Music By Cavelight might be the debut album from recent Ninja Tune signing Blockhead, though some of the material featured on it dates back seven years to 1997. But however you look at it, it’s a brilliant and distinctive record from this Manhattan boy made good, which positively laughs in the face of hip-hop conventions. You can see what we thought of the album in our review.
We got the chance to talk to Blockhead about why he focused on making a mostly instrumental album, how he’s enjoyed touring with some of the more established faces of Ninja Tune, and nodded approvingly to hear how much he rates the musical contribution of Stevie Wonder in the 70s over virtually anybody else in the world.
PIXELSURGEON: Hi Blockhead. Thanks for taking time out to talk to us, but more importantly, thanks for making such a fantastic album. Did you have a particular goal in mind when you started thinking about Music by Cavelight?
Honestly, no. I was coming from a total hip-hop background with very little knowledge of instrumental hip hop/down beat. My goal was that this album would be a total experiment. Just me taking tracks and making them interesting enough to stand on their own, without an MC on them.
Were all the tracks written in one consolidated period, or does the album represent a body of work that was in development for much longer?
The album represents a body of work. I made all these beats (with the exception of Insomniac Olympics) between 97-2000. When I decided to make the album, I just went back on my catalogue of finished beats and picked the ones I felt had potential to be more then just rap beats.
Your tracks never seem to stagnate. They might be mostly instrumental, but they develop in the same way that a good song does, or more importantly, in a way that an average hip-hop song doesn’t. Is this an approach that you deliberately developed in order to distance yourselves from other hip-hop producers, or just the natural way your music turned out?
It’s all natural. When I first started wanting to make beats, I was listening to late 80’s early 90’s hip-hop. Back then; more producers did at least a little layering with samples. There would be breaks, and instruments would weave in and out of the tracks. Then, in the mid 90s, people stopped doing that for the most part. I never understood why. So, when I started making beats, in 95-96, there was never a doubt in my mind of what beats were supposed to sound like. I actually thought it was required to have changes and layering. As shitty as my first few years of beats were, they all have layers and changes and I never stopped doing that.
It might seem a little two-dimensional to say this, but hip-hop isn’t normally associated with many emotions other than anger and lust. I suppose this comes back to the relationship with traditional song writing, but just how do you go about giving your music that melancholy edge, without losing the funkiness along the way?
I really don’t know. It’s most likely the type of sounds that catch my ear when I’m going through records. I tend to lean more towards pretty melancholy stuff. I’m also a product or the underground hip-hop explosion of the mid 90’s. People were putting out emotional records back then and I think it just kinda stuck with me.
If you agree that your music has a melancholy aspect to it, do you also think that melancholy music in general can be uplifting in some way?
Sure. Melancholy can be uplifting, depressing, romantic…whatever. Putting emotion into music is very important. Nothing annoys me more then stale emotion in hip-hop beats. When you hear a track you should be able to either describe how it makes you feel or visualize something to it. Otherwise, something is obviously wrong.
Do you plan the arc of your tracks as a whole before you start to assemble them in the studio, or do you tend to start with one or two elements that you like and build it from there?
I work as I go. The first sample I use is the main direction giver but as you add more elements, the beat almost makes itself.
You’re the son of an artist. What sort of artwork did your father produce, and do you feel like you grew up in a more creative environment than most kids did?
My dad was a painter and a sculptor. I grew up in a very artistic environment from who was around me to where I was. I was born and raised in Greenwich Village Manhattan, which was a pretty bohemian community at one point (not so much anymore). All my parents’ friends were artists. I went to school with kids who were the children of artists. Everything around me was art related.
In turn do you think this influenced the decisions you made as grew up, and influenced the path that led you to where you are today?
Sure, that and the fact that I hated school and wasn’t really good at anything else. In retrospect, I’m doing this ’cause I love doing it and if I wasn’t I’d be working at a video store or a bar.
Was there a particular time where you realised that music was the path you were going to take?
When I first got paid from it. The first money I saw from it opened my eyes a little. But it was when I saw a little notoriety in it that really bugged me out. Cause at that moment I was like “woah, I have fans? And I get paid to do this and have fans?” also, as I mentioned before, the options were few and far between so music was an all or nothing gamble for me.
What were the main musical influences on you at the time?
It’s hard to say. I really don’t look to other artists for influence. So, I’d say the same things that influenced me when I started are still doing it now. Stuff like Stevie Wonder and older hip-hop. I’m one of these people who don’t really change a lot. I find comfort in keeping thing a certain way.
How did your relationship with Ninja Tune first start?
Randomly. I originally made the album for Mush Records but they were going through problems when I finished so they never even got their hands on it. So, my manager and I decided to shop the finished album around to different labels. Luckily, Ninja Tune liked what they heard.
You’ve done a lot of work with Aesop Rock. Can you tell us a little bit about that relationship?
He and I are old friends. We met at college. I dropped out after a year but he stayed. The next year, I went back to visit some friends and ran into him. We had a lot in common and we both were rapping at the time. So we’d chill and talk about music and rhyme together. Anyway, we kept in touch and he moved to NYC. We just started chilling together and making music all the time. He even lived with me one summer.
Will you be working together in the future, or is your solo work the main priority on the horizon?
Oh yeah. We’re starting to work on his new album in the very near future. His work and my solo work don’t really interfere with each other. There’s enough time for both…
Is there anyone out there who you feel is on a similar level to yourself, in terms of the direction they are trying to develop hip-hop?
I bet there is but I’m not really checking for them. I don’t really listen to instrumental hip-hop in my free time. Obviously RJD2 and I have some similarities but we are on two very separate paths musically. Bonobo does some stuff that sounds similar to stuff I do.
How was the recent Zen TV Tour for you?
It was good. I enjoyed watching the other acts more then performing. My live set is evolving at the moment; so I pretty much do my set, and then watch the show.
Had you seen any of the other Ninja artists play live before?
Nope. I was blown away by Kid Koala. He’s fucking amazing.
Insomniac Olympics, and Carnivores Unite are just two of your great names for tracks. Do you ever think of an interesting title first, which influences how the track turns out, or come up with the titles at the end?
All the titles are afterthoughts. It’s when the albums all done and I’m sitting back listening to it that I come up with names. I just call it how I feel the song. Sometimes they’re inside jokes; others are more obvious. It’s funny because naming instrumental tracks is so arbitrary, I could call any beat anything and it won’t make a difference. But at the same time, naming songs is a lot of fun.
If you could be any other musician, living or dead, who would you be?
Maybe Stevie Wonder in the 70’s minus the blindness. He’s the most brilliant musician ever to me, hands down.
What’s next for Blockhead once the album hits the shelves?
I’m already working on the second album. I’ve got various mc’s I’m working with and maybe even an album with some vocalists. We’ll see…I think now is a better time then ever to try and extend myself.
Excellent. Many thanks for your time. To finish, do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring hip-hop producers?
Yeah. Stop making shitty beats. Just ’cause it’s fun to rap over doesn’t mean it’s interesting to listen to.