“I Just Let the Sample Lead Me!” An Interview with Blockhead

Joel Biswas speaks to the all-time great producer about a host of subjects including but not limited to his new release, Free Sweatpants.
By    February 3, 2019

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Over more than two decades, Blockhead has carved a colorful lane of his own with thumping, off-kilter productions that combine the obscure sample digging of indie art rap, the icy tension of trip-hop and the insistent swing of chopped and screwed tempos.

Starting as indie icon Aesop Rock’s first producer, he’s gone on to deliver no-nonsense production for a who’s who of underground MC’s from Murs to Vordul Mega to Cage and Percee P, interspersed with ambitious instrumental projects. His method is equally obdurate, if not obsessive. Few producers layer samples with the care and attention that Blockhead does. A typical track might involve an African chorus, a dusty soul groove, some spectral piano, and a few phlanged out synths for good measure, all gently stoked by a collage of breakbeat drums. The effect is hypnotic — cavernous sonics, shifting soundscapes and the kind of textured detail that’s tailor-made for stoned revelations.

If his style harkens back to the heyday left-field back-pack rap and Ninja Tune mixes, Blockhead has been enjoying a hot streak as of late. In the manner of his golden age idols, he’s crafted whole albums worth of production for Philly’s Marq Spekt and closer to home, fellow Brooklyn avant-gardist billy woods. The association with woods has been particularly fruitful. Their second collaborative album, 2017’s Known Unknowns was one of the best independent albums of the year. woods’ apocalyptic wit and drawling delivery is perfect for the lilting menace of his beats.

Blockhead’s latest project Free Sweatpants is one he’s waited a long time to make. It’s a true producer’s showcase that blends his lush instrumental opuses with anthemic beats supported by a stellar cast of MC’s including Vic Spencer, Tree, Homeboy Sandman, Armand Hammer, Open Mike Eagle and Aesop Rock, each of whom seize upon his production to reveal a new stylistic facet. He’s always given a sly nod to trap sounds in his work, but the 808’s and ratchets are particularly welcome here. They give the album a consistent swagger and spark scene-stealing performances from first-time collaborators Vic Spencer and Tree in particular.

It’s the fullest realisation of his aesthetic to date, effortlessly blending his instrumental and rap proclivities into an addictive, thematic whole. As Blockhead himself points out, “There’s no difference to how I craft rap beats versus an instrumental. I let the sample lead me.” With Free Sweatpants, Blockhead is still searching for the perfect beat in a landscape that’s entirely his own. — Joel Biswas

Talk to me about the genesis of this project.

Blockhead:I’ve always wanted to do an album with rappers. Before I even made an instrumental album, my initial idea was like in ’99-2000. I think it was going to be called Let a Player Play which is a very 1999 album title. I recorded songs with Aesop Rock, Slug, Illogic and Percy P. Around that time, I started putting out music of my own so nothing ever materialized. For Free Sweatpants, I started reaching out to rappers like two years ago, the ones I knew I could get on it and a wish list. I’d say like 40 percent of them worked out.

I had a lot of guys that wanted money or didn’t respond. I forgot how difficult rappers are! I’ve done an album and three EP’s with Illogic, I’ve done two albums with Billy Woods, two with Marq Spekt in the last five years. I listen to hip-hop so it’s nice to make what I listen to. I do remixes, I constantly do stuff with rappers when I can.

Any near misses in terms of collaborations for this one?

Blockhead:Well, l anybody I didn’t work with I would still love to in the future. I was talking to Danny Brown for a second, Quelle Chris, who else … Your Old Droog, Jon Wayne, Camp Lo … I threw a wide net. I hit up all the rappers I listen to. There’s this dude out in Tacoma Washington, Ugly Frank. So I also hit up rappers who are unknown who I like. I talked to Rob Sonic. Sometimes the timing didn’t line up. Sometimes people couldn’t get their shit together. I have no sour grapes towards anyone who didn’t get on it. It’s life.

Do you work in two lanes when making beats for a rapper vs. an instrumental?

Blockhead:When I’m being prolific, I just sit down and make beats. I’ll spend two weeks making beats constantly and throw them into a pile. Make one, move on, make another move on. My rap beats tend a be like a beat and while my instrumental songs are two or three different beats combined – that’s more the opus aspect of it.  I try to make more a story out of the beats. They have to do more. There is no rapper there to pick up the slack. I don’t set out to make one or the other. A lot of times the tempo will dictate that. Not a lot of rappers rap in the, say 120 BPM range. The actual process is the exact same thing, it’s the next step that is different. Because working with rappers, they do the heavy lifting. I just have to frame their vocals the way I want it to sound.

