Tony, You Blockhead
Only Sequences Change
Blockhead on his love for NYC and his enduring collaborations with rappers billy woods, Aesop Rock, Marq Spekt, and Illogic.
Interview by Julie Smits
An Interview with Blockhead—part 2/2
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 talked about his love for NYC, his enduring love for hip-hop, and his collaborations.
'Tony, you Blockhead' is part two of a two-part interview. You can find the first part 'Building Beats with Blockhead' over here.
— Listening habits
When I was little, I just listened to the radio, or whatever my parents played around the house. They’d have jazz on, as well as opera, and my older brother listened to a lot of eighties music. I remember liking The Beatles and Billy Joel, but, around sixth or seventh grade I started to care more about the music I listened to. Hip-hop was the first thing that grabbed me, and in high school, I didn't bump anything but.
When I went to college, I delved more into soul music, older stuff like Stevie Wonder and James Brown. My horizons have broadened since I was a teenager, but hip-hop is still the foundational music that I keep coming back to.
Once I turned twelve, finding new music was a priority for me. So, was learning about artists and studying their liner notes. I was always the guy, in my group of friends, who had the new thing first and then exposed my friends to it. This was long before the internet became a thing, so I'd go to stores and read magazines about it. As I got older, and the internet became a factor, it became easier to find new music and what I could discover that much broader.
I would say my obsessive listening habits lessened slightly as I got older and became more focused on my own music. Not that I ever stopped seeking out new things and loving music, but I shifted to making more of my own stuff than listening to others.
I still peep for new music but the spectrum of what I enjoy or makes me feel anything special has dramatically shrunk. My tastes are so specific and defined at this point; I can usually listen to about four bars of a rapper and tell if I'll be into it or not. Generally, I’m not. But I also don't have that thing in me where I get mad about music like I used to. I used to be personally offended by specific music when I was younger and take bold stances against anything that didn't fit my musical ideals. I've grown out of that and realized that just cause I don't like something doesn't strip it of its merit. It's just not for me. Although, there will still be things where I think: that sucks across the board.
Lately, the spectrum of how I receive music ranges from 'Eh' to 'it's okay' with a few exceptions. Those exceptions end up being the music I enjoy and sit down with. I tend to listen to mostly underground, weirdo stuff with a sprinkling of some mainstream rap. Guys like Mach-Hommy, billy woods, Open Mike Eagle, Spark Master Tape, Roc Marciano and stuff like Migos and Brockhampton.
— Downtown Science
I grew up in Greenwich Village. During that era, it was the kind of place where jazz guys and Woody Allen hung out. Now, it’s a wealthy, yuppy area, as most neighborhoods in NYC are.
I’ve stayed in downtown Manhattan, sort of on the cusp of the neighborhood I grew up in and the next. I live ten blocks from where I grew up and where my mom still lives. I got a really good deal on an apartment about fifteen years ago, and that enabled me to keep living here.
NYC is my home. It’s where I’m comfortable. It didn’t always mean comfort. When I was younger, it was a different place. It's meant different things at different times but when you've been somewhere your whole life you just become a part of that place subconsciously, and it becomes a part of you in return.
I can’t imagine living in a place where I can’t just walk everywhere, or get food at two in the morning. Plus, I never learned to drive and have no intention to, so NYC is perfect for me. I can do anything I want at any time of day. Apart from touring, the only time I didn’t live in NYC was during the six to eight months of college I did in Boston. There’s no city like it, at least in the States. London and Paris share a similarity to NYC, when walking around them, there will be parts that remind me of New York.
I can’t ever imagine leaving New York, unless it goes underwater, then I guess I have to leave…or drown.
The Album 'Downtown Science'
My relationship with 'Downtown Science' one is a weird one. It was a reaction to the reaction to my first album. 'Music by Cavelight' was very well reviewed, and people liked it a lot. It was very jazzy and pretty. I was doing a lot of interviews at that time, and people kept trying to label me and the music I made. With 'Downtown Science,' I made an album that went against the grain of that label. It’s still clearly a Blockhead album, but it has some heavier rock tones. I’m not a rock guy, but the guitarist I work with, Damien Paris, he’s an incredibly talented heavy metal guitarist. He plays guitar and bass on all my albums and on that album I gave him solos and just told him to go nuts.
But that album is weird, looking back there are songs on there I don’t know about and others on there I still love. ‘The First Snowfall’ is probably one of my favorite songs I ever made and ‘Roll Out The Red Carpet’ I still like a lot. The album does tell a story, it’s all based on New York and downtown Manhattan. Some of the songs on there are very serious and dark, but at the same time, I was still trying to add whimsy in other parts. The pictures on the cover of it are places in NYC that are important to me. One of them is the building I grew up in; another is the basketball court I used to play, the first bar I went to, my favorite Chinese food place. One was the train stop near my house. Just specific places that held meaning to me.
So, my weird relationship with that album comes from it being a reactive album instead of something I would’ve naturally come up with. It’s also the only album I made for that reason; I just wanted to show that I was more versatile than what people were saying at the time.
— The Music Scene & Adult Swim
That video is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’d like to take more credit for it, but I had nothing to do with the making of it, my then label (Ninja Tune) came up with the idea. The artist that made it, Anthony Schepperd, is incredibly talented. Finding a dude like that to do a video is rare, he completely sunk into the psyche of the song. I pretty much can’t ever make a video again. Anthony broke the mold of anything I could come up with.
