Kaelin Ellis makes you feel like you’re in the room with him. The Orlando-based producer was magnetic during our video call, as if inviting a complete stranger to learn about his creative process through a computer screen was, for him, just another Friday afternoon. And, in a way, it is. Ellis doesn’t exactly hide the techniques that made him famous. His production videos – filmed from his childhood bedroom and released in spurts via Twitter and Instagram – have attracted high-profile placements from the likes of Lupe Fiasco while concurrently earning him a cult following of beat-heads eager for his latest drop.
A product of electronic music’s “Soundcloud era”, Ellis spent his high school years trading tracks online with the likes of TEK.LUN, Lakim, and Kaytranada. Never shy to explore the spectrum of contemporary music, his sound has run the gamut from dancefloor-ready Miley Cyrus remixes to hard-hitting rap beats inspired by ‘70s progressive rock. Today, the 23-year-old is at the vanguard of a new class of producer: born and bred with the internet, eager not only to create records, but sample challenges, drum packs, communities which provide value not only to listeners, but to fellow creators who are committed to investing into each other's artistic growth.
Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired your interest in making music?
“I grew up playing drums in church. My dad played keys and used to lead the choir, and I’d be on the drums. Since I was three, my dad would have me travel with a small little CB drum kit. We would play different churches all over Florida. I really, really enjoyed it.
I remember being in middle school like, ‘Man, I would love to just have a band.’ I asked all of my friends, and no one was really ever down for it. So my dad was always mentioning music technology, and I remember him showing me MIDI in FL Studio when it became mainstream. I was maybe six or seven years old. He recorded his voice and played it back with MIDI. And I thought it was the coolest thing ever. That got me into music production. I started trying to emulate what a band would sound like in my mind. I would have the drums, I would have a guitar, but I would lay all this out in MIDI, in FL.”
When you first started producing, what kind of music were you trying to make?
“I remember being the kid who listened to a little bit of everything, but it wasn't until 6th or 7th grade that I started listening to more music outside of gospel. Growing up, I wasn't allowed to listen to anything outside of gospel because it was ‘secular’. The only way I could dodge it and be safe was to play video games. [NBA 2K8] came out around that time. That was when they put the whole Stones Throw discography on the 2K8 soundtrack. So you have Madlib, J Dilla, J-Rocc on that soundtrack. And that was one of those things where I was like, ‘There's more out there musically’. I remember wanting to just make something that sounded like all of what I heard together.”
At this time, what programs were you using to produce music?
“I started transitioning to what felt easier for me. I stopped using FL from the fact that it wasn't really sparking my creativity as much as it used to. A program that did was Sony Jam Trax.
Sony Jam Trax was a loop-based program. It was like a kid's version, [it] wouldn't have any effects. You could take the volume, make it low, raise it, record some audio, stop it – just the basic essentials. It wasn't anything too crazy. [After that], I ended up using Acid Music Studio for years. It was my number one DAW. I didn't realize how limited that program was. They only give you 2 FX buses, 2 send buses, a master, and I think you could only do about a hundred tracks at max. Unless you got the pro version. And I was just like, ‘I'm sticking with the $13 program’. The way that it was set up makes you think about how you're going to be recording. You have to really be clever with your effects.”
While still in high school, Ellis earned notoriety under the alias “Mr. Mockwell”
Do you think those limitations helped develop your sound?
“For me, it definitely helped with my process. I realized when you're limited, it allows your mind to be more creative. I think using too many tools can prohibit your ability to expand and find your voice. A lot of people are trying to say something, but they don't know how to say it. If you have every single knife in a kitchen, and you're trying to cut one simple piece of meat, you're going to be like, ‘“Well, dang, what knife do I use to cut this meat?’ Just give me one knife and learn what that one knife can do.
What's so funny is that one program allowed me to understand how every other program works. Like, if you understand how to select tracks and move tracks to other places, then you can do it in Pro Tools, it just has a different name or command. Or you can do this in Logic, it just has a different command. I just can't use too many tools, man. It messes with my brain sometimes.”
