On the verge of turning nineteen, I sat chain-smoking on the floor of my ridiculously cool, older cousin’s apartment in Bellingham, WA. I sipped a beer, looking around in awe at a room full of vines, a massive record collection, and macramé.
My analysis of hipster décor fell away when the first thirty seconds of “It’s Raining Clouds” from Blockhead’s 2009, The Music Scene, crackled and wailed from the record player. I asked Bridget, my cousin, who we were listening to. “Blockhead,” she answered, “AKA the only good thing that came of my friend dating some lame wannabe rapper.”
For the most part, New York producer, Tony Simon, or Blockhead, focuses on using his love and deep understanding of hip-hop to craft instrumental beats that undoubtedly can stand on their own. Simon transcends the idea of genre, presenting a refreshing collage of both the unexpected and the traditional. Simon doesn’t forget to pay homage by weaving in sounds reminiscent of his influences.
I recently got the chance to chat with Simon about the world of contemporary hip-hop, his year at BU and friendship with Aesop Rock, and his journey into self-releasing his upcoming album, due out in time for his Fall ’14 tour.
The Quad: JustPlayWitit was released this year, can you talk a bit about the album and how it differs from your previous work?
Blockhead: Well, it’s an album with a rapper so that’s what makes it different from stuff I’ve done in the past. I’ve done a couple of those this year. Over the past two years, I’ve kind of focused on making albums with MCs. That’s kind of where my heart is musically. I listen to hip-hop a lot more than I listen to instrumental stuff. I sought out rappers who I like, who I thought weren’t getting enough shine. I hooked up with them and made records. MarQ Spekt was one of those guys. He’s a rapper from Philly who now lives in New Orleans. I’ve known about him for a while. I didn’t know him prior to making this album, but we were both fans of each other. Kinda worked out. We got connected and the album came together.
Q: What can you say about your time at BU and in Boston?
BH: I went there for one year and then I dropped out [laughs]. I kinda went there with no game plan at all and it showed in my grades. I met Aesop [Rock] probably in the second half of the year. This was a long time ago…We hit it off on sort of a rap nerd level. I was rapping at the time so we rapped together at parties and stuff like that. Then he kinda linked up with me when he came to New York that summer. We just kinda stayed friends after that. But yeah, I mean, my time at BU is a blur. I didn’t really do much. I barely went to classes. I didn’t take advantage of the college lifestyle very much. So that’s why I left [laughs].
Q: Were you involved in the Boston music scene at all?
BH: Not really. I wasn’t really old enough. I started college when I was 17 and I turned 18 like midway through. I wasn’t really doing much. I went to a couple rap shows, but other than that I didn’t get involved. I wasn’t really making music on a level that I was willing to play for people at that point.
Q: How do you feel about what’s up with the hip-hop scene right now? Do you think hip-hop’s evolution has been something positive? Negative? Neither?
BH: I think it’s an unavoidable thing. The internet changed how hip-hop is made, who makes hip-hop, and how it’s heard. It’s got negatives and positives. A lot of people who otherwise would probably never get their music heard have gotten their music heard. That being said, there are a lot of people that shouldn’t be making music [laughs]. So you know, it’s a give and take. I don’t know. I mean, hip-hop has a much shorter attention span now. The things that we—my generation, hip-hop guys from the ‘90s—put a lot of weight on no longer really matter. Authenticity is not really a thing that people care about. A person’s character is less important it seems now. You can be, you know, Iggy Azalea now. That would have never existed on a popular level. At least on a level that people would have respected. Like ten, 15 years ago, people would have laughed at her. There’s good to it and bad to it. That’s another thing about music…people aren’t really making money anymore. A lot of people who, in the past, would have done it to make money are kinda stepping away from it. It’s a hard racket to begin. A lot of people who are actually into making music more on the artistic side are kinda rising to the top. It’s just for the love of the game as opposed to becoming, like, a famous person.
Q: What is your favorite time for hip-hop?
BH: I mean, I would say the early ‘90s. Early to mid ‘90s. Even the late ‘80s. For me, it was such a huge thing. When you’re young—I was like 11 or 12 years old—and it was just, like, everything to me. You know, it just happened to be the music I was drawn to. I think that kind of, like, love of something is only something you can really have at that age. It would be impossible for me to be like, “Oh, well, 2008 was a great year.” By then, I was already old and over that sh*t [laughs]. So, you know, late ‘80s into the early ‘90s, up until like 95 or 96, to me, was the best time. As far as a fan. But I would say creatively, the late ‘90s and early 2000s, because that’s when I was making music.
Q: Who are you listening to right now?
BH: I go fairly obscure with the kind of stuff I’ve been listening to lately. I’ve been listening to this dude, Michael Christmas, who’s actually from Boston. He lives in New York, I think. But he’s really awesome. I like Shabazz Palaces’s new record. I like Open Mike Eagle. I like this guy, Your Old Droog, who everyone thought was Nas, but it’s not Nas. I like Ratking’s album. . . . This guy, Shirt. It’s all underground stuff. Stuff that, like, pretty much unless you’re fairly tuned in to what’s going on, you probably don’t know about it, because it’s not really readily available. I’m still drawn to that kind of stuff.
Q: What’s in store for the future as far as releases, touring, etc.?
BH: I have a new album coming out November 18, called Bells and Whistles. It’s a solo album and I’m putting it out myself. So it’s self-released—it’ll be the first one I’ve ever done. Other than that, I’m working on albums. I’m working on an album with a female vocalist in a group called The Mighty Jones, where I make the beats, and these two guys play instruments with a female vocalist. We have a finished album, but we’re trying to figure out when and where that’s gonna get put out. What else…I have a couple things that I’m working on here and there that aren’t really flushed out. That I can’t, like, give a clear name to yet. But I’ve been busy. I hit the road this fall. I’m gonna be on the road pretty much the next two months.
Q: Why did you choose to self-release your album?
BH: Well, it wasn’t really a choice [laughs]. What happened was…well, you know, I sample a lot. Sampling is just a problem for record labels. It’s not so much that they’re afraid of getting sued, but because no one buys records anymore. A lot of the money you make off records comes from getting licensed in commercials and movies and stuff like that. When you sample, it severely limits what you can do with that music. So like I can’t put a song that samples into a commercial because then there’s a chance that I might get sued for that sample. So what it came down to, I think, was Ninja Tune being like, “We like the record, but there’s no point for us to put this out.” And that happened with many labels. I gave it to a bunch of labels and they were like, “This is awesome, but it’s not gonna work. There’s too many samples.” So I just said, “Screw it. I’m gonna do it myself.” I didn’t want to water down what I do. Licensing is great and everything, but I’d rather make an album I like than change an album to something I don’t like as much.