Loop Dreams: Kaelin Ellis

Max Bell talks to the veteran producer about the intersection of the church and video games as his early inspirations, collaborating with Lupe Fiasco, creating his sought after sound packs and more.
By    May 5, 2021
Photo courtesy of Krystal Salazar.

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Kaelin Ellis had drum sticks in his hands before he could walk. Before he could speak, he watched his father tap his foot while playing keys in the church choir. The Lakeland, Florida native was primed to be a gospel music prodigy. Then he heard Just Blaze beats while playing NBA Street. That discovery led to J Dilla and Ellis’s most formative digging, a reverse archeology that successively brought him to Madlib, Flying Lotus, Brainfeeder, and the beat scene. By middle school, Ellis was part of an internet producer collective (LOAFLAB) with peers like Kaytranada and Tek.lun, crafting accomplished but admittedly imitative beats under the name Mr. Mockwell.

Today, the 23-year-old has moved past mimesis (and the Mr. Mockwell sobriquet). On 2020 projects Moments and After Thoughts, Ellis crafts layered, downtempo beats with mellow chords, melodic keys, resonant bass, and knocking percussion. They oscillate at the idiosyncratic intersection of banging hip-hop, calming jazz, soulful gospel, and cosmic beat music. Part of a growing cadre of producers who create virtually every sound they sample, Ellis has taught himself to play all the instruments you hear in his music. If you’re reading this, you might’ve discovered his music through the captivating beat making videos where he picks up these instruments and recreates his beats in real-time. Or maybe you heard House, the 2020 EP he produced for Lupe Fiasco after Fiasco discovered him via Twitter.

In early April, I called Ellis on the phone to discuss his musical background, LOAFLAB, the inspiration behind his career-altering videos, working with Fiasco, scoring an ad for Mercedes, and his reason for creating so many sound packs. Speaking from his parents’ home in Lakeland, where he moved during the pandemic, Ellis is as animated as he appears in his videos. Optimistic about his future and that of beat music, he says that he continually draws inspiration from within as much as he does the growing producer community. If his music is indicative of the next generation of producers, innovation will greatly outweigh imitation. – Max Bell

Are you from Orlando, or is that where you live now?

Kaelin Ellis: I grew up in Lakeland, born and raised. High school, elementary school, middle school — everything was in Lakeland until I had the opportunity of going to college. One of my old neighbors was working at Full Sail at the time, and that’s in Orlando. She had a connection where she could potentially get me a scholarship to go to college out there. I wrote a brief essay about why I wanted to go to school at Full Sail, and she gave it to them. She managed to be able to get me a scholarship, which got me out to Orlando for like four years.

How did growing up in Florida influence you musically, if at all?

Kaelin Ellis: Lakeland is not necessarily like the most inspirational place. A lot of people who come out of Lakeland are either singers or athletes. It’s very seldom that I come across people or musicians who create beats, especially here in the part of Florida I live in. Lakeland is predominantly a lot of retired people with families and people who want to settle down. It was pretty tough growing up because there wasn’t a lot of inspiration. The main thing that inspired me growing up was playing drums in church. My grandmother would have my dad play keys, and I played drums. That was where all the inspiration really came from being here.

How early did your dad start you on the drums?

Kaelin Ellis: I had to be like maybe a year old when my dad bought my first drum drum set. It was a CB drum kit. It was a couple pieces. As years went on, my dad would add on to my kit. I had to be like one or one and a half. I was using really small drum sticks.

Did you learn to read music, or was it all by ear?

Kaelin Ellis: It was predominantly by ear. Everything that I know about music came from what I used to hear in church and watching my dad. He would stomp his foot to kind of indicate what the beat of a song was. Visually, I would be able to watch what he was doing and copy it. He would stomp his foot, and I would just not learn how to feel music that way. It was all about watching my dad whenever he played at church.

How has that foundational sense of rhythm has impacted your music?

Kaelin Ellis: It’s in every form of what I do now. Watching my dad stomp his foot is the origin behind all of the ways that I play. Now, whenever I’m creating music, or if I get into a flow, or if I’m doing a show or whatever, I usually stomp my foot to indicate that I’m feeling it. It rubs off in every part of music and anything inspirational that I get myself involved in creatively.

Do you think it’s ever been a negative thing?

Kaelin Ellis: I do recall being the one weird kid who would always beat on my desk with a number two eraser and pencil. If I wasn’t doing schoolwork, I would annoy all of my classmates when I would sit at the desk and make a drum beat on the desk. It was one of those things that made me different from other people. I realized there weren’t a lot of kids who were interested in music where I was going.

