“I Can Literally Make Beats on the Toilet”: An Interview with Blockhead

Zilla Rocca speaks with Blockhead about his new album, 'Funeral Balloons,' and the early days of Def Jux.
By    September 15, 2017


The first time I heard a Blockhead beat was on a mix CD a friend of mine let me borrow my freshman year of college. The beat was “Commencement at the Obedience Academy” by Aesop Rock. She downloaded it from MP3.com, where Aesop Rock was spreading like wildfire.

My first copy of Blockhead’s debut Music By Cavelight was held on my first generation iPod.

Blockhead’s latest album Funeral Balloons is available at any moment, on every possible outlet for streaming, buying, stealing, previewing, or skimming.

For a producer whose entire career exploded the same time music began being digitized, Blockhead’s work has never sounded of the times. He never ditched samples for a trap hit or a free jazz ensemble or dubstep waah-waahs. He produces exclusively on Ableton but his beats are still warm, esoteric, and pulled from sources you’ll never find.

He’s not a curator or a fashion enthusiast or an Instagram celebrity, but he’s still highly active online—no other hip hop producer has been as funny and honest on the internet, going back to the days of his MySpace blogs. Blockhead worked with the best of Def Jux and now works with the best of their offspring—billy woods, Elucid, Mach Hommy, Open Mike Eagle, Homeboy Sandman, and more. He has embraced the new but never changed his style to fit in. Funeral Balloons is his latest albums, and you can easily label it the same as the rest of his discography: ‘mournful, melancholic, and haunting,’ as he tells me. And that’s the point. Blockhead makes Blockhead albums. —Zilla Rocca

Last time I saw you was at our joint release party in New York for Career Crooks and your album Known Unknowns with billy woods. I was thinking about how you work as a beat maker/producer/collaborator. what are you drawn to first? Is it samples, is it the drums, is it the BPM?

Blockhead: I do drums last generally. I sift through samples and I find one I like and that’s my building point and then everything else goes off that. I’ll straight up just like have a sample and then layer samples without drums until I had like four or five layers of the stuff and then add drums or bass. But sometimes the samples will not be in any fit rhythm. So I have to add some percussion just to kind of keep the mood going, reminding what the BPM is.

Do you ever go through phases where you’re really stuck on a certain producer and you’re trying to emulate that?

Blockhead: No never. No no no. I mean at the most I’ll hear something that I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I want to integrate what he just did right there, it would be interesting if I did it in here.’ I grew up worshiping producers. But in the last 15 years I haven’t. You know there are obviously producers I admire greatly but I’ve never really tried to follow styles too much. I just kind of admire them as something separate of what I do you know?

In the late ’90s early 2000s that was happening when a lot of the original double time hi hats are going on like now. Timbaland and Cash Money was doing that—I like that shit. I was putting that in Float. “Save Yourself” is double time. I always like that sound but it’s not like, ‘Oh I want to be like Mannie Fresh.’ I’ll take that and apply that to what I do. What I do is very specific sample based. And it always tends to come out no matter what, no matter how much I try I tend to come out in a certain way, like a mournful feeling. I don’t know why. It’s just my ear.

What do you use for production now?

Blockhead: Ableton. The ASR-10, there’s one thing you can do that Ableton can’t do. But I don’t miss that much like that because it’s a keyboard. You could sample something on the ASR and play it in a very low or high key and it wouldn’t lose any bit rate. It would sound cool, it would sound warmer ’cause it’s analog. That’s the only thing I feel like I’ve lost by not using the ASR but otherwise Ableton can do that. The times stretching is great.

Back when I used the ASR, it was longer because of the sample matching was trial and error and it was all records and it was just like going through sounds. With this, once it’s on the grid in Ableton for time stretching, all it is is keeping the key right. And then after that you go in and chop it up and do whatever you want with it, but it’s like, it’s so easy to mess with that. When I first got it, I was like, ‘Man this bullshit.’ I mean it’s great. I love it. But I’ve been working so hard at doing beats for all these years and now it’s all built in to Abelton. That was actually a skill, and now Abelton is making it the most effortless thing in the world.

But you still do layering, which no one really does anymore. I’ve been listening to the new Vince Staples, new Bronson, new Wiki. And with all of these applications and software, the layering doesn’t come in to play as much.

