Originally published as a three part series.
The times aren’t a-changin’ — they’ve already changed and it’s going to be like this for some time. What exactly am I talking about? Take a look around. Did that feel weird? For a lot of us the answer is, a little, yeah. Our lives are ruled by the five-plus inch screen we’re likely staring at right now and the social media apps that litter it. That’s just the way things are.
The gamut of which we orchestrate our day-to-day routine relies heavily on some sort of brand that we project onto the world. It’s constant self marketing and PR, and without it you might as well be living under whatever figurative rock you can find. It’s how we become connected without leaving our house, it’s how we network from the comfort of pajama pants, it’s everything necessary to achieve success.
But what if you’re Elan Morrison, who has accumulated an arsenal of accolades: multi-platinum sales, Billboard charting records, film festival awards, and a credit list that includes icons such as Dr. Dre, Organized Noize, and Bobby Brown (to name a few). What if like Elan Morrison, you’re barely 30-years old and have already clocked in 15-years of studio experience to your name. Do you need social media? Does it make a difference?
Who the fuck is this kid?
Elan and I connected via Facebook after I saw a status of his asking for help with marketing and PR. I don’t know a goddamn thing about marketing or PR, but I do know an opportunity when I see one, and given his credentials I couldn’t pass up the chance to reach out to him. He was more than welcoming and after some shuffling of our schedules we linked up at Kelly’s Coffee & Fudge Factory in Beverly Hills.
Prior to our interview he mentioned that he never really pushed all that much for branding and marketing himself. Yeah, he had Instagram, Twitter, and all that good stuff but it wasn’t something that dictated his career. After all, this guy had a career when social media wasn’t even a concept yet. When I walked through the doors, I scanned the place and spot Elan directly to my left, sitting in a dreary corner rocking some pretty dope shades and a hoodie. He immediately got up and shook my hand.
As we settled in I make a comment about his choice of seating to which he responds, Yeah, I tend to hide in the shadows. I asked if that was why he had the shades on indoors (probably too soon of a jab for a guy I just met) but he took the ball-breaking with a smile and removed his shades. I’m actually trying not to do that so much. We made small talk, nothing of importance, just two guys getting to know each other on a general basis before we chop it up. After we fiddled with our phones to activate our voice recording apps, we got right into it. I know you wrote a letter, right? To Paul, I asked.
There was an interview I came across that Morrison had done through iReport of CNN a couple years back. It was really the only formal press piece I could find on him, and in it he talked about Paul Schwartz the owner of the now defunct (and legendary) Studio 56 in Hollywood. In that interview, he wrote a letter to Paul that would get him an internship at age fifteen in Los Angeles.
I was just looking for an out in my childhood. Elan and his younger brother Danya were living in turbulent times on the East Coast. They had spent 9-years bouncing from town to town trying to escape family turmoil and attending court-ordered therapy. When I attempted to pull more information out, Elan’s shoulders shrugged a bit at the discomfort of those memories. I retreated and we went back to the letter. It came about more than a decade-and-a-half ago when his mom sat next to Paul’s (then) girlfriend on a flight back to the East Coast. His mom struck up a conversation with her and got Paul’s information which she passed on to Elan.
I just told him what it would mean to me, he said. Morrison never tried to sell himself or even try to appeal to Paul because as he confessed, I’ve never been a good salesman. Speaking his truth seemed to work and within two weeks Schwartz had got back to Morrison and offered him an internship. The timeline took me by surprise to which Elan said, he [Paul] was kind of a special dude. I had mentioned Paul’s passing and Elan specified that Paul was murdered. We rehashed some of what he talked about in the CNN interview. About how Paul’s people turned on him and how his health declined during the tragic downfall.
My physical safety was in danger because I had stood up for him, he said. It was a pretty deep thing. Paul’s studio was where they filmed Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock and was owned by RCA Records at one point. In fact, the walls still had Elvis velvet design, so as Paul’s finances and health weakened the cannibals came out and vied for a piece of the special thing Studio 56 embodied. At that time [of Paul’s death], it was really difficult, Morrison said.
When Morrison started his internship, there were about ten other interns and none were happy about someone his age working alongside them. Couple that with responsibilities more fit for a janitor, Elan was truly working from the bottom up. Early on, he was assigned to a room to clean and three days went by before he finally came across another person in the studio. The weirdest part was being in Hollywood [at that time] at my age as an intern, he said.