It must be cool to see what someone does with what you give them — like how they use the raw material — especially as you worked with a number of rappers you hadn’t worked with before on this album.

Blockhead:The biggest surprise was Tree. Not only did I not expect him to make a song — we had talked and I sent a beat — but because it was so long that I’d forgotten about it and then one day this email shows up. I was like “Oh my God!” I’m a huge fan. This guy made one of my favorite albums of the last five years. He’s a guy I was shooting for the stars with, because I have no connection with him at all. I don’t know him, I don’t know anyone who knows him. He not only made the song, he made this gritty detailed story rhyme that was totally unexpected and totally unlike anything he’s done before. Usually when people do songs for these compilations, they’re like “Yeah, here’s some shit.”  Like, they’re not giving you interesting shit, they give you bars. So to get a surprise story rhyme out of it is amazing because it gave depth to the album.

There’s all types of songs on the album – some just rhyming, some with a kind of story behind them, like the Hemlock Ernst track “Blue Veil” which is about police brutality. So it’s more than a mixtape.

Do you have any favourites for this style of album — like Hi-Teknology, or Soundbombing or those old DJ Clue tapes?

Blockhead:Let’s see. There’s a couple that had chunks that I really liked. There was this compilation by this shortly lived label called Mondrian Sounds and Aesop was on it and it was the first time I heard Illogic. It was deep underground nerd rap shit. Generally, compilations like that are 50-50. Not everything is gonna hit the way you want to hear it. But that one had a handful of songs; I think it had a Blueprint song on it. “Angels and Insects” is another one. I only know these because Aesop was on them. I didn’t love Soundbombing. There were some great songs on there but it wasn’t like I ran that to death. I’ve always thought that those kinds of albums are kind of uneven. It’s a lot of cooks.

You’re of the lineage of Aesop Rock and the more experimental side of things. Is that your favourite kind of rap?

Blockhead:The older I get the less interest I’ve had in “lyrical miracle” rap. My only requirement is that there is a cleverness to it. They are plenty of thugged-out rappers who are clever and I love their music.  I could listen to Pusha T rap about selling coke forever. Because he does it in a way that’s clever whereas I don’t want to hear some dude read his diary to me, you know? But it’s really case-to-case. My taste spans a lot. There are loads of more famous rappers I would love to work with who I just don’t have insight into. If I could have gotten Mystikal on this album that would have been my favorite thing of all time because I love Mystikal — even though he’s kind of a bad guy. There is this rapper Young Bleed who I love and if I could have got him on there, it would have been amazing, mostly because it would be interesting to have those kinds of rappers over my beats because it’s never been done before. But those guys, I can’t afford them.

Any producers you’re checking for at the moment?

Blockhead:Back in the day, I was a liner notes person so I knew who did everything but now with the internet you just hear stuff constantly. I’m not really paying attention that much anymore. I hear good beats all the time and I don’t know who made them. That dude August Fanon who works with Mach-Hommy is really good. Alchemist is always great, he’s probably the most reliable producer of the last fifteen years. But don’t listen to music the way I used to. I’m very selective.

There’s variety of sounds and styles and textures across your many projects. How do describe your sound?

Blockhead:Everything is built off of being melodic. Every part I use, nothing’s precious. If there’s a vocal sample and it’s not saying words that I care about, it’s a horn to me. It’s all about weaving things that wouldn’t normally work together and making them work. When I first started producing I did a lot of layering of samples because that’s what I thought producers did. Because that was the era of Prince Paul, Diamond D, all those guys…

I was listening to Amerikkka’s Most Wanted the other day and there’s like twenty samples on every track – it’s ridiculous.

Blockhead:It’s insane. That album and Paul’s Boutique. Wvery sample is famous. That’s probably why it’s not on Spotify.  The textures come from the samples. That’s why I’m very particular about what I sample in terms of the era it’s from. At a certain point, I don’t want my music to sound digitised. Drums are different but I want the samples to be sounds from different eras. It makes things timeless if you can’t really place it.

Are you a cratedigger?

Blockhead:No, I stopped using records five years ago. I try to go obscure because I’m not looking to pay for samples. I mean, it’s happened a few times but it’s always worked out amicably. Because I’ve never been a record collector I’m not paying 60 dollars for a record for a two-bar loop. I started digging online on rare music sites and blogs where they have all these rare albums and I would just download hours and hours of stuff. I literally go pull from iTunes and drop into Ableton and that’s it. It’s all highly organised. Here are basslines, horns, kick drums, accordions. If I want an accordion, I can go get one, you know what I mean? It’s very anal how I organise it because I have to keep track of what I’m sampling.