Blockhead: I don’t really know what other sample based producers are doing in my realm. Like, from like from what I’ve heard, I don’t hear a lot of people doing songs that have 60 samples on them unless they are The Avalanches. Granted, sampling is illegal so people might not do it for that reason.

What about when you do records with Marq Spekt or billy woods or Illogic, or even Aesop, are you thinking about a rapper when you’re making beats or are you in album mode for yourself and keeping all the best shit? How is it different from making a Blockhead album versus a billy wood album or an Illogic album?

Blockhead: They both start in the same place. It’s just me making beats. The only time I ever made specifically for rappers was when woods was like, “Here’s a sample, make a beat out of it.”

Like with “Groundhog Day” off your album with him?

Blockhead: Yeah. It was really just a loop that he gave me and I didn’t do anything to it. He made that beat. When we’re looking for a certain type of song sometimes I’ll send him loops and be like, “Pick a loop and when you pick it I’ll make a beat out of it.” He’s done that a couple times. I’ve definitely sent other rappers loops and been like pick a loop. A lot of rappers are not really ready for beats with changes. It fucks up their flow or something like that. It’s a very particular type.

I get why that’s an issue for some rappers but you know woods and Spekt and Illogic for that matter are not people who are bothered by that, but a lot of rappers are. I’ve definitely lost chances at working with rappers because they heard the beat and they’re like, “There’s too much going on.”

I asked Aesop last year on this site as a rapper and producer how he reaches the point where he wants to rap over his own beats. Because as a rapper and producer myself, I get sick of hearing the beat so it’s harder for me to write to it because I’ve heard the kick drum 18,000 times. Aesop said he finds a loop to write to exclusively. And then he builds the track around it.

Blockhead: He makes beats a much different way than I do. Like he makes the loop first and then sits on that. You know I guess because as a rapper, it’s the same reason rappers like rapping over 808 loops. It’s focused on the vocals and it’s not distracting. It’s just like straight up easy and open.

Do you ever go digging with people? Have you ever just sat and made beats with someone or is it a solitary thing?

Blockhead: I mean, I’ve bought records with people before but I haven’t bought records in years. You know I use stuff I’ve got. I find it online nowadays because I’m not trying to pay money for an expensive rare record that I don’t really need. It’s been a while, and like nowadays, when people ask me to make beats together I’m like “ehh,” ’cause it’s always like too many cooks you know?

I did beats with this dude DJ Signify, he was in 1200 Hobos. He used to tour with me as my DJ. And it was right when I got Ableton so we were kind of discovering the time stretching and the pitch shifting and we were like, “Woah this is crazy!” He’s the only guy I’ve ever done my real close collaboration with. I sat in with El-P once—it was crazy to see him work because I’d never seen him work before. And I’m like, ‘Oh shit!’ I was blown away by his process. I don’t even remember what he did but it was production stuff that I never thought to do. Like, it was just like the dude was in his own zone.

Does your setup or environment ever affect your output?

Blockhead: Nah not really. I mean my setup just gets less and less. I’m the antiproducer in that sense. It’s just a laptop and a mini keyboard and that’s it. I can literally make beats on the toilet. I make them on tour all the time. I like the mobility of it. I like the simplicity of it.

So, let’s talk about your new album Funeral Balloons. What do you still like about making albums? Why still make albums rather than just put shit on Soundcloud one by one? What about that format for you is something you want to do?

Blockhead: I come from an era where there are no other options than that. You know, like I can’t, as much as I try to adapt to what’s going on. The idea of not making an album doesn’t make sense to me. What am I gonna do, make loosies the rest of my life? My albums, there are twelve songs on them and then each song is comprised of two or three different beats put together. They’re really like a time capsule of whatever I’ve been doing for the last however many years. You know how comedians will do an hour and then do a new hour of material every year? I’m flushing all these beats like, “Here!” These are 35 beats incorporated into these 12 songs. These aren’t beats that rapper use, these are beats that I made for me and often these are all beats that rappers had a chance to take.

With the amount of guys you could hit up at any moment to hop on a beat, how does that process work when you’re sending out stuff? At what point do you draw a line being like, ‘This one definitely stays for me and my album?’