The studio was located off Santa Monica and Orange in West Hollywood and Elan would be tasked with carrying food back and forth for different celebrities. During his trips, he recalled getting whistled at by six-foot trannies and cars pulling over with old men asking him if he needed a place to live. It definitely wasn’t safe, he said. Most interns might’ve bailed but Elan stuck to a piece of advice he received on his first day interning. A studio employee told him, If you want to make it in this industry, basically shut the fuck up and listen. You’ll never learn anything by talking. Already shy and timid and a fish-out-of-water prepubescent kid from the East Coast, it was easy for Elan to shut the fuck up.
The internship was also the first thing in his life that gave him meaning, that he felt gave him a purpose. I hadn’t found anything that had inspired me to create, he said. I always suffered in silence and music was my outlet. This was his prime source of motivation to persevere through anything that was thrown at him. Sticking to the advice he was given and his new found sense of purpose, Elan would eventually be allowed to sit in sessions while musicians flocked in and out of the studio to record.
Starting interns are kept away as much as possible and trust must be earned before they’re allowed to get involved in the business, even at the most basic level. Even then, those lucky enough to get into that position were still kept on tight restrictions — Morrison’s patience got him into the studio with Slash. Twenty minutes in, he [Slash] turned to someone and asked, Who the fuck is this kid? Elan remembered his advice and didn’t say shit. Slash finally turned to Morrison and asked what he was doing there to which Morrison replied, I’m just here to help.
A relationship began to form between the two and Slash began to request Elan in every session until he actually started asking for Morrison’s creative input. I had been thinking in quiet for so damn long, I only had good things to say at that point. I had ruled out the dumb shit. The rockstar took a liking to Elan and the two would develop a respectful bond over the course of Slash’s time at Studio 56. Morrison would still have to wait before fate would align with his ambitions and would eventually move into the studio where he slept in the lounge in between 22-hour work days. Alarms went off all the time at night. But it’s [also] quiet. You can always hear yourself breathing, he said.
Igor Stravinsky’s grand piano was holed up in Studio C, so Elan would sneak in during after hours and recreate samples from memory. It was on one of those nights that his life would take a dramatic shift in a matter of two-hours. While jamming out on Stravinsky’s piano, Morrison heard the studio doors open as a mob of bodyguards walked through the entrance. Then, from the center emerged a figure, the first person who would give Elan the opportunity of a lifetime. It was none other than the G-Funk legend himself, Dr. Dre.
This is what Elan came to Los Angeles for — it was the reason he endured more than 2,500 miles, cleaned rooms, delivered food for artists, and grinded out 20-plus hour days on a regular basis. Morrison admitted that when he wrote his letter to Paul, music wasn’t necessarily his sole passion. He reiterated it was just a way to escape his shitty childhood, but by this moment this was his purpose.
Before I dug into the Dre stuff, I had to know about his musical background. Nobody just sits at a goddamn piano and starts knocking off samples by memory unless they’re a freak of nature or had that seed planted in their genetic code (Elan is a bit of both). This was a trait he referenced back to his dad who was multi-genre orientated and just an overall incredible musician.
I’ve never been satisfied with just one genre, he said. The diversity he was exposed to as a kid gave him an immense appreciation and love for the art which would translate into developing an inherent touch of soul to his style of play. I can work in different genres and be authentic. That was his advantage over his contemporaries and what allowed him to work with Dr. Dre on the ever-elusive Detox project. Not sure it’s my place to talk [extensively] about Detox, Elan said (come on, give me something man). Dre is all about moving forward, he finally tells me. That’s just who he is.
Dre would eventually offer Elan a long-term job but he would turn it down to go to college which he confessed was one of his biggest mistakes in his career but his reasoning was just. One little part of me that was left, that wanted to appease my grandparents and the family and expect them to be happy with [me going to college]. At the end of his stint in college, Elan realized that he had learned more interning than anything he was taught in the classroom. He reflected on a lot of things he had absorbed being around Dr. Dre. Let me put it like this. You go to school to learn to write, you’re not being taught how to use a pencil. The studio is our pencil and people get overwhelmed with the environment and forget that. He recalls that in one lesson they were told that anytime lights are red, everything needs to be turned down because it’s distorting. But you walk into a session with Dre, and all the lights are red and it sounds crystal clear, he said. All college taught him was how to break the rules; think about the rule and see if it applies. All I gotta say [about following rules] is James Brown.
The first real feedback Elan felt he got was from Xzibit who Morrison described as someone who took time to explain things to someone, and showed genuine interest in helping others develop their career. Xzibit emphasized to Morrison to work hard at developing his own style and eventually time will reward him. If you just keep doing what you’re doing, even if you suck, people will still eventually support you. Reflecting on that era rehashed a lot of memories Elan hadn’t thought about in a long time, good memories. I could tell by the modest smile on his face. We have to go back in time a little bit, he said. Before I met Dre.
