Music producer Steven Ellison, also known as Flying Lotus, has the kind of career that contemporary artists dream of. He's respected, acclaimed, constantly working, and seems to be having a great time. His wild fifth studio album, You're Dead!, explores the titular concept through boisterous jazz, leftfield hip-hop, blaxploitation throwback sounds, and smooth slow jams. Released this week, Ellison says it is "probably the most accessible record" yet.
I talked to Ellison last month, mostly about identity and ego, in the Brooklyn office of his record label, Warp. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Gawker: I was doing some research and came upon this Okayplayer interview you did in 2012. The intro struck me as an accurate one-sentence summary of your career: "Since 2006, Flying Lotus has indulged his experimental muse, doing more or less whatever he wants, to almost universal acclaim." Do you agree?
Ellison: (Laughs) Almost. Well, I guess...? It's really up to the people what they think of that, but as far as my intent, yeah, at the end of the day I always trust my gut, man. I don't think people necessarily want me to make a jazz record or really want me to do whatever, but I just go with what feels right. I always have to remind myself to just stay in my lane and do the things I'm put here to do, as opposed to trying to be like this person or that person. It's easy to get caught up in expectations and popularity.
As somebody who spans multiple genres, how do you stay in your lane? It seems like you have so many.
I think my lane is to do other things... I don't know, things that come way more naturally to me. A lot of things I'll make are just for fun and for the exercise of being a producer and trying different things, but there are those times when it's like, I don't feel connected to the ego or how people perceive me or whatever. I just do what comes natural, and those are the things I like to put out as Flying Lotus, the things that feel like whatever's happening is from a super inspired vessel that can't explain what it is...stuff that's beyond my ego.
When does that ego creep in?
Always. Always, man. It's just another voice in the head saying, "You're not good enough, you gotta make this for people. People want this, they want that. They don't care about these things." All those things get in my brain, just like everybody else I think. But it's accepting it and knowing that it's bullshit. But it's a process, this weird kind of spiral thinking. And then it's like, "You know what, actually? Fuck it. I'mma just do my thing."
That's ego on another level. You must have confidence, if not think you're fucking great.
Yeah, sure. It's not to say there's no ego in it, but I feel like there are times that music will come out that's purely ego driven. Especially rapping and shit. It's all ego. But I kinda mean it in a different way, more so with pleasing people. I get calls by pop artists now, more than I was before, and it's some people that I could work with that I don't really like, but they got a name, so why not? That kinda thing comes into mind. And then it's like, how 'bout I just do what I've been doing? I've made a decent living for myself, so I could just make [that] shit and be OK.
Do you ever think about accessibility? You said that you are going with your gut, but at the same time, your job is to communicate with people, right?
Sure, there's gonna be people who won't get what I do, and there's gonna be people who do. I feel like this record is probably the most accessible record I've done, but at the same time, it's probably the weirdest one. I do think about it, but I try not to let it guide my decisions too much. I feel like through the waves of self-doubt, I get reminded what I'm supposed to do. I think that just means do the stuff that only I can do and try and really get as far into what I can do as possible.
Is this album's concept summarized in its title—You're Dead!—or can you put it in words beyond that?
I wanted to make something that started at the moment of death, and I tried to think of the quintessential death experience you'd hear about through history and all different religions and stuff, just the stuff that people would talk about, and try to capture that in the music. And have fun with it as well. Also, it was kind of a way for me to poke fun at death and to kind of confront things that I'm personally nervous about.
I like that there's a sense of playfulness to it, which subverts expectations regarding art about death.
I didn't want it to be a super dreary record. I don't think death is going to be that bad. All the homies is there. Family's there. All the great people of our time, they already there. It's gotta be all right, I think. But also, for my own life and the way I do my shit, it's not all serious. I love comedy. I love funny things. I want to put my sense of humor in the stuff, too, and not let it be so dry.
Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg guet on this album. Generally speaking, the portrayal of death in hip-hop tends to be grim or blasé. This album stands as a contrast.
Yeah, it's so common, you're not too surprised when it happens. It's funny, man, 'cause specifically Kendrick and Snoop, they were really excited when I told them about the concept. At the time, I didn't know if I was out of my mind or so in my head that people would think I was crazy when I told them. They were super down when I told them about it. It's special for me because when I die Snoop probably will be the gatekeeper on the cloud. When I was a kid, he was my hero. It was a big deal to have him on a song like that.
When I first read that quote from the beginning of the interview, it made me think that the process of going with your gut and being so accepted for it, that's power. Do you feel powerful?
Sometimes. Not all the time. I feel like I have some purpose, and maybe that is its own power. I do feel like I'm supposed to be doing what I'm doing.