Clams Casino helped define the sound of the 2010s. Throughout the decade, the New Jersey-based producer—born Michael Volpe—specialized in beats booming and vast, and lighter than air. A crate-digger’s ear for samples and a knack for blending digital backdrops with lo-fi analog charm endeared him to everyone from Soulja Boy and A$AP Rocky to The Weeknd and Vince Staples. At their best, Clams’ beats occupy the middle ground between buoyant rap music and the world’s most weed-friendly laser rock show.
Clams’ fascination with musical space began in the world of video games, particularly, Mortal Kombat.
“Quan Chi was my favorite character,” he says over the phone. “As a kid, [the music] just fit the world perfectly. Super dramatic and dark. That was embedded in my brain from a young age. It’s always been somewhere in the back.”
The moody atmosphere of Outworld followed him into real life as he fell in love with the works of East Coast luminaries like Busta Rhymes and Mobb Deep. At 14 years old, Clams bought himself a Yamaha SU-200 sampler and tried to get in on the fun. By 16, he was creating his own remixes. By his early 20s, he had produced three standout songs on Lil B’s groundbreaking 2009 mixtape 6 Kiss, including the ethereal “I’m God,” powered by a wafting Imogen Heap sample. Cloud rap, as we know it to be, had been born.
Clams’ growing influence and Instrumentals mixtape series eventually attracted labels, which led to his signing with Columbia Records in 2014. As a starkly independent artist, Clams was weary of what signing to a record label could mean for his freedom. He laid his fears to rest during the creation of his major-label debut 32 Levels: “[Columbia] was super supportive of me doing my own thing and pushing me to do weirder stuff. I could tell they understood me and where I fit in.”
Sound intact, the method to Clams’ madness still had to change. He cut back on sample usage, taught himself how to play a handful of instruments, and recruited session players. Fostering this new creative mode pushed Clams past his comfort zone on his latest project, Moon Trip Radio. “It’s not about rushing and overthinking,” he says. “When [the music] comes out, it’ll last forever. I want to make sure I can put out timeless music.” Songs like “Cupidwing” and lead single “Rune” find the balance between the lo-fi bombast of his past and the live instrumental embellishments of his present.
As one of the most influential producers of the 2010s, Clams doesn’t need to worry about staying timeless. He keeps a low profile and creates music at his leisure while raising his young son. From Danny Brown to the late Lil Peep, his highly imitated sound is sought out by a wide range of talent. Whatever the 2020s have in store, Clams’ legacy is secured and forever expanding.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Take me back to the beginning. When did you first fall in love with music?
Clams: I played drums when I was in middle school. That was the first instrument I messed around with. I listened to a lot of alternative rock stuff, but as I entered fifth or sixth grade, I started listening to more hip-hop. Busta Rhymes’ When Disaster Strikes was the first rap album I got into.
What inspired you to hop behind the boards?
I started thinking about making beats in high school. I was heavy into Mobb Deep, Alchemist, and RZA stuff at the time. When I was 14, I had gotten a little Yamaha SU-200 sampler and a digital recorder thing. It was entry-level, but you could do a bunch of cool stuff on it. This was before I had a computer or any software. I was messing around and recording with my friends at that point. I’d make beats and burn them to CDs. Shortly after that, I switched over to finding software programs, and it wasn’t until four years after [that] I started learning how to use them.
When did you first meet Lil B?
I started listening to The Pack in 2006, and I became a superfan. At the time, I was making remixes on my computer. I had a project that was just 20 songs of a cappellas with beats. I wasn’t taking it too seriously. Once I started to get more serious, around 2007 and 2008, I began hitting artists up online. I reached out to Lil B on MySpace, and he answered me back with an email to send beats to. We started working together in 2008. I’d email him beats, and he’d freestyle on them.
Talk to me about the creative process behind the songs you made for Lil B’s 6 Kiss.
One of my friends had sent me an Imogen Heap song, the artist I sampled from. A lot of the beats I was making beforehand had similar vocal samples to hers, and my friend suggested I flip it. I wasn’t making anything I was happy with, but eventually, I started to dig for more of her music and downloaded a bunch of her stuff to my hard drive. I pulled the song from there, created the beat, and sent it to him.
I sent him early versions of “I’m God” and “I’m The Devil” in the same email. I didn’t think too much about them, but he freaked out about them. He recorded them a couple of days later and sent them right back.
What lessons did you take from your early work with Lil B into your first EP Rainforest and your first Instrumentals tape in 2011?