So when I hear something I can go, “A horn would be cool over this,” and I can go find a horn. But I’m not a digger in the sense that I have this reverence for old records. Because most of the stuff I sample is stuff that I don’t really listen to. I’d rather not sample stuff I listen to because its already etched in my mind the way it is and I can’t separate it from the music I know and love. I need to have no emotional connection at all so I can just take something and pluck it like it’s just a part and nothing else.

When I was younger, I used to deep dive into everything. I’m so much more selective and less enthused about music in general so it’s harder for me to take that dive unless — sometimes I come across rappers where I will be like “Holy shit, I have to find out everything there is about this rapper,” and then I do that. Maybe it’s a shallow way to be but the editing software in my head has gotten a lot stricter in recent years. I don’t have a musical background, I don’t know music theory. I’ve never been educated in music, like I don’t play an instrument. But I can listen to three seconds of a song and be like, “Oh, this is that kind of song, next.” And I know exactly what it is and how it’s gonna go because I have heard so much music from sampling alone. I can hear a new rapper and in eight bars I can tell if I’m gonna like them or not. And I can usually tell with beats too. It’s rare that something grows on me.

When did you last hear something surprising?

Blockhead:When I first heard Mach-Hommy, I was immediately like “Oh, that guy!” He’s someone I wanted on the album. We talked about it, it just didn’t quite happen. He’s a very elusive guy. That dude is prolific but Haitian Body Odor is the most complete album he’s ever made. The beats are all incredible and he is so good on it. To me, it’s peak, quintessential Mach-Hommy. He really has a vision for what he’s doing. He’s a wild dude. He does not give a fuck, like this other rapper Shirt who I tried to get on here. Shirt is a guy that just puts out music when he feels like it, it’s always really good but he doesn’t care about selling it so it’s free. He doesn’t tour. He just makes music because he likes it and he’s got all these weird sponsorships, people in high places know him.  Jack White’s label put out his last album, I don’t know how! There are guys like that who are just in it for the creativity which is what I love. I love that mindset because those are the guys that take risks and make out-of-the-ordinary music.

What producers or albums have been particularly influential or inspiring in your work?

Blockhead:A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing by Black Sheep is a monumental feat in sample layering for that time, using what I believe was a Gemini mixer as a sampler and just tracking the individual tracks. To this day, it blows my mind that they were able to match samples from different places in key, in time … they didn’t time stretch, they didn’t have time stretch! Every song on there had changes, drum breaks. There are not a lot of albums like that. Bizarre Ride II to the Pharcyde is another one. With certain albums, there is production that changed how I viewed things, like Common’s second album Resurrection. I remember I was at BU and I went to Tower Records and I bought it and I’m walking back to my dorm and I couldn’t believe the drums.

When I think about that album which No I.D. produced, Bizarre Ride which was J-Swift and Black Sheep which was all Dres — those guys (with the exception of No I.D.) were not guys who went on to have illustrious careers as producers. Another one was Done by the Forces of Nature by Jungle Brothers – that was a big one for me really early on before I even thought about making beats. Obviously, I’m a huge Prince Paul fan. Diamond D, Dr. Dre — I grew up on all that stuff and those guys have classics for days. But it’s funny that when I think about my favorite albums, those guys didn’t do them. They made the best stuff of that era but as far as letting a producer run one whole album, I’ll put that Black Sheep album up against anything. Maybe that NWA album whose name I don’t want to say (Efil4zaggin) – that album is a masterpiece of production. Public Enemy …  I could go on for days with this stuff.

I always loved DJ Shadow’s work with rappers – LatyrX, Blackalicious. Bjork has had great production, Portishead, the Dust Brothers are good. But I didn’t check for instrumental stuff. I was always wary of offshoot rap production, that it was a little cheesy — like, remember the Sneaker Pimps? Other stuff like DJ Cam was great. But I didn’t listen to it because it didn’t have rappers on it.

When I go on tour, people think that because I make instrumental music I like instrumental music. They’re running names off and I’m like “I don’t know, I don’t know…” They’re disappointed the same way they are when they find out I don’t smoke weed. They’re like “What! You have to smoke I weed. I smoke weed to your music.” My biggest markets are where weed is legal. That’s where I thrive. I get it though. My music is chill, it has changes, it can be at the forefront or the background.

How did you end up on Ninja Tune, a label that’s like the all-time great for stoner instrumentals?

