"What's the Most You Can Do in a Minute?": An Interview With Kaelin Ellis

It's an interesting question for a producer to ask: "What's the most you can do in a minute?"

There's the standard pop song structure we all know well: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, one final chorus. Or if making a beat, you may only need 16 good bars. Let the artist or the next producer decide how long to run with it.

But if you've heard Kaelin Ellis' recent albums—Moments and After Thoughts—you'll know what a great target and limitation one minute can be.

On his Instagram and Twitter accounts, Kaelin shares his music-making process, captured in the moment of creation. He keeps his phone rolling as he layers his parts: drums, e-drums, keys, bass, and more. And because of Instagram's previous rule that all videos should be 59 seconds or less, that's how long they last.

Bite-sized and infectious, the tracks are impressive feats of composition that owe as much to classic pop as they do to his beatmaking peers. With nearly every measure, there's a new instrument or some new line that catches your ear, a succession of tasteful phrases that end as quickly as they arrive. Luckily, there's auto-replay.

Speaking of when he first began making the videos, Kaelin says, "It was almost like playing with a Jenga puzzle. It was like, 'Alright, I'm gonna take this part out. Is the tower gonna fall? No, alright. Can I push another piece out? OK, we're good. ... It's having fun with it and making it feel like an experience."

Kaelin shot his first shortly after lockdowns began last year, just as his live performance schedule had been taking off. He played a show in Denver and then traveled to Los Angeles before the pandemic began shutting down the country.

"I remember when LA got hit with COVID, and I was like, 'What am I gonna do?' And my homie was like, 'Just make a beat video. Make as many as you possibly can.'"

He hadn't really had them in mind. He had put out a few releases already—like 2018's Veil EP and 2019's It All Ends—and was more inclined toward studio recording and playing live.

"Beat videos weren't necessarily a thing I was really interested in doing. For one, I wasn't interested in the post-production of it. I like creating music in the moment, no pun intended," he says. But he started thinking, "If I were to showcase what I do in a studio setting, what would that look like?"

Spurred on by his parents once back home in Florida, he decided to keep the DAW and his camera running as he composed.

At the time, he was studying Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, and other pop classics of the '60s and '70s. "The way that music was orchestrated back then, it was arranged very well," he says. So he thought, "I'm going to try to approach music from an arrangement perspective, but make it real simple."

Once the ideas started rolling, they started hitting like flow states.

One day in May 2020, he says, "I hear this cold ass idea for a bassline [hums the line]. It was just on repeat." It continued in his head for a few days, joined by more imagined parts: the drums, the electric piano, and more, which he soon tracked. "And the last part… I was listening back to it, and I was like, 'What kind of wild stuff would Jimi Hendrix play on this?' So I loaded up a Kontakt guitar and started doing [hums the part]. And that turned into 'White Walls.'"

"White Walls" took on a life of its own. Lupe Fiasco saw it on Twitter and decided to freestyle over it. Kaelin and Lupe eventually connected in full and created the House EP later in summer 2020. Rapping over the "White Walls" beat again, Lupe immortalized the partnership in the opening lines of the track "LF95": "I got this beat off Twitter / Let me show you how I did it though."

A kind of mantra took hold for Kaelin: "Follow the concept," and he made beat video after beat video. Soon, he had amassed a collection of tunes, which became his first solo quarantine release: Moments.

A testament to a locked-in personal lockdown, Moments contained the cream of the beat video crop. Concepts he had heard "back to back to back" became 12 tracks, with a total runtime of just about 12 minutes. (He learned, after one initial upload attempt, that Spotify won't actually accept an album if all the tracks are under a minute. So he made a few extra loops.)

In Kaelin's songs, however, there's a lot of movement, no matter how short the breadth of time. After all, if you're going to make a 45-second track, not a single second of it can be boring.

Kaelin says his method is a product of studying other pop music: "All the best songs have that—within that first 15 seconds—'I have grabbed your attention and I am messing with you the entire time.'" So he aimed high and tried to create tracks with the constant catchiness of "Thriller," but for people with really, really short attention spans.

"I want to be able to create fully orchestrated music, but I know you can't necessarily have a No. 1 hit and have it be seven-minutes long in 2021. ... So what's a better approach musically to that?"

"The Instagram algorithm—before they decided to implement IGTV—you could only post 59 seconds," Kaelin says. "I like to thrive in places where I am limited, and I was like, 'Alright, what's the most you can do in a minute?'"

With a simple collection of instruments—including a Keith McMillan BopPad, an M-Audio MIDI controller, an off-brand 8-string bass (with two strings missing), and (at times) a keyboard sustain pedal used as a kick trigger—Kaelin makes the most out of a Spartan rig.

Kaelin shows off his BopPad and sustain pedal kick.

Listen for any amount of time and you'll realize why it all works: There's a deep sense of harmony and sound design that underpins everything he does. The chords are wide open, large voicings that work their way up and down the keyboard. The bass is simple but huge. The drums are as crisp as Timbaland's. Kaelin has even created his own Ableton drum rack called Drum Sculptr, with infinitely tweakable sounds any producer can use.

His harmony and sound design skills both come from a childhood spent playing in church, while elementary-aged experiments with DAWs like FL Studio and Sony Acid Music Studio 6.0 taught him how to manipulate recorded sound.

Gifted a simple CB Percussion kit by his father when he was just two or three years old, Kaelin was raised to accompany his dad's keyboard playing. But the drums in various church halls and basements left much to be desired. He never knew in what state of disrepair the kits or cymbals might be.

"Me making something like Drum Sculptr all came from the many years of being behind really, really jacked up church drum kits and seeing how to take a trashy drum kit and make it sound good," he says. "By ear, we would tune it to what we wanted it to sound like," a process that would continue throughout the entire service.

"As church services would go on, I'd be tuning the whole kit. And by the end of the service, the whole drum set would sound great. ... So I've kind of had that approach when it comes to making these sounds," Kaelin says. "I try to nail the feeling first, and that's where I kind of get it from—the feeling of what I've heard from a drum for years and try to implement it into what I do."

Looking ahead, he sees a future where he might have the malleability of his Drum Sculptr—where he can combine, re-combine, or re-pitch just the right amount of white noise, echoes, and other synthesized sounds—into his own e-drum set, a perfect marriage of the best parts of Ableton and his beloved BopPad, but primed for real-time adjustments and live performances.

In the meantime, he'll soon be releasing a joint album with The Kount, his peer in video beatmaking, as well as a new solo record he describes as specifically funky. Will these new records be full-lengths, complete with full-length tracks? We'll have to wait and see. But with any luck, we won't be waiting long.

Stay up to date on Kaelin's records, sample packs, Drum Sculpt updates, and more, at his website here.

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