“All I Need Is a Little Flame:” An Interview With Blockhead

Zilla talks with Blockhead about his new collaboration with Aesop Rock, 'Garbology,' and why it took so long for the two to drop a joint project.
By    December 16, 2021
Photo via Future Archive Recordings

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When Garbology was first announced, it occurred to me that Blockhead had never fully produced an LP for his longtime friend Aesop Rock. You would think two guys who have mastered their craft and first met ciphering in the hallways of a college dorm in the mid ’90s would at least have an ill-titled album under their belt by now in union, like AESOP BLOCK. But the prolific nature of being solo indie artists for 25 years makes you realize that most of the time, your homies are your homies. The homie will do you a favor – guest on your album, connect you with the plug, take you out to dinner when you come into town, recommend artists you might like and haven’t checked. The homie is not obligated to be your full-time collaborator on an album. Homies should not be obligations. Luckily for Aesop Rock and Blockhead, they have both grown into two of the most influential and longstanding creators in their fields and used the pandemic as a way to do homie shit (make songs together out of boredom) without any pretense of “making an album together to drop on Rhymesayers” (homies don’t sign contracts to hang out).

While Aesop has proudly become the reclusive man in the woods, Blockhead has stayed as visible and chatty as ever. We talked about when he realized Aesop could be knocking on the door of greatness, how he makes albums with billy woods in comparison to Aesop, and what it’s like to fully produce an album for your friend who is a great producer in his own right. – Zilla Rocca

I’m assuming everyone’s asked you, why did you and Aesop wait this long to do a full length? But more interesting is like, what does it feel like working on a full length with him versus in the past of, I’m assuming, like, from Float to now, just doing joints? And then maybe some make it, maybe some don’t. What was the difference between making joints and making an album?

Blockhead: I mean, the thing about this album is it didn’t really come together. It came together organically in the sense that like, I’d been sending in beats and he was like, ‘Yeah, I wrote to this,’ I was like, cool, and we didn’t know what we’re gonna do with it. And then it kept adding on and adding on. Eventually, there was like five or six songs and we’re like, what are we doing with these? He’s like, “I don’t know, just keep sending beats.”

By the time we have ten songs, he’s like, “Well, we should just finish it then?” I’m like, Yeah, let’s let’s do it. It was like we were both in quarantine just hanging out. I hadn’t sent him beats in 10 years, so I had a lot to send them. So I flooded him. So much so that like, he picked some at first and then would go back into them and listen and pick more. Eventually he kind of ran out of ones and I had to make a new beat. “More Cycles” might be the only really new beat.

What’s the oldest beat on the album?

Blockhead: They’d be like 2017 at the latest. I mean, the latest. I think “Flamingo Pink” was an old beat. And one of my favorite beats on the album “Jazz Hands” was not a new beat. “Flamingo Pink” was one that I was talking to Mach Hommy about getting on that. It just never worked out for whatever reason, right? And I was always like, Damn, that’s a perfect Mach Hommy beat. But then Aes picked it and that was totally ok!

As an Aesop Rock fanatic, there’s a certain thread of concepts and ideas that pop up on the last few albums since “Skelethon”. I was thinking about you — do you look at this album in a phase of your career? Or is it a one off thing for you?

Blockhead: They’re all kind of separate to me. This album was just one thing that, when we started making it, I was like, man, this is long overdue. It’s hard for me to step outside and view what I’m doing on this that I didn’t do on other albums and, or what’s different about this, because the reality of it is I make beats all the time. And I make a lot of different types of beats. So if this album sounds one way, it’s because he chose a certain type of beat, you know? And whereas, like, you know, billy woods will pick different types of beats while my solo albums will have different types of beats. So it’s just capturing a moment.

What do you when you work with billy woods, or when you work with Illogic or Aesop, like Marq Spekt? What’s the process like in terms of how much in person you’re dealing with people versus email, text and calling each other?

Blockhead: It’s almost all email, texting, calling. I’m fortunate to work with rappers who I don’t really need to give notes to.

I was wondering what the notes are like with Aesop or other rappers.

Blockhead: The notes usually come from me when it comes to sequencing. Aesop had certain preferences. Like, for instance, “Jazz Hands” having no drums was his idea. But I was like, “I kind of like the drums”. I was like, I think we should put drums in after you finish rapping, right? Because it’s kind of a funny concept. Also, it’s kind of like a winky kind of thing at the whole non-drum thing, right? But going back to my point, the rappers I work with, I got nothing to say to them.

As far as what they’re giving to me. You know? I mean with with woods, I’ve been studio and been like, “Yo, maybe deliver this chorus like this.” And that’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to fussing with someone’s art, you know? It’s never been super hands on for me as far as recording stuff.

Was that ever a big part of what you were doing early on?

Blockhead: At no point did I want to be in the mix of rappers. I don’t want to be in the mix of rappers. Even back in the day when we were doing shit off digital eight tracks, Aesop would give me the bar structure. I would sequence the song. I would give him a stereo track back and he would rap over that. And that’s how we record the song. It hasn’t changed, except now that the order is different.

