Question in the Form of An Answer: An interview with Blockhead

In advance of his sixth solo album, "Bells and Whistles," Blockhead talks gentrification, simplicity, and the New York Knicks.
By    November 5, 2014

Blockhead 1 by Claudia Santiso

If you’ve read Blockhead’s blog, you know that irony is rarely lost on the New York-fortified instrumental hip-hop producer. His sixth album is called Bells & Whistles and while it literally contains a few bells and whistles, the press roll-out contains no corny fanfare. Tony Simon suffers no fools, bullshit or typical artist pretensions. This inevitably puts him at a disadvantage. For all of his records, he refuses to offer eye-rolling mythologies or calculated narratives that musicians use to drum up hype. You can’t blame his peers for savvy marketing, but you can admire someone who opts out of the soap-selling shill.

When you’ve steadily ranked among the best beat producers of the last decade and a half, it’s tempting to put a fresh spin or cobble together some half-baked tale about the time you went to the Malacca’s to dig for the most rare breaks inspired by the 17th Century spice trade (unless, you’re Daedelus, in which case, I probably want to hear the album).

Blockhead instead offers a rare consistency in an age of desperate re-invention. Yes, Bells & Whistles is more of the same, but that’s a good thing if you like hard drums, funky grooves, and an aesthetic that blurs Turkish psychedelic music, horror soundtracks, rare grooves, and the time that you went to an opium den and accidentally stabbed a dissolute serf with a hypodermic needle, only to realize you’d fallen asleep with the TV playing a re-run the time that Johnny Depp met The Hughes Brothers.

There’s little need to re-state the resume. Beyond the previous five Ninja Tune scrolls, there’s the superb production work he’s done for Aesop Rock (Appleseed, Float, Labor Days), Billy Woods, Illogic, and his co-creation of Party Fun Action Committee, the greatest sketch rap record that no one ever bought outside of Occidental College. His Honorable Mention in the Best Producers List handles the bullet points. In advance of his latest release (due out November 18), I sent him some stupid questions. He was gracious enough to respond and allow us to premiere “Sunny.”

He described it as such: “This is a mash up of about 12 different versions of the song “Sunny.” I did it cause I got mildly obsessed with the song a few years ago and sought out as many covers as I could find. I knew I couldn’t make it an official song (because the song is so famous) so I started doing the mash-up live in shows. I’ve been doing a variation of this in my live set for a few years now and it always goes over really well. Figured I’d do a version of it for people to check outside of my shows.”

The interview is below:

As a native New Yorker, which is more unsettling — Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” or Catey Shaw’s “Brooklyn Girls?” Please describe what Williamsburg will look like in 50 years and whether Carmelo Anthony can do anything to stop it from occurring.

While they’re both wildly unsettling, I think that Taylor Swift’s is less offensive to my soul. Mostly because it’s basically just Sex And The City in song form. NYC BEEN dealing that kind of tomfoolery for a while now. It’s nothing new. She’s a poster child for what people who aren’t from NYC think about NYC. It makes all the sense in the world. Whereas “Brooklyn Girls” is just a slap in the face of the other side of New York. The artists. The people who are more tuned into what’s going on in the world. You know, hipsters. That girl moved to Bushwick 3 years ago and made a song, acting as if she was born there. To me, that’s unacceptable. At least, in Swift’s case, everyone knows she’s full of shit.

As for what Williamsburg will look like in 50 years? I’m guessing it will be submerged in about 50 feet of water so it’ll probably look like the lost city of Atlantis but with more Whole Foods and floating rats. And Carmelo can’t do anything about that.

If you were going to make a new Party Fun Action Committee record, what do you think the songs would parody? Who is the MC Noel Weissman of this era?

Jer and I have spoke about this and we’re both at a loss. I think neither of us are tuned in enough to really go at any specific genres. I mean, I’m sure we’d have a trap song, perhaps a Drake type song. It’s hard to say. The speed with which fads change is such that making an album doing parodies would be difficult. Not to mention, a lot of the music we’d be making fun of would be so easy it wouldn’t even be a challenge. Like how do you make a Trinidad James parody that’s funnier than an actual Trinidad James song?

What is the worst thing about rap in 2014. What’s the best?

I don’t think there is one thing about 2014 hip hop that’s specific to this year. The same shit that was wack 4 years ago is still wack today. I mean, dudes are seriously rapping with an autotune effect on their voice. STILL!!! It blows my mind. What’s the best, to me, is that the collapse of the music industry has lead to people making music cause they want to and not cause they expect some big pay off down the line. You take big money of the equation and lot of the bullshit falls to the side.

Simplicity is mentioned in the press release. Who are the artists, athletes, musicians, etc. that you admire that have most artfully conveyed a simplified aesthetic. Why?

When I say “simplicity,” I’m more speaking on the artistic process. I can’t really speak for other artists but the whole point of Bells and Whistles is to say “beyond the light shows and sirens and whatever else people are throwing at their audiences to captivate them, all this shit really is some dude nerding out behind a computer and some machines.” As an “electronic” artist, the process should be nothing if not humble.

