Blockhead, underground hip hop wizard

NYC DJ and producer Blockhead, playing le Belmont tonight, on his latest record, his career trajectory and the wrath of Sandy.

Blockhead, photo by Claudia Santiso

Tony Simon, known in realms of hip hop’s underground as a wizard of sonic textures under the handle Blockhead, is a pretty meat ‘n’ potatoes kinda dude.

His early work with Aesop Rock and other greats from the mid-2000s Def Jux diamond era put him on the map, and his own records have taken him around the globe. Last spring’s Interludes After Midnight (which I have, since our interview, finally heard) is a definite departure, but the core elements of what’s always been legit about Blockhead’s über-cool take on instrumental hip hop still anchor his sound, which is aging like fine whiskey.

We talked about this, that and the other thing a few days after Sandy laid down the law on the East Coast. Back at le Belmont tonight for a second show in less than a year, Blockhead is as cool and easygoing as his music, and what’s missing from the transcript below is the easy, whatever-goes chuckle with which he concludes many a sentence. He calls himself an asshole, but you be the judge.

Darcy MacDonald: I hate to say it but I haven’t heard the new album yet. But I can tell you that people are really excited to see you back since last time, just a few months ago, was evidently crazy.

Blockhead: It’s funny because I hadn’t been there for probably five years prior to that, so it’s nice to get back. I definitely had a good thing going there for about a year, I doing performances there a lot, and then it just didn’t happen anymore.

I did all kindsa stuff there. I played in a park once, I did DJ gigs and I mean, I’m not even really a DJ! Then the offers stopped coming. And now they’re coming back, so that’s a good thing.

DM: Every producer I know was blowin’ up their social media (the day after last time) saying how dope it was, and when this show got announced, the same people all got really excited.

BH: That’s awesome!

DM: How did Sandy treat you, man?

BH:  It was rough! I was in a blackout for five days. I stayed here for two days, and then Halloween came around, and we just had to get outta here, ’cause it’s crazy at night in New York when there’s no lights! So we went uptown to stay with a friend for a couple of days. But yeah, walking around at night in New York with no lights was something I’ve never seen before. I mean I’ve been in other blackouts but this was different because it was like…everything!

And it was cold. But honestly, the storm itself that hit us, from where I was, didn’t seem that bad. And then you go outside and there’s just, all these trees that fell over. From looking out my window, it didn’t seem that bad, but apparently it was!

DM: The wrath.

BH: Yeah, the wrath of Sandy!

DM: It’s like Manhattan every 10 years or so gets, like, a cleansing of some kind.

BH: Yeah, we were due. We do need something to kick us in the ass every now and then.

DM: So I feel bad that I haven’t heard the new album yet, but you’re talking to someone who knows your early work really, really well, from your stuff with Aesop Rock through Downtown Science. So what would you say to someone like me in terms of how your music has evolved on the new record?

BH: I would say the last two records, Music Scene and now Interludes After Midnight, I definitely took a way different approach to how I made the music and put the songs together. I kinda stepped away from the verse/chorus/break organization of songs that I used more on Downtown Science and Music by Cavelight. I kinda made these songs that change and change and change, and start one place and end somewhere completely differently, and very rarely go back to where they started.

So a lot of the newer songs are things that start out and you’ll hear something and be like “Oh!” and then five minutes later, it’ll feel like a completely different song, but it’ll still kinda carry on from there. And that’s kinda been more what I’ve been doing the last two albums, it’s been kinda just me going as far as I can with sampled music and try to make it interesting.

I really don’t get into a lotta instrumental music that just sits there and doesn’t change, you know? I tend to listen to a lotta old soul and a lotta hip hop music, and not really much instrumental stuff.

DM: What are you into outside of music, and then within those things, hobbies or whatever, what become your influences?

BH: Well, I play a lotta basketball. That’s more how I just get exercise, though. I don’t have a great deal of interests. (laughs) I like eating. I like playing basketball. I’m not a very adventurous guy in many ways.

But I like writing a lot. I’ve been doing this blog for about two, three years, it’s called Phat Friend. That’s another way I’ve kinda been expressing myself artistically. I mean, I’ve been writing for a long time on a smaller scale, and I keep this blog up and write on whatever – I do all sorts of things on there. But that’s been kinda the thing keeping me steady for awhile.

I don’t know what inspires me or what my influences are from that, but it’s more an outlet, you know? With music, I don’t really get to use my words and writing is definitely a nice way to blow off steam. And it’s mostly just me jumping around and being an asshole about stuff, so it’s more of a reflection of my actual personality than my music might be.

DM: Do you keep themes to it?

BH: I’m pretty theme-heavy, because I’m generally pretty organized, in that sense. Like Mondays will be one thing, or I do a thing where people send me questions and I answer whatever they ask me, ranging from, “What studio equipment do you use?” to advice about their girlfriends. Or really ridiculous stuff, like, “Would you rather have sex with you mom, or…” You know, stuff like that. It gets a little crazy. But I’ve done different forms of this over the years.

DM: So what keeps you on the road? Do you still like going out and rocking rooms or is it more like, doing the job?

BH: First and foremost, I love making the music. Performing is something that I have to do. Over the years I’ve grown to like it more. But I’m also fairly limited to what I can do live, because I’m not a musician. I don’t play instruments, I don’t DJ. So I have to work with what I can. Often I’ll be playing shows with people who have, like, 13 contraptions going on at once and it’s a real spectacle. And you know, I’m doing something that’s not visually pleasing, but you know – it sounds awesome!

And if you’re a fan of my music, you’ll love it because it’s super referential to everything I’ve ever done. It’s kinda like taking everything I’ve ever done, spinning it in a blender, and spitting it out with pop culture connected to it. And it’s fun!

But there were years where I didn’t do shows because I was happy just home and making beats, and that’s kinda more my speed. But that’s really not an option anymore, you have to get out on the road. So I’ve embraced it, but it really took me quite a while to come to terms with, like, alright, this is what I’m doin’! Cool! ■

Blockhead plays with DJs Brace, Construct and Ghostbeard at le Belmont (4483 St-Laurent) tonight, Saturday, Nov. 17, 10 p.m., $15

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