Droppin’ Knowledge: Behind The Boards With Blockhead

Welcome, peeps. In this week’s episode of Behind The Boards, Blockhead joins Backseat Mafia to discuss his work, and to reveal one of his favorite artists. Keep reading for that, but first, more on New York City native, musician, producer, jokester, creator of intricate cinematic soundscapes, the man, the myth, the head of block, Blockhead!

Blockhead has worked with some of the best in the game, including Aesop Rock, billy woods, MarQ Spekt, Illogic, Murs, Cage and Open Mike Eagle. History reveals that Blockhead and Aesop Rock met while students at Boston University, and that Aesop’s skills on the mike convinced Blockhead to create music, rather than spit over it. The world is fortunate that things ended up this way. Blockhead is one of the best at what he does and all of his creations provide infinite pleasure to the mind, the ears and the soul.

Butcher is too inelegant, too coarse to describe what Blockhead does, but surely the cutting room floor where he works is littered with unused debris from his intricately constructed  music.  (Leave the appellation Butcher to Benny, who bloodies all his rivals, more times than not. “Butcher” should be retired to the Hip Hop Hall of Fame, along with one of Benny’s meat cleaver basketball jerseys, but I digress.)

Blockhead creates detailed landscapes of sound, that meander and loop, traveling through time and space until your ears end up at a destination quite different from the one where you started. Vocal snippets weave in and out of the mix, along with random, found sounds and mysterious samples.

But don’t take my word for it. The erudite Simon Hesketh of the BBC wrote this about Blockhead: “His debut album, Music By Cavelight, is a near-perfect example of how to make an instrumental hip hop album, ranked by some alongside the likes of RJD2’s Deadringer and DJ Shadow’s classic Entroducing, highlighting his ability to make minor chords and autumnal nuances seem like the perfect soundtrack for any occasion.” And, Hesketh probably wrote that with a British accent, so it reads even more impressively. Yup. (Now, imagine everything I wrote, plus a British accent. You’re taking me more seriously now, aren’t you.)

This interview has been lightly edited for publication.

Backseat Mafia: As a reader of your blog, I know not to ask you “what inspired you to create” or, “who influenced you…”  So how about this. You grew up in, and live in New York City, a place with a rich cultural history. How does the city make itself present in your music? Is it an intangible thing, or is it something you’re aware of?

Blockhead: I’d say it’s definitely something ingrained in me that I’m not fully aware of. We are all influenced by where we grew up and lived our formative years. Mine happened to be in NYC , in the 80’s and 90’s, which is an entirely unique experience but, at the same time, does that ever tangibly pop into my mind when I’m making a beat? Never. I look at it the same way I do family or friends. It’s never a direct thing but all that stuff is intrinsically part of my creative process.

BSM: If someone asked you to describe the “Blockhead” sound,” in one sentence, how would you describe it?

BH: Hmm…beats that change, haha.

BSM:What do you call the music you create? You seem to do a lot of splicing and dicing, and use an intricate collage of samples, among other things. Are your solo works beat tapes? Turntable symphonies? “Beat tape” seems pretty non-descriptive for the sound art you create.

BH: I just call them beats until their songs. Sometimes a song is just a beat. But, when it’s boiled down, it’s hip hop production. Nothing more, nothing less.

BSM: Where is your favorite or usual place to work/create? Studio? Home studio? Specific room in the place where you live?

BH: I work at home and have the most simple set up ever. I often make beats laying down in bed, on my computer with some headphones. The older I get, the more stripped down my set up gets. I’ve found I don’t need a lot of stuff to get the sound I want. 

BSM: Are you a crate digger?

BH: I haven’t purchased an actual record in probably 8 years. I was never a big record collector, but I sampled records, so I’d buy tons of them. Then, at some point, the samples I wanted started being too expensive so I said fuck it, and took my digging online. Now I got my little treasure troves online and that’s entirely how I find samples. I legit haven’t been in a record store in forever. I don’t even own a working record player. I know this is producer sacrilege but it’s the truth.

BSM: I think a lot of artists coming up now do all their digging on line or on YouTube.

BH: I’ve never been precious about samples or records. I don’t sample music I actually listen to so it’s all just usable content to me. 

BSM: What is your preferred music production software? What are the tools of your work?

 BH: I use Ableton Live and that’s it these days.

BSM: What is your favorite piece of audio gear/instrument and why?

BH: I do not have one.

BSM:  What is the one-non-musical item that you must have with you when you are working?

BH: Does my computer count? I make music on it but it’s not exactly an instrument. 

BSM: It counts! What track or album are you most proud of? Why?

