Building Beats with Blockhead
Good Block, Bad Block
Blockhead on a lifetime of sampling, moving from crate-digging to digital archive diving, and how he builds his songs.
Interview by Julie Smits
AN INTERVIEW WITH BLOCKHEAD—PART 1/2
Tony Simon—a.k.a. Blockhead—is a music producer from NYC who's been making beats for over twenty years. Aside from his solo work, Blockhead's produced for Aesop Rock, billy woods, Marq Spekt, and Illogic, as well as one-off projects and remixes.
Tony and I sat together in a hotel lobby after one of his shows in London to talk about how he builds his music.
Building Beats with Blockhead is part one of a two-part interview. Read the second part 'Tony, You Blockhead'.
'Festival Paramedics' from the album 'Funeral Balloons' | illustration by Kärt Einasto | design & animation by Julie Smits
Samples are the raw material that makes up my music. Most often, I’ll download a slew of albums, in the hundreds, and spend a couple of days going through all of them and picking out the parts I think I might be able to sample one day.
Generally, I look for something I think will sound good played repetitively, but also something that doesn't sound like something else. I take a little piece of this, discard the rest, take a small part of that, put those together and now it’s something different. It’s all collage.
I seek out weird music to sample, stuff I’d never listen to on my own time. I stay away from new music (my cut off is the mid 80's), famous music, anything I've heard that was sampled before and anything I feel might be a risk due to what label or how well known it is. I go through entire albums and see if there’s anything that jumps out at me. I can usually tell within two notes if I’m going to use a song or not.
*** layered sample
**** something that can stand alone as a loop
I place those parts in a different folder and arrange them by instrument. iTunes has a star system, from zero to five, so four stars means that it can stand as a standalone loop, three stars is a layered sample, and so on. When I’m making a beat, I just go through those folders and find the stuff I need. If I need a bass loop with percussion in it, I go to the bass and percussion folder and find one I like, if I need a flute, I go to the flute section. It’s all very organized.
The illegality of sampling
I’ve been caught for using samples before, and it’s not so much that they’ll move to sue straight away, they’ll ask for a portion of the publishing rights. The amount depends on the sample and the amount used in the song. In my experience, most of them aren’t assholes about it, but I do think they’re a lot harder on rap albums than they are on instrumental ones. The sampled artists most often will not agree with the language or themes that rappers use; they’ll get offended and say no straight off the bat. With mine, there’s not much to get offended by.
I don’t particularly stress out about getting sued in general, though it’s always there in the back of my head, I know it’s a possibility, but I’m not losing sleep over it. The last one I got caught on was an 8-bar part of a song that came in once. Like they’ll often catch you on the stuff you least expect. But, I don’t go looking to get sued either. I don’t license my music. Period. People still ask, but I don’t see the use in placing myself at risk. Same when I work with rappers, a blockhead beat on average comes with the guarantee that you’ll not be able to license it. But, I’ve made songs with billy woods that are about 90% sample free or the samples are manipulated so much that the licensing becomes a non-issue.
The work I’ve done with De Wolfe, however, is explicitly made to license, but it’s made entirely out samples from their back catalog, so there are no legal issues attached to it.
The Art of The Sample
'The Art of The Sample' is what my beats sound like before I make songs out of them. They don’t travel all over the place, they just stick to one theme per song. The purpose of the album is to be licensable music: music for commercials, tv, etc. De Wolfe never intended to put out the album anywhere else than their own music library, but I made the suggestion to put it up to stream and buy. Even though it’s a stripped down version of what my usual songs sound like, I was pretty sure fans of my music would still like to hear it.
Moving on from analogue
I’m not a vinyl guy. I’ve never cared about it or collected it, to me it’s always been a tool. When I used to buy records to sample, I would rifle through the one-dollar bins—the cheap records—and buy about sixty at a time. I’d go through them, sample anything I liked, and move on.
When producing and digging got bigger, it got harder to find records that were more obscure and the more popular I got, the more obscure my samples had to be. I also don’t want to sample anything that other people have sampled before, so I veer toward finding things on rare music blogs and somewhat weird sites. You can find albums there that on vinyl would cost you $50 to a $100. I don’t want to spend that kind of money on something that only ends up in the hands of record collectors and sellers. The artists themselves most often don’t even know that copies of their records are still out there.
