Detectives are usually looking for evidence at the scene of the crime, but not the musical scrutinizer known as Blockhead. Instead, he's constantly on the hunt for contraband to slip into his compositions. A hip-hop artist who draws liberally off the raw power of his native New York City, he molds the art of sampling into ear-pleasing achievements with an intuitive, highly musical approach.
As befits a beat inspector, Blockhead (aka Tony Simon) prefers to work in secret, a technique that led to success for his 2004 Ninja Tune debut, Music by Cavelight, and the 2005 Downtown Science. Just this once, however, he's agreed to let Remix readers ride shotgun as he constructs an entire song — from vinyl bargain bin to sequencer — in one day. Observe carefully, and you just may learn how a minimalist approach, patience and a little luck can directly lead to a great song.
EXHIBIT A: ACADEMY LPS, EAST 10TH STREET, NYC
A narrow store with a '70s vibe, mirrors everywhere and seriously warm jazz cooking over the sound system, Academy LPs' featured shelves are stocked with goods from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, 2Pac, Herbie Mann and more. Blockhead ignores these $10-plus budget-busters completely and drops straight down to the $1 bins that line the floor.
“I don't like sampling things I like; I'd rather make something good out of something crappy,” he explains of his search criteria. “I'm looking for the most random thing possible: a rock album from India, stuff with an interesting cover, stuff that looks bizarre, record labels, failed bands. I'm also thinking about clearance.”
It doesn't take Blockhead long — about 20 minutes of focused rifling — to go through the bargain stacks. When he rises and walks to the cash register, he's got about 20 hand-picked records, everything from obscure soundtracks to albums with Russian writing and unimaginable trash or treasure in their grooves. Overall, it's a good haul.
“There was some surprising stuff here; I'm excited,” Blockhead says. “I go here all the time, and they had an unusual selection. I did good today.”
Blockhead steps outside, and it's starting to rain on the mean streets of the East Village. He won't be outside for long, however. Next stop: West 14th Street, Blockhead sampler central.
EXHIBIT B: FAT SAL'S PIZZA
Blockhead grabs a slice to fortify for the hard labor that awaits. He engulfs his pizza so quickly it seems like a magic act. It is evidence of his fast work habit that will reveal itself just ahead.
EXHIBIT C: THE “STUDIO”
Blockhead's studio, ensconced in his downtown Manhattan apartment, is as minimalist as they come. It sits unobtrusively in a corner of his dimly lit bedroom, and if it weren't for the presence of a 10-year-old Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard sampler and Gemini turntables, you'd have no idea that this is where one of New York City's most innovative hip-hop artists lays down the foundations for his songs. Instead of outfitting with an Aeron chair and Genelecs, Blockhead is perched atop a hard, old stool listening through speakers that came with the consumer stereo. “I'm as ghetto as I can be with this,” he admits.
Oblivious to the nasty ergonomics of his setup, Blockhead settles in immediately and starts throwing his just-purchased vinyl on the platter. First up is an album called Who Do Voo Doo (Marco, 1979) by a jazz drummer named Mat Marucci. “I picked this out because I liked the drumsticks on the back,” Blockhead comments about the bright red LP cover. “It remains to be seen whether there's anything worth listening to.”
It doesn't take long to see that there is. He quickly finds a drum break he likes from an early track called “The Ritual.” Running the outputs of his Gemini directly into the Ensoniq, Blockhead samples the break immediately and starts trying to edit it. Soon, however, he's forced to give up on the drum riff. “I don't think I'm going to use it. Something about it is a little off; it sounds like the drummer fucked up.”
He continues to move the needle around, hunting for gold. Although he doesn't instantly find usable parts, what he hears is at least giving him ideas and suggesting a direction. “Remember that horn; we'll have to come back to that,” he notes. “I'm just looking for something that catches my ears. It would be great if it was drums, but it's not necessary. That's great if it happens, though — hearing a drum part I like first when I'm building a track.”
EXHIBIT D: THE ELUSIVE GROOVE
Just after he says that, a deliciously funky bass 'n' drums part from a song called “Dedication” flies by, and within seconds, Blockhead has made a pass into the Ensoniq and edited it. Next, he pitches the sample four whole steps down, to F. As the potential building block for the entire track, nailing the exact tempo is critical, and this is one juncture where Blockhead takes his time and shows the subtle skill needed for upper-level sampling.
“I thought it was 86 bpm, but it's probably 87,” he says after playing the loop against the Ensoniq's internal metronome. “I've gotta fine-tune it a little bit.” Blockhead decides to re-record the groove, tapping it out himself manually to make a four-bar loop. After a couple of attempts, he's satisfied with the results, which clock in at 88 bpm. “That works.”
Next, Blockhead augments the groove with drum sample collections he's put together himself. Flipping through floppy stacks labeled “Hot New Drum Snares,” “Zep Drums” and “Drums Even More,” he loads in some samples and performs them against the loop manually on the Ensoniq keyboard. “Now I have the basic parts: The sample has the bass line, plus the hat, high 808 kick and tight, cutty snare, so it's time to start looking for other samples.”
