Is There a Place for Instrumental Hip-Hop in 2017? An Interview with Blockhead

"You don’t need to speak a specific language to enjoy it."
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Blockhead called me from a landline, a minor detail he shares with a laugh. The veteran producer (born Tony Simon) has an unexpected ease about him, which is ironic considering he’s been building intricate layers into his beats since his first project, Music By Cavelight, dropped in 2004. This ease becomes even more apparent when Blockhead describes his first album as an exercise in making what he thought instrumental music was supposed to sound like. By choosing to make music that explored the limits of what he already knew, Cavelight was an indication that Blockhead would become a master of mood.

Fast forward 13 years, the Manhattan native is fresh off the release of the still explorative, melancholy, and endearing Funeral Balloons. In 13 years, Blockhead's understanding of instrumental hip-hop—and how to make it—hasn’t changed.

So what has changed?

“I use to make beats,” Blockhead explains, “but now I use Ableton, so the capabilities of what I can do have changed vastly. Musically, I want to make songs that start in one place and end completely differently. Whereas Music by Cavelight was more traditional in its setup, I feel freer now to make these more meandering tracks. I do things now that just were not possible to do back then. The time stretching and the pitch shifting, it just wasn’t around for me in 2003.”

While technology has come a long way since Blockhead’s first major project, so too have the tastes of hip-hop fans. In 2017, is there still a place for intricate instrumental hip-hop?

“I think there is because I think there is a place for instrumental music in general,” Blockhead tells me, confidently. “A good portion of my fans don’t even listen to hip-hop. When I make projects with rappers, some of my fans don’t like them, which bothers me because I’m a fan of hip-hop first. One thing about instrumental hip-hop is that it’s worldwide. You don’t need to speak a specific language to enjoy it.”

All instrumental music tends to be clumped together, but Blockhead believes instrumental music will always connect. Beyond that connection, though, he stressed how instrumental music fulfills a need. “Instrumental music is useful: you study to it, you work out to it, you have sex to it. It’s useful!” he says.

Not only does instrumental hip-hop expand the genre overall, but it can also expand the possibilities for creation. “I like to think that it pressures producers to not just sit on their hands and make a drum beat with a loop on it. That’s how we get better music,” he says.

It's obvious that Blockhead takes his craft seriously, but his laid-back demeanor keeps the conversation light. When explaining the difference between a beat and an instrumental track, he refers back to his pursuit of mood. After making a beat and offering it to the host of rappers—billy woods, Aesop Rock, MarQ Spekt—Blockhead will file away the track based on mood. Once his vault begins to overflow, Blockhead will then cobble together a project. Always working, an album never starts from scratch and a final product is usually a cohesive mixture of three or more beats.  

Prompted by a quote from Earl Sweatshirt in 2015, (“That’s the only ingredient in the hip-hop equation that’s changed, how n****s approach drums”) Blockhead explains that the lineage of hip-hop can be traced through the most exciting element of his craft.

“If I had the time,” he begins, “I could sit down and hash out the exact kind of drums that each generation had. From Run-D.M.C.’s padded-out kick snares to chopped drums to breakbeats, to when people started doing more succinct chopped drums. Then there are Preemo’s drums and trap drums. Drums have always dictated the style of rap. The drums have always been the guiding force in hip-hop.”

Speaking of trap drums, Blockhead’s a big fan. Though he admits his taste in trap drums is on a beat by beat basis—he expresses his love for 808s and the trap hi-hat—he thoroughly enjoys the ominous mood of a trap beat. The most direct path into Blockhead’s ears and heart lie in capturing a pure vibe, which happens to be the thesis of trap music. Though, he’s unsure if making a trap beat is in his personal repertoire.

As a self-described “antiproducer,” Blockhead isn’t much of a gearhead. Where rappers have a pen and pad, Blockhead has a laptop and midi—without the desire for much more. He knows simplicity could be working against him, keeping his sound from being updated, but he believes music is an extension of his minimalist lifestyle. Regardless, his consistent sample work keeps his sound warm and enveloping.

“The funny thing is,” Blockhead says, “I don’t even think my true personality comes through my music. I’m a pretty easygoing and care-free person, but I don’t make easygoing music. Every producer has their quirks and their specific sound. But I don’t know if that’s their personality.” His personality isn’t always in the song, but it's often in song titles like, “Your Mom is Mad High.”

Titles, like instrumental hip-hop tracks, are also derived from a mood. For Blockhead, the process is something of a loose word association exercise. “I do titles after the song is done. I sit back and either go off of a feeling or a vocal sample that’s in the track,” he explains. “‘Your Mom is Mad High’ is a stony and spacey song, and there’s a sample of a chorus of people singing ‘Mama.’ So I thought, ‘Oh, this is a song of your mom getting high.’ Funny thing is, I don’t even smoke weed.”

While track title manufacturing doesn't rattle Blockhead's lax exterior, the laws around sampling is a much different conversation. “It’s something I’ve worried about for years and years, but you learn to work around it,” he says. “I never want to compromise my music for reasons that have to do with money.”

With or without samples, instrumental hip-hop is about soundtracking life and forging a connection with the listener. And in that respect, as long as people love hip-hop, instrumental albums will always have a special place in the game.

“Everyone’s got their own ears, you know?”

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