Steven Ellison is on his way to another installment of the Red Bull Music Academy. It’s early afternoon, and his quiet, grizzly voice sounds like it just awoke from a nap, but his mind is alert. He explains how he’s spent the past week in the city, taking meetings and enjoying the sunshine. He talks about upcoming projects. He mentions his excitement of the future. He really hopes that Joey Bada$$ uses one of his beats for his upcoming record.
In other words, Ellison sounds happy. Content. Pleased.
And why shouldn’t he be? The L.A. producer released his most recent Flying Lotus project, Until the Quiet Comes, this past fall to critical acclaim. Shortly after, he revealed himself as the mysterious hip-hop artist Captain Murphy. And then in January, his short film tied to Quiet won the Jury Selection Award at Sundance.
Tonight, New York gets another taste of him, as he takes over Terminal 5 for the second night in a row. Ellison chatted with us about the reception of his record, trying to make a modern day Madvillain, and his upcoming jazz album with Herbie Hancock.
Looking back on Until the Quiet Comes, how are you feeling about the project?
I’m really happy about it. I’m proud of everything that came with it.
What are you most proud of?
The videos–obviously outside of the music. It was great that we won at Sundance. It was really nice that it wasn’t all about the music. Obviously, at first it’s all about the music, but it’s nice that there’s this big body of work. I’m really happy about it.
You sound happy.
I never know what to expect. I always wonder how the excitement levels will be for a new project, or if people even give a shit or if they like it or what. I’m never too confident. I’m never overconfident about anything. There’s always an element of, “eh, I don’t know.” I guess that’s okay.
A few months ago it came out that you’re Captain Murphy. How do you approach that project versus Flying Lotus?
It’s funny because I did the Murphy record while everything was in production for the Lotus album. I was trying to occupy my thoughts with something else, because I spent so much time doing that. It’s funny. I was doing promo for all the Until the Quiet Comes stuff, because I was working on the Murphy stuff, and I was much more excited about that, because it was the current thing happening. A lot of the music from Until the Quiet Comes was already about two years old by the time it released.
The transition into Captain Murphy becoming known was tough because part of me didn’t want to say anything about who it was or anything.
Why didn’t you want it to be known?
Well, for awhile it felt cool because it was all about the music. I also was worried about any kind of backlash of, “Oh, he’s gonna be a rapper now.” I didn’t wanna do that kinda thing. If people are genuinely curious and interested, I’d like it to be about the music and not about the game of transitioning, like “what’s he gonna do now.” Also for the entertainment of it. It was fun for people, I think, for people to speculate. But after awhile it became more effort than I could handle, just to keep the secret. So I figured I’d have to tell people eventually. I’d have to figure out the best way to do it, and I thought a show would be the best way.
How do you feel now that everyone knows it’s you?
I feel good about it. I don’t get people being like, “yo man, you suck.” I don’t get that. It’s cool. It’s nice when people are like, “What! I didn’t know you could spit.” It’s cool. Looking back on it still, even though it came out last fall, I’m still really happy with it. People are trying to collect the vinyl. It feels really special. I wanted to make a record that reminded me of how I felt when I heard Madvillain for the first time. That was my intent with the thing. I felt like that element was missing in hip-hop. I remember being in college in San Francisco taking so many buses to get the Madvillain album, and then just being at home, like “Oh my god! What!” I wanted to try and make something like that for the new kids. Maybe they’ll like it. Maybe they won’t. But that was my intent.
That seems like a lot of pressure to put on yourself. How do you get through that creatively?
Well, it’s just the spirit. It’s just the thrust. I didn’t want it to be exactly like Madvillain because I think my record is a lot darker than that, with the themes, cartoons, and stuff. I really wanted to get cool samples, things that I’d never be able to clear–I wanted to take advantage of the fact that it was going to be a giveaway album. I went for some more obvious samples. Loop based stuff that I wouldn’t get in trouble for. As much as I do all the quote-unquote electronic stuff, I’m still hip-hop at heart. I make a lot of hip-hop music. People always say, “Why don’t you make hip-hop anymore?” And, well, here it is. I’m rapping on it.
What are you able to get across with your art as a rapper versus a producer?
Words, man. Words. It’s a big deal. There was a long time where I was very self-conscious about words and the things I say, or if they would be able to be brought up in conversation. Like, what does this mean? Or I don’t really believe that–I was just kidding around. Words are very powerful and I always had a phobia of saying things I’d regret because I was immature, or I’d look back on things and it’s like, damn, I was really abash in my 20s. I had to get over that and just be like, well, this is a document of where I was at. Whether it was funny or from a dark place or whatever, that’s how I was feeling. The new one’s going to be way darker.