Ellis’s commitment to a masterful understanding of his tools has led him to create his own. Most notable is his Drum Sculptr, an Ableton Live-based instrument designed to help producers fine-tune their drum sounds with the kind of depth and precision that would be available to them on a physical kit. For Ellis, the motivation to share his tools with the public lies in a desire to invest into a creative cycle that will help both himself and other artists:
“With Drum Sculptr and my sound packs, I realized they were tools that could potentially help solve someone's conundrum. Someone is probably out there being like, ‘I'm sick and tired of trying to find samples online. Is there something that can give me the tool to make my own?’ When you give people that tool to help them, you are in ways helping people with their inspiration. And so it not only helps them to draw inspiration, but they might create something that inspires you back. It's like a recycling of creativity going on back and forth. I'm learning there is really no reason to hold information back unless you're trying to improve it to make it better. There's no reason to hold back information because eventually someone's gonna find out, and you're not going to be the reason that they found it out.”
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This also speaks a lot to how the community around music production is evolving. It’s as if part of being in the community is giving back.
“That was one of the most unique things I learned about the music community. And I think I learned about it more-so in sports. I'm a huge basketball guy, so it makes me think about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. What I didn't realize until maybe last year was that Michael Jordan became Kobe Bryant's big brother. And what they learned about the game, what Michael taught Kobe about the game--[Kobe] used those tools to be able to accomplish almost identically the same thing Michael experienced.
And so I can only imagine taking that same concept and being like, alright, instead of me holding on to this information, here's a young person or a young talent looking up to me. I used to be where they were and now they're looking up to me. If you ever show a child something, they don't usually forget what that thing that you showed them is. You can show them how to shoot a basketball, you can show them how to make a beat on Ableton, and they'll never forget it.”
In sharing information with the online producer community, Ellis is investing into a scene to whom his career is indebted. His early success came as part of Loaflab, a collective of like-minded beatmakers who connected over internet forums and Youtube comment sections. The attention he earned on Soundcloud for his unofficial remix of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” led to his first paid production placement: a commissioned remix of Erin Barra’s “Dear John”. And the avalanche of production videos he released on Twitter in 2020 ultimately caught the attention of Lupe Fiasco, leading Ellis to produce the House EP for the Chicago lyricist. Ever since he was in high school, the public has been able to follow the dramatic development of Ellis’s compositional style, from his early-career Brainfeeder-inspired beat excursions to his current work, which seamlessly blends the electronic-inspired hip-hop of the late aughts with the tasteful instrumentation of ‘70’s soul, funk, and hard rock.
Kaelin Ellis - Moments (2020)
What has inspired the sound you’ve adopted recently?
“When I got to high school, I started discovering myself in music, learning that I liked all types of music and wanted to implement all types of music. But the only way to know all types of music is to listen. I went through a phase of listening to progressive rock for like six years. And half of that time was me just trying to find the right drum sound. So I started learning about which drums did what. And I started recording my own drums. I started understanding what gear does what. And over time, it turned into an obsession of understanding 70’s music. I learned all about the 70’s and 60’s, like how weird the 60’s were and how weird the 70’s were, when they understood how to take the weird from the 60s and put it with the structure of the 70s.
So all that music last year was just a culmination of what I've been listening to for the last six, seven years. This is the first time I've felt like I did when I was younger. I feel absolutely free, like the ideas I'm hearing in my brain can make it out now. I'm actually hearing what my brain is telling me to play now.
The Lupe Fiasco record, for example. The bassline was distinct in my brain for three months and I totally ignored it until I was like, ‘You know what, I'm gonna just try it. I'm making beat videos, what's the harm in it?’ And then I played it for my girl and she was just like, ‘I've never heard anything like this from you before, this is different’. And so I just followed that wave of me making these ideas that are hitting me left and right. And that turned into the Moments project. And then After Thoughts.”
What’s your starting point when making a new track?
