PM: Are you really heavy into digging?
Blockhead: I’m really heavy into budget digging. I’ve never spent more than five bucks on a record. I refuse to spend more than five bucks on a record. I really only hit dollar bins. I would never buy a record because it had a famous loop on it. I don’t buy records for that reason. The music I sample is not music that I even listen to. I don’t think I could ever sample music that I like.
PM: But since you make instrumental records, do you feel any pressure to make some of these more “tricky” records, say for playing them live or things like that? Maybe similar to what Cut Chemist or DJ Shadow or people like that do? Because I noticed that a couple of songs on the new record could fit into that.
Blockhead: Yeah, it’s weird, because I’m not really involved in instrumental hip-hop outside of the fact that I make it. I listen to rap. I tend to listen to like really ignorant gangster rap from the early ’90s as opposed to what I make. So I’m very removed from it. I don’t even really know what other producers do live. I know RJ and what he does, but I’ve never seen Cut Chemist or Shadow or any of those guys, and I’m not a deejay so I can’t do any of that stuff anyway.
PM: You don’t consider yourself a deejay?
Blockhead: No, man. I’m not a deejay at all. It’s me, record player, sampler that’s all. That’s why I do the laptop show. There is this weird expectation that if you’re an instrumental producer that you’re going to do something live. But there’s only so much I can do. I feel like as long as the music coming out is interesting, then I should be all right.
PM: And then you have the visuals going, the stuff that Ninja commissioned.
Blockhead: Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised with that, and those help. But it’s hard sometimes. I was touring with Diplo when we both first got signed to Ninja, and we were the opening, opening, opening acts. And he would just come in with a crate full of records and nothing planned and end up doing all these crazy mash-ups and everything else, and then I would come on after him and just be poking around on my laptop. Then someone else would come on and do a mid-tempo set, and then Kid Koala would play. So after someone like him is up there creating whole songs from scratched up horn samples and shit, it’s like, Where does anyone else even get off?
But I don’t really worry about comparisons too much because there’s nothing I can do about them. It’s strange because there are assumptions made – people that listen to the music assume certain things about the people that make the music, like they bite a lot, or they purposely do things, which sometimes it is true. But I think with me, people just assume that I really studied Shadow and RJ to come up with something that could compete with them, when I’ve probably heard Shadow’s album four times.
Blockhead: Well, I liked it but I lost it, so however many times I heard it before I lost it. But like I said, I listened to rap. So I was probably thinking, I wish there were lyrics on this or something.
PM: In 1996, when Endtroducing came out, I was listening to nothing but hip-hop too – hip-hop or jazz – so Shadow’s album was kind of an in-between for me.
Blockhead: Yeah, I was exactly the same. And I mean RJ’s album came out after I was already finished with Music by Cavelight, so it wasn’t like . And those guys are a lot more detailed than I am.
PM: In what way? There are a lot of layers to your shit.
Blockhead: There’s layers, but I think they pay attention to different details, let’s say. And it also has to do with having different machines – an ASR versus an MPC. An MPC is amazing for drums, and an ASR is just a keyboard. And chopping shit up on the ASR is not the same, but it’s really good for layering and playing your own stuff. The point being that I think we sound different but there’s still that perception out there.
PM: I agree with that, but do you think part of the reason there more are people making instrumental records now – I know Shadow was making his first stuff a ways back – but do you think there is a movement in that direction because people started falling out of love with what hip-hop was becoming?
Blockhead: You mean as producers or as fans?
PM: As both.
Blockhead: That’s true. I definitely know people got sick of rap, sick of rappers. I listen to some Jux shit, and I listen to Doom – Young Zee I like a lot. But as I’m getting older I’m getting more ignorant. I don’t really feel like having a twenty-one-year-old rapper tell me what to think anymore. I’m kind of like, “All right, man, what do you really know?” So I guess I’d just rather listen to Scarface tell me how to kill someone. [Laughs.]
PM: And it can be very limiting, too, making a beat that you think is dope and having to hope that the rapper does something good over top of it.
Blockhead: Or even picks the right track (to rhyme on). I think that’s definitely true. I wouldn’t have even made an instrumental record had someone not asked me to do it. It wasn’t like I was plotting to make these records. I didn’t really listen to instrumental music, so I didn’t even have an idea of how that would sound.
PM: So at that time you were really just making beats?
Blockhead: Yeah, just making beats and fucking around. It was pretty leisurely.
PM: How did you hook up with Aesop Rock?
Blockhead: I went to Boston University for one year. I met Ace my freshman year of college, and we kind of met under the terms of both being into the same music, and I rapped back then. So we would rhyme together, and I had just got a sampler when I met him. Then I dropped out, and we ended up staying in touch and then I was making beats. Meeting him kind of deterred me from ever wanting to rap.
Blockhead: Pretty much. I was like, “This guy is really good.” I had a little crew, but when you meet someone who’s actually good and isn’t just writing things that rhyme but actually has a game plan, it kind of puts things into perspective. I was like, “All right, maybe I’ll just stick to the music side of things,” and I quit rapping. And honestly it’s really good that I have a manager now because I’m totally incapable of handling my own shit. I’m way too indifferent. I wouldn’t pursue anything. If it wasn’t for him I’d probably still be making beats for Aesop and I’d have no albums out.
But BU is kind of a strange hotbed for music. Mighty Mi went there and then Omega One I’ve known him since high school. But Eon, I don’t know if Esoteric went there, probably just hung out. But Darren Horowitz, who owns Nature Sounds, went there.