Your dad played keys in the choir. Did he teach you piano?

Kaelin Ellis: Surprisingly, no. I took a piano class at the end of my high school year because I was curious about what was going on on the piano. For instance, there’s the two and then three sets of black keys on the piano, right? I would always hear my dad play the black keys during church. I didn’t know that the majority of the black keys on a piano were around the key of E flat minor. We were practicing a piece in piano class, I ended up hitting all the black keys.

I’m like, “This sounds really familiar. Whatever this sound is, I’ve heard it my entire life.” I just never knew exactly what it was until I sat down in a piano class. What my dad played made sense now. He’s never necessarily shown me how to play piano; it was more so a by ear thing and watching what he did many years throughout church. I try to emulate that.

Was gospel the extent of your music listening diet at a young age?

Kaelin Ellis: The majority of it was until about six years old. Then I discovered the beauty of video games. I grew up in a very strict Christian household. My big sister used to listen to a lot of rock music, but I never really was allowed to listen to “secular” music. The way around it was to ask my parents for video games. Some of the video games I played, like NBA 2K and Tony Hawk Underground, had some of the greatest soundtracks. Underground number one has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard on video games, and sometimes I would try to play drums to what I was hearing. That was the only way around [my parents’ restrictions]. It just so happened that the music I was listening to on Tony Hawk and NBA 2K was made by guys I idolized. If it wasn’t gospel music, it was video games.

Who were some of the foundational hip-hop influences you discovered through video games?

Kaelin Ellis: It began with NBA Street. I think Just Blaze produced 90% of the entire soundtrack. I didn’t realize he was also one of the hottest hip hop producers in the early 2000s. When I would look up his music online — this is when YouTube became a really cool new site — I came across a lot of musicians. My dad would always talk about these certain musicians that played with these gospel artists. He accidentally typed in Jay Dee. The first song that we saw pop up on YouTube was called “La La La by J Dilla. I heard it in 2008. That was the first time I came across J Dilla’s music and got hooked. I was trying to figure out everything about him. Coming across that at an early age really affected how I looked at music. I looked for anything that sounded like J Dilla. That turned into finding a YouTube community that listens to Flying Lotus. He was the new hottest thing on the internet and on Adult Swim. It was crazy. All of it started to connect.

The next crazy thing was that Madlib had production all over NBA 2K8. I remember hearing about all the stuff he did with Dilla. He also had a tribute to J Dilla project. That was something that really influenced me and how I approach music. I went through three years where I was emulating both of those guys in what I was doing. It wasn’t necessarily like the best product, but I learned my way. Those guys really are like the foundation. J Dilla, Just Blaze, Flying Lotus Madlib, Samiyam. Basically, Brainfeeder 2008 to 2010 was my whole origin.

Were you sampling from records back then?

Kaelin Ellis: I would download Youtube videos. I also remember having these old CDs full of either gospel music or orchestras. I would rip recordings off of those CDs and turn those CDs into into songs. I would sample them, chop them up on Sony Acid Music Studio 6.0. Super old and limited, but at that time it was like one of the coolest things. The deeper you get into it, you realize you can do a lot more. I would sample anything that made a sound. I would try to record stuff and see if I could approach it in a musical way. I’d take a lot of my little sister’s toys and see if I could turn it into something. I would sample [polyphonic rings] from old Nokia cell phones, throw them back into Acid Music Studio, chop them up, and see if I could make a song out of those.

Is it fair to say most of your music is made with sounds you’ve created?

Kaelin Ellis: Yeah. If it’s not something I created fresh, then it’s something that I’ve held onto for a long time, and I’m like, “Alright, now is a good time to use this.” I used to listen to so many samples, and I didn’t realize what I was looking for was a good four bars of something cool to play over and over where you can throw drums on it. Now everything I make is pretty much original, unless someone wants me to sample their work. I try to refrain from sampling. I try to teach myself how to play parts of songs, and that in turn helps me become a better producer and musician.

What motivated you to start creating sound packs?

Kaelin Ellis: I didn’t realize that what I was doing when I create music was already what people do when they make sound packs. In Acid Music Studio, there was a function called freeze for each track. I would make all these beats out, make all these chords. I would use a lot of MIDI. Then I would hit “freeze,” but I never knew what it did. I lost access to my old Windows computer before I switched over to Mac, and checked that same folder. I see all these audio files of all the music that I worked on for the last eight years: synthesizer loops, drum sounds, random chops. I had a whole folder of that. And I was like, “Oh, so that’s what freeze meant.” Using Ableton, I didn’t realize that was something that was already baked into the way I create.

