear him.
My first job was for my family’s business, the John Coltrane Festival Foundation. The John Coltrane Festival was annual festival thrown in different venues in LA. It was a showcase for up-and-coming jazz musicians as well as cats like Carlos Santana and Alice Coltrane doing interesting things. I would go to the festival every year and later worked setting those up. It was a job, as was managing the publishing of John Coltrane.
I’ve always had a feeling for my Aunt Alice’s music specifically, because I grew up in her ashram in Agoura Hills. She would teach a service there and play music for hours. My connection with her music was more like a spiritual one. It was so unique in the landscape of everything else I was hearing as a kid. I don’t know if I truly appreciated it when I was kid, but as I grew older, I started to understand it more.
After that I worked at Stones Throw Records, which was great. Even though it was a regular job, it was great to be around that environment and see the possibilities of things that could happen. They just inspired me so much and gave me a real perspective on the record industry. I’m sure I wouldn’t have my own label had I not worked there for some time to see how it operates. Egon and Peanut Butter Wolf definitely had my back in that way. They also gave me encouragement.
I was a fan of the label long before I worked there. The record that got me hooked was Quasimoto’s The Unseen. My mind was blown. Then I fell in love with all of the Jaylib and Madvillain stuff. I started working at Stones Throw right when Dilla’s Donuts came out and was there when Madlib did the Sound Directions one [The Funky Sound of Life]. Through being at Stones throw I got to meet Dilla and go over to his house and stuff. It was really helpful to me to be able to meet people in the industry during those formative years.
I’d always flirted with the concept of starting a label. When I was at Stones Throw I used to ask Egon a lot of questions about running a label. He’s one of the smartest men I’ve ever met in the music business. He’s been such an incredible mentor and role model for folks in music. His work ethic is insane.
I got really serious about starting a label while I was living in this apartment complex called Das Bauhaus. At the time, Samiyam, Teebs and my friend Adam all lived in that complex as well. I started seeing all these little labels in Europe trying to do beat music and offering little deals to these cats from LA. I was just like, “We should just take control of this right now. We should just own it and let it be ours, something that we can build together.” That’s how the idea for Brainfeeder came about.
I felt like I had everything around me that I needed to get something going. There was all this potential with Samiyam and Ras G, people who were just so close to me. I felt like I was already doing that stuff anyway. I was already playing at being the A&R guy, passing music from people on to other people and curating lists for different sites and publications.
I never really approached it in a way that I thought it could be anything. I just thought of it as a vehicle for leftfield music, so a guy like Ras G could put out the weirdest record he wanted to. He could do something weird for Brainfeeder and a more straightforward one for someone else. Having the label has been a rollercoaster ride. It’s been really fulfilling seeing people have amazing careers after starting with us or even sticking on the label. People like Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, TOKiMONSTA and Daedelus, who are all now big in the game.
I think Brainfeeder is meant to be a home for the seekers. It’s a home for people who are making fringe art. That might not be accessible to people but it is still very important. The broad, expansive sound of Brainfeeder was part of the idea. I wanted it to be the place where people could get away with experimenting and going in different directions. I remember talking to Hudson Mohawke a long time ago about putting out a drum & bass album. I also tried to get Tyler, The Creator and Samiyam to do a collaborative record together, like a long time ago.
I feel like I definitely have a sound. It’s something that annoys me but it’s also comforting to come back to.
When Brainfeeder Films started that was huge for me because it’s something that I never thought would ever happen. Before that I was most proud to go to the North Sea Jazz Festival and see Kamasi play on the stage that he played on. It was massive – like a football stadium-sized venue. I was like, “Wow, he’s that guy – he’s the headline of the show.” I felt really proud to have been an early believer in what he was doing. I’m really happy for him. He’s been able to carve out something for himself in this day that is rare.
Over the years, Kamasi has inspired me so much. I heard him play once at the Piano Bar, him and a smaller group. When he started soloing I drifted off into thought. It was like my past, present and future. I went to all those places while I was just sitting there. Normally I’d say it’s a bad thing to zone out all the way, but the way I went there was very deep. I’d never had that before. Never. It was in the way that people describe reacting to John Coltrane back in the day. It’s a bit like going to church when I hear him. It makes me think of all these things and go to all those places inside myself.
