Hannibal Buress and Flying Lotus Sweat the Details

Published July 28, 2020

Photo by Marcus Price.

Watching comedian Hannibal Buress’s latest special, Miami Nights, which he released on YouTube a few weeks ago, one notices new subtleties in the comedian’s practice. Buress has that glint in his eye, like the comedy greats. In conversation, it’s there too; he remains curious and inquisitive. He wants to know more, and not just the tricks of his own trade. Buress is diving into tech and music, which is likely he wanted to join his friend, the producer Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), here. Ellison, who’s worked with Adult Swim for years creating bumps and beats for the TV channel, is a keen thinker and detail-oriented musician who has risen to fame with his surreal sense of sound. We caught up with both Buress and Ellison to talk about making Miami Nights, Buress’s new foray into songwriting, Ellison’s experience working with Dr. Dre, and more. —JACOB UITTI

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ELLISON: Yo! Hello!

BURESS: Steve, what up, man! 

ELLISON: I’m good, I’m good.

UITTI: I wanted to ask, how did you two meet each other? And was it originally through Adult Swim? 

ELLISON: Yeah, it was. It was after one of the Pitchfork Festivals. I think it might have been the first or second Pitchfork Festival. 

BURESS: It was the after party for The Eric Andre Show and you were DJ’ing at the end.

ELLISON: It was so fun. That was really crazy. That was one of my first times playing in Chicago. I felt like it was such a crazy energy out there. Chicago gigs, they always go off. They always feel fun. But that was a good night. That was an especially crazy party.

BURESS: That Pitchfork weekend was crazy. I won’t get specific, but there were some chemicals operating in my body during that day. I think a lot now, when things are super closed down, about those days when people could get together. Man, is it ever going to be anything similar to that again? There are some raves happening right now—motherfuckers are turning up. But in the back, there’s somebody like, “Am I gonna die in this motherfucker because I went to this one rave?” Even if they’re partying and getting it in, and video footage makes it look like a crazy time, there’s still gonna be a few people in there like, “Is this worth it?” 

ELLISON: Seriously.

BURESS: “What am I doing right now, man? I know I’ve been bored, but is this really it? Is this what I’ve been missing?”

ELLISON: Unless it’s Frank Ocean. They’ll definitely die for Frank. 

BURESS: [When I met you,] I was shocked. I was like, “Oh man, I didn’t know Flying Lotus was a Black dude that looks like he could be related to me!” [Laughs]

ELLISON: [Laughs] That always catches people. “Flying Lotus is Black?” I remember one person was like, “Man, I’m so disappointed Flying Lotus is Black.” It was like, what the fuck? 

BURESS: I’ve got ideas that I want to try out without my name being on it. If I put out certain things, people are already putting their perception, whether it’s positive or negative, on it. I’m going to start doing some pseudonym stuff, man. Some ghostwriting. 

ELLISON: Oh shit! I’ve been seeing you make a lot of music lately. You’re on that shit. You were one of the last friends I went to go visit and when I went over there, it was like, “Hey, let me play you some music.” I thought you were about to play me some, like, comedy raps, but you were for real spittin’. I was like, “Oh shit!” 

BURESS: Yeah, I’ve been making a lot of stuff. Sometimes I go in with ideas and then sometimes I get a few friends together, free-styling. I feel like if you go crazy for an hour and just really give a lot, then you’re going to have a hot four minutes in there. If not, then you shouldn’t do anything. [Laughs]

UITTI: In your recent comedy special, you talked about being in a transitional time in your life. So it’s interesting to hear that you’re working with music.

BURESS: Yeah, man. Right now, I’m just trying to really optimize my workflow.

ELLISON: Oooh! 

BURESS: When I think about wasted time, I know some people are like, “No, that’s part of the process,” but I’m like, “I don’t know about that.” I have ADD and I take adderall. I’m trying to figure this shit out, and not get pulled so easily into other shit. Steve, between your different projects, is there anything that’s helped you?