The way I create, I’ll have a sound, but something about that sound can be adjusted or turned into something else. I go through many rigorous versions of making like the same beat with different sounds and adjusting things over time. All of a sudden, you look in the folder, and it’s like, “Okay, this is a cool snare, a cool bass line, a cool synthesizer loop.” One of my main things is helping people, like inspiring people, and I realized that I could take what I already do and give it to other people so they could use it for their work. That also feeds my inspiration because someone might take my sound that I have and use it in a totally different and clever way. It’s like a creativity feeding creativity process.

Is it lucrative?

Kaelin Ellis: It’s honestly set me up to be able to create as much as I want, and create what I want. When I create a channel, I try to do new things to help me become better. I don’t want to be one of those guys that just makes a bunch of beats and sits on them. I want to learn to become the best version of myself that I can because I really enjoy music. Seeing that what I do is helping somebody else — especially last year, with all the music that I came out with between the beat videos and sound packs — it changed my life.

I didn’t realize that something as simple as the sounds that you are holding on your computer could potentially change your life in a way that makes what you do easier. It’s definitely brought a great deal to me, and I’m seeing it happen for a lot of other people doing the same thing in their own way. It’s quite dope to see that it’s a community out here trying to do a new thing.

What did your earliest production set-up look like? What instruments and equipment were in the room?

Kaelin Ellis: My early production setup was as simple as a Windows desktop computer and an M-Audio Trigger Finger with keys on it. It was super, super small. They had that version specifically catered for Pro Tools 8. It had all these knobs on it. And I didn’t realize that you can’t put anything wet or damp near your controllers. I shocked the mess out of it one day and was never was able to use that controller again, but I had that, Acid Music Studio, and had all these sounds that I used to download off of FreeLoops.Com.

How has your setup evolved? What are your primary instruments and pieces of gear today?

Kaelin Ellis: I have a keyboard always by my side. If it’s not on the side of me, I have it like floating around me to be able to plug in at any point. I have a BopPad that allows me to be able to play realistic patterns on it. It’s perfect for me because I travel every once in a while to do shows, and having a BopPad is like having a travel drum kit.

Jazz seems to be a foundational element of your work. Who are some of the jazz artists that inspire you?

Kaelin Ellis: Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, Terrace Martin, and Herbie Hancock. There’s also a gospel artist named Kim Burrell. Every once in a while, when she released an album, she allows her band to just play. Whatever that album was in 2006, there are a couple of interludes where she’s also playing keys in that arrangement. Some of the chord selections they’re playing on just a normal idea are so advanced. I also listen to anybody that was predominantly neo-soul in the early 2000s and late ’90s. Robert Glasper is one of my favorites by far, as far as pianists go.

Since we’re talking about inspiration, the muses come from everywhere. What are some other arts (books, movies, TV shows, etc.) or aspects of life that you find yourself drawing on for your music?

Kaelin Ellis: I love movie scores, like the fim score for Holes. I love the soundscape that music puts you in. It takes you from where you are currently to being out in the desert with a shovel in your hand digging up some holes. I also love anything Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick is absolutely sensational. I had a weird knack for abstract art. I only know one artist off rip, which kind of connects to jazz music, Wassily Kandinsky.

When you look at his art, you can tell by the shapes and the colors that he’s using that he’s inspired by something. His entire approach was just like jazz music. And so he had this one painting called “Abstract Circles.” He painted in a very raw and expressive way. I took that cover and used it as a beat tape cover for my first project, which was for my second project, Rhythm Bass. I thought that was the coolest thing ever as a middle schooler.

Was this when you went by Mr. Mockwell?

Kaelin Ellis: Yeah. And I had another alias named Construct, but I didn’t realize there was a German band named Construct. I was super bummed because I had already made two projects under the name Construct, so I had to switch over to Mr. Mockwell. Even now, I don’t try to associate myself with the name Mr. Mockwell because at that time I was imitating a lot of the music I was listening to. The name comes from mocking things very well.

When did you decide to abandon that name? Why?

Kaelin Ellis: I went through a rough patch in middle school and part of high school where people didn’t believe that the person making the music was me. I had all of this music on Soundcloud when it was the new thing where people would discover these sounds. Me and Kaytranada were mad close on the social media waves at that time. Kaytranada told me that he got poppin on Soundcloud by putting his music on top of acapellas.

