Interview: Blockhead

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Amidst a career spanning two decades, Blockhead has released sixteen studio albums and produced for the very best in underground hip hop. In November, he teamed up with long-established collaborator and hip hop heavyweight, Aesop Rock, for their first full-length LP together – Garbology. Listen to the album here.

The NYC-born artist catches up with the Indiependent to discuss the reception to the new record, almost being banned from Instagram and a second Free Sweatpants?

The Indiependent: Hey, How’s your day going?

Blockhead: It’s still very early. I mean it’s like 11 o’clock. I got woken up at 7:00 am by an Amazon package in my building. I’m a little tired. I wish I was waiting for something to arrive but it’s for someone else in the building.

The Indiependent: So you’re one of those kind souls who get other people’s mail?

Blockhead: I’m on the first floor so I get that a lot. I might as well be the super of this building.

The Indiependent: Garbology’s been out for just over a month now, how has the reception been?

Blockhead: I think it’s been pretty good. I think the fan reception’s been great. The press reception has been okay… I never think of these things or care about year-end lists but I kinda thought… huh no one put it on their year-end list?

The Indiependent: Well it did come out right at the end of the year.

Blockhead: That could be it. Just the fan reaction’s been great. Overwhelmingly great. I’m not used to an album getting this many ears. It’s cool to just have people talking positively about a project you made. 

The Indiependent: This is your first full-length release together? That’s crazy considering you’ve been making music for what… 20 years now?

Blockhead: I mean, more almost… we put out his first thing in 98’. If you count when we started making music together, it’s 25.

The Indiependent: You’ve worked on a few of Aesop’s biggest tracks such as ‘Daylight’ and ‘None Shall Pass’. Was it different making a full LP this time?

Blockhead: This was done completely over the pandemic. He was in Portland, I was in New York. We did it all over email and texts. We’re tuned in to what each other does, it was pretty smooth. He had a couple of notes about things on the beats. I didn’t for him as he’s a master of his craft… it’s not the place for me to be like, “hey man, change that word.” It went surprisingly well considering how far apart we were when we made it.

The Indiependent: I know Aes produces, have you ever rapped on your stuff?

Blockhead: I used to. When I met him I did. Meeting him inspired me not to rap anymore. 

The Indiependent: So his rapping was that intimidating?

Blockhead: When you meet someone who has the potential to be something more. It puts you into perspective.

The Indiependent: What’s the dynamic normally like with Aes in the studio?

Blockhead: I haven’t been in a studio with him in like, 20 years. I’d never be there when he recorded his vocals. It’s like, I do my part, you do yours, and then we come together. We used to record on a digital eight-track and I’d record a copy of the beat on a two-track and then give it to him and he’d rap on it. That’s how we did it on Float and Labour Days and up until None Shall Pass. After that, I’d give him the discs and he’d do what he wanted with them. But at the end of the day, I’d be sequencing and he’d be rapping and it’s always been like that 

The Indiependent: It sounds like quite a relaxed environment…

Blockhead: Exactly, it’s never been super stressful to work with him.

The Indiependent: The concept behind the album title is brilliant, it’s not often that a title makes you sit back and really think about how it relates to each artist and the music. How did the name come about?

Blockhead: That was all him. He ran the idea by me – “hey what do you think of garbology” – but I didn’t know what it was until he said it… I didn’t know it was a real word. It wasn’t until he did a press statement on it that it shed light on the meaning. This is an album I’ve listened to more after it was out. I was listening to it as a fan, something I rarely or never do. It was a different experience and part of that was reading the mission statement made by Aes. 

The Indiependent: I guess you have to be inside his brain, don’t you?

Blockhead: Exactly. He’s an artist that you can listen to 1000 times and still get something new every time. Most of the time I don’t know what the song is about.. until later. But I trust him as a writer. It’s only after that I can step back and listen to it as the album it is, rather than an album I just worked on.

The Indiependent: Let’s move on to the production… It sounds like your most varied work yet. ‘Jazz Hands’ is filled with hi-fi synths, ‘Legerdermaine, is more of a nod to what you guys did on Float and ‘Difficult’ could aptly fit into one of your instrumental joints. Was the album an expression of all your different musical ventures or did you intend to execute a specific sound?

Blockhead: It came down to the beats that he was drawn to. I hadn’t sent him beats in years so I had a ton that he hadn’t heard. I just flooded him with folders and folders of beats and he picked them out. At the end of the day, he guided the sounds on the album via the beats he picked.

I do make a wide variety of beats. People only hear certain types of them. Jazz Hands was meant to be fully formed but Aes asked me to remove the drums so he could rap over the instrumental. I think it worked out really well. I think the albums got a wide variety of sounds, it covers a lot of grounds.