ELLISON: Oh, man. I have the same problem. I wish I knew the way to beat it, honestly. It’s tough, especially because we have to be our own bosses. For us, we’re not struggling for money, so you can get to a place where you’re like, “Shit, I don’t have to take this call.” And people gotta be nice to me! You start thinking stuff like, “It’s okay if I’m an hour late.” But it’s not helpful. The thing that really helps is loving what you do so much. That is the key to this whole thing. That’s what keeps it running. 

It’s kind of our responsibility to stay inspired. We have to seek things out. We have to make sure we’re on top of the shit. Or else you can fall into the echo chamber trap, hearing the same shit over and over, and you just fall off that way. For me, I just try to streamline my process by cleaning up my studio, organizing everything and hooking it up properly so I don’t have to hook things up later. It is a constant thing, man, to stay on top of all that shit. 

BURESS: Is there anyone you’ve seen in the studio, where they’re a visionary in making shit but they’re also a machine about it? 

ELLISON: Yeah, people like Pharrell and Dr. Dre—everything is kind of ready to go and everyone does their best work because they know there ain’t no time to play around. Being around Dre for a couple sessions was really interesting for me.. It was very shrewd. I was watching him work with a singer and, to me, I thought the first 12 takes were pretty good! I was like, “That’s dope as fuck!” If it were me, I would have let those fly. But Dre just kept it going, and by the 20th one—that was the one. It actually really was the one. And I was like, “Man, that’s that shit!” That’s why the cat’s got all the statues. 

BURESS: What type of stuff was he saying? 

ELLISON: Dre was very specific about what he wanted to hear. It was a simple phrase. “Eeeeh, eeeh, eeeeeeehhh.” But it was how it was said. Dre was like, “I want it to be more aggressive. Like, ‘Eeeh, ehhhh, eehhhhhhh!’” The artist did 30 or 40 late at night, but he didn’t give a fuck, because it was Dre. When it happened, it was perfect. 

BURESS: That’s dope. I’ve been on set and done things in a scene, and then they’re like, “We’re going to move on.” And in my head—

ELLISON: You know you could have done better.

BURESS: I know I could have come back and wrecked that shit. You might make a legendary scene just by going wild and taking it in another direction. I’ve let those opportunities pass many, many times. 

ELLISON: But if that was your directorial debut, you would have got that joint! 

BURESS: Right now, I’ve got a lot of different new things I’m trying, so I really want to be intense about the details. 

ELLISON: But there’s a fine line with that, though, isn’t there? Because I think with a person like Dre, you kind of expect that thing. But I don’t think everyone is supposed to be doing that sort of thing either. I think there is something to be said for people who make things in the moment without overthinking it. I know that’s my favorite process, personally. Boom, boom, and just walk away. It was the moment, and that’s it. I love that. But detail is important. 

BURESS: It’s not always doing 20 takes. “Kill Your Co-Workers” is one of my favorite tracks of yours. It’s “Kill Your Co-Workers” and “More” in the heavy rotation. “FKN Dead,” of course. And “Dance Of The Pseudo Nymph.”

ELLISON: Oh, shit. Man, you’ve got a pretty diverse ear! I’ve been meaning to ask you something. How did it go doing the drop on YouTube for the special? Because that was, to me, super unexpected. We’d been talking about this drop for a long time, and how you were going to deliver it. That didn’t seem like a reality from the first conversation that we had.

BURESS: It was not. Because if that was going to be the initial reality, then I would have put it out three months after I made it and it would have been out in November. [Laughs] It’s been cool, man. It’s been three weeks today. The response to it has been dope and it gives a good feeling to folks. So, now, the follow-up is important. What I’m putting out not on the stand-up side, but also other stuff now. I partnered with that company Undock to promote them and do a partnership. 

ELLISON: You talk about workflow, but you’re doing crazy deals and you’ve got investments in tech companies. I need to get on that level. That’s a totally different workflow right there. And you do most of that stuff on your own, right? 

