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During A Pandemic, Flying Lotus Found His Grammy Groove Without Even Looking

The Producer of the Year nominee opens up about what makes this Grammy nomination extra special, MF DOOM, and why you should stop what you're doing and send him some music.

Never has perspective carried such intrinsic value as this past year. There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel as America inches past the one-year mark of the life-threatening pandemic that shut down many social lives like a metaphorical atom bomb. Like many Americans, Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus had some serious and immediate changes to make as one of his main creative and financial outlets, touring, would be put on hold for the foreseeable future.

In the current climate of music where taste has become malleable and the construct of genre nearly obsolete, it was almost serendipitous that the sonically amorphous producer, who made adaptability his trademark would lean into the direction his world was pulling him.

With the advent of streaming sucking the soul (and royalties) from music in the eyes of many, a number of artists come into the game faced with the challenge of expanding their commercial endeavors while also maintaining the artistic drive and integrity that allowed them to make music their full-time job. For FlyLo—who received a Grammy Award nomination for Producer of the Year for Thundercat’s “It Is What It Is”—finding this balance happened organically.

There’s something about in-person interviews that tacitly emphasize the degree to which the subject was destined for what they do. Sitting with the 37-year-old producer (spaced out and masked up) in his home studio in Los Angeles, it was immediately clear that this man was built to create sonic art and to win in a pandemic. Thirty seconds in, he was on one of his nearly two dozen keyboards manifesting an idea that entered his consciousness, perfecting it as he awaited the first question.

Mr. Ellison was gracious enough to let VIBE impinge on his moment and he even put up with a little backseat A&Ring (i.e. trying to source a full Flying Lotus/Denzel Curry project). Moreover, the Brainfeeder creative and executive was open and honest about one of the year’s biggest gut-punches, and one that affected him personally: The loss of his friend and collaborator MF DOOM. Death is never an easy subject to bring up in the context of friendship, but FlyLo was open and generous with his cherished memories. He also spoke on happier subjects, like being nominated for a Grammy in one of the most coveted categories, and revealed how this pandemic helped him realize his ultimate vision.

Courtesy of Angela So

VIBE: You’ve been nominated for a Grammy before but how does it feel to be nominated for Producer Of The Year?

FlyLo: For one, I was not checking for it at all. It’s ironic because I think it might have been one of the first times I actually was not looking for myself at all, and I started getting hella tweets and mentions and I’m like, “No, really?” I’ve been nominated before but for this specific category, it feels really special. Producer Of The Year is really special. It’s not based on anyone else’s cosign. To be amongst the best producers is super special. There are so many people who I admire who have never been nominated for that. Just getting nominated is an honor.

You tweeted that you tend to prefer albums produced by only one person to ones that have a lot of producers. Why do you think that is?

I think I might have overgeneralized, but it is a thing I notice and I kind of prefer the sound of it because it just feels like [there’s] more cohesion in the music and the world-building of the album. It just feels like it’s a universe versus a mishmash of ideas and different things and “we got the trap song, and we got the soul loops, and a boom-bap beat here or there.” When you have that one or two people, it just feels like your vision can be a bit more clear and you can have a more unified concept, versus pulling from everywhere. I’ve been listening to Griselda [and] that made me think of that cohesive sound. I’m just getting hip to them. I’m late as hell.

Any Griselda collaborations on the horizon?

No, I’m doing a thing with Smoke DZA that should be coming out soon which is on that same vibe a little bit, but I would love to though. I feel like the next few things I’m gonna do are gonna have more of a traditional feel. I feel like whenever I do a project, I wanna do the opposite of what I did, and after the last one, I kind of wanna do like a chill beats thing. I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. I always say one thing and do another.

Denzel Curry called you his favorite producer on Twitter. You guys had a smash with “Black Balloons Reprise.” Is there potential for a full project?

We’re friends. He’s a person I consider a friend, so doing a whole project with him doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. I would love to. I think we keep talking about doing something, but hopefully, it happens. I would love that.

“I quit art school because I heard his music. I quit film school around when I started to hear the trifecta of [MF] DOOM, Dilla, and Madlib.”

Speaking of Twitter and collaborations, you asked your followers to send you some fire music. Have any collaborations come to fruition from that?

I just did that the other day and there is so much fire in that thread. I’m gonna literally have to take a whole day to just comb through it cause there’s so much good stuff. There was an artist in there I’ve been listening to every day since I put that tweet out. This cat, Airospace. He kind of sounds like Earl Sweatshirt. His project feels like it was all produced by the same person. I think that’s why I tweeted that, too. Listening to Griselda and that, they both had a sound and I loved that.

I’ve heard that one of your biggest inspirations is your dog, Iko, and that if you listen close you can even hear her footsteps in some of your music. Is that true?

It’s true. She’s the one I live with. This is my roommate. Iko’s cool, she’s always in my tracks. You always hear her footsteps in my music, she’s always in the background. Sometimes I cut it out, but sometimes I just say, “F**k it, Iko’s part of the energy.”

We’re almost a year into the pandemic. What’s it been like for you?

