Instrumental hip-hop can be a very bad idea. Taking the human voice away from a genre that's largely dependent upon it can result in the most banal café soundtrack music, like instrumental metal. (Just kidding about instrumental metal. Don't @ me.) So it takes an artist of particular verve to make rap-less rap music worth staying awake for. A combination of obsessive crate-digging and studious irreverence is required. And there are few artists currently plying their trade on planet Earth as sly and historically minded as the instrumental hip hop musician/producer Tony Simon, AKA Blockhead. Since his 2004 debut, Music By Cavelight, Blockhead has made dynamic, alluring head music that you don't necessarily need to be high to get down with. (Though, doubtlessly, many do anyway.)
Blockhead put out numerous albums on the electronic label Ninja Tune before amicably parting ways for his 2014 album, Bells and Whistles. Now he's on the excellent jeremiad rapper billy woods' label, Backwoodz Studioz, for the release of an amiable stunner called Funeral Balloons. The record continues Block's penchant for slinking grooves coupled with esoteric samples and wry song titles (see the loopy "Festival Paramedics"). Alongside a stream of Funeral Balloons, Blockhead was kind enough to answer a few questions about art, samples, family, the equally fascinating and tedious topic of native New Yorking, and, of course, why the hell he does what he does.
Noisey: Why do instrumental hip hop in 2017? Wouldn't you make more money just doing EDM? People love Diplo. Don't you want to be loved?
Blockhead: Well, to be honest, making instrumental music was never something I planned on. I was a guy who loved rap and made beats for rappers. I was perfectly content being that guy. Then someone asked me to make a beat with no rappers on it and I did it. My beats always had layers and changes so it lent itself to that sound pretty effortlessly. It should also be noted that, when I first started playing with the idea of making instrumental hip hop, it was the era of the "super producers". Like when The Neptunes and Timberland were taking beat making and pushing it into the spotlight.
So, it wasn't strange for me to think "Hmm...Why not make solo music?" So I did that, with literally no knowledge of the genre itself. I had heard DJ Shadow's album a few times and a little DJ Krush, but was wildly unfamiliar with any instrumental hip-hop stuff. To be honest, I still am pretty unaware of it. Unless I've toured with you, I probably don't know your music if there's no rapping on it. So, the music I made from back then to this day is basically just me imagining what I think instrumental hip-hop is supposed to sound like...based on assumption. I'm kidding but I'm kinda not.
But yeah, I would make a lot more money doing EDM but I don't even know what that shit is supposed to sound like. And I don't even know if I want that kind of "love". I'm not really out here making music for people to dance to on drugs. I'm more here to make music for people to lay around to on drugs.
Also, fun side note about Diplo, He and I toured together as the opening acts on a much bigger tour in 2003 (we were both on Ninja Tune at the time). He literally was the guy playing music when the doors opened. He was mad funny and a nice guy. Also, [he was] the first guy making that kinda music I ever saw wearing jeans that fit him. That blew my mind back then.
On a more serious note, how did you get into hip hop? What was the first record you heard?
Just growing up in NYC in the 80s and 90s it was always around. On the radio, playing in cars, boomboxes.
My earliest rap memory is forcing my mom to take me to see Beat Street in the theater. I still can't believe she took me. I loved it but was specifically enchanted with the Christmas rap scene. I bought the cassette soundtrack to it shortly after and that was the first music I ever owned.
You grew up in NYC. Your dad ( artist Sydney Simon ) was a noted bohemian. Do you consider yourself within his tradition as an artist? I won't actually ask "how has the city changed" as I don't want to kill your soul, but do you have a vested interest in the city's place in contemporary rap?
My dad was an artist. He painted and did sculptures. I think he might even be considered pre-bohemian. He was a World War 2 vet so it's not like he was kicking it with Jack Kerouac, though he was buddies with Kurt Vonnegut and Burgess Meredith. That said, when you're the son of an artist and around art your whole life, that mindset certainly does rub off on you. Like the idea that one can make a living doing art is something I didn't realize was highly rare until I was too old to plan otherwise. I'm very lucky this has panned out for me thus far because the world has enough baristas.
As for having a vested interest in NYC rap, to an extent. Like, I'll always be pro-NYC but I'm also not one to just ride for some shit cause it's local. It has to actually be good. And, let's not forget, I'm from Manhattan. I'm not from Queens or BK so for me to be on some hometown pride shit is very rare cause there is so little that comes out of Manhattan. The last time I felt like that, was when Ratking dropped (and Wiki's last two solo albums). That's some shit I can get behind and push cause it's truly organic to Manhattan and actually really good. I've always been thankful I'm not from a place where I'd feel obligated to like everything that city puts out cause it's all we have. That kind of pride makes my skin crawl. NYC allows me to embrace my "meh-ness" about any and all things without losing my connection to where I'm from.
You were on Ninja Tune. What happened?
Well, after 5 albums with Ninja Tune, they basically decided that releasing sample based music wasn't in their best interest. Which I 100% get. You can't license it and that's where most of the money comes from for record labels these days. So, we amicably parted ways and I said "Fuck it!" and released Bells and Whistles on my own. Turns out, putting out records on your own is a giant pain in the ass. That said, it was nice to see all the returns from it. The main downside was not having a machine behind you. I'm sure plenty of my less attentive fans don't even know that album exists. But, what putting an album out myself did do was cement a solid fan base. Like...I could really zero in on who is digging the music and that was kinda nice.
How did you end up on Backwoodz?
I had worked with Backwoodz when I did Dour Candy with billy woods. It was a very easygoing experience which, in my old age, is of utmost importance. I just want shit to go smooth and simple. So, after I finished Funeral Balloons, I was weighing out my options and I spoke to Woods about the idea and he was on board. It was pretty simple. Just like I like it.
What are the themes of the album? It sounds sad to me but maybe I'm just sad.
Well...I dunno. I never really approach an album with a theme. They tend to pop out when all the songs are done and I can sit back and look at the album as a whole. This album, to me, is slightly weirder than most of my previous work. I know that's a vague term and I doubt my fans will even see it that way but to me it felt like it. I found myself drawn to sounds that might not jump out as "hot samples!" and tried to make melodic music out of things that might not feel that way outside of the track.
I don't really view this album as sad. It's got a few sad songs on there but the overall vibe is way more all over the place. I mean, "Festival paramedics" is a straight up four-to-the-floor arm pumper for a while, until it changes into something completely different. Which is kinda how my songs work. They always evolve. I wanna make music that you can't judge by the preview stream in iTunes.
I'd say the saddest thing about the album is the title. Which is ironic cause I think the idea of "Funeral Balloons" is fucking funny. At the same time, it seemed very fitting for where the nation is right now. We're celebrating our death! Nah, just kidding but, hey, if someone wants to read into it like that, who am I to stop them?
How does sampling work with you? I know it's a maddening aspect legally now and new fans don't seem overly concerned with having samples in hip hop at all, but it seems like you're still a believer.
Sampling is how I make my music. Without it, my music would suffer considerably. My way of stepping around the legal aspect is to simply keep a low profile. Don't license it. Sure, that's a shitload of money I could be making but it's not worth jeopardizing my sound for. The reality of it is that my music doesn't make enough money to really attract the attention of people looking to sue. On top of that, I tend to go for pretty obscure sources. There have been a few times I got caught and it was dealt with very amicably and didn't result in my having to pay anyone out or mortgage my house. Maybe I've just been lucky? Who knows. I'm knocking on wood right now just in case.
Funeral Balloons is out on Backwoodz Studioz on September 8th. It's streaming up above right now.
Zachary Lipez is on Twitter.