So I changed my name and started uploading remixes on Soundcloud. I did a Flying Lotus remix, and that was the first time I ever experienced that type of attention from I what I was doing. I was like, “Alright, let me find every single possible song that I enjoy, remix all those, and put my name on it in.” That’s where it really began at.

What is LOAFLAB? When did it form? Who was in it? What is its status at present?

Kaelin Ellis: LOAFLAB was a YouTube collective of beatmakers. Guys like Kaytranada, Lakim, and Tek.lun, There’s another really, really great producer by the name of Munoz. Absolutely sensational. He was like the first guy in the whole crew that actually got some real hardcore attention from actual artists, like classic hip-hop producers and artists who genuinely messed with what he was doing. He was, a year older than I was at the time. I was 13, and he was 14. He was already killing it.

Him and Kaytra did a project that catapulted LOAFLAB into being this thing. We were all in this group just uploading music every single Friday. I just remember the excitement I would feel when I would go and check YouTube and see that Munoz, Kaytranada, or Tek.lun would upload a video to YouTube. We would also go on UStream, and Kaytra would spin for hours. I would spin four hours. Tek.lun would make a beat on there and sit there for a hot minute. As far as it’s current status, LOAFLAB is still a collective. We’re still a cool group of dudes who realize why we do what we do. It’s been a little over ten years at this point.

Why did you decide to create short beat making videos?

Kaelin Ellis: At first, I didn’t enjoy making videos because I had this weird shyness when it came to being on camera and people looking at me and seeing me. I would feel awkward and weird. But then I had to do a video for a final class project in high school, and I realized I had a love for making videos. I just didn’t know what to make.

In 2017, I graduated from Full Sail and a lot of homies would record videos of me while I was making music. A homie of mine started this thing called “Good for Life Sessions” in Orlando, and there’s like a full YouTube thing. I’m making beats post-college with a bunch of friends of mine in Orlando. That was the precursor into giving me the idea of like, “If I’m doing this in a studio, why not just do this and record it on your own?” I did these little weird sporadic beat videos throughout 2019, but I didn’t get the full initiative to do it until the beginning of 2020. I moved back home to be with my folks because of COVID and stuff. Everything shut down, and I was like, “What do we do now? What if I just feel myself doing what I do in a studio session?”

I remember taking that video, uploaded it to Twitter, and all I put was, “What is the time signature?” I went back on Twitter the very next day, and the video went from like 100 views to like 23,000 views. I was like, “Wow. What if I put a little backing into this?” So I put down $100 to advertise, and that video then goes from 23,000 to 250,000 views. What it felt like at that time was like a reintroduction of like SoundCloud, when we were using SoundCloud in the early days. I was like, “I’m gonna make a bunch of videos and see where this goes.” I had really good music, and I dropped a sound pack. People were getting my sound packs, and so the videos would have the sounds in the sound pack.

I did it so much that ideas would come out of it, like the Lupe Fiasco thing. That whole thing came from me creating all those beat videos over time. I had this chord progression idea at the beginning of 2020, and I just kind of put it off. For whatever reason, this idea just stuck with me and that turned into Lupe Fiasco screen recording and rapping over it and putting it on social media. It took off, but that was like a culmination of what I have been doing six to seven months prior. That’s kind of how it began. It was never really a set plan. I just knew I was into it.

Lupe Fiasco first heard your music through one of these videos. People only see the success of the album. What were some of the challenges in recording House?

Kaelin Ellis: House was probably the easiest project to put together. I went through this rough period in 2017 where I was working at a sandwich shop in Florida. From 2017 to 2019, I was spending every day after work, late nights, and Saturday and Sunday nights at my homie’s spot making music. Everything that was on House, except for “Dinosaurs” and the first track where Virgil Abloh is talking, was made in 2017 after I got home from work. I held on to those tracks, and when Lupe was like, “Do you have any beats to send me?” I was like, “Let me go back to my archive from 2017 and 2018.” That turned into Lupe compiling the entire project from just the loops. He took those loops and looped it up in GarageBand. That was the really, really neat part about that project.

You recently scored an ad for Mercedes-Benz. Do you do a lot of commercial/for-hire production?

Kaelin Ellis: I haven’t done a lot in the past, but I did go to Full Sail. That experience taught me how to score film. One of my finals was creating the music for a film. To this day, I’ll maybe watch commercials or videos of people performing to be able to make music for that moment. I would like to say I do commercial stuff often, but whenever that deal presents itself on the table, then I’m usually down to just create whatever for a commercial.

Do you think it’s valuable for producers to open themselves up to the possibility of composing stuff they wouldn’t necessarily want or choose to make based on client demands?

