Blockhead’s sampling delights

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(full version forthcoming in Cyclic Defrost Issue #13)

Square-jawed Tony Simon’ first record for Ninja Tunes was a real return to form for the label and more importantly showed a new side for the producer who handled beats for Aesop Rock (and held the mic on occasion too). “Insomniac Olympics’, the first 12 inch, quickly became a staple; its rhythms, trumpets, strings and samples turned a somnambulant swing sharply removed from his rocking out beats for Def Jux; its spacious, minimal sound – reminiscent of Melbourne’ Pasobionic – left it open to definition.

Downtown Science, Simon’ second record and his tribute to downtown New York City, doesn’ so much pick up where the last one left off, but it does put that aesthetic to work in a much broader context.

The new album is far more expansive than your debut and there’ a lot more narrative to this one – what is the album about?

It’s hard to really say what an instrumental album is really about you know “cause it’s really up to the listener to make it, but it just came together as an ode to where I’m from and particularly exactly where I’m from, the downtown area of Manhattan where I grew up and where I still live now.

There are plenty of musical references in there, did you aim to build a sense of the city’ musical history into the album?

The whole thing about the city or at least the downtown is it’s probably one of the more eclectic parts of New York and the connection is that I tried to just make a really eclectic album as far as all different types of music were sampled. All different genres because it’s such a melting pot down here I really just wanted to make an album that wasn’ so jazzy, wasn’ anything in particular just all-encompassing and that’s what I feel the downtown is like.

With Downtown Science you’ve moved away from the instrumental hip hop your first album was rooted in – to me, it echoes the Herbaliser’ progression – it’s still sparse, but it feels complete. Are you working towards that rather than beats for MCs and DJs?

I look at an instrumental album as one particular kind of focus and everything else as something different. When I sit down and make beats I don’ really plan out what I’m going to do, it just comes to me and I listen to records and whatever happens happens, and with the instrumental stuff it just kind of takes on more levels and once I realise it’s going to be an instrumental song I stop thinking about hip hop and stop thinking about everything, I just want to make a song as opposed to just a beat.

It’s still the same process though; it’s just a matter of knowing that there’ not going to be a rapper on it.

Do you make that decision very early in the piece?

No. It really depends on the drums, honestly, because if the drums are a certain type of drums it’s like “Oh well, no rapper’ going to rap on this’ or if it’s a certain speed, too slow or too fast, it’s like this will go in many different directions.

So is that filtering done by the MCs?

Yeah, I can usually tell what a rapper’ going to like and not like when I make it. You never know, sometimes I’ll make a beat I think is going to be an instrumental song and an MC will be like “Oh I want that’s and then I’m cool with that because when I make an instrumental song it’s always after the fact. I’ve already made the beat and I then sequence it and add a lot of other elements to make it an instrumental song. Whereas the basic beat is sampled bass drums and a couple of layered samples and that’s it. So it’s ready for rapping! But I can always turn it into an instrumental song.

Have you deliberately messed about with the jazz and breakbeat rhythms on Downtown Science? How do you approach making music for the hip hop scene or the beat heads?

No I don’ think I purposely do anything, I know I’ll be listening to certain songs that I’m working on and think this needs something else, it needs a change or it needs something else and I don’ really think about being like well this is going to have some jungly drums on it or this is going to be jazzy, I feel like it’s more like a natural progression where my head goes when I’m working.

They have the same basic beginnings. But once the MC picks the track it becomes a much easier process because all I have to do is sequence it, I don’ do crazy drum work on it, I don’ add other samples, I don’ have changes, you don’ need to do as much to a track with an MC because that’s the MC’ job, to fill in the blanks, whereas with an instrumental track I gotta really work on it and craft it and it’s my own thing too, it’s totally me as opposed to with an MC it’s like I’m working with someone.

So it’s an iterative process though, it bounces back and forward?

Yes. Exactly.

You keep the music pretty well stripped back though, plenty of layers, but lots of space in the tracks. Are you interested in minimalism?

I think with the melody a lot of times, you can’ crowd it. The focus of my music is melody, over everything, and sometimes space is good, I prefer it you know.

How has the recent Supreme Court ruling on sample clearance in the US affected you?

Yeah I’m pretty bad man, I still don’ think about it. As much as there’ a rule about it, I’m still not selling enough copies where it’s really an issue yet and it only becomes an issue if I put stuff in commercials and at the same time I also sample kind of weird music, sometimes I sample stuff that is more known or on a major label or something like that, but a lot of stuff I sample I just can’ imagine anyone catching me on it. I’m probably shooting myself in the foot by just saying that, but it’s just certain albums that I don’ know who would be listening and be like “Oh yeah that’s my flute from that Nordic Flute album I made 30 years ago’ you know? In the context where it’s probably layered over something and sped or slowed down. I’m not worried about it yet, everyone tells me I should be, but I’m not yet.

Your music is obviously pretty reliant on samples, how much?

I’d say this album’ like 85-95% samples. I mean there’ guitars, bass lines, but it’s mostly samples.

You play your own guitars and basslines?

Oh no I have a, I play some basslines on my keyboard, but I work with a Damien Paris who actually co-produced some of the songs with me and plays a lot of instruments, he filled in the blanks for me.