It’s been great to see Thundercat have his time, too. If you take away my personal relationship with him and just talk about his sound, I think that he’s got this crazy sense of melody and all these interesting reference points for sound. I think he’s the person that has the most similar interests to mine musically. He uses all of those interests. There’s never been a time where I sat with Thundercat and he didn’t have an idea. He can always generate something. It’s a very sick thing to witness.
The two of us first crossed paths at SXSW, where he was hanging out with someone I knew. They introduced us and we had a moment. We always talked about kicking it and hanging out or whatever. When we finally decided to hang out he was living a few blocks away. I was just about to move out and only just realized he was that close. It was so ridiculous.
When we hang out, there’s a 50-50 chance of us making something. If we don’t make anything, he will probably bust out the laptop and we’ll end up playing video games for some time, or he’d show me stupid pictures on the internet for a few hours. He’ll talk to me about some damaged shit for, like, too long. A good amount of time is taken up just talking about some damaged man shit.
Although I have worked with quite a lot of different people over the years, my ideal is to start things on my own and build a foundation in a place where I don’t feel inhibited. After that I will usually start branching out and talking to people – whether that’s in music or films. Make some things, build a foundation and then say, “This would be cool if this person played on top of it.” It’s kind of like that.
I feel like I definitely have a sound [of my own]. It’s something that annoys me but also it’s comforting to come back to. Sometimes I get all worked up and I just want to travel in different directions, different tempos and time signatures just to trick myself out. At other times, it’s just nice to make a beat like I did when I started. They are the ones where after 15 minutes I’ll think, “Yes, that’s it.”
I was so flattered by the response to my Captain Murphy project. I still am. There are kids who got Captain Murphy tattoos and that’s so crazy. I never thought I’d pull off that project and get away with it. I had a really good time doing it and I think that’s probably translated in the music. I always believe that people will be able to hear or see me having fun doing what I’m doing. If I’m really in it, it’ll show. You may not love it but there will be something in there because of the passion and the attention to detail at least. You maybe hate the content but you can tell I worked really hard.
What You See Is What You Get
My new film Kuso was definitely a passion project. From a young age, I always wanted to pursue visual storytelling. I believe that once I went to film school it kind of ruined my mind. I started adopting this idea of what you’re supposed to do to make film, what it means to write a script and what the process has to be, should be, whatever. I really think that experience really messed me up. It took me so long to unlearn a lot of things and to feel confident in my own abilities, sensibilities and style.
When I was in [film] school, they always made me question why I do things. With art, film, writing or music, you don’t always need to know. You just have to trust your gut and go with that. School tries to talk you out of listening to that voice to make everything logical. That might be good for conventional films, but for what I want to do, it has only held me back.
As far as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in making films, but I didn’t really feel like I could actually do it until I started hanging out with people like Kahlil Joseph, Eddie Alcazar and Alma Har’el. In the past few years I have spent a lot of time with these people, having worked on collaborations with them and scoring their projects. I would see what these people were doing and just be like, “Oh, well, I guess all you really need to do is be able to describe things really well to people and you can make a movie.”
I think you need to be able to describe things well as a filmmaker. That can pretty much get you a movie made if you can do it. If someone asks, “What does your character’s sweater look like,” then you need to be able to say, “It’s red with white stripes and the collar is black.” If you can do that for every little piece, you can probably make a movie.
It took me a long time to get ’round to making Kuso, my directorial debut, because music was so heavy and took off. I didn’t really have time to jump off that and try and make a film. I had to carve out time for it. Once I got into doing the film it was so cool to know that I’d be doing the sound, too. That gave me more room to grow as an artist. Now, when I’m working on music I think of where it takes place, which is something I didn’t really do before. Now I think of the setting of the sounds and how that informs the music. You know, giving things space to breathe and setting up a mood before the song even starts. Working in film and music has informed each of the disciplines.
To me Kuso is about five characters that are confronting their fears after a giant earthquake hits Southern California. That’s essentially what it is. Sometimes those fears are really ridiculous and some of those fears are really deep. It’s just a kind of dark vision of a post-apocalyptic world. I felt like in this kind of world, this post-Trump world we’re in now, Kuso is relevant. But when I was writing it, I didn’t mean for it to be that relevant.