Blockhead: For my album there’s certain beats I’ll make and I know it’s an instrumental track. I often throw a vocal sample on it just for me because the vocal sample will kind of eliminate any songwriting. The beats for rappers, I always give them a choice and send them like an envelope of 10 to 20 beats. And they always take one. woods picks ones I hope he picks. And Spekt picks ones that I kinda know Spekt will like. I kind of like the idea of woods over beats that don’t typically fit him because he’s proven that he’s really good over hard, aggressive beats. So to put him over something kind of melodic and pretty is kind of an interesting juxtaposition, like “Central Park” [off Dour Candy].

I think he sounds really awesome over stuff like that where it’s a total departure. “Police Came To My Show Tonight” is my favorite on the new album.

Blockhead: He sounds so good. That’s my shit.

Small Pro goes through phases that are interesting where certain years beats are trash, like 2011 or something. He will not let me pick those beats. And then he makes something hotter. How do you filter out good stuff versus bad stuff?

Blockhead: I kind of know where I stand on the spectrum. I mean, sometimes it will grow on me a little bit but like I know how I feel about it. I’ll finish a beat and be like, ‘That beat is my shit.’ If I keep going back to listen to it over and over again, then it’s something. When I’m listening to beats that I kind of just don’t care and I skip over, then that’s one of those beats.

Did you ever have any rules for yourself? Like, ‘I’m not touching this record because such and such already flipped it,’ or ‘I don’t use hand claps.’

Blockhead: I’ve always been pro 808s. I’ve used 808s since the mid ’90s. I mean, with drums I don’t have rules. The only reason I don’t do more triplets is because I don’t have an MPC. In hip hop all of a sudden everyone is using 808s and triplets and every producer is using it and now they do this and now they are the Triplet Guy. The only rule I’ve ever had is I don’t sample music I like. I don’t sample music that I listen to. I don’t go through old soul records that I actually listen to. They’re usually just too well known, even if it’s rare. Soul stuff has been mined for rap already, like leave it alone. But I don’t want to ruin how I listen to that song; I don’t want to lessen the value of that song. I would never sample a Steve Wonder song.

I’m also not sampling stuff after 1985 or maybe 1990. I guess for me because it’s too new. It always bothered when Brand Nubian sampled Edie Brickell on “Slow Down.” I was like, ‘You can’t do that!’ It bothered me, like when Nice-N-Smooth sampled “Fast Car.” I was like, ‘That’s a new song. What are you doing? You can’t do that!’ And I’m glad they could but I was like, that’s corny. I always thought that was corny. Like when someone sampled a Portishead song I’m like, ‘You can’t be you allowed to do that.’

Kanye made Late Registration ’cause there was no rap album that sounded like Portishead, with live instruments and strings alongside samples from a hip hop point of view.

Blockhead: That was his foray into, ‘I’m going to be an overseer more than an actual beat maker.’ Like sampling Daft Punk: No you can’t! You can’t sample music that’s still relevant now. I don’t have a really legitimate explanation. I think it’s in bad taste.

I just did a piece on Def Jux. It was the tenth anniversary for I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and None Shall Pass. Then my piece became more of a Best of Def Jux. And so I had to include Party Fun Action Committee. You were always to me basically a Def Jux guy even though that was the only album you put out on the label.

Blockhead: I will tell you, that album was probably the beginning of the end of Def Jux. But there is a small handful of people that fucking love it. And anytime I meet someone who does, immediately I’m like, “Yeah!”

That’s like your Gravediggaz. People that really love it will never let go.

Blockhead: Yeah even though it’s completely dated, like all these songs don’t really make sense because people don’t make Limp Bizkit music anymore, Ja Rule. None of it is applicable to now. People ask why I don’t make another one with new music and I’m not paying attention like I did back then. I don’t. I can’t. And as a homogenized as music is now, it really wouldn’t be as funny. Back then you had separate groups of music: rock, rap, rap-rock. There was no crossing lines between genres. That was that moment in time type of project but it’s still my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I got to sing and rap and write things. We did it just for us.

And you know what I like about it too is when you guys play the A&Rs.

Blockhead: Oh that was funny shit to me. I will listen to that and like that. The skits talking about Paul Barman fucking kill me every time. And if I was on, like, I kind of went down a wormhole on YouTube the other day because I found those tracks on YouTube. The Paul Barman one was there and in the comment section, people were like “Paul Barman should sue them!” I’m like, “Dude there’s no beef with Paul Barman!”

