“You play an instrument?” asks Flying Lotus.
For the last five minutes, Lotus, born Steven Ellison, has been monitoring my ring finger inside of New York City’s LES hotel suite. Hoping the acclaimed producer would break down his fascination with fire, and the role it plays on his upcoming album, Flamagra, his first project since 2014’s You’re Dead, I find myself tangled inside his latest interest: my ring finger’s rapid up-down movement.
“I used to play the clarinet and the piano when I was younger,” I say proudly in hopes of impressing him.
With a quizzical look on his face, he nods his head and continues his observation. After keenly monitoring my ring finger, he glows at the fluidity of my hand movement, before abruptly moonwalking back into our discussion about his album.
Though he dismisses any possible thought of me being a former child prodigy who once mastered Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, he revels at what I could have been. “It was too fluid,” he says jokingly.
Ellison’s wandering eye and ear for music are what makes him one of the defining producers in this decade of hip-hop. His ability to fish for talent is what made him sign Thundercat and Tokiamonsta to his Brainfeeder label. It’s one thing for the average beatmaker to cast a wide net in hopes of reeling in artists, but when you’ve already worked with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Mac Miller, creatives will willingly swim over to you for a collaboration. His 27-track album features Solange, Anderson .Paak, Tierra Whack, Toro Y Moi, Denzel Curry, George Clinton, among other marquee names.
After taking a five-year hiatus to work on his Brainfeeder label, create his first film, 2016’s Kuso, and score movies, Ellison is stimulated by the idea of releasing his first full-length set since his 2014 Grammy-nominated effort. And though he has a strong supporting line-up in tow, it’s Ellison’s inspirations that help adorn his fantasy of peace and abundance. During a trip to Japan last year, Ellison visited TeamLab plants in Tokyo to see their visual installments. The entrancing art experience had the producer in a childlike daze, which reminded him of the music he wanted to make.
“There’s something about this thing that just feels innocent, but we’re all adults here,” he recalls of his time at the exhibit. “We’re acting like kids again, and this is great. We’re having the fucking time of our lives. There were like 40-year-olds in this room, and we’re acting like kids. It reminded me that that’s what I want people to feel like with my music and my work.”
With Ellison’s sixth album slated to drop Friday (May 24) Billboard sat down with him to speak on the making of Flamagra, how Solange changed his studio habits, Dr. Dre’s longevity, and what made Mac Miller one of his “most thoughful” friends.
I played the album three times.
That’s like one Endgame, or one Infinity War.
Right, I’m still mad I haven’t seen it yet. But I recall reading about the inspiration behind the project — you were captivated by the whole idea of fire. Were you a pyromaniac growing up as a kid?
Not at all. It was just a lot of imagery and a lot of stories I would hear after awhile, and I think it got into my head. You know, a really close friend of mine — two of them, actually — had their homes burned down at different points of their lives, and I would hear stories about that and how it affected them. The past few years, there’s been really crazy fires in L.A. A lot of that imagery has been in my head. The things that [fire] does, and how much we need fire and how much we hate fire, is all important.
I was really inspired by the idea of: What if there’s a very contained fire in Los Angeles that couldn’t be put out, and what would that be like as a thing for the city, or any American city? I just felt some closeness to that and that concept. I think the one that really drove it home for me was when my friend told me a story of a friend of his who passed in the  Oakland fire. There was a fire in a rave and there was an illegal party. A lot of people passed in there. People who were on the second floor was throwing themselves out of the building, saying they’d rather die that way. It’s a weird and scary thing to hear about. As someone who plays at clubs and warehouses and stuff, that story messed with my head for some time.
For me, I feel like there’s a duality with fire. There’s both positive and negative connotations to it. It’s a necessity, but it also has such an ominous vibe to it.
Yeah, but one of my favorite things is staring at fire. You know, whenever it gets a little cold in L.A., it gives me an excuse to light my fireplace. You could stare at that joint for like a cool two hours. It’s entrancing.
Talk about the party you went to when you overheard David Lynch speaking about fire and how that fueled the album.
[Laughs]. What happened was he had like a kick-off party for his festival, and he recited that whole piece [for “Fire Is Coming.”] I heard it and I was like, “No fucking way.” And I’ve been trying to figure out how we can collab and stuff. It was always a thing like, he’s busy. I was like, “This is already done. He already said that. Let’s just record this joint and put that out.”
[It took] all of last year and pretty much this year trying to make it happen. But, in reality, I’ve been trying to get David Lynch to do anything for me for like at least 10-15 years.
