Had Blockhead chased trends or devised a corny back-story to match his noirish smoked-out instrumental hip-hop, it’s likely that he would’ve garnered more acclaim and media attention. But that’s not what the New York City producer is about. With a no bullshit approach and a caustic wit, the man born Tony Simon has racked up one of underground hip-hop’s most estimable and underrated resumes, crafting some of Aesop Rock’s best songs, the greatest comedy rap album ever made, and four excellent solo efforts on Ninja Tune. His most recent, The Music Scene, further illustrates why he’s one of the best beat-makers to emerge from the 2000s. Plus, his blog is on-point. If you disagree you are a mental stockbroker.
Did you ever get any blowback from the Party Fun Action Committee record?
Well, I have a friend Dub L who produced some of the early Aesop stuff, and he worked with Paul Barman. I think Paul Barman heard it, but I don’t know what he thought about it. He could only think so much.
How did you even come up with the idea?
We had this public access show in the 90s, which had loosely improvised sketches and it got a little following in New York. Aesop used to be on it, Adrian Grenier was on it. It stopped in the early 2000s and Jer and I started making comedy songs for fun. So we’d amassed four or five song by the time Aesop got signed to Def Jux, and I guess somehow El heard the songs. Mind you, at the time Def Jux was at its peak, Aesop and Can Ox had just came out and they hadn’t had a miss and El was like ‘Yo I’ll put that out.’ We were like, ‘word, really?’ This was around the same time I got signed to Ninja Tune and I thought it would show a different side to my personality.
How did you even come up with those characters?
A lot of it was improvised and it just got more and more crazy as it went on. The idea was that these dudes were the worst guys on the planet and they knew nothing about music, so they became A&R’s. We put it together as a complete album, El put it out, and everyone hated it. People were like this is awful.
Your Def Jux blog has been filled with hilarious invective directed towards Lil Wayne and other contemporary rappers. Do you listen to much new rap anymore?
As much as I love rap, I can’t name five rappers in the last three years who I don’t personally know, who I’m checking for.
There are some good ones coming out, but Jay Electronica probably stands out as the best.
I love him. He sounds as good as the best guys we came up on.
Well, he’s like 33.
Is he? Perfect.
Now that you’re done with your album, what have you been working on?
I’m working on an album with Illogic. So far it’s in the early stages.
He’s another underrated rapper. I really liked Celestial Clockwork.
He’s been laying low for awhile, he’s got kids and he’s busy raising them.
Why haven’t you done more production outside of the Def Jux guys?
I would. There’a lot of artists I’d like to worth with. I think that a lot of people think of me as a Def Jux dude and that’s that. I’m not hanging out, I don’t network, I’ve never been the guy like runs up on people and is like, ‘I’d love to work with you.’
Your albums are filled with some pretty obscure samples, but you’ve talked on the blog about how you’re not a crate digger. Do you find most of your stuff off the Internet?
I haven’t bought records in years. This whole album is stuff that I found online. You can find some pretty crazy stuff just digging around.
What do you listen to mostly?
Old soul music and old hip hop. I listen to very little from this decade. It’s all old shit.
Why do you think hip-hop went downhill?
I think hop hop got worse when people stopped sampling because it got too expensive. Music got worse too — the way they record it, it just sounds wack. It’s just too clean. Then the mega-producers came in and everyone tried to make beats like Neptunes and Timbaland, and then we got Swizz Beatz.
Every now and then, Swizz will make a good one.
But he’s also made some of the worst ones.
I think that some producers are capable of working without samples. A guy like Mannie Fresh doesn’t necessarily need them, or at least he didn’t. I like a lot of southern hip-hop, but other than the Cash Money stuff and a few other artists, the sample-free stuff tends to give me a headache.
Oh I do too, but I’ve liked Southern hip-hop less recently. Mannie Fresh made some dope beats, but I liked some stuff that never really blew up. I loved Field Mob’s first album and the Young Bleed album, but a lot of this new southern rap is like who can be the dumbest.
It’s not that I don’t think artists can’t necessarily make 100 good songs a year, but 99.9 percent of them can’t and that’s been a major downside of mixtape culture. I think most of them would be better off releasing 10 really good ones instead of willfully devaluing their product.
Well, I remember reading something like Saigon was going to make an album in 24 hours. It’s important to have quality control and there isn’t much of it. Plus, there’s way too many people making music. You used to have to get signed to make music, now you just need Pro Tools.
On the other hand, I was covering the Jerkin’ movement out in LA last year and it’s hard to hate on 15 years old making music for other 15 year olds.
I agree. That’s something honest coming from a place where we just want to make music for fun. But when people set their goals to make music for a living and they don’t care what kind of music they make, that’s a problem. And I think that’s how most rappers are today — they just want to get on.
I imagine it has to do with the fickleness of the industry. You don’t get a chance to make your mark with attetion spans being so short. When De La Soul dropped their first album it was humongous. People were like that’s a crazy album, but I just don’t see anyone putting out a real album of that quality.