Small Pro loves Paul Barman as does Mike Eagle and I question my friendship with these people.

Blockhead: Yeah like I would lighten my stance on it but still…you know, like, his voice is terrible.

He’s good at actually putting words together. I appreciate him for not pretending to be anything else.

Blockhead: That’s Mike Eagle’s point about it; he’d rather a dude like a white rapper do that than like a guy just try to be a thug who’s not. And I guess that actually makes a lot of sense. Like be true to yourself, I’m saying the result of his music is just…like, okay, come on.

I was diving back into the Def Jux portal, and the label for me and my generation of rapper friends, represented a very clear “what side are you on” moment by selecting that world of rap to get into. And it wasn’t even like indie vs mainstream, it was more just like aesthetically “I align with this.” I still love Showbiz & AG or whoever. But like, this stuff is the stuff that connects the most and all the guys still to this day that I like, I do shows with, or hang out with the most in rap are people that also grew up loving Def Jux. I don’t know if you all met up because you all had a similar feeling or if it was just guys all doing stuff in the same area.

Blockhead: I can actually explain this. The Def Jux stuff was an extension of indie rap in the ’90s. It was an extension of Stretch and Bobbito or an extension of Freestyle Fellowship. All this is basically weirdo rap. It also at the same time was against what Anticon was doing, which was trying to separate like, ‘Oh we’re smart, look at us.’ It was like snobby suburban white guy smart rap and rap that kept out the aesthetic of actual people from a city.

When I met Aesop in college, we bonded on both being huge rap nerds. We both loved Freestyle Fellowship, we both bugged out to Latyrx. We both we loved Company Flow. Before I met El-P I was a huge Company Flow fan. Like, “The Fire in Which You Burns,” I had all their vinyl. Company Flow was a huge focal point. The genre was so separate back then, the divide was so real. And it definitely was “take a side” but it wasn’t as hard as in the late ’90s when you had to pick a side between underground rap or like Queensbridge shit. Later on I realized I missed out on good shit by being a closeminded asshole rap fan.

You guys were all super rap nerds but I think what drew a lot of criticism was how super successful you were in terms of just influence and sales. I noticed when I listened to that stuff again, you guys were all paying homage in a way to great traditional rap stuff without obvious signifiers, like jazz samples or scratched up vocals for choruses. To me you were never the producer who made “DJ Premier knockoff beat #4098.”

Blockhead: But that was done on purpose. Alchemist did a beat on the second Group Home album for “Stupid Motherfuckers,” which is to this day one of my favorites. I love that beat. It’s so simple, it’s like a Premier beat in the future because it’s this little chop and then heavy drums. It was like, ‘Yes, that’s moving forward within the same spectrum of what you’re known for.’

I always felt like my production didn’t sound like anyone else on Def Jux, except for maybe Aesop. I had horns and flutes and all sorts of stuff going on. I was more like a melody focused producer, and I felt like RJD2 was obviously in that realm too. But El-P’s beats didn’t sound like DJ Pawl’s beats, Camu’s beats didn’t sound like that.

The funny thing is when I listen to underground compilations from back then, it’s so obvious that everyone loved Primo. When I listen to it now, some of it is so telegraphed.

Blockhead: Yeah, exactly. Their whole thing was just railing against pop rap. When in reality, I can much more easily listen to a Mase song now than I can a Soundbombing song. Like, I will fuck with a Mase song way before I fuck with an L Tha Headtoucha 12 inch you know? Underground rap doesn’t age well. The weirder it is the worse it ages. Like if you listen to Das EFX, not that that’s underground rap, but it’s like, ‘Ooh this is my style!’ That shit will not age well.

I don’t think Aesop’s first two albums aged well. If you were to play them for me now I’d be like, “Ehhh I’m good on that.” I think around None Shall Pass is when he finally figured shit out and set out to be this rapper that had an incredible flow and a variety of flows and also is saying something profound. His flow caught up to his lyrics. I mean he always had the skill to flow. But I think he was just like, I don’t want to stuff as many syllables into a line as I can.