I can kind of fashion the song after the lyrics have been given to me, which I like. You’ll notice on this album, there’s a lot of the ends of songs, I bring in different shit, you know, which is a common thing because it’s stuff that didn’t really work with him rapping over it. Because my beats, I’ll have a lot of elements, you know, and some stuff got left on the cutting room floor.

You haven’t sent Aesop beats in 10 years so do you feel competitive with him? Because he’s a great producer.

Blockhead: I don’t think like that at all. It’s not cuz he’s a dope producer. It’s funny because when we started, we made similar types of beats. There’s the differences between how he makes beats now and how I make beats now. They’re really not comparable anymore. There’s definitely beats he’s made, like, “damn, I wish I made that beat.” But for the most part, he just makes beats differently than I do.

He’s got a very specific sound. And I think I have a specific sound. So it’s not really competitive. It’s just different. Even when people listened to “Float”, people think I made the whole thing! But he made “Big Bang.” Everyone thinks I made “Battery” too but that was him.

I remember when I heard “Big Bang”, and he was doing like a double time flow. That was foreign to hear in 2000: a New York indie dude taking a stab at that style. So now, 20 years later, when I hear “Wolf Piss”, it’s a trap flow. How did you know he would like “Wolf Piss?’

Blockhead: I didn’t know what he was gonna do with it. I just knew that the vibe of it was really up his alley. Cuz I know he likes 808s. I know he likes those kinds of drum kits and I know he likes that kind of synth bass sound. It’s one of the beats that is something that rappers will like because it’s fun to rap over.

It’s funny you bring up the trap and Southern stuff – we were both listening to that shit back then. And it was very weird in the New York underground for anyone to fuck with that. If you listened to “Float” and to “Labor Days” there’s like Southern hi-hats all over that shit.

Yeah even the slower stuff like “Basic Cable”, that’s the slow flow.

Blockhead: There’s almost triplets on that.

Then you guys had “Forest Crunk” off the Daylight EP.

Blockhead: That was the era of crunk! It was my take on that. I thought that was dope. Like, I really liked that. Early Timbaland, he was fucking the dopest. I wanted that kind of bounce. It was also kind of, you know, stepping away from the norms of what the underground.

Yeah, like how many more fake DJ Premier beats did we need in 2000?

Blockhead: I was never gonna be that. Of course you know I love Premier, but I was never gonna be that guy. So I was like, yeah, let’s do this.

You said you got like five, six songs into Garbology. How was the pacing of it? Was it that type of thing where it came together fast? Or was it more spaced out?

Blockhead: You know, obviously, it takes him time to write shit, right? So like, he’s not a slow writer. The way he writes, he does write relatively fast. But he’s not going to do three joints in a week. Especially because he’s a perfectionist, so he’s not gonna really half-step on that shit.

How do you then stay interested in making all these fucking beats every day? Like, what makes you want to keep doing this shit? Because you’ve been doing it forever.

Blockhead: I don’t work every day, that’s for sure. I work in bursts and when I don’t feel inspired, I don’t work. And that helps but something like you know, like, the thing is, all I need is a little flame. And it will propel me. If woods hit me up tomorrow was like, “Yo, I want to make a new album”, it would make me be like oh shit, I’m gonna make a bunch of beats then even though I have a bunch of beats he hasn’t heard.

If you give me an assignment, I can knock that shit out in five hours. But you know what I mean? But the reality is like over the pandemic, I was bored as shit and then had nothing to do. I definitely spent a lot of time playing 2K but I also was very very prolific during that time. And even though I probably made like five beats in the last three months, but I made 30 in a month. If I wanted to make another instrumental album, which I do not want to do right now, I probably could. Probably yeah, but I don’t want it.

What are the biggest similarities in working with woods and Aesop? And what’s totally different about how they go about doing albums or songs with you?

Blockhead: Well, I would say that woods, as a writer is a lot more loosey-goosey. It’s interesting, because I think they’re two of the best writers alive. Just to get to work with both of those guys is fucking awesome. I didn’t plan it like that. But I’m like, damn, I got two of the best writers alive to make albums with. I think woods doesn’t count bars. woods really lets me fly musically. He gives me the keys entirely because he’s not a producer. He’s just like, here’s my verses, construct a song around them. Occasionally he’s like I want to rap over this part.

But that’s about it. Whereas, Aes as a producer has a different ear. And he’s also like, a technician, you know, and so he his verses are going to be a certain length. He sent me his takes, he’s like, “What do you think of it?” I’m like, “it’s great”. Like, they’ve never sent me anything that wasn’t great. Like, every time I mean, I understand you know, he’s, he’s viewing it differently, but it’s just funny because I’m like, dude, like, you’re on cruise control. You can’t fuck up your verses.

He’s mastered rapping. Standard Aesop Rock is just boring excellence, like Tim Duncan year 3 versus Tim Duncan year 12. They’re all Tim Duncan! You look up, you’re like, Oh, this guy made the All-Star team, All-NBA, All-Defense again. Shocker: Tim Duncan’s great! It’s almost all interchangeable after a while.