'The Music Scene' from Blockhead's 2009 album 'The Music Scene' animated by Anthony Schepperd
After it came out, Adult Swim picked it up and played it during their After Hours. It introduced a ton of new people to my music, even now I still get people coming up to me at gigs telling me they got to know my music through that video.
Adult Swim has pushed a lot of artists over the years like Flying Lotus, Doom, Run The Jewels. And I’ve always found that they’ve had really good taste in the artists that they support, they know their niche, and they push it well.
— The Melancholy Elements
There is a melancholic element in much of the music I make, which some people call sad. When I think of songs of mine that are actually sad, I think of…see, someone else would probably say a song like ‘A Better Place’ off my first album sounds sad. And, it has a sad vibe to it, but it’s also just…it’s pretty. It’s more pretty than it is sad.
I have a song on 'The Music Scene' called ‘The Daily Routine,’ which is centered around people outside of a rehab clinic arguing. That, to me, is sadder than a pretty, melodic song off any of my other albums. Because the song tells a story of these people who have a dysfunctional relationship, and the theme of 'The Daily Routine' is repetition. It becomes okay again, but then the dysfunction returns. That is sadder than 'Insomniac Olympics' could ever be.
A friend of mine gave that recording to me, I still don’t know why they recorded the argument in the first place. I just held on to it until I figured out which beat and song it ended up working in.
I met Aesop near the end of my first year of college in Boston. We bonded over being huge rap nerds. Meeting him was probably the only good thing that came out of my college education. He stayed to finish his fine arts degree, but he’d come to NYC and do summer courses, and we just grew closer whenever we hung out together. He lived with me for one summer and when he graduated he moved to the city.
We started making music together when we were about nineteen, I think. I was in a rap group at the time, so in the beginning, he’d just come to rap with us, but he was way better, and it put our skills in perspective. Aesop inspired me not to rap.
Aesop’s one of those guys that if he applies his mind to anything, he’ll get good at it. He’s just a naturally creative person. If he wanted to write a book, direct a movie, or even take up sculpture, I’m confident that he’d succeed at that. He has an innate ability to do whatever he puts his mind to.
I made my first beat for him when I was twenty or twenty-one, we worked on his early albums together, and since then I’ve produced random stuff here and there, as well as a few remixes. The last album I worked on of his was ‘None Shall Pass’, and we made that around the time he moved. During the process, we emailed back and forth, and I love how it turned out, but it became clear that Aesop needs to be in the same room as the people he’s collaborating with on his albums. Albums to Aesop are a very personal and intense process; if I’m not present physically to be totally emerged in it with him, it’s just not going to work.
One of the things we ran into, and not being in the same city seemed to make it even more stressful, were sampling issues. We had to remake entire songs on the album to resolve that. EL-P, who used to own Def Jux (Aesop’s old label), came through for us redoing the production. We had to recreate samples we couldn’t use with live instruments and others we had to find different solutions for.
I think after that Aesop just took to the idea of producing his own albums. Aesop’s been making beats for almost as long as I have, it was just a natural progression for him to take on the full production of his albums.
As friends, we stayed close, as collaborators we shifted from making albums together to just doing a few songs here and there. I still create remixes for him and anytime he wants a beat, he just has to ask.
The Last 10 Years
The collaborations I’ve done in the last couple of years have all been with rappers I like and they’ve been relatively easily. I just send them beats, they pick, they rap, and then we finish the song. It’s not rocket science to make a rap album, I mean you want to make it good, and obviously spend time crafting it. But, they do their part, I do my part, and we meet halfway. It’s not a gruelling process.
The rappers I’ve worked with: lllogic, Aesop Rock, Marq Spekt, and billy woods they’re totally different types of writers, but they are guys that take time for their craft, they’re not just going to whip together some bullshit. They care about the music they’re making. I trust their vision and I’ve never not liked what I’ve been sent back. There have been times when it’s been a little out there and my initial reaction was to not fully know what to think of it. But, then I’ll come back to it and it will just sink in.
I’ve worked with billy woods on two of his albums now. He has a clear vision for the work he wants to put out. And, he’s really good at finding vocal samples that blend in and out of the songs. His songs have depth and meaning behind them.
— Switching Labels
When my relationship with Ninja Tune ended, it wasn’t anything personal. They decided they no longer wanted to work with sample-based music. The legality attached to sampling is tricky at best. Labels make most of their money through licensing, so not being able to license my albums made it a disadvantage to have me on their roster.
I put my first album, ‘Bells & Whistles,’ after I split from Ninja Tune out myself, and 'Funeral Balloons'—my last album—out with billy woods' label 'Backwoodz.' I have a couple of small labels that I can work with now.
I’m never going to have another album out on a Ninja Tune sized label again. It just doesn’t make sense for any larger label to do that with sample-based music. But, I don't mind, I like having a lot of control over what I do. It’s nice. I can do anything at this point.
There’d be a few times where Ninja Tune would interfere, and they were often right. They’d ask to change a part, something like the drums and generally, it was for the better. But, I am very much the kind of person that when I finish something, I’m done with it. I don’t enjoy revisiting work. I won’t go back and tinker with something that feels done. But, sometimes I can use that push.
In the back of my head, I know when there’s something wrong with a track, but I'll push it back and think: whatever, it doesn’t matter, but when someone else does point it out to me I’ll own up to it and make the change.
There have been times when my label didn’t like something or thought it sounded it off, where I’ve just been: “No, that’s how I want it to be or how I meant it to be.” I know the difference between me being lazy and cutting corners and a creative decision I made, that I will stand behind. I’m self-aware enough to see the difference.
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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.