He stars in the video for “Fire Is Coming” and you directed it. I think you threw people off because with that being your first single in five years, there’s no music accompanying the video. Why go in that direction?
It’s intriguing, right? [Laughs.]
It was morbid, man.
Why not just do a traditional music video? Well, I don’t know. I thought about it and the whole point of it was to get people curious. I don’t know.
Because this album is a star-studded affair, including Anderson .Paak, Solange and Tierra Whack, how do you know when to add an artist to a song versus leaving an instrumental bare and without any features?
I hear it while I’m doing it. Definitely. Like, while I’m making stuff, I’m like, “Oh man, Tierra would sound so dope,” or I would just imagine the space for someone. I think a lot of it depends on the kind of track it is. If you hear phrasing that feels like it needs that element, then it’s clear as day. But a lot of times when I’m working on stuff, that space is filled, and I leave it like it is.
Who did you become more of a fan of after working with them on this project?
Solange. As I got to know her, I started learning things. She’s real deep, man. There’s a couple of things I’ve taken from our conversations and our studio time that are embedded in me now as a human being. It made think of her music and hear it differently. I appreciate it more. I can’t share much of that, but one thing I can share, she taught me this really primitive way of working that I thought made no goddamn sense, but it made perfect sense.
When we worked, she wanted to use an SM-57 microphone, which is a really cheap, shitty microphone. I have really beautiful microphones at my house and at my studio. I was getting them all ready and she was like, “You got a 57?” I was like, “What do you want that for?” She was like, “Yeah, let’s use that.” I was like, “You mean the one with the wire on it and the silver top that you can use at any talent show microphone?”
I had one of those and I was like, “All right. Let’s do it.”
I mean, you had them on deck.
I had them and it’s like the first microphone that you buy when you have a studio. So I said, “OK. Let me bust that one out.” And I understood why after using it for 10 minutes. We don’t have to have headphones on when you work with that. You can play the beat loud in the room with the microphone singing on top of the beat while it’s loud and shit. It’s really good for getting ideas out and sketching them. If you don’t have lyrics yet and you’re not writing in a book, you can kind of freestyle. You can cut and paste and move things around without feeling inhibited by the headphones and that’s the only way I work now.
So you’re gonna pull out the 57 for all artists you work with moving forward?
It depends. It depends on who it is, but I can tell. Most times, I’ll get a rapper without headphones and use the 57 straight.
Have you gotten any resistance from rappers like, “Hey, why are we using this shitty microphone?”
There’s a couple rappers who were like, “Whoa” and others who were like, “Oh!” You know, it’s an energy thing, too. You can get hyped when the beats up [and playing]. It adds a level of grit. You can get that old Wu-Tang sound. You get that old ’94 sound. It has its own weird little compression in there. But now, I’m at a point where I can firm my own voice with that versus any other microphone. That’s the Solange method right there.
It’s weird because when you dropped “Takashi” earlier this month, people thought you were paying homage to Tekashi 6ix9ine.
That’s not even how you spell it! [Laughs.] I was really worried about that to be honest. I was really worried when I named the track, but I couldn’t change it. I knew people were going to do that because it’s the Internet.
I mean, you broke down the inspiration on Instagram.
I had to because I didn’t wanna anyone asking me if that was about him.
How did that visual experience in Japan shape the making of “Takashi”?
In a huge way, man. I go to museums and check out exhibitions all the time, but there was something about being in Japan at this specific time, meeting the Team Labs crew and having that experience. I’m just a point in my life where I kind of needed to be reminded of my mission. I think it’s something that we all need from time to time. It comes to us sometimes in a shitty way, but this time, it came to me in a really beautiful way by being there and being surrounded by this really amazing installation.
After a while, you start to see each and every one of them had a dreamlike, childlike quality to them. The music is childlike. There’s something about this thing that just feels innocent, but we’re all adults here. We’re acting like kids again and this is great. We’re having the fucking time of our lives. There were like 40-year-olds in this room ,and we’re acting like kids. It reminded me that that’s what I want people to feel like with my music and my work. That man [Team Lab’s global brand director] Takashi [Kudo] and his philosophy was exactly that. He wants to remind people of the magic and that’s what I want to do as well.
You cooked up that beat after you left Japan or that night?
That night. Not all of it, but I sketched the beginning of it.
How do you pocket the essence or memory of your inspirations?
Well, you just feel it in your heart, right? When you got it, it just never leaves. It’s with you. Even if it turns into some shit that sounds hella dark, you know, it still comes out with some sort of energy.