Sure, let’s Tarantino this bitch.
A goal without a plan is just a dream.
Back before Elan was sleeping in the studio he was housed at Leila Steinberg’s house, whom he met through Paul. If you’re unfamiliar (or if Leila’s name sounds familiar) she is a legend in the hip-hop world as she’s managed and provided guidance to iconic and rising figures in the culture such as Tupac Shakur and Earl Sweatshirt. Morrison mentioned that the biggest impact from Steinberg were the poetry slams she organized and held in Santa Monica for at-risk-youth.
Any of these kids you saw elsewhere, you wouldn’t walk down that corner [they were on], Morrison said. They were not fabricated when they performed. They had this unspoken respect for music. Watching youth, who often shared similar experiences he went through, was one of the first moments that Elan bared witness to the power of music and its ability to motivate one to escape what at times seems like something inescapable.
Leila wouldn’t shy away from encouraging Elan to challenge his own views. She opened my eyes about my belief in fate, he said. Morrison had always believed that things happen for a reason, that if he just rides that river good things will come to him because it’s simply meant to be. That’s not how it is, she told Elan. That’s not how any billionair became a billionaire. You’re in charge of your shit. A goal without a plan is just a dream. I brought up the letter to Paul. How it echos Leila’s words of Elan taking action to write that letter but also the touch of fate for his mom to sit next to Paul’s then-girlfriend on that plane ride all those years ago. It’s a bit of both [fate and action] when you really think about it, Elan concluded. Opportunity is fate, success is action.
The farther back he dug into the past, the more he began to preach on the dichotomy of the good ole days and the now. The climate of music has changed dramatically, and especially for someone like Elan who was right in the middle of it all — not in the limelight but deeply ingrained in the fiber of big changes that occurred in music. From cultural shift in hip-hop to a paradigm shift in the industry where physical album sales became submissive to online streaming. He broke down the evolution of hip-hop going from a more old-school sound to becoming more undefined by mixing with other genres and sounds. He mentioned his admiration for artists like Anderson .Paak who can take an old school sound and make it feel brand new. Elan holds a high regard for artists like .Paak in the current state of music. He emphasized how rare it is now to find artists who write their own songs, play their own instruments, and keep the essence of being a musician alive.
The main thing I [do] remember difference-wise was getting paid in cash. For everything. I was really pimped out as a kid. Of course being a kid would be an achilles heel for Elan as he never received any royalties from the work he put in during that time period. He admitted that he signed all of it away without knowing. My mentor [Paul] who I really love and give a lot of credit to [his success], at the same time they totally took advantage of me. Elan recalled during one of his more profitable years, Paul kept all of his money in cash in an envelope. Whenever Morrison needed any, Paul would pull the envelope out and give him whatever he asked for. When he passed away all that disappeared, he said. I asked how much but all he did was smile and reply, a lot.
That was also a big factor in the two falling out. Morrison always had mixed feelings about everything. On one hand, he knows he never would’ve been in those situations if it weren’t for Paul but at the same time, things got fucked up. I got a bunch of plaques for things I did hits but never saw any money [for them]. It was a hard lesson for him to learn about the labyrinth of earning royalties one deserves. He said it felt weird to hear some of those songs on the radio but often have nothing to show for it.
We moved to focus on how big a difference social media has made on the industry. Elan’s reclusive nature made things tough for him to adapt to such a significant social shift. He confessed he’s not the type to hang out the club and pop bottles with some big name rapper he’s producing for. It’s just not my thing, he said. His only real concern was the studio and his lack of participation on social media often caused him to fall in and out of the scene on a frequent basis. Though he is more involved with his presence online, it’s not something he is always eager to submit to.
Another crutch was his time in college. Despite it only being a quick 18-month crash course, he believed that once he returned to Los Angeles he could step right into the studio. I didn’t realize how bad things had gotten [at Studio 56] and how little I could help. Prior to Paul’s death, he had brought in new partners to help with the studio but Morrison said they had ulterior motives. After Paul’s death, Elan was pushed out of any influence he could have on the studio and add that to his fall out with his beloved mentor, it set Morrison back to square one.
Elan would try to start his own studio and it in fact did quite well until the mob extorted him and he was forced to abandon ship. I couldn’t work for four or five years. I was basically in hiding. I wanted to know more but it’s mob shit and you get too deep into those details you’re liable to get your head bashed in for being too nosy. I opted out of trying to convince him of anything else on the subject.
I thought to myself, where does a guy go from here? What kind of space did that put you in? I asked. One moment in your life you’re with Dr. Dre in the studio and the next your ass out in hiding with 10-years of work and money lost. He thought for a moment before a smile emerged. It was the best, he replied with immovable confidence. When my life is shitty, my music’s the best.