Kaelin Ellis: It challenges me to think outside of the box. It brings me back to being a kid. Growing up in church, I didn’t have the formal education of knowing how to read music. I was at the mercy of hearing something and having to play it back as accurately as you possibly could. There are often times people are asking for a particular thing, like a commercial, and they’re like, “We need to want it to sound like this.” They gave me the whole outline of what they wanted for the Mercedes commercial, and they were like, “We want your feeling on it.”

It brought me back to when I was growing up, and we would just learn a song in one day. It made me realize that we often get in our own way with getting to the next level. When concepts like that present are presented to us, we can use it as a learning experience or shy away from it and never embrace the next level that life is trying to give to us. I think it’s important as an artist to push yourself. The only way to grow and get better is to get a little uncomfortable.

For the people who haven’t been on your Twitch channel, what goes down there and when?

Kaelin Ellis: I haven’t used my Twitch in a hot minute, but when I happen to get some really solid, straight, uninterrupted internet connection, I’m definitely going to be doing a lot of beats. Challenges. I used to hang out with my homie Paul, and we would have random people pop up at the house, and we’ll just be like, “Alright, let’s see what we can do in this setting.” Kind of similar to what Kenny Beats does, where I take something someone sends me and I try to make a beat off of it. Or we use a new gadget that people are interested in. Once a day comes, I’ll definitely make an announcement about it.

What is your favorite DAW? Why?

Kaelin Ellis: Aside from Ableton, Acid Music Studio will forever hold a great place in my heart. They have this thing called Acid effects, where it has everything you could possibly think of as far as effects processing: a compressor, distortion, reverb, an equalizer built into it and a delay channel all into one thing. I used to use it a lot when I would design my own samples and hit freeze. It was absolutely perfect for having everything you needed in one space. It was the only program I’ve ever used where you didn’t need to physically upload a plugin or download something. It was already there for you.

When you’re working on a solo record, do you think consciously about your style/sound?

Kaelin Ellis: I don’t really think about where I’m at. I think more about what I’m trying to say. When it comes to art, what the artist is trying to say can take a lot more longer and make the process of a project take way more time. When I’m making a project, I try to get to a place where I’m in a sandbox, and I’m trying to build a particular castle. However I make this castle will be its own journey.<
I don’t often think about my particular style. I try to think, ‘What’s the fresh perspective on music?’ I wanted the energy to be fresh and different every time. I haven’t really technically worked on a legitimate album, aside from beat tapes like After Thoughts and Moments. I am trying to work on one right now, where I don’t necessarily think about what I normally do. I try to do the things that normally wouldn’t do and incorporate my feeling of what feels like me into it.

When you’re putting together projects like Moments and After Thoughts, how meticulous are you about track listing?

Kaelin Ellis: I’ll usually look at a whole body of work and look at what I want it to start off with. If there’s a vibe from the very beginning, then I follow that vibe. I try to make my approach like when a DJ matches the vibe of one record to follow right into another. Like whatever that last note of a song is, it goes perfect with this the first note of the next song.

I’m pretty meticulous when it comes to that. I guess my approach is more so on the thing of what feels right and what makes sense, rather than just putting a lot of great songs into a project. I think one thing about the project Moments is that it wasn’t necessarily the tracks. The tracks are cool, but it was just the way that I remember piecing it together that made it the most sense. I played it for my homie, and my homie was like, “Each track feels right. It feels right.” That’s what I try to aim for.

Do you have an album you’re most proud of at the moment? Why?

Kaelin Ellis: At the moment, it’s After Thoughts. Everything on After Thoughts was exactly what I wanted It All Ends to be. But I was not prepared for it yet. I learned about engineering, songwriting, and approaching music from a free landscape to allow the music to tell you where to go. After Thoughts is exactly what I wanted, but It All Ends taught me a lot about hard work. I worked hard to learn how to get to this place in music. Outside of After Thoughts, it’s It All Ends. It’s all both of those two.

What are you looking forward to in the next couple of months?

Kaelin Ellis: I’m going to release another soundpack. I’m working on one. I just can’t say who it’s for yet. And I have a project coming out with Kount. That should be real soon, and whenever that comes out I hope to be doing shows. Also, my birthday is gonna be coming up right around the corner from now. I’m pretty ecstatic about that. I’m going to continue to keep creating great music. If I can’t recover all of the files from my corrupted hard drive, then, more than likely, I’m going to try and create something that’s even better than what you guys have heard from previously. I’m always in a consistent cycle of learning and improving and trying to better myself on a daily basis.

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