There are different types of lazy sampling. There’s sampling something famous, which is a proven successful method, popularity. There’s a recent DJ Khaled song that samples a Wyclef song from eight years ago, I mean, dude, you can’t do that. He just took another song and put Rihanna on it. That said, there have been people that have done that and pulled it off in a way I like, but it’s specific, and still a minority.
Like taking a loop of something and making that your whole beat, you don’t add drums to it, you don’t add a baseline to it, that’s incredibly lazy. But, when Doom does it, it works. But, part of what makes Doom so great is that he has an incredible ear for these things. There will be songs I’ve heard a million times before, and he’ll find parts that are obscure within the song, that I would never think to sample. That’s a skill in itself.
There's plenty of producers that will just loop some stuff and call it a beat. If I want, I can make seventy beats like that per day, but they’d never truly be my beats, they’d just be loops.
Not that I've never done so, billy woods asked me to make three beats for some short songs he wanted to have on 'Dour Candy'. I found some cool stuff and looped it; there isn’t any real skill or craft involved with it.
I wasn’t organized until I started using Ableton. Before that when I sampled records, I just had a pile of them in the corner of my room, they were dollar-bin records, I didn’t care. Then I had all my stuff on floppy disks which I used for my old sampler. The organizational system came into place around 2009-2010 when I stopped sampling records and moved to a digital system. I needed to know where everything was and where I sourced my samples from. The more computers started to play a role in my beat making, the more organized I’ve become.
Ableton didn’t just cause me to be more organized, it introduced new techniques like time stretching and pitch shifting. Ableton is an incredible machine, I probably only know 5% of what it can do. I don’t actively pursue the knowledge; I like to work within the parameters of what I know. If you give me too much stuff, it’ll just distract me.
I like working with those kinds of limitations, and I’ve always done that. Even when I used to use my sampler, I just used that sampler and nothing extra. I just had this one thing and made everything on that.
With Ableton, I'm able to execute what I want to do. I’m sure I take a ton of detours to get to specific results, but I don’t mind.
I look back on my first three albums, those were all pre-Ableton, and think they’re pretty simple and basic. That said, I can’t say I’d ever want to go back and rework my old stuff cause it’s something of a time capsule for my growth. The only way I’ll mess with that is if I integrate it into my live set, which I often do, for anyone that might still know my older work, it’s a nice little easter egg. But, I don’t feel the need to reimagine it outside of that setting.
The preproduction that goes into my live sets is pretty much like making an entirely new album. I don’t mix whole songs, I take the stems from several of them, the piano from 'Insomniac Olympics' mixed with the baseline from another, and the horns from another come in, and so on. With some of the pieces, I’ll need to change the pitch to fit the new mix. There are some albums I no longer have the individual parts for, like ‘Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book’ and ‘Downtown Science,’ so they’re less present in my live set. I’ll use what I can from them.
Even though a lot of preproduction goes into my live sets, I still leave room to breathe and be spontaneous. I build in little reminders, so I don’t get stuck playing a song for 12 min.
I don’t get obsessed with my tracks. I work meticulously, but when I’m done with them, I’ll back off and let them breathe. Sometimes, I will go back, listen and do small tinkering, but you’ll never catch me sitting with a high-hat sound for hours on end. I’m a big picture guy, in the end, I’m just looking for how the song works, and that’s what stands out to me, I’ll sit with mixes for a while and make sure that they’re right, but I trust my instincts.
I’ve watched other producer’s studios build, but mine’s gotten less and less and less, to the point where it’s just a laptop, headphones, and a midi-keyboard. That’s pretty much all I use these days. When I’m mixing albums, I do expand things a little and incorporate other elements like live instruments. But, when it comes to making my beats, it comes down to that basic set up, which I can do just about anywhere: on tour, in airports, or just lazing about in bed.
The difference between a beat and a song
How I travel through a song is somewhat dictated by the beats that I use. I'll go through my library of samples and wait for something to grab my ear and build of that. I'll play around with it until it sounds how I want it to sound. Then I'll layer different sounds on top of that, until I think I have something decent. Work on a drum track, add it, and layer more sounds on top of it. When that’s all done, I have the outline of a beat. I save that and record a two-and-a-half minute version of it, so I know what it sounds like, and have something to give to rappers.