BH: I think The Music Scene (2009) is my favorite album of mine cause it’s where I kinda figured out my sound. It was the first album I did entirely on Ableton and it just expanded the capabilities of what I could do so much, compared to the previous album. It was my first foray into “songs as stories,” where I’d make these epic 5 to 6 minute songs that constantly twist and turn and never really go back to where they started. Now that’s pretty much my whole style, when I do official full length albums.

BSM: Dream/fantasy artist to work with?

BH: Doom, Jay Electronica, Vince Staples, Mystikal , and so many more. 

BSM: Favorite artist or an artist that you admire, in any medium?

BH: I love Fiona Apple. Even when she makes music that isn’t my particular bag, I love that it’s entirely her own thing. There are no extra hands in her work and it shows. She’s brave and one of the best lyricists alive.

BSM: Favorite music to listen to when relaxing or chilling or driving, other than your own?

BH: I’m a guy who mostly listens to rap playlists I’ve made on Spotify. Preferably current stuff. I’m not a big nostalgia guy so, unless i’m playing some old soul music, it’s generally rap made in the last 5 years or so. 

BSM: When you are creating, do you approach a solo project differently than you do a collaboration with another artist? Can you explain a bit about your creative process?

BH: It all starts in the same place, me making beats. Where it goes from there depends entirely on what I’m doing. If it’s working with mc’s, the beats stand as they are. If it’s an instrumental album, I will be more detailed and add more on. But the origin of everything is the same, me making beats. When I’m doing that, I don’t think of where they will end up. Just churn them out and circle back later.

BSM: You’ve worked a lot with billy woods, an impressive lyricist. With Dour Candy (2013), for example, how did the creative collaboration between the two of you work?

BH: I pretty much sent him beats, he picked the ones he liked and wrote songs. I was only in the same room with him for the mixing. Thing is, if I’m working closely with an artist, it’s cause i trust them. woods, Aesop, Illogic , MarQ Spekt…I know these dudes take their craft seriously. So, I don’t need to be over their shoulder while they work. Worst case, we can make adjustments. But that’s rarely the case. 

BSM: On Free Sweatpants, you worked with a stylistically diverse group. Was it more difficult to make that record than Dour Candy? Did you think to yourself, today I need a track that works for Homeboy Sandman, and tomorrow I need a track that works for Tree? Or, do you create and allow the other artists to choose the track they spit over? How does a project like Free Sweatpants come together?

BH: Oh, that process was a nightmare. Wrangling and finding rappers is no easy task. It was certainly nowhere near as easy as “Today I’ll make a song with this rapper!” It was me sending beats, waiting for responses, not getting them most of the time, badgering the rappers, checking in on the progress. And I only got like 40% of the rappers I approached to actually be on it. That said, I was super happy and grateful with the songs I got back. And it’s the type of project I’d like to do again sometime but maybe I’ll try and find someone to wrangle the rappers for me. 

BSM: Who created the Spotify canvasses for Bubble Bath? 

BH: The artwork is by Owen Brozman.

BSM: Sloth or lemur?

BH:  That’s 100% a sloth.

BSM: You’re working on a “quarantine” album, Quar and Peace, and you dropped two singles, “Moustache Ride” and “What That Dictionary Do?” Where are you working on it and how is that going? Has you creative process changed to accommodate the current moment?

BH: That album is a very specific thing. The first month or two of quarantine, I started making beats live on instagram. Just some shit to pass the time, stay busy and  entertain. The whole thing was, I had to make an entire beat in under an hour (cause IG live stops after an hour). So it was a kinda fun little pressure cooker of a beat making exercise. I did a few and they were coming out pretty dope so I decided I’d do enough to make a whole album and that’s what I did. It drops July 17th.

BSM: You have a great sense of humor, evidence of which can be found on your blog, your Instagram account, and even your song titles, like “Make America Gape Again,” or “Spa Day With Your Moms.” Did your sense of humor ever get you in trouble?

BH: Yes, it has probably lost me many fans . My Twitter and Facebook [pages] are part of that too. But, you know what? Fuck’em.  I got no room in my life for people who don’t know how jokes work. I think I’ve reached the point where if a person is so bothered by a joke that they no longer wanna listen to my music, I’m okay with that. I wish them the best, hahaha.

BSM: You wrote a post on your blog about Fiona Apple. You two were at the same high school. Do you have any idea if she read it?

BH: I highly doubt Fiona has read my blog post. Imagine the amount of shit that gets written about her every day. Mine is definitely not rising to the top of all that.

Blockhead’s collaboration with Eliot Lipp, Lipphead:

Connect with Blockhead on Bandcamp: https://blockheadnyc.bandcamp.com

The Musings of Blockhead, on subjects great and small: https://phatfriend.com

Blockhead on Instagram, where he posts funny pictures and wry comments: https://www.instagram.com/blockheadnyc/

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