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I figured if people were cool to listen to my music without rappers on it, I might as well drop some other beats that sound good on their own. I’ll always want to make hip-hop music, but there are a lot of listeners who don’t know I produce rap and don’t listen to rap, so I like being able to work on both at any given time.
You have a knack for using vocal samples. What is it about the voice that you find so interesting?
As opposed to electronic sounds, there’s obviously [a] human quality to a vocal sample you can’t recreate. There are endless possibilities to how you can bend the human voice, so I’m never going to stop trying.
Talk to me about working with A$AP Rocky.
I saw that Rocky had one or two videos out at the time, so I found his contact info and reached out to him. I sent him five beats, and he hit me right back and told me, “Yo, you’re my favorite producer. I’ve already been recording to your Instrumentals tape.” He sent me a song right back that he’d recorded off of Instrumentals, which wound up being “Demons” from his first mixtape [Live.Love.A$AP]. “Wassup” was also in the first email. I’d wind up sending him about four to five beats at a time, and he’d pick one song and send it back. He was living in Jersey at the time, so I would go to his place and listen to them after he’d record them in Brooklyn.
Talk to me about working with Vince Staples.
I was working on [32 Levels], so I reached out to him to be on a song or two. We met up once or twice in the studio and started working on “All Nite.” While we were still in New York, we’d wrapped on “All Nite,” and he told me he was looking for beats for [Summertime ‘06]. I left him with four beats, and he wound up using three of them. I had initially made the “Norf Norf” beat for my album, except no one wanted to hop on it. The beat was inspired by the Bay Area hyphy-type sound I’d fallen in love with after listening to The Pack. I played the beat, and he thought of a hook after hearing it for a minute.
For “Summertime,” someone had given me a hard drive full of old soul and blues samples. The original song is moody and spooky, and the texture of the guitars was crazy. Rocky was gonna use it for his first album [Long.Live.A$AP]. He’d even recorded to it, but it didn’t go on the album, so I got it back. So the beat was already a few years old.
Eventually, Columbia reaches out, and you sign a deal before releasing your debut 32 Levels. When did you first sign with Columbia and begin crafting the album?
I signed with Columbia around 2014. The idea came about because my music can be hard to place sometimes. I’ve had so many songs with so many rappers and artists who’ve had no idea what to do with them. I had so much music that was in danger of being left behind because artists weren’t releasing them, and I was getting frustrated with that process. If my music doesn’t fit anywhere, what am I supposed to do? I figured it was time for me to make an album of my own because then it would all make sense, and all fit on my terms. I wouldn’t be fighting for a position on other people’s albums, and I could oversee stuff and flip it around.
How did you handle the transition from mostly using samples to working more with live instruments?
I was already in the process of switching from finding samples and clearing them to making my own sounds and recording them in 2012. It took me a couple of years before I was able to make sounds that sounded like samples but weren’t. I can play a few instruments roughly, and I know how to process the sounds and put effects on them.
[Columbia] was super supportive of me doing my own thing and pushing me to do weirder stuff. I won’t lie; I was prepared for a lot of creative differences working with a major label. It was good input and a lot more freedom than I expected. Also, there were plenty of things I had released on my own that I thought were good enough, but Columbia would push me creatively to make stuff better. I could tell they understood me and where I fit in.
How did the two-year break after Instrumentals 4 benefit the creation of Moon Trip Radio?
From the outside, it might look like a break, but I never stopped working. Since I started working on Moon Trip Radio in early 2018, I learned to take the time and make sure the music’s right. If something’s not there, I put it to the side and [don’t force] it; I’ll get an idea for it and finish it later when it makes more sense. It’s not about rushing and overthinking. When it comes out, it’ll last forever. I want to make sure I can put out timeless music.
Looking back on the last decade, what’s the most significant difference between the Clams Casino of 2009 and the Clams Casino of the present?
The experience is the biggest change, obviously. The only thing you can do is take things away from living. Work with what you enjoy, take out what you don’t. I feel that Moon Trip Radio is cohesive and a strong representation of my musical identity. It’s been close to 20 years since my Yamaha, so it’s kinda crazy looking back on everything.
You’re the father of the so-called “cloud rap” movement. How do you feel about that term?
I don’t have a problem with it. I’m happy that someone had to come up with a name for what I do because it didn’t exist before. That’s a good thing. I’m so glad to be a part of something new and to be recognized as someone who’s pushed things forward.