Tell me about V, the upcoming Captain Murphy record.
All the production is done for it and now I just have to sit and write it once I get in that zone again. That’s a funny one because when it comes to words, it’s very difficult for me to write songs. I can’t just sit and do it. Something has to happen first, then I can do it.
What do you mean? Something tangible has to happen?
I don’t know man. It’s hard to explain. The next single I’m gonna put out for the Captain Murphy stuff is called “Hoodie.” And it’s a song that I wrote right after I woke up with my hoodie on. I woke up–it’s such a stupid thing. I never sleep in a hoodie, and I woke up with the hoodie on and I felt like I was already on some sinister shit, you know? [Laughs] I had the hoodie on; it’s like eight in the morning, and I don’t know. It just put me in a weird mood so I wrote the song. It’s just little things like that. You have a feeling that puts you in a place that you can write from. It’s hard to explain. It’s so stupid, but that’s what it’s called.
What is it about?
It’s about waking up, feeling sinister, and hiding out in the shadows just for the fuck of it.
You mentioned earlier that you felt like something was missing from hip-hop today, which is why you wanted to make Captain Murphy. What are your thoughts on the current hip-hop climate?
It’s great, man. It’s great. I love it. That’s another reason I got back in hip-hop too. The scene is so fresh and so light and there’s all these young kids who are amazing. Being around guys like Earl Sweatshirt, it’s inspiring.
Truth be told, the whole Captain Murphy thing wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Earl. He was coming around the house to hear beats. I played him some stuff. We hung around for the first day and we recorded “Between Friends” at my house. He wrote it. He spit it. And we laid it down that day. Later that day I was doing something I just like to do, which is play music for people without any context. I played him “The Ritual,” and he was like, “Who the fuck is that?! What’s that?” And I was like, “That’s me, man.” He was the first person outside of my immediate circle that I played it for, and he was tripping. I was like, damn dude. If he likes it, then I’m cool. If Earl fucks with this shit, then I’m alright–especially without telling him who it was, it was even better.
Same thing happened with Ab-Soul. I played something for him in the same manner, and he was like, “What the fuck is that?!” And he was like, “You’ve gotta stop playing and do this shit.” So I was like, okay. After that I asked Earl if it’d be cool for me to get on the track with him and he was like, “Fuck yeah, man. You’ve gotta do that shit.” So that was it, dude.
What other young rappers do you see as promising?
I heard Joey Bada$$’s new album. I heard a lot of what he’s working on. It’s really dope. Fuck man, I was like–without getting too gushy–I was blown away. I always listen to the beats first, and I love Joey because he has such a good ear for beats. That whole crew does. Hearing the production first off I was like, “Oh my god.” It’s on some throwback shit, but it really was sonically what I’ve been missing from hip-hop in a long time.
Some people criticize the whole throwback sound or whatever. Saying it don’t sound like no new shit or whatever. But truth be told, man, it sounds new to me because of the voice behind it. The voice behind it is very young and very relevant. And hopefully I get on the record. I really hope I get a song on there. I gave him some beats. Some of my favorite joints. We’ll see if he gravitates towards ’em.
Talk to me about spirituality and how it interacts with your art.
It is my art. I feel like I base my spirituality off my creative zone, my creative space. I feel more in tune with the universe and with god and everything, whatever it is you want to call it, I feel connected when I’m creating. It’s a real special thing for me, still. It’s hard to explain. But creativity is my religion. I’m directly connected to the source again.
The religion is based on my experiences. The things that I see. The things that I don’t see. It comes from some unnamed thing based on my experience on this planet. I have enough experience to know that there’s more than me, there’s more than this.
Talk to me about the photo of you and Herbie Hancock in the studio.
We’re working on a jazz album. It’s a project with Thundercat, Herbie Hancock, and a lot of musicians actually. It’s not a consistent band. It’s a bunch of different drummers, a bunch of different piano players, horn players, a crazy super group.
When will it be finished?
Hopefully soon. I have about five songs done. The presentation of it is going to be unique. I can’t really tell you. I don’t want anyone to fucking steal my idea before I do it. But I will say nobody’s done it. The way I’m going to pull this shit out? No one’s ever done it before. For better or worse. [Laughs]
What else are you working on? Anything else you’re excited about?
Yeah. Shit I’m not supposed to talk about. [Laughs].
Flying Lotus plays Terminal 5 tonight with Thundercat and Teebs.