It hasn’t really done much for the creative process aside from kinda leaving me in my own head, which isn’t bad, but it also has kept me from that moment where I go to a show and hear something crazy and I come back and get busy and inspired. That moment is missing, but there are other things that I have to kind of give me the bug. So it’s not terrible and plus, I really feel like I’m built for this sh*t. I’m okay. Going on the road and doing shows and making money would be nice but, in terms of being able to work, I was able to work on an anime score [for the upcoming Netflix original series, Yasuke] the past few months so it was perfect timing. I wasn’t gonna be able to go anywhere anyway, and anime is still running. I love the anime industry now. I’m gonna try to keep hanging around in it, so I’m not mad at the situation in terms of the creativity ‘cause it’s made me shift more in terms of thinking of other things like film scoring, anime, and TV and that’s just as fun.

Courtesy of Angela So

Would you say your new ultimate goal is scoring films?

I just wanna be able to say “no” all the time. Meaning just take the things that are awesome projects. Someone like Trent Reznor is a guy whose footsteps I would love to follow in, the way he kinda infiltrated the film industry with music. I would love to do some stuff like that, and Ludwig Göransson, who did “Redbone” for Childish Gambino and now he’s doing The Mandalorian and Tenet and a lot of other stuff. I could see myself going in that direction more, especially ‘cause the whole streaming thing in music is not super inspiring. It’s nice to be able to have an atmosphere that’s super excited and there’s still currency flowing and it just feels like there’s limitless potential still. Whereas with Spotify, it’s not the most inspiring end to the work.

After the passing of MF DOOM, you revealed you had a project with him. Will that ever see the light of day and what was your relationship like with the ultimate villain?

As far as DOOM goes, New Year’s Eve was interesting. We have a Brainfeeder stream that we do 24-hour radio on. I was in there and I was seeing people talking about how shitty 2020 was and how it just broke us all. I was like “Man, f**k this sh*t. Come on, we did some cool sh*t, too. Let’s talk about some of the cool shit we did.” I was trying to change the vibe and maybe an hour later I got the news about DOOM and that sh*t just took the wind right out of my sails. I was like, “Oh God!”

It was the worst timing. I mean, there’s no good day for that, but I quit art school because I heard his music. I quit film school around when I started to hear the trifecta of DOOM, Dilla, and Madlib. When I heard that stuff happening, I was in film school in San Francisco and I was hearing all this sh*t going on back in L.A. I was like, “What the f**k am I doing out here? I’m going back home. I’m gonna stalk these people and get in this sh*t,” and that’s exactly what I did. I worked at Stones Throw and eventually got to a place where DOOM was hitting me up.

I was randomly getting emails from DOOM on encrypted message apps like, “Yo, send some beats. Let’s do a project.” This was years ago. For that time, I would hear from him maybe two or three times a year like a lot of people would and sometimes would get a track back, sometimes not, and he’d be like, “Send me some more sh*t.” I’m like, “Bro, I sent you like a thousand tracks! You sent me back two.” He’d say, “I wrote to all of them” and I’m like, “Please send me the tracks.” Apparently, there’s more but I don’t have it.

So they may or may not come out? 

The thing that I hear is that the estate, whoever is running it, is like, “Let’s get it out.” Which is cool if that’s DOOM’s wishes, of course. So maybe we’ll hear it, but I haven’t heard it.

Courtesy of Angela So

He’s one of those guys that everyone seems to have crazy stories about. Any favorites from you?

I’ve got a good one. I was supposed to do a show with DOOM in London. It was supposed to be our co-headlining gig. I got out to London the day before the gig. We’re checking out the venue. I hear from DOOM that he’s not gonna come to the show. I know a lot of people want to see DOOM. I wanna see DOOM as a fan and they were like, “He’s not coming.” I was grateful that we got the news then and not on the spot. At that moment, it was like “F**k DOOM.” He’s actually the villain right now. I can’t believe he’s really DOOMing me right now. We got Jay Electronica and he did the gig, it turned out awesome, but then, it must have been like three years later. I’m in the same venue and I get a call from DOOM after we had already started this project and he sent me a tune. We were starting to get it going. I’m backstage. DOOM hits me, and he was like, “You thinking what I’m thinking?” And I’m like, “Oh sh*t! DOOM is gonna come through and do a little cameo.” I started hitting everybody up like, “Get all the sh*t ready. Tell the manager, get everybody to make room for this moment. DOOM is gonna come out.” I hit him back, “What time you coming through? What’s going on?” Then again, “Haven’t heard from you.” I’m like, “Oh sh*t, I’m getting DOOMed again.” So he calls me, I’m like, “Yo, where you at?” He’s like, “Oh, I’m not coming.” I was like, “Oh word?” He’s like, “Just play the song. That’s what I was saying. Play the song. What did you think I was saying?” I had to laugh. That was a fun moment. He also loved the [DOOM imposter] thing I did. I had Hannibal Buress come out as a fake DOOM. He hit me the next day with all the emojis.

In 2018, Low End Theory— the weekly spot in Lincoln Heights (at The Airliner) where a lot of musicians came up—closed. Do you feel like the closing of institutions like that will hurt Los Angeles’s music scene?

I think with every good movement, there’s a pause and I’m hoping right now that it’s brewing ‘cause the kids are making the sound that’s gonna be the new thing. I’m hoping but really it’s inevitable. The sh*t can’t always be on. I think this is the best lull we can get right now and when sh*t opens up, maybe we’ll have some new things going on. There’s new kids coming up and they’re gonna get sick of Trap at some point.

Update: 3/15/2021

 

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