“Lately, because I've been in a discovery mode, I've been doing a lot of recording patterns--like certain kick drum patterns. Then if I hear a drum or percussive element, I'll play the percussive element on my keyboard. Sometimes I might have chords or something which might give more of a melodic-driven song. I've learned my best music is from songs that do a little bit of both. Like it has enough bounce and enough bass and chords to be able to explain what I'm trying to convey. So there are times if I'm feeling drums, the drums are the first thing I play.
If I don't have anything else, I turn into a listener: I’ll turn the volume down and walk away until it hits me. Lately I've been implementing that as my new strategy: don't force it. Walk away, play it low, go grab some water, go get a snack, but have it low so you're listening as a listener, not from a technical aspect. Don't make it complicated; experience what you're making. When you experience it, you'll have more fun. It'll be easier to create and convey what you're trying to feel.”
I love that. It's really about your ear at the end of the day.
“It's all about how you're communicating. Once you communicate what you're trying to communicate, then go technical, go crazy, start de-essing vocals, start doubling backgrounds, make it sound like a choir, film your TV playing the sound and put it in the background, whatever floats your boat.”
Do your beat-making videos inform or influence the way you make music?
“Making videos has this beautiful and very dark side at the same time. At the very beginning, I was using the beat videos as a means to be able to create my sound packs. Eventually, a couple of months went on and I'm starting to see everybody respond to my music. And this is where – I don't want to say ego gets in the way, but it's like, ‘I have to make another video today. If not, I'm not going to be able to grow my brand. No one's going to hear the sounds that I make.’ And then I started realizing it's OK to not make a beat video today. It's OK to just keep it simple.
It has definitely affected the way that I make my productions, because I think from the aspect of attention. I learned early on when I was making beats that the reason Flying Lotus was one of the best was that he was great at captivating people's attention within the first 15 seconds. That made [people] want to play the rest of the song. You have to find ways to intrigue people, because people will lose interest if you don't grab them within the first 15 seconds. Folks will turn off a song in five seconds.
Walk away, play it low, go grab some water, go get a snack, but have it low so you're listening as a listener, not from a technical aspect.
One thing that I think of is, when people hear the first five seconds, I want them to do certain things. Prior to COVID, I would have sessions with mad people over at my home studio. I would play the beat and I'd turn around and watch the room. I needed someone to at least tap their foot. If I could get one person to tap their foot, I'd be like “alright, I know what to key in on when I make this song.
When I did "UH, UH", I literally mixed it in a couple of days. Homies were coming through and would listen to what I was doing with the mix. I remember playing the first part of it, then I added a ‘pump’ to the melody. They were thinking a kick was there, but there was no kick, it was just a bass and this ‘pumping’ the whole time. They were already tapping their feet before the drums kicked in. Perfect! Yes! That's what I'm looking for. I played it in Denver right before Covid began and folks didn't know the song, but they were jamming.”
How have COVID lockdowns affected your creative process?
‘It's definitely gotten me to tune in on what my weaknesses were. I was heavy on traveling and trying to make music that people want to dance to at the end of 2019. Then Covid hit and I was like, ‘Dang it, I kind of miss that feeling of playing a new beat for someone and knowing if it worked tonight.’ So I was like, ‘All right, if I can't do shows, what is everybody on right now that I can invoke that same feeling into?’ And it happened to be Instagram. I started getting into the community, I started talking to homies a little more. It made me reconnect with people that I started out my career with and made me want to talk to people more. It was absolutely insane how everything occurred. But it took last year to have arguably one of the wildest and greatest years I've ever had in my life. “
That’s amazing. To wrap things up, if you were to give one piece of advice to a young, high school-aged producer, what would you want to say to them?
“To all the high schoolers: enjoy what you're doing and have fun. Don't forget about having fun, because once you forget that, there's really no reason to keep going.”
Text and interview by Daniel Krishnan. Daniel is the founder of Program Change, a media platform dedicated to inspiring music-makers around the world.