PM: Jason Romanelli, my photographer, went there, and I know another kid who is still living there that is really heavy into music. I have another good friend here who goes to FIT now that went there. But there seems to be a lot of BU kids in New York.
Blockhead: The thing is, if you’re eighteen and you’re from New York, you don’t realize that New York is the best city. So you think you want to go away, but you want to go to another city on the East Coast. But then you get to Boston and are like, “Oh .” [Feigning being let down.] So then you’ve tricked yourself into staying in Boston for four years, unless you’re like me who dropped out and left. I think my parents were half relieved and half really worried. Glad that they didn’t have to spend any more money on it, but then they were like, What the fuck are you going to do with your life?
PM: What do they think now?
Blockhead: Uh, chilling. It took a little winning over. Well, my dad passed away like eight years ago and he was really old. He was eighty when he died, and he was like seventy percent deaf, so he had no concept of what rap was. But he was an artist too, so he took a hands-off approach. Like, “I’m an artist too, so I can’t really say shit about what you want to do.”
PM: What kind of artist was he?
Blockhead: He was a painter, and then he did sculpture later. He didn’t really get it because all he’d hear were like bass tones. He’d just yell, “Turn that shit down!” But my mom is a little cooler. Like I tried to put my mom on a little bit, like with De La . [Laughs.] I think every kid tries to make rap seem better with De La. So she was kind of into the Native Tongues a little bit.
PM: I think everybody’s tried to use that trick.
Blockhead: Yeah, “Jungle Brothers, mom. They’re cool!” But she loved my first album. I don’t think she liked the second one as much. A little too harsh for her taste. Too many guitars for her. But she’s all for it now . My career’s definitely picked up in the last two or three years. Before that I was just kind of working in a bakery.
PM: Wait, you were working in a bakery three years ago?
Blockhead: Less than three – two years ago. On Hudson Street. I was a counter person. But Aesop coming out was really big. That was the first thing I made money off of. Once I got paid for that I was like, “Okay, that’s something.” But before that I was thinking, Man, I’m fucked.
PM: And are you still working with him?
Blockhead: Yeah, we just started working on his new album. He stayed here the last few nights.
PM: Why, where does he live now?
Blockhead: He got married and moved to San Francisco.
PM: Wow, that’s funny because I always think of him as Mr. LES you know?
Blockhead: Well, he’s from Long Island. And I guess Long Island is basically Queens if we’re going to be generous about it.
PM: Yeah, that’s stretching it just a little bit.
Blockhead: To be honest everything outside of Manhattan is Long Island to me. I mean, Brooklyn is different …
PM: I’m not even from New York and I basically feel the same way.
Blockhead: Even above 23rd Street.
PM: Yeah, what’s going on up there? I wouldn’t even know.
Blockhead: Fuck that shit. [Laughs.] No, but I’m glad downtown is what it is though because there’s really no other place like it.
PM: It’s good to hear someone say something good about New York. It seems like I’m always around these jaded New Yorkers who complain about how much it’s changed and how different it is now in terms of being cool and the parties and everything else.
Blockhead: Yeah, obviously I grew up here and my neighborhood’s changed – LES has changed drastically. A lot safer, a lot more expensive. I remember when I was sixteen and I’d go to this club on Suffolk and Rivington, and that was like the scariest place in the world.
PM: What was the name of the spot?
Blockhead: ABC No Rio. I was dating this punk-rock girl and she’d drag me over there.
PM: It’s still there.
Blockhead: Yeah, I know. I didn’t even like punk rock at all, but I’d go over there with her and people on the street would whisper, “Body bag. Body bag.” And I thought that meant they were going to try to kill us, but they were just trying to sell us some really good heroin. And you didn’t go on C until five years ago – C was out of the question.
PM: I live on C now, and it’s still ghetto, because that’s where the PJs start. But I’m sure it’s nothing like it was back then.
Blockhead: D is still pretty real.
PM: Yeah. C is the end for white people.
Blockhead: When I meet girls that tell me they live on 9th between C and D, I’m thinking, You have no idea. You are really not from here are you?
PM: Exactly. But it seems like it has gotten real status quo to talk about how wack New York is now and how commercial it is and how there’s no good spots.
Blockhead: It’s still better than any other city.
PM: That’s how I feel too, and I haven’t spent my whole life here. I’ve lived all over and traveled and I haven’t found any place better.
Blockhead: Granted, when I was growing up the West Village was kind of like this bohemian artist community, which I was in the middle of anyway, because my dad was an artist. But now it’s all these young-ish people with money and whatever.
PM: Career people who think it’s cool to live downtown.
Blockhead: I just mean as opposed to LES, where it’s still kind of grungy and there’s still that New York feel to it, where here (West 14th Street) it’s cleaner and kind of feels like Amsterdam a little bit. But I can’t say I miss the fear of getting robbed so much.
PM: I don’t think anyone is necessarily nostalgic for that.
Blockhead: But it’s definitely changed. You have places like Williamsburg, which is like a world unto itself. It’s all transplants. No New Yorkers live there.
PM: It’s just Planet Hipster.
Blockhead: Yeah, all these people playing the I-can-be-hipper-than-you game. And that’s strange to me. Although they do have some good bars and cute girls out there, so I’m not hating. But I think sometimes it takes leaving and going somewhere else to realize, Oh, this isn’t New York. And there’s no place like it. If you want something here you can find it.