The Indiependent: I’m particularly impressed with how it still sounds like a Blockhead beat. Were you playing with new gear at all?

Blockhead: Ever since I moved from hardware to Ableton, as you keep making beats on one thing, you learn to use different drum sounds, mix them differently. My foundation has been the same forever. I don’t like things getting too stagnant in a beat. I can’t see that changing anytime soon.

The Indiependent: You constantly switch up the sounds in your beats and throw something new at the listener. This is quite unique for instrumental music. 

Blockhead: I was doing ADD music before it was popular haha. I generally don’t listen to instrumental music because I think it’s boring. When I started, most of the instrumental music was just four-minute loops with a bit of scratching on it. I just thought to myself, why is no one rapping over this? So when I wanted to make instrumental music, I wanted to make something that could stand on its own and not just sound like a beat tape.

The Indiependent: So moving away from the album a bit here, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of playing shows in the UK? 

Blockhead: Umm, Just hopeful I can get back out there. I have some dates planned for May but things are kinda hitting the fan with the whole Covid stuff. I’ve only really played a few shows in London and not in a while. As someone from New York, I know that big cities can be disappointing for shows when you factor in competition but London’s always turned out for me and the crowd has been great. I really enjoy it. 

The Indiependent: What are the biggest differences between playing here vs the US?

Blockhead: My sets are a journey that starts somewhere and ends somewhere completely different. I rifle through my back catalogue and throw in rap acapella’s etc. The main difference is what works referentially. The southern rap stuff doesn’t have as much of an audience in the UK but old-school rap has more of an audience there than here. If I play ‘Return of the Mack’ acapella – here it will get a response but in London… it will really get a response, you know? 

It’s just figuring that side of it out. Like, when I’m touring in Eastern Europe, I don’t know what the fuck to play, you know? I’ve just got to play the really popular stuff. Whereas in London, I could play a Vince Staples record and people might know what it is and that might not work in some parts of America. 

The Indiependent: One of my favourite things about you as an artist is your social media presence. Would it be fair to say you open Instagram more than Ableton at this point?

Blockhead: Yeah, I mean… yeah, probably. I don’t spend as much time on Instagram as people think I do. Like, you post, and then you’re done posting – it’s just a moment. Twitter and Instagram are my favourite but social media is just stupid ya know? So, to take it seriously is silly, why not make it funny, ya know? Granted there are promotional cycles for albums, I gotta promote my stuff but if someone’s social media is just them promoting themselves. It’s fucking boring. I don’t follow those people. It’s like, trust me I’ll know when your album’s dropping, I don’t need ten tweets a day. I’d rather see someone’s personality.

The Indiependent: Didn’t you have a problem with people reporting your content? 

Blockhead: Right.

The Indiependent: And you asked them to stop or your account would be banned?

Blockhead: It’s happened a few times. One time in particular I had 3 photos taken down at once and they threatened to deactivate my account. That’s when I got a little bit like… hold on, you can’t do that. I actually need this. Just unfollow me, don’t report me. If you’re offended by anything I post.. grow up. The picture that was taken down was an Asian man eating a hamburger with chopsticks. Mind you, I would have uploaded it if he was any race. It’s a man eating a hamburger with chopsticks!?? It was so harmless. 

The Indiependent: It’s an exciting time for underground hip hop with a plethora of artists getting more buzz each year, from Billy Woods to Quelle Chris, is there much of a community behind the music?

Blockhead: Yeah, kind of. It’s like we’re all striving for the same thing. I feel – and I’m sure Aes does as well – like an elder statesman. It’s not an EL-P level of longevity but I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so when someone new and exciting comes along, you want to bring them into the fold and ideally work with them. Especially with Woods’s rise in the last couple of years, it’s definitely been good because it’s opened doors for the rest of us. The more ears on him, the more ears on us, ya know? I’m not really a networker so it’s good that we’re all friends. Everyone’s competitive in their own way but no one’s backstabbing people.

The Indiependent: Are there any other artists you’re really excited about?

Blockhead: At the moment, it would have to be Bruiser Wolf and Zack Fox. Zack has been the funniest person on Earth to me for the past three years. 

The Indiependent: Finally, what does the future look like for you now. Is this a return of you and Aes for good? Or are you still focusing more on your solo career?

Blockhead: I don’t think I’ll be doing a solo album anytime soon. As far as me and Aes go, it’s an open door. Whenever he needs me, I’m here. I have an album with a producer called Eliot Lipp coming out next year and I’m going to start working on a second Free Sweatpants… if the people want it.

Interview conducted by W.P Millar


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