Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, on his first beat and middle-school band
No matter how successful entertainers become, they’ll always remember the first gig—whether it was disastrous, wonderful, or strange. Gotta Start Somewhere embraces these nostalgic moments by asking established entertainers to tell the story of the first time they graced a stage, as well as their memories of other musical firsts, from the first record they ever bought to the first concert they ever saw. In this edition, The A.V. Club talks to Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus, about middle-school band medleys, MC Hammer, and Thom Yorke.
Steven Ellison: It might have been my middle-school band, playing some medleys or some shit in the auditorium. You’re trying to make me dig in a place that I tried to bury. I played alto saxophone. From sixth grade to ninth grade I played saxophone. I must have been 11 to 13, and I went to Hale Middle School in the San Fernando Valley.
The A.V. Club: Do you think you could still play the saxophone?
SE: No. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why did you decide to play the saxophone?
SE: I decided to play the saxophone because it was the most obvious instrument in my family. There were a lot of saxophone players in my family and there were extra saxophones, so that was an easy one to pick up. It was fun, it was okay, it just wasn’t me. It didn’t feel like my instrument, so I never followed through. But there was a song we played called “Exaltation” that I really liked. I think every band plays that song at some point.
AVC: Was saxophone the first instrument you ever learned how to play?
SE: I actually did take a little piano before that, but I didn’t really take it seriously at the time. I was more into learning the saxophone than piano for a while, then I started making beats.
SE: I started making hip-hop beats when I was 14 or 15, and I was doing that for a little while. My cousin bought me a Roland MC-505 Groovebox, which was an amazing machine for a 15-year-old kid who wants to make beats, cause you can do everything and all the sounds were inside. It was so amazing. I need to buy one of those just to look at it. Just to remember everything.
AVC: Did you know at the time that you wanted to make music for a living?
SE: I did, I fell in love with it. But I didn’t really think that. Where I came from, no one gave a shit about making hip-hop beats. I wasn’t in a scene where people were doing that. There was no Low End Theory. It was nothing. It was me and my little sister in the middle of Who Cares, California. There was no YouTube or none of that shit, so I didn’t really believe in it. Maybe that’s why it worked, because I just did it and I didn’t think about it. It was just fun.
It’s funny, because I meet a lot of people who are interested in making music and they’re discouraged a little bit because they’re worried about, you know, “Everyone else is so awesome already.” You kind of need to not give a shit and just be doing it for fun. That’s how you know it really means something: When it doesn’t matter and you know you’re in a new world that you’re creating.
First professional breakthrough
SE: I was working at Stones Throw Records in L.A., and we were about to go on winter break for a couple of weeks. The office was going be closed and everyone got their Christmas bonuses. I was kind of in the intern place, but I was a paid intern, and they were talking about if I wanted to come back and all this stuff, and they gave me a couple extra hundred bucks because I wasn’t really able to get a bonus.
I was just getting signed to Warp Records in the U.K. and I was thinking, “Maybe I can really do this. I’m doing enough shows, maybe I can make a living. Just give it a shot.” I didn’t come back after break. I needed to work and do some shows and I said I’d maybe come back after those shows, but I never came back. That was a crazy time, pulling up to the parking lot knowing that might be the last time I come back.
First favorite song
SE: There are some songs I could say, but I don’t really recall the memories. But when I was I was in middle school there was a tape that was very, very pivotal in my whole being here and doing this music now. It was a mixtape by this guy out here [in California] called R.A.W. It was a jungle, drum-and-bass mixtape. I wouldn’t have gotten it if I wasn’t in band. It was a guy who played tuba in band, and he had this R.A.W. mixtape. He let me borrow it and I made a copy of it and it was amazing.
AVC: What did you like about it?
SE: Honestly, it was the first time I heard drum and bass, jungle, and the sound was just too insane. It was something I had never heard before and I felt like it was something missing from my life. I was a big fan after that. I’m a kid from the Valley, where this whole scene has been happening for a long time before I had this tape, and I’m just now hearing this for the first time in the most random way. It blew my mind. I made a copy of this tape and listened to it every day. Every day. Over and over.
AVC: Was it an actual cassette tape?
SE: An actual tape tape. I had a little Walkman, the worst Walkman ever. It was the yellow one, that underwater Walkman. Like you need to take a Walkman under water.
First record purchased
AVC: What was the first record you ever bought?
SE: I think the first tape I might have bought was MC Hammer or some shit, or Madonna or something like that.
SE: The first show I went to might have been a Stones Throw show. No, before that. I think I saw one of the all-ages Def Jux shows.
SE: The first beat that I ever made that I thought was actually worth a damn was called “Toilet Paper Nostrils,” and I made it when I had a cold. I had the worst cold ever. And I had toilet-paper nostrils making music, but it was really reflective of how I felt. It was a really sad trumpet sound. That was the first one where I was like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I got something, maybe. Maybe I’m not horrible at this.”
First “a-ha” moment
AVC: Do you remember the first time you thought, “People are actually coming to my shows. Thom Yorke knows who I am”?
SE: I get that every day. [Laughs.] The first time was maybe right around when I got on MySpace. I was making stuff and people were like, “You should make a MySpace account.” I said, “Nah, I got Friendster and I don’t like it. I’m already on Black Planet. Whatever, MySpace, fine.” And then I saw people who were making music were checking my music out, saying it was cool. It was like, “What, man? You really think it’s all right?” That was the way I kind of came up. And if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know how—especially nowadays—I wouldn’t know what to do if I was a brand-new artist.