Hank Shocklee and George Clinton were talking about sampling at the recent Future of Music conference in the states, and they (especially Shocklee) spoke about rather than sampling for rhythm, instead sampling for different sounds, “atones’ and timbres that he can’ reproduce. Is that important to you, getting that mood and that atmosphere from different sounds or is it the rhythms?

I don’ know, it’s a hard question because I totally feel what he’ saying because the way things were recorded back then to the way they’re recorded now, like in the analogue they really do make a particular sound and it’s something that I think people are into the music are really keen to, like they really hear it. Like you can tell when a drum break is from a certain time you know and it’s good and it’s full, but at the same time, I don’ know, sampling is just something you’re going to do, I mean it’s something I’m going to do.

I don’ know if it really dictates the rhythm, it definitely dictates the song. Whatever the main sample is, that’s the tree and everything else is little branches off it.

What’s your aim when you’re looking for a sample?

I’m always looking for something that just stands out to me. It’s basically looking for something that I wanna hear over and over again, you know because that’s the repetitive artform I work in, it’s like you’ve gotta have something that’s not going to get annoying or tired or something I know is a little repetitive that I can build off and do a lot of things with. And those are usually the ones that come out the best, where I find a plain kind of loop and build off into all sorts of directions.

The copyright law “de minimus’ is all about sampling small excerpts from earlier pieces and just how small is a small sample. Do you actively try and cut really small samples so it’s unrecognisable or larger samples from more obscure records?

I don’ even think about it, I take like four bars sometimes, or I’ll take two bars or one bar. Like it doesn’ matter, whatever it calls for, the fact of the matter is if they were going to catch me they could get me and I’m also not a musician in the way that I can play tonnes of instruments and compose my own music, I compose within my sampler, but if they wanted to get me they could.

I think it’s like if you take like two notes you could get caught for sample clearance. I just try to go below the radar with what I sample. And put effects on it and try to tweak them, you know, cut them up a bit, but I’m not opposed to taking like a four bar loop. I have no guilt issues about that.

What are your thoughts on groups rerecording samples to get past clearance? It seems to be happening more and more.

It’s one of these things where noone wants to do it, but they have to do it. It never sounds as good to me, I mean the whole thing about how things are recorded now and how things were recorded then, I mean I don’ know, it sounds almost like a cover band. But you have to do it if you’re at a level where you’re going to get sued or you can’ clear the sample because it’s too expensive.

Yeah I remember Portishead went back and did that on their second record.

Did they really?

Yeah when they came back after Dummy, they produced the album and then went back and took out the samples and replayed them and tried to sort of scuff up the samples.

OK, I didn’ know that, that’s cool, well they did a good job.

Is the sound of groups like Portishead and Trip Hop a big influence on your sound? It seems to have that kind of melancholy, especially on your first album.

I’d say more so on the first album, I like the first Portishead album, but I was actually more into the second one. Around the time when I first started really tinkering with the idea of making an instrumental album, the first one, I was into that album definitely. That and some Bjork stuff and whatever weird rhythms she was doing at the time, about 1999/2000.

It definitely didn’ play too much into the new album, I mean I love Portishead’ second album, but I can’ say I’ve really listened to it in the last four years.

So what kind of stuff is affecting you?

I don’ think I’m really influenced. It’s one of these things that’s really hard to explain, when I sit down I just make beats, I don’ really think about influences. The type of music I listen to and the type of music I make are totally opposite.

What kind of music are you listening to then?

I listen to like old school rap, early “90s/late “80s rap, a lot of gangster rap, some mainstream hip hop and I’ve been listening to a lot of Donovan lately and Donny Hathaway and stuff like that. I don’ listen to underground rap really that much.

I mean I used to be a big fan of it, but now I’m just sort of bored with it, so I listen to a lot of like ignorant hip hop.

So what is wrong with underground hip hop at the moment?

I think there’ too many rappers. It’s too easy to make a song, everyone can rap, everyone can record now and get it on the internet. In the early “90s you couldn’ do that, like you had to be signed and everyone was trying to be signed and even if it was only on an indie label like it was hard to do and you had to actually have talent whereas you can just manufacture yourself nowadays and it’s nothing and there’ no quality control. Everyone raps, everyone makes beats and everyone sucks at it.

Do you think the Internet is diluting things?

It’s just there’ noone telling these people that they shouldn’ do it. You know what I mean, I used to rap and I stopped because I sucked and I think a lot of people should reevaluate their rapping skills and be like maybe I suck too.

It’s a curse and a blessing, because you know the internet has blown things so huge the music business is so much bigger now because of the internet and I definitely have fans I would never have had if it wasn’ for the internet and all my friends, you know people I work with musically, do too, it’s been a huge help. But on the same note there needs population control cause everyone raps on the Internet.

How do you feel about the way things are going, because it’s not going to turn around, the Internet is ruling things these days and as much as the record industry tries to quash it, filesharing keeps coming back with a different face.

Well that’s one thing, it’s never going to stop, I mean why would anyone pay for music when they get it for free. It’s not like it’s their friends music you know (laughs) there’ no loyalty, well some fans do have loyalty and will buy every album that they like and that’s amazing but at the same time, why buy it unless you really want the artwork.

How do you feel about that as a record collector and music fan?

I tend to buy things that I want and download things that I want songs from, but also at the same time there’ not that much new stuff that I’m really fiending to get so I end up downloading like old songs.

Listen to a Blockhead promo mix here (hosted by Masaru) or watch some video here.

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