Blockhead: But with woods there is unpredictability to the way he rhymes. Which makes it interesting, it’s kind of fun. Both are fun, because the work of one guy was so locked in, right? It makes my job really easy. What Aesop does, it makes my job easy but what woods does is more of a challenge. It’s a fun challenge.

Speaking as a person who has received billy woods vocals where there’s no length or clear marking of structure, I’m left pondering where am I going to put this on the song? But he takes is very seriously; he’ll call and be like, “yo, is this okay what I have so far? Alright, I’m doing it now.” I’ve changed the beat arrangement with him too when he sent me vocals. The easiest cheat code is just take the drums out during his verse!

Blockhead: It’s funny with him because he definitely like lately just kind of leaves you with some “this is all I’m giving you”. I will say both him and Aesop, they don’t ever half-ass a verse. I’ve never heard a verse they just mailed in. Right now I’ve literally found some guy’s project they probably don’t want to work on that they still don’t want to put out shoddy product, which is the mark of a true MC. I put out beats I was like yeah, like it wasn’t good. I didn’t love you them know, right? They’re very they’re locked in though.

When you in an Aesop first hooked up in college, what were the odds of thinking this dude in my dorm is gonna be one of the best artists in the next 25 years?

Blockhead: I would never have thought that just because I was just so enamored by the legends of my era. But I definitely had the moment of “this dude is on a different level”. At the time, the weird shit I was listening to was Stretch and Bob stuff, so there’s Godfather Don and fucking Organized Konfusion, Freestyle Fellowship and all that kind of stuff. And those were like the quintessential left field rappers that I was loving back then.

And then to meet a dude that kind of like, I was like, “Yo, you could hang with them!” I was still rapping at the time. I was like, “I cannot hang with them. And so I’m not going to rap anymore.” Because it was that point when you meet someone who’s actually gifted at something. He played me something on a four track; I think it was one of the first times we ever hung out. I bet he doesn’t even remember this shit. I went to his dorm room and he had a four track and he made a song and there was no beat. It was just an a cappella rap song. And it was all layered and I was like Jesus Christ. And I remember freestyling with him and he was fucking amazing at freestyling where his freestyle sounds like a written. And then I bought him around my friends who are also in the rap group, and one of my friends glommed on to him immediately and became his producer because he saw the future. He was just outstanding from the get go.

Is there anybody you know for a fact like, oh, yeah, I put Aesop on to this dude. And now he’s a big rap fan of this guy?

Blockhead: Oh, I put Aesop onto mad people. I think I put him onto woods, I put him on the Homeboy Sandman. Open Mike Eagle was another one. He’s like me in the sense of like, I don’t like people pushing shit on me. I like to figure it out on my own time so people will often often send me stuff and I’ll just be like, “Yeah, I’ll get around to it” and I listen to a song like yeah it’s cool. And then I hear another song like “Oh!” Then I do the studying on my own. That happens a lot; there’s a bunch of artists too he put me onto. He put me onto JID.

JID, oh my god! Dicaprio 2!

Blockhead: He’s a dude I heard and then I heard his solo shit. I was like, “Oh, this motherfuckers nice!”

Crazy with it!

Blockhead: But we also don’t have the exact same tastes either so it’s funny with what lands and what doesn’t. But JID is a dude I was like, “man, it’d be cool to get that guy on a track with Aesop”.

He’s on that Conway album. It’s him, Conway and Ludacris and he smokes them.

Blockhead: Well, he’s the best rapper of those three.

Did you ever see the the Pitchfork video with him where he breaks down OutKast’s “Chonkyfire”? He knows all the words in Andre’s rhyme.

Blockhead: That’s wild! That’s like those videos of Lupe Fiasco talking about Aesop.

That’s so fucking weird, like when LL shouted out Aesop. He mispronounced his name! Asap Rock or Isop Rock.

Blockhead: I was wondering what other rappers are aware of Aesop or are low key fans of his. Do you think fuckin like Stove God Cooks has ever heard an Aesop song?

Yes! I remember when Hitler 2 came out and then Flygod, I was all over it. I was putting everybody I knew onto Westside Gunn. I was listening to any interview you could get and they would name drop real rap nerd people they were feeling. Gunn and Conway would shout out X-1 Onyx.

Blockhead: But they’re old rappers and that’s old rap.

But those guys are students of the industry. Because they see who’s doing what, they they can’t not know who the fuck he is. His influence, longevity, and success – it’s hard to miss him. They all know Evidence and he and Aesop are on the same label.

Blockhead: Can you imagine Westside Gunn listening to fucking Skeleton? I went through a deep dive into Aesop reaction videos on YouTube. And it’s awesome because it’s a lot of younger Southern dudes in the videos. Southern black dudes listen to Aesop for the first time and they love it. The reactions are all the same. It’s like “I don’t know what he’s saying but this shit is crazy!” A lot of it is for the song “Dorks” or “None Shall Pass”. I spent days doing this because I kept finding new ones! And there’s “Jazz Hands” and then people reading the lyrics along and then deciphering it, which is often funny because they don’t get it right. But it’s incredible!

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