BURESS: I had some help with it. Some stuff isn’t optimized. I’m super spread out right now because of the ADD and so many things being interesting and exciting for me. Things kind of fall off a little bit, or I completely blank on something, or I’m not in touch with this company as much as I should be. There are times when I’m like, “Is it hiring another person? Is it developing new processes?” Like, what the fuck do I need to do? Because I’m in a bunch of shit, but am I really in a bunch of shit? I’m in ten things but just killing three. 

ELLISON: Man, there’s just so much. I just feel like I’m looking at the clock way more, even though we’re in quarantine. I feel like I’m way more aware of what time it is, what day it is then I ever had in my life. I just feel like there is never enough time to do all the stuff.

BURESS: I feel like the days fly by now. I was supposed to leave L.A. Monday morning but didn’t end up leaving until yesterday just because I didn’t feel great the first day, and then the second day. Then, I’m like, “How the fuck did I just stay here three extra days and there wasn’t really anything going on?” It wasn’t like I was out doing shit. I was just in the crib an extra half a week, just like that. 

With the special, the week leading up to it was really kind of tense for me. I was doing some interviews and talking to folks, but it was weird doing too much of that at the crib because you’re kind of wired. Usually you go somewhere and you might do a TV thing, and then you go get something to eat and break it down. So, with the project coming up, I just kind of had to be in the crib with the intensity of a project. Like, “I guess I am dropping this!” And I’ve been sitting on this one for a while, too. Now, looking back, I wish I had just gone home to Chicago. I would have been in a less tense place, having my folks around me and whatnot. Being in L.A. was a lot. Putting it out was a relief. It was dope that the shit aligned, with what’s happening right now with the police. I wasn’t making a statement-statement like that—I was just telling a story, but it shows what type of petty policing is out there and that some people shouldn’t be on the force. But it also felt kind of weird. The energy is just different. 

ELLISON: Yeah, you’re obviously going to feel some sort of relief that it’s out. You’re going to be like, “Ah, yeah, finally!” You’ve been holding in this big doo-doo for a while and you finally let it out and you’re like, “Yeahhhh!” In a way, you need to be able to put these things out so you can say other stuff and work through the emotions. There are a lot of musicians that may have a lot of promise but they might not have that amazing album on the first drop. They have to get this one out so they can get to the next one. You’ve got to say this thing so you can, like, hit the road, get defeated, learn a bunch of new stuff, come back, get your heart broken, all that stuff. And then the second one! That second one, though! It’s part of the process. 

BURESS: Especially now. It’s been four years since I put out a special, so it just sets the tone to be able to say more stuff, show other concepts. That’s why I’m excited about the YouTube part of it, too. Now that the YouTube page is active from the special, I can drop more stuff there that will do better because of the special. It’s exciting to get some momentum. 

UITTI: When you watch each other’s work, is there something in particular that you’ve always wanted to tell each other?

ELLISON: I feel like I say it a lot, but I definitely have so much respect for what Hannibal does. In a way, we kind of do things that we wish we were doing in other lives. He’s doing Spiderman, like, “Ah, I don’t give a shit.” But I’m like, “Man, if I was working on Spiderman, I’d be like, ‘What the fuck! Are you kidding me!’” But it is cool.

BURESS: With a lot of my friends that are musicians, I over-listen—I’ll listen to songs 20-times in a row sometimes. When I know the person, it’s like, “Oh, man, this is crazy that this is a friend of mine.” I’m always thinking, “What the hell is he doing when he did this?” I try to picture people at the mixing boards. Remember when we were hanging out and I was a little high and I was like, “Hey, what’s going on in your head? Is it like boop-beep-doo-doop?” 

ELLISON: [Laughs]

BURESS: With your production, there are a lot of different layers. Like I was telling you, “Kill Your Co-Workers” is just in the whip, like a hype-up song. 

ELLISON: Thank you. Yeah, the layering is the fun part for me. I spending a lot of time on it, adding all the little details, the nerdy stuff. I’m glad you hear it.