During your five-year hiatus, you were developing Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. How did you balance that with your own creativity as an artist? Because that’s a tall order.
It is, while trying to make a movie and score movies. It was a lot, but I prefer it. I like when my mind is being stimulated and challenged and I’m forced to be creative. I much rather do that than be on the road, to be honest. I enjoy playing for people, but I do enjoy creating things. It was nice to have a considerable amount of time home because that stuff is going to be a flood.
When you say a flood…
It’s going to be a lot of shit. I’ve been working.
I know Dr. Dre has been a huge inspiration for you, as well as Snoop’s Doggystyle album when you were growing up. I bring up Dre because you worked with Anderson .Paak on “More.” When you see somebody like Dr. Dre, who has been able to tap in with younger artists like an Anderson or Kendrick Lamar, two and half decades later, what impresses you most about his longevity?
He’s still excited. That’s what I got from being around him. He’s just still excited about music. When I came to the studio, he played me Detox. He was like, “You fuck with it or what?!” I was like, “Yeah!” He was just super hyped on it. We were listening to the shit and he was dancing around the studio with his wife and shit. He has that feeling like, “Fuck yeah. I’m rich as fuck, but I’m having a great time still.” It was really cool to see.
When I first met him, he had the same [attitude]. He just had this thing where he was like, “I’m just fucking blessed. I’m excited to work.” I get that feeling from him. It’s hard thing to hold onto for a long time, you know? It’s dope.
Detox, man. I always wondered if it was a fictitious tale.
It’s real, man. It exists.
Is it like The Chronic or 2001?
It’s Dre. [Laughs.] The version I heard is the sequel to Compton. It makes sense after Compton, I think. It makes sense, but I like it better than Compton.
I mentioned Kendrick, and you guys working together on To Pimp a Butterfly and him being featured on You’re Dead’s “Never Catch Me” record. How would you describe his growth from when you first started working with him to who he is present-day?
I’m not surprised. It was really apparent early on that he’s a true genius. The thing that I like to say about Kendrick that people don’t really know is that he’s the same person. Nothing has changed. He doesn’t be coming in no designer shit. This motherfucker came through to the crib a few months ago with the hoodie and some shorts on. Socks and slides on. I was like, “Oh, he’s a socks and slides guy.” He’s that L.A. ass n—a. [Laughs.] He’s just the same cat. It didn’t feel any different. He didn’t have the squad with him. He came solo and that’s like a sign to me that he’s all about the shit.
The thing about him too is that he doesn’t get credit for being a producer, but he’s totally a producer. He knows exactly what he wants in his music. Every time a beat drops, or every time you add a noise, any extra thing about the sequence, it’s the most hands-on thing I’ve seen outside of producers. And even more-so than a lot of producers, because a lot of producers are beatmakers, really. He’ll take your beat and turn it into his album stuff. Even if it’s like stitching things together, he’s real clever with stuff like that, but no one really thinks of him that way.
You mention rappers being able to serve as producers and I can’t help but think about Mac Miller. I remember you tweeted that he was one of the most thoughtful friends that you had. What would you say that made him so thoughtful?
I think things that I’ve come to expect from rappers I didn’t ever get from him. Like the shitty things that come with being a rapper — the extra’d out shit, it was never about that. You would never guess he was a thing by being with him. He was a very normal, hilarious person. He had the biggest heart and he would always tell me he loved me. How many of your guy friends do that, right? He was that guy. “I love you, man,” out of nowhere.
Mac was one of the most thoughtful friends in my life. He was way more humble than he had to be and always went out of his way to show love to the up and coming. Love you forever @MacMiller
— FLYLO (@flyinglotus) September 8, 2018
It was genuine.
I just wish as a friend I had done a better job, because he always went out of his way for his friends. That was a really special thing about him. I think everyone, when we were like shook [up about his death], remembered looking back like, “Fuck, man. Why was he so nice to us? Why was he so good to us?” [Laughs.]
“Thank You, Malcolm” is your dedication to Mac on this album, right?
Definitely, and in dedication to the energy that he left behind, because we wasn’t talking about lighting a fire. When his passing happened, I was like, “What do I do?” Mac would just want us to go, right? He would just want us to go. We went, and the result is a lot of the stuff on the album, but a lot of things we’re doing for Thunder’s album. That was part of in the spirit of, “Whoa. I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” and it’s because of the energy that he left us with. It’s because we feel his presence heavy in the studio still. That’s why I said, “Thank you.”