Yeah it wasn’t this utopia of sound. It was good shit, bad shit. People were picking sides, but when I look back on it, I was wrong with some of my choices. I remember younger Kanye said in Complex that Mase was his favorite rapper and I thought that was insane, but on the low, I always liked Mase’s first album, it just didn’t jibe with how I thought I should be as a fan of indie music. But most of that shit just hasn’t aged as good as Bad Boy albums.

Blockhead: That’s what we were railing against: the boring aspects. People tout the early 2000s underground rap as a really great time. But I think it’s kind of the most boring time. There’s a reason it died out in 2004-2005 because it got really same-y, the rapping got uninspired. No one was trying to be different, everyone was trying to jump in and catch a wave or be the next guy. Def Jux was always opposed to that. They never wanted to sound same-y for better or for worse. As far as paying homage to old school guys, I can only speak for me, Aesop, and Cage to a lesser extent, we listened to all the same shit. There weren’t other choices. There wasn’t as much variety back then. We all listened to EPMD, we all listened to Public Enemy. We were all kind of inspired by the same thing. But we didn’t do throwback rap. It was moving forward.

The people that hated us were the underground rap guys who didn’t like anything outside the box. There are still people like that. It’s still weird to me when a 40 year old is still like that. Now they’re like, “I collect records so if it’s not vinyl I don’t want to hear it!” And actually, I was watching El-P do an interview and they were asking him what he thought about new trap music, and he was like, “I fuck with it.” And he made a really good point: If you’re stuck listening to one type of music for your whole life, you don’t really like that music. You just like that time of your life.

You’ve done every lane of indie from releasing stuff on Ninja Tune, putting albums out on your own, and now with Backwoodz for Funeral Balloons. Independent music as a machine has changed significantly since Music By Cavelight. Is it scary or is it still fun actually releasing an album now?

Blockhead: It’s not like people stop making albums, you know? The only thing that changed is really how people listen to albums, and that’s not really my concern, and my music is certainly not for a quick listen. My songs go places and they change and you’re not going to get an idea what it sounds like in 30 seconds. So it makes it easier for people who do sit and listen to music and that might be a dying breed of people. But people still buy vinyl. I meet fans all the time. I have a small fanbase but they seem to be very dedicated. And so I make it for them because I understand that I’m not young and I’m not going to be exactly getting a ton of new fans anytime soon so I can try to keep making music that I like making and hopefully people that have stuck by me will also kind of go along for the ride.

I work with some kids from college and some of them will literally go to YouTube, have headphones on, and just have music playing all day while they’re doing stuff. And that’s all they know.

Blockhead: With instrumental music it can be anything that people can put on and do other shit to. You’re having people over for fucking wine and put on one of my albums or you’re eating at sushi restaurants or people study to it. There are no words, so you can check in and check out.

So what do you think about the new album? With the internet, something that’s two months old is literally forgotten, so how do you navigate that when it’s your own stuff?

Blockhead: I’m not really a think ahead kind of guy. I’m very much kind of in the moment with this kind of stuff. I’m definitely not thinking about the next album. I’m thinking about touring. Now I’ve got work on a new live set and do all this stuff. And that’s usually where my head is. I’m not really thinking of that next project.

I remember you on Mike Eagle’s podcast a while back. You come from a pretty artistic family. And you worked at a pizza place?

Blockhead: I work at a bakery but you know, same shit, working behind a counter serving food.

At what point did you feel like you were going to keep making music to this point or go do something else? I’m guessing you didn’t want to stay behind the counter forever.

Blockhead: I think I quit that bakery when I was 27. And it was because I had to go tour and then after that I just never worked again. That was it. There have definitely been a couple of times where I thought I might have to find ways to make ends meet again. I wasn’t touring much from 2006 to 2009. I didn’t like touring, like, ‘Ehh I don’t need it, I got royalties.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh wait people don’t buy music anymore.’

So then once I started on the road again everything kind of evened out. But prior to that there was definitely a couple of months where I was I thinking I needed to get a job but I’m not trained to do anything. I’m a college dropout with no discernible skills outside of the things that I like.

“Well sir, as my resume states, I know all about De La Soul.”