As for people who I see in this regard, it’s hard to say. I mean, I would think Pharrell was like that but I’m basing that on his ability to make amazing minimal beats. But, another aspect to it is that, whatever the skill, it comes natural to them. I watch a guy like Jamal Crawford play basketball. He’s not the best. He’s a dude who doesn’t work out in the off season. But his game is so fluid (his offense at least) that it seems effortless. Sure, he could work on it and make it better but he doesn’t. Perhaps I’m just praising laziness when it happens to pay off? Who knows?

Your dad was a well-regarded artist. What did seeing an artist parent teach you about the bizarre oddity of being a professional creative person. What did it show you how to be? How did he show you how not to be?

I think all it did for me was, from a young age, make me think that being an artist was a viable career option. Like “oh, my dad does that for a living so me making music for a living isn’t an outlandish idea.” Turns out, that’s totally wrong and I’ve been incredibly fortunate. But I only realized that after my music career had started.

As you’ve gotten older, how has your basketball game evolved. At your peak, what white NBA player did people compare you to in pick-up basketball (I say this as someone who at their best got Toni Kukoc, at their worst Luis Scola). Who is the best basketball player musician you ever hooped with? Who is the worst.

It’s hard to say when my peak was. In my late teens I was a bionic leaper who could dunk, but not hit a 15 foot jumper. In my mid-20’s, after a bad injury, I started learning to shoot and slowed my game down. Currently, I’m rocking the full on old man game but I still got some life in me. In my eyes, I’d like to think of myself as a white Lamar Odom in that I can do a lot of things well but I’m not great at anything. I’m versatile. I can run the point if needed but I can also guard 6’5” guys. It should be noted, I’m a shitty on ball defender, so whether I’m guarding a PG or a center, I’m not gonna stop anyone for that long. I think, skill-wise, I’m better than I’ve ever been. But I also think 18 year old me would torch 38-year old me based entirely on athleticism.

As for the best player musician…hmm…I haven’t played with that many. At least no one super famous. I hear Common is pretty good. But, for people I’ve actually played with, Baje One from Junk Science, who is the best I can think of off the top. He’s very solid. As for worst? Man…it’s hard to say. Most musicians suck at sports in general. I got one on my mind but I feel like it would be in bad taste to mention him so I’ll plead the 5th on that one.

The Knicks are off to a promising start. Can this continue? What’s the best case scenario for this team.

I think a second round loss in the playoffs is the goal. I have no faith in the Knicks and find that keeping expectations low makes everything a lot easier.

What are you most proud about this record? How has your recording process changed over the years. How do you feel your own personal tastes have changed and how does that reflect the music

I never really think about being proud of the music I make. I just sorta do it. I’m proud that I made it cause, I’m not gonna lie, making these albums is torture. The process I’ve created for myself is exhausting and tedious. So, when it’s time to bust out a new album, I have to seriously talk myself into it. Somehow, I found away to turn creativity into a fucking math equation.

As for my personal taste, it hasn’t changed much. I just keep making music that sounds cool to me. Whether or not it’s relevant to what’s going on in music currently doesn’t really factor in. I listen to a good deal or new rap, old rap and soul music. That’s about it. But I can honestly say that, when it’s time to make a new instrumental album, none of what I’m bumping in my iPod is coming into play.

Why is Jeremy Gibson (Sir Jarlsberg) one of the most unheralded comic geniuses of our time? Can you explain his appeal to the people who clearly don’t see the genius of a rapping Renaissance era-court jester.

Man, he really is the greatest. And explaining him to people is never as easy as it should be. I think Jer is simply coming from a completely original place. He’s got a child-like mind of wonderment and boundless creativity, mixed with being a complete pervert, but also someone who is incredibly great at making music…all sorts of music. Beyond that, the way he thinks and works is simply it’s own thing. I’ve met many funny people in my life. Witty dudes. Sardonic dudes. But Jer’s creativity is it’s very own thing.

The music industry is eating itself. Obviously. I just wrote a big story about it for the Washington Post. What do you think about this situation beyond the usual “shit sucks” take. Can anything be done to save it? Why do you think there aren’t more mid-sized indie rap labels anymore? You’re self-releasing Bells and Whistles. Do you ever see yourself expanding into running a full fledged label of your own.

I mean, not to be basic about it, but it is what it is. We’ve reached the point where you adapt or get out. I didn’t want to self release my album but my hand was forced. 10 years ago, this album would have been put out by a label for sure. I think the allure and power of a record label is really not what it once was. Indie labels,in particular, have it rough cause it seems like all their income comes from song licensing. So, if that’s not an option, why bother putting out the music? This is a business, after all.

For us people who sample, it’s not a good look but, hey, we’re gonna make the music we make. I never wanna be one of those sampling producers who abandons what I’m good at, buys a few keyboards and plays two note tracks just to satisfy a label. I mean, how many producers from the sampling era have made it out ? El-P is the only one I can think of who was able to evolve his sound successfully without samples. The rest mostly just sound like bad Swizz Beats tracks or pre-sets on a Casio (same thing really). I don’t see myself starting a label cause that’s too much work. Doing this album by myself has been rugged and that’s just my album. I’ve never been a fan of the business side of music so the farther I can stay away from it, the better.

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