Back in the second half of the nineties, following a short-lived, unsuccessful turn at being a rapper, New York City native Blockhead turned his creative focus to producing hip-hop music. At first he worked for emcee Aesop Rock, and later for many other artists. He simultaneously began producing and releasing his own music as a solo artist for such labels as Mush and Ninja Tune.
Just recently the artist released his fourth album on Ninja Tune, The Music Scene, which he half jokingly describes on his MySpace as "the tears that fall from your emo face on to your laptop. or nordic flute music with a hip hop edge...either or... "but which is actually a recommended rich and engaging collage of sounds that utilizes literally hundreds of sound sources. I caught up with Blockhead to talk about his new album, what went into making it, and the meaning behind its title.
Amoeblog: The cover art of the new album The Music Scene, done by your friend & fellow producer Omega One, shows a futuristic deserted New York City overrun by wild animals. Is there a distinct correlation between that specific imagery and the album's theme?
Blockhead: Yeah, it just shows New York as this barren wasteland being overrun by animals. And that is kind of how I view the music scene at this point. It's a very simple metaphor. Like if you think about New York City and what it once was. I am a native New Yorker. I grew up downtown and to see what has happened to my neighborhood, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's just become something different. And the music scene is pretty much in the same boat. It was once this thriving place where people could be creative. But now if you are creative it is really not for you because it is not going to happen for you on a level like it used to. There was a time when ugly singers could be famous, when people would just get by on their talent but now it's like you have to have a market plan and it's depressing.
Amoeblog: Listening to the layers of sounds and samples and beat changes and overall intricate production that went into The Music Scene, it sounds like you put a lot of time and energy into producing this album. Did you?
Blockhead: Yeah, it was definitely a process. It was a long time coming because a lot of these tracks are old and I had to dig them up and refurbish them and kind of meld them together with other tracks. It was unlike any other thing I have done before in terms of how I went about making it, so it was a long time.
Amoeblog: When you are working on tracks, how do you decide when a song is completely done? Are you like a painter who is constantly going back in to touch up or tweak the work of art somehow?
Blockhead: No, I am not like a nitpick-y anal guy when it comes to making music. I pretty much do it, stop, then step away from it. And if I feel like a week later it needs something [extra] then maybe I'll add it but I don't go back and freak out over it.
Amoeblog: There are a lot of different found sounds on this new album. What are some of their sources and what was the process you underwent to find these audio components?
Blockhead: Just going through albums and albums. And I got really crazy with marking everything down and listing all the samples on this album and getting meticulous because I was getting worried about getting sued about samples. I just went and cataloged all of these samples and I couldn't honestly tell you one of them right now. There are literally hundreds of samples on there.
Amoeblog: Speaking of samples, did you check out that PBS documentary Independent Lens: Copyright Criminals, which aired last week on the topic of sampling and copyright, and if so, what did you think?
Blockhead: Yes, I did, and it made me sad because sampling is simply something you just can't get away with on a larger scale now. Like ten or fifteen years ago a producer like me, I primarily just sample, could technically have a song that would get on the radio and there wasn't a ceiling. But now unless you are Kanye [West] or a guy that can really afford to pay for the samples, like your ceiling is really kind of low [as far as] where you can take it. And as far as licensing music, and guys like me [where] that is how I make my money, it is limiting.
Amoeblog: You started your music career back in the later nineties, right?
Blockhead: Yeah, that's when I first started putting stuff out. I started with Aesop Rock. He and I came up together. I met him in college and I dropped out and he stayed and we met up again after and we put out an EP together and just kind of sold it on the Internet and it went from there. But I worked pretty much primarily with Aesop Rock for like the first six years of when I was making beats -- as far as stuff that got out.
Amoeblog: And what other artists have you recorded with?
Blockhead: I've worked with Cage, Mike Ladd, a lot of people on the Def Jux label. I've worked with Murs. I've worked with Slug from Atmosphere. I've done remixes for Del (the Funky Homosapien) and others. I've worked with a lot of people.
Amoeblog: The Music Scene is your fourth album on Ninja Tune, a prestigious label. How did you first hook up with that label?
Blockhead: Actually, it was one of those rare I send you my demo and you sign me situations, back when that kind of thing could happen. I made this album, initially my first album for a different label, and they just kind of disappeared off the planet. [It was] Mush Records, who are still around, but at that time they just stopped taking phone calls, so I had my manager shop it around and Ninja Tune liked it and picked it up. And it was kind of shocking.
Amoeblog: What are some of the advantages of being associated with Ninja Tune?
Blockhead: Well, it is definitely good for my European presence and they specialize in this kind of music and there are not a lot of labels that specialize in instrumental hip-hop. And it is the home of where that music is treated well.
Amoeblog: And in this era, with so many music fans downloading music without paying for it, how are you and your label coping with this unfortunate reality?
Blockhead: Well, my label tried something different this time and whether or not it was a success I really don't know at this point. But what they did was put out the album [for digital online sales] at the same time it was released to press, which is when usually albums leak, since people like to leak music. So they made it available for download for purchase at that same time so that if there was that rare case of someone who was like 'I'm an honest person and I'm gonna buy this album cos I like it,' then they would actually have the chance to buy it as opposed to downloading it for free and then maybe in a month when it actually comes out consider maybe buying it.
Released on both CD and (double) vinyl, look for The Music Scene at Amoeba Music. And for more information on Blockhead visit his MySpace, TheBlockIsHot, and also check out his blog The Full Clip: Sweeping Generalizations with Blockhead.
Blockhead - The Music Scene - title track