Outside of a rapper asking me to do something different, all of my solo songs are built out of multiple beats.
I place them in order of how I see them flowing: here’s a good starting point, here’s a good middle point, here’s a good ending, and slowly work my way into the next part. Often it’s fluid, other times I’ll put in a dramatic drop or horns will come in out of nowhere. It ebbs and flows. I’m always trying to build a song up, bring it back down, build it up, bring it down, and I don’t mean that in the way that an EDM song is built.
Step 1. Dig through obscure music and recordings
Step 2. Take what sounds interesting and file
Step 3. Build a beat out of 6 - 8 samples
Step 4. Either loop the beat and send off to a rapper or take 2 to 3 beats and build a song
On my new album, 'Funeral Balloons', there’s a song called ‘The Chuckles’ it starts in one place and then completely veers off in another direction. It’s almost like a dream state happens in the middle. I like throwing those kinds of curveballs. It’s almost to the point where you can say: well, if you don’t like that part, maybe you’ll like this other part. Ideally, I’d like people to sit and go along for the ride.
Most music is built around the hooks and the parts that everyone likes, and I did do that on my first few albums. Clear boundaries from the beginning: bridge, hook, and returning to the same elements for the sake of familiarity. Then, I reached a point where I thought: why don’t I make a song that starts in one place and ends somewhere entirely different and it’s up to the person if they want to put in the time to listen to it.
The actual flow of an album is harder for me than the flow of my songs. Initially, I'll have grandiose ideas: I’ll want to put these songs over here, and put the fast ones over there, but then I progress towards wanting it to be a variety of rises and lows throughout the whole album. Pretty much the same way my songs are built.
I always know what song I want to end on, to me the end song is the most important song, which is funny, because, for the most part, it’s the least listened to. Except for the song 'Insomniac Olympics' on 'Music by Cavelight,' every end song I’ve ever created is the wrap-up song on each of my albums. My old label wanted me to lead with my strongest song, and I wanted to end on my strongest song. With every album that followed, the last song is a 100% there because I wanted it to be there.
'Funeral Balloons' was the first album that threw me, I didn’t know if I wanted to start with 'The Chuckles' or 'Ufomg.' I wanted to start with 'Ufomg' because it’s such an out there song, it opens with some weird chanting, it’s not a familiar sounding song. Though, sometimes, I have to reign in some of my choices since I tend to make things weirder, or more challenging, then they should sometimes be.
Chuckles might have a slightly strange beginning, but it quickly flows into a more typical "Blockhead sound" that’s more familiar to the people that listen to my music. I feel that people worry too much sometimes about artists changing, which is a natural thing that artists do, we progress, and we change. When I made 'Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book,' people just went: oh, so this is what you’re doing now? No, it’s just for this album, and then I’ll make an album like that, and then I’ll continue to make whatever I want. Sometimes it does feel like wearing kid gloves, and having songs on an album that lead people up to the weirder songs helps with that.
But, people get so worried sometimes, you’ll do one thing on an album, or you’ll do a side-project and all of a sudden people are freaking out and asking you left and right if this is the thing you’re doing now. With 'The Art of The Sample', you’d have people asking me if these more stripped down songs were the way I’d be building my songs from now on.
Same with Aesop, when he did the 'Uncluded' side-project with Kimya Dawson, people freaked out about that. And, repeatedly you're saying: no, it’s a side-project, no, it’s this, it’s that. Just let artists make their thing, and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. People prefer to box artists in and have easy labels to stick on them. My albums are already quite boxed in, apart from a few outliers on each album, they’re very similar in a way. Take 'Festival Paramedics', that’s unlike anything I’ve ever made before. I don’t want to stick to a formula of what I think is okay. In the end, I’m just trying new things and having fun with it.
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This interview was conducted between the 17th and the 30th of May over Skype, email, text, and in person and was rewritten and edited with permission from Tony Simon.
This article has a mixture of American and British spelling, since I couldn't put Blockhead through watching his native spelling be turned into a British version. You're welcome, Tony, I will forever lord this over you.