Blockhead: Exactly, like I could tell you about drinking beer but like, I couldn’t even be a bartender. When that was happening I was like, I better learn to be a bartender. That was my mindset. I was like, ‘That’s where this is going.’ But then I started touring and everything was alright. And another thing I did at that time was realizing not to say yes to everything.

Why do you say no to things now?

Blockhead: Something like selling random beats. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t make enough beats to be giving out to random people whose music I don’t really care for either. You know, it’s a different scene for me. But like as far as shows go, I will do a show. If you’re doing a tour and they wanna tack on a Tuesday show in some shitty place, whatever, I’m going to be there anyway. Like, why not do that show?

Was there a time where someone offered you to do something like Aesop scoring that movie Bushwick or Run the Jewels licensing their songs to TV shows and video games?

Blockhead: No. My problem is that because I sample, that limits anything I can do, and that was that. People are like, “Why don’t you make soundtracks,” and I’m like, that would never work. I’m not even worried about that—knock on wood—but you know you’ve got to make a lot of money to make it worth their while to pinch you. And also, you know you’re sampling kind of obscure things. I don’t know, maybe I’m just blind to it. ‘Cause I’ve got caught before, but nothing that bad ever happened. They just kept publishing and I was like, ‘Take it.’ You think I’m making that much money off it, you can have it.

Why do you still want to work with the folks you’ve been around for this long?

Blockhead: ‘Cause I like their music. I mean, it’s pretty simple. There are plenty of rappers who do trap music that I would love to work with but I’m not going to work with them because I don’t make the music that they make. They don’t know who I am first of all, but if I could work with Migos, I’d definitely work with Migos, I would fucking definitely work with Migos. If I could work with Twista, I would love to. Rappers like Mystikal, maybe not now with all the charges, but that dude is one of my favorite rappers. I love that guy. It’s unfortunate that he’s had this problem.

But there are tons of dudes like that who just aren’t on my radar and I’m not on their radar. But the dudes whose radar I am on, like, I genuinely am a fan. I like Illogic, I like Aesop, I like Open Mike Eagle, I like billy woods, all these dudes who I can actually work with.

How do you pick out album titles? You’ve always had great album titles. Do you have the title first?

Blockhead: Names are the last thing. Over the course of the year I’ll write down things that will be funny titles. The visuals for it are very clear in my mind. [Funeral Balloons] really doesn’t mean anything but it’s just kind of like this a fucked up idea of balloons at a funeral. And also it fit the tone of what the world is going through right now. You know, we’re celebrating the end of civilization as we know it so you might as well blow up some funeral balloons.

There are a couple of tracks on my albums that I definitely named for really funny or petty reasons, but like, I got in an argument with this girl on Twitter and she wrote back. I still did my blog on a regular basis and she added me. But it was like, “I can’t believe what a piece of shit Blockhead is. Like, he’s the most offensive person!” And I’m like, “What the fuck did I do?” And this is what she wrote: “I’m gobsmacked!” I’m “gobsmacked?” So I got a song on my album called “Gobsmacked.” I think I retweeted her and I was like, this is what it’s all about.

And then it turned out that she was offended by the fuck/marry/kill section of my blog. And I’m like, did you not see the header where this is a joke? Eventually she DM’ed me and we kind of like hashed it out because I blew up her shit and she ended up having to erase her Twitter profile. But she only had 13 followers but what she said was really fucked up shit. Like god damn, what did I do to you? So that’s an example of where a title might come from. “Gobsmacked” is based on that.

Do you have any expectations in your mind, even small ones, every time you put a record out?

Blockhead: No, not anymore. I don’t think I checked sales for a record since Downtown Science. I don’t care. It doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s totally a bad judgment of how well an album does. You could tell if you go on YouTube, you go on Bandcamp, it’s clear what things are more popular than others. It’s clear and sales don’t really mean much. I don’t really have expectations as much as a hope that it can get out there as much as possible. I just want it out there.

I’m not really making money off the sales of my records, I make a little money but I’m making money if people come to my shows. And that’s really what I strive for, not the actual sales like, ‘Oh, I did like 30,000 my first week.’ I’m not even throwing a release party. I don’t give a shit. I’m like, ‘That’s a waste, who cares?’ My friends don’t give a fuck about my music. They’re all like 40 years old. No one goes out anymore. I did that for my second album. It was fun and I was 29 years old and even then I was a little old for that shit.

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