Blockhead:It’s a little ironic.  I was their only artist from the US until they signed Diplo. I didn’t know who they were outside of that “Pump Up the Volume” remix. I had heard of Kid Koala and I knew he was a great DJ but that was it. But my manager was like “Dude, they’re a big deal” and I was like “Cool”. Initially, I put out a record called “Broke Beats” on a label called Mush Records in 2001. It was a breakbeat record and they were like “Hey, you should make an instrumental album.” Around that time, I had made a song called “Forest Crunk” on one of Aesop’s Daylight EP, which was the first time I had made an instrumental. I had no idea what it meant to make that kind of record. In my mind, it was just beats that change a lot so I set out to make an album of that.

I took all the beats that weren’t right for rappers — too slow, or the mood wasn’t right and I made Music by Cavelight. My manager called up Mush Records and they didn’t pick up the phone for like six months because they were a shit label. So he shopped it around and it ended up at Warp and they were like “We like it but we think it’s more Ninja Tune.” I had a buzz with Aesop, I had done stuff and they signed me off that. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. When I heard Bonobo for the first time I was like “Oh, this is the perfect place for this!”

So how did you hook up with your label Backwoodz Studios? Have you known billy woods for a long time?

Blockhead:I’ve probably only known him for five years. I heard a mixtape of his and it was one of those Mach-Hommy moments, like “Who is this?” I got obsessed with billy woods and I realized looking at the liner notes that this guy knows everyone I know. I ran into Uncommon NASA, he’s an artist who used to mix for Def Jux, his stuff is avant-garde, really out there and he knew woods and he got me in contact with him. The next day woods emailed me — he’s on-point with reaching out to people — and I was like “I’d love to work with you and do an EP or something,” and he was down so I sent him a bunch of beats. He picked more than an EP’s worth so we were like “Fuck it, let’s do an album.” But we also hit it off on a personal level. It’s rare that I meet a rapper that I would hang out with outside of rap.

When I heard the Woods mixtape I was like “Whoa!” I did the deep dive. I had to work with this dude because he is doing something that is not similar to anything anyone else is doing right now. He is super-intelligent and clever and funny and encapsulates all the things I like about rappers these days. And luckily, he liked my stuff so it worked out. That guy is so smart I can’t even keep up with him. I can’t keep up with the political and historical conversations he’s on.

How have you been able to do what you love for many years in an independent way in spite of wholesale change to the economics of music?

Blockhead:When I first started making records people still bought CD’s and there was money from that so when I first started the idea of touring was like “Eh, I’m good.” That was around 2003-04 when I first started doing solo stuff. And around 2007 or 2008 the industry really just crapped out and totally changed. All of a sudden, I’m not getting checks anymore like I was and everything’s changing. It was peak illegal downloading, albums were leaking, pre-streaming. So I was just like “Fuck it, I’m gonna tour,” and that is how I supported myself. And over the years, touring has been a major form of income for me. But lately — you know everything goes in waves — streaming is actually paying alright. I do alright with streaming and there are royalties, so there is always money coming somewhere. I don’t live a lavish lifestyle. All I buy is food. I own my apartment, I don’t drive a car. I’m good.

There was this recent headline about Boogie with the Hoodie going number selling only 823 physical copies of his album.

Blockhead:Bet his streams were crazy though! Being a producer and I don’t pay a band and I own the rights to everything I do especially now that I’m not on Ninja Tune. It’s all me. I’m not Rihanna. She has to split up her shit with 70 different people. So five billion plays for her is like a million plays for me. As an independent artist, you make more by selling less because there are less hands in the jar. Plus, I like not having to worry about that shit. I avoid the business side of music as much as I can because it’s bullshit. It’s demoralizing and takes away any zeal you have for the art form you’ve been working in your whole life.

What’s next?

Blockhead:I’m going to be in Europe in February. I did a three-month tour this fall and I’m still kind of getting my senses back so o I haven’t made any new music at all. I have been laying low so when I get back I’m going to start again. I have an idea for an instrumental album so I’m gonna dive into that. I have two more of those Art of the Sample records on DeWolfe waiting to come out. And I want to do Uncle Tony’s Colouring Book Part II and something called Music for Bubblebaths. I’m not a person who is an obsessive. I can do five months without making music. But when I get in a groove, I churn them out. I can make one or two beats a day and they are all multi-faceted, not just a loop and drums. But I need samples. I mine for them, collect them. And right now, I gotta mine for samples, collect them, categorise them and make some beats. That’s my plan.

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