Morrison always found inspiration to draw from and he emphasized that despite all the shitty things he dealt with in his life, the good has always been equally profound. He understands the necessity for balance and that belief carried into his opinions on music and the industry. Music’s in a really fucked up state. Where music has gone, basically they’re just trying to do anything to figure out what the next thing is. It’s just a business now, he said.
This reflected back to when we first made contact via Facebook. In the midst of setting up this interview, he said, I was doing jobs because of the money but I was starving myself of real music and eventually it took a toll. So now my rule is I only take projects based on the music and talent and not the money no matter what. It was a conscious decision that had festered within him for quite some time.
At one particular moment in his career, he was signed to one of the biggest music managers in the business. But after three-years Morrison starved for good music and left — even on a full stomach, one can still die from hunger. He recalled the numerous times he was told that he could make tens of thousands of dollars to work on specific projects. You go and do this project and your soul is left tattered and raped. The desire to create something new, something of substance is what brought him back to focusing on the reason why he pursued music. Something to help him to escape, something that provided him therapy. That’s what it’s all about to me.
I’m just a dude that cares and that’s just a stupid fuckin’ thing to be out here.
Of course there always comes a love-hate relationship with anything one has dedicated more than half of their life to. Elan did not shy away to let out his more cynical opinions on the industry. Most of the people he competes with are older generation types and anyone relative to his age are in that position because they’re family is already connected in the industry. Everyone is someone’s kid here. Artists you think [is] someone just starting out, their dad knew somebody. Elan attributed this easy-way-in approach as an explanation for the lack of ambition he’s noticed with younger artists. He recalled an incident where he walked out of a session because of the artist’s absence of enthusiasm. Morrison had one simple rule when it came to work in the studio. Match my passion, he said.
Where did he draw this specific standard from? He immediately cited two of his biggest influences: James Brown and Prince. James Brown had sixty-thousand more reasons than anybody else to not work, but he worked harder than anybody, he said. He would work harder than some of the grips [on his tour]. With Prince, he referenced the icon’s background as a janitor at a studio and how he traded a pay raise for time in the studio. For Elan it all came down the the question of what you’re willing to sacrifice for the music.
We were closing in on our scheduled photoshoot at Gibson Studios and Elan’s brother Danya had just called to let Morrison know he arrived. [He’s] always been apart of my career. Been through all the bullshit through parents and courts. We’ve always been a team. Love my brother dude. A rock in my life, Morrison said.
We did a bit of a fire round of some of his most memorable experiences in the decade-plus time grinding in and out of music studios. Keith Richards and him eating dinner, George Clinton pulling up to the studio in a brown 70’s Mercedes with a u-antenna wearing a bathrobe and slippers fresh out of toe surgery and handing Elan and his producing partner immaculate vocals ready-to-go on CD just minutes before a deadline. It was something he had sung when he was young, same keys, same tempo. Perfect. Never met anyone that musically inclined, he said.
Morrison also had the opportunity to work with Alan Parsons, the engineer behind Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, by way of his sponsor Aphex. They [Aphex] really have always been there for me with gear and support, Morrison said. While working with Parsons, Elan couldn’t pass up the chance to ask him how the fuck he made The Dark Side of the Moon sound the way it did. Parson’s answer was simple. When he recorded all the instruments, he would just move his head around and wherever the music sounded best is where he would fashion a microphone. I just thought, that’s fuckin great, Elan said. As soon as you start overthinking it, you start losing it.
Our time was just about up but by now Elan had given me fifty-minutes into his life, present and past. We talked about Paul again. Elan always felt that his mentor was deep down just a kid like him and it was the reason why they got along so well. What Morrison learned most from Paul, was how to walk that fine line of being helpful but not get taken advantage of — a battle Elan has always faced throughout his career. I’m just a dude that cares and that’s just a stupid fuckin’ thing to be out here [in Hollywood], he said.
For kids looking to get into the industry, Morrison’s advice is to never settle. They will try to get you to settle on anything and everything, he said. Likewise it’s equally important to do your absolute best on every job no matter how big or small because one bad project could potentially stick with you for the rest of your career.
As far as the future, Morrison was clear on that aspect. I did stuff strictly for the paycheck and it was horrible. I’ll never do that again. If it came down to it, he wouldn’t hesitate to sleep on someone’s couch if it meant maintaining a peace of mind and a piece of his soul. I would do it in a heartbeat, he said. After all, he’s bounced back from darker times.
Article by @zachquinones
Location provide by @gibsonguitar
Photos by @joelfloraphoto
Follow Elan Morrison @THEMUSIC