It's not overstating much to say that Clams Casino is one of the architects of modern rap. Almost single-handedly responsible for the "cloud rap" sound that defined early 10s alt-rap, Clams, a.k.a. Mike Volpe, turned heads, soothed ears and lit up bongs with his novel, new-age-inspired approach to beatmaking, helping to define the work of Lil B and A$AP Rocky and subsequently setting the default mode for internet rap with his ear for ambiance coupled with a subtly emotional core. "I'm just drawn to textures and sound design of things," says Clams when I speak to him at Toronto's Thompson Hotel, "Something that sounds like it came off a cassette tape with a bunch of hiss on it or just atmospheric things, like something was recorded outside and you hear natural noises of life in the background."
Clams' debut album 32 Levels isn't much of a true debut, as his fan base and legend was built on his series of free beat tapes, so idiosyncratic and striking that they transcended lo-fi origins. "I wasn't really mastering properly, I was just turning the volume up," says Clams. He admits it was inexperience and that he moved on from the practice for 2011's Rainforest EP. The digital distortion from the overloaded audio files, however, ended up informing his subsequent process, "I started adding distortion to cover up some of the sounds. Maybe there was too much bass in the kick drum and it was distorting so I'd distort the sample to cover it up."
32 Levels is an even further step forward, with Clams recording most of the material instead of drawing from samples. When asked about the non-musical things that helped fuel the album, Clams says that video games, especially 1998's classic The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, helped his vision. "I like the sceneries and worlds. Obviously the graphics compared to what's out there now seem kind of bad but it's an amazing game all-around." Our interview ended shortly afterwards but I had to follow up on how this important game influenced this important rap producer, so we grabbed Clams Casino on the phone a few days later to ask him about solely about Zelda.
Noisey: Had you played Ocarina of Time before?
Clams Casino: No, that's the first time I've fully played through it. I'd known about it when I was a kid, but I never got around to it.
Did you play other Zelda games before?
Yeah, but [Ocarina of Time] I think is the first one I've actually finished. When I was younger I was interested in them but I'd never had the patience. They were kinda long-term.
Were you playing the original version on the 64 or the 3DS version?
Nintendo 64 version, but I was playing it on the Wii U. It's exactly the same.
So what was your favourite piece of music from the game?
There's so many for different reasons. One towards the end, the Spirit Temple. It's a really dark and moody one. That one stood out to me. The Forest Temple one, there's lots of spooky little vocal samples in there. The sounds are cheesy MIDI sounds but the way that they're used is amazing. Really when you listen to it, it's just crazy how well they're utilized. There's a lot of real dark music [in that game].
Since it was your first time playing, did you find the Water Temple as frustrating as everyone else in the universe does?
Yeah, that was a big trouble for me. I was stuck on that for a while. That was one of the things I actually had to look up how to get out of. I got pretty far in it but that was definitely one of the hardest parts for me and then I looked it up and learned that was pretty common.
So you'd played other Zelda games before but hadn't completed them. Which ones had you played?
The original for Nintendo. The first one on Game Boy [Link's Awakening]. The Super Nintendo one, A Link to the Past. Those I definitely played but didn't finish because when I was younger I didn't have the patience for those kinds of games. I wanted to play them but then I'd get stuck on something and then just kind of give up.
Are you going to play Majora's Mask now? I ask because it's very much a companion piece to Ocarina of Time.
Yeah, I'm actually in the middle of that one now. I'm playing it on the 3DS on the plane, whenever I travel.
How are you enjoying that one compared to Ocarina?
I like it. It's a little more tricky. I couldn't get used to it because of the time situation [in the game], you know, running out of time, resetting time. It took me a little bit. It's a lot harder for that reason but it's good. I'm about halfway through.
So, going back to the scenery that inspired you in Ocarina of Time, which part of the game are you remembering?
I think one of the ones that I remember was the Zora cave, the first time you go in there. That really stood out to me. Also, the idea of the fish [Jabu-Jabu], when you go inside its body and that's the whole level, you exploring the insides of this fish. That was really crazy to me.
And about the score; how do general MIDI sounds influence you? Tell me about those sounds and yourself because I feel like a lot of people are using those sounds right now.
I don't use MIDI at all in my own productions. [Acid Pro, his preferred music program] isn't really geared toward that so if I need to use it I'll use a different program, Reason. But, I think it's interesting to me. The sounds are really basic and primitive for what they are. I think it's inspiring when you can use it the way it's used in [Ocarina]. It's an easy way to take something simple and barren and try to figure out how to make it interesting. That's what I like about it.
I think I took some of that away, not directly but I think I realized it afterwards. On my album, on "Ghost in a Kiss," the piano sound is very MIDI and straightforward, nothing else to it. I remember when we were mixing the album and Tom, the mixer, was like "we have a piano here, do you wanna re-record it or get a better piano sound?" [I said] "no, no, it has to be like that." I didn't want any atmosphere for that sound. I wanted something that you could tell was a MIDI piano. That's one of the things I took away from listening to that game's music. Like, even the intro theme, the little piano sound. For "Ghost in a Kiss" I didn't want it to be a real piano with room sound. That's something that I think came through from listening to all that stuff.
Artwork by Devin Pacholik.
Phil still likes 'The Wind Waker' more than this game. He's on Twitter.