Well, at least not an a major label. I hate to be that guy that’s like ‘ fuck major labels for not letting them put out non-compromised stuff,” but…
They just won’t allow it. I was talking about this today actually. I heard one of the new Clipse songs from their album, and the Clipse are one of the groups I still like. They’re funny and they’re clever. I appreciate that cleverness, but they made a song a watery club songs just to try to get a hit, and it’s like listen you guys, your ceiling is reached, you’ll never go gold, it’s not because of you but that’s just how it is. You might as well just make music your fans will like — you’re not going to crossover and get all these new fans. That’s a problem.
So how did you get started producing in the first place?
I actually started out rapping when I was 14 or 15, and I met this dude who was much older than me. He worked at a toy store and put me onto all this crazy shit, like EPMD and other stuff that I might not have gotten into that young had I not meant him. I started looking for samples for him and then one day they invited me to the studio. I was a 14-year old kid and they were a bunch of 19 year-olds from Harlem. I was just all ‘I hope they like me.’ I watched them make a beat with my samples — I never sampled at the time, I was just ghostwriting rhymes. And then three or four years later, I met this other dude Kasm who I knew for a while — he was in Atoms Family and he had a sampler, so I started to mess around with it. Then I met Aesop and I saw him rap and I wasn’t good and he was, so I gave up rapping but I was so obsessed with hip hop that I wanted to have some part with it.
And you met Aesop at BU, right?
We were freshman in 1994 and we kind of connected when we met. At that time, when you were an underground rap guy and you saw another one, you bonded met. So we became friends and hung out and I dropped out and after he moved back to NYC we rekindled the friendship and started working together.
Why did you drop out?
Wasn’t for me. I’ve never been a student. I had to get out of there. My GPA was like a 0.3.
You guys seemed to create a pretty unique style right away, even with the early stuff.
You mean the old stuff like Float or the really old stuff.
I thought Appleseed was incredibly well produced too.
Well, he actually did most of Appleseed — I only did one song on that. That was all four track.
I didn’t realize that. I’ve always thought Aesop was an underrated producer.
Yeah, he’s really underrated, I think a lot of people shitted on him because they were turned away by Bazooka Tooth.
I actually liked the album. It took a lot of listens to sink in, but it did.
That’s actually his favorite album because that’s his baby, I understand why people were worried about it because it was so different from the album before, but it’s a good album.
I don’t know how much time people gave to it because it’s a tough record on first listen, but it has songs like The Greatest Pac-Man Victory Ever which I think is one of his best songs.
And he killed it on that.
He and Ghost are two of my two favorite rappers, but I’ll never understand how people will be like I love Ghostface but Aesop Rock sucks.
Ghost is a crazy wild Staten Island dude and Aesop is not.
But they both use crazy slang as writers and I suppose it frustrates me when people think they’re both saying gibberish, when they’re just not. If we’re going to talk about detrimental hip-hop trends, I think people thinking that they could be like Jay-Z or Big and not write it down was not a good look.
There’s very few people that can pull off not writing.
Wayne probably does the best job, but a lot of people say he has ghostwriters.
Like Drake? I just don’t get that guy. He’s Kanye-Wayne, but not.
He’s a watered down Mase.
I hated Mase when he came out. I was like ‘fuck this motherfucker,’ but if he came out today, he’d have the best song on the radio.
Back to your own stuff, how did the songs for The Music Scene come about?
I go through phases where I make a lot of beats and sometimes I go through months where I won’t turn my sampler on. Every time I amass a number of beats where I can do something with them, I start thinking about the album. This time, instead of taking 12 separate beats, I made 3 and matched them up. So three or four songs on the album are three beats together that I made into a new song and that was totally different from what I’d done before. I hadn’t been able to do that prior, but Ableton allowed me to do it. It’s awesome, it makes things so unbelievably easy, even though working within a spectrum before was good for me too.
Is there any difference with this album thematically?
I just try to have some continuity between the songs themselves. Music for Cavelight was somber and Downtown Science was me bugging out and trying to be as eclectic as possible with the samples I had.
You need to make another Party Fun Action Committee. There are streets that demand it. Or at least apartments.
Wer’e trying. Jer’s real busy, he’s got a job. The people that are into it are heavily into it.
There’s a lot of potential for new songs.
If we do another one, it probably wouldn’t be rap heavy, it’d be other types of music, the direction of modern rock and Lady Gaga and all that crap.
I always wondered where the Peter Pan song came from. What the hell was that making fun of?
One day Jer came over to my house to record ‘Cream Dreams,’ and I got strep throat that day. So he went into the room smoked weed and two hours later came out with that song. I was like what’s wrong with you — this is amazing. We didn’t even know how we’d put it on the album, but we did.
The other one was I never really knew who you were targeting was “I Am” by Das Jinglehorse. Was that making fun of Dépêche Mode?
Yeah, them and those kind of people that are really really into that kind of music.
What about the ‘Back in the Day’ song. I always assumed it took shots at Lexicon.
It was just a play on all the ‘Back in the Day’ songs. When I came up, every album had a back in the day song and we just made that, but we wanted to make it as white as possible, like ‘hey bro,’ go completely off the charts weird.’
So what are your plans for 2010?
More new music, working with Illogic, some stuff for Aesop’s new album probably.