EXHIBIT E: AID FROM INDIA
The ground rule for the next sample is that it can't have drums. Blockhead mows down a couple that just don't work, including a bad mariachi band. Then an old LP from India called Hits of Shankar-Jaikishan, Vol. 1 (Angel, 1964) has a vocal sample with potential. “This is where time-stretching would work, but whatever; time-stretching takes the skill out of it,” he shrugs. “If you have time-stretching, the only talent you need is to tell whether something is out of tune or not. I get a lot of flak for speeding up vocals, but I like to work with vocal samples the same way I do a horn or a piano: I don't care how fast or slow it is as long as it's in key.”
The vocal line is lovely and haunting at the same time, and although it's troublesome, Blockhead is willing to go to some extra lengths to make it fit. The aging ASR-10 is unwieldy by today's standards, but Blockhead knows its functions inside and out from a decade of exclusive, nonstop use. His skills with the limited controls make a strong case for expertly mastering a select amount of gear/software rather than taking on a wide range of systems and knowing them only superficially.
“It's funny because it already sounds like it's backward,” he comments as his fingers fly over the Ensoniq's buttons. “I'm doing a lot of filtering stuff to make the high part of it I like come out more. I don't know what these numbers (on the bare-bones LCD) mean, but when I move the slider, it takes out some of the crackle. Now it sounds like it's coming through the radio, which I like.
“I slowed this sample way down, and I think it sounds almost like a reversed instrument at times. Obviously, I don't speak any Indian [languages], so I have no idea what she's saying, but it resembles an African stringed instrument and Mickey Mouse at the same time. It works with the track because it's got this lighthearted feel to it. The sample itself is kind of fun.”
EXHIBIT F: HE SO HORNY
His batting average has been good up to this point, but a couple of wrong turns with some bad bar-band albums have Blockhead feeling blocked up. Then he remembers there was a horn on the Mat Marucci album he liked and goes back to it. “There it is, the corny horn,” he grins. “That's what I'm looking for. Horns and vocal samples are the easiest thing to match because they don't have a time frame. They're windy. It will be interesting to see if it works or not.”
Once inserted into the sequence, Blockhead's instincts prove correct: The horn solo is a perfect rhythmic fit. He predicted earlier that one sample could shift the direction of the entire composition, and this proves true here. “The horn totally changes the mood,” Blockhead says. “It turns it into a more melancholy kind of vibe.
“I like how the horn goes down a key because when you have a really repetitive two-bar bass line, you need something to change the key of it now and then. If I have something repetitive, I'll find something that goes down — it adds an emotional layer to it. That horn just happened to work, just completely random. Jackpot; there you go!”
EXHIBIT G: SAMPLE US A SONG WITH PIANO, MAN
Blockhead's intuition is calling for piano to take his sonic collage further, and his scrutiny of a compilation LP with groundbreaking guitarist John Abercrombie's “Love Song” — from his album Timeless (ECM, 1974) — is a good call. A section inside a beautiful, lilting piano solo is perfect, but he doesn't stop at simply looping it; instead, he maximizes its usefulness by playing it at different speeds.
“Instead of letting the sample run,” Blockhead says, “I play it at one speed for two bars, then at double-slow speed on the third bar. For the fourth, I come in with a halfway speed between the two, so it harmonizes with the other samples. See how it works? I'm musically illiterate. I can't read music at all. I don't know what I'm talking about.” Oh, but he does: The result has a gentle majesty that totally transforms the meaning of the decades-old piano run.
EXHIBIT H: THE FINISHING TOUCHES
As the explorations continue, Blockhead has more misses waiting for him in the vinyl pile, but he also gets the final things he needs to turn this rich four-bar collection of loops into a completely sequenced song, clocking in at three minutes and 32 seconds.
Another vocal sample, the crooning “I'm what you call a big city boy/Taking the subway's my style,” from the tune “L.A. Song” off of Chris Iijima and Charlie Chin's 1982 album, Back to Back (East West World), will prove worthy of opening the song and giving it its title, “Big City Boy.” “I was kind of just looking for any vocal sample, and when I was playing around with it, it worked really well. The vibe of the song is kind of hokey and I slowed it down so it's kind of like a heroin version.”
Last is another of the opening elements, a little piece of a buzzy drum roll that he manipulates from a “random percussion album” called Percussion Around the World (London Phase 4, 1962) by a group called International Pop All Stars. “I wanted something to kind of support the drums,” Blockhead says. “It sounds almost like a marching band, but clicking: rrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”
With everything contained inside just a four-bar loop, Blockhead uses the 8-track sequencer in the ASR-10 to turn all the samples into a relaxed, logically arranged composition. “To turn it into a song, you just build,” he states. “Every piece takes it up to another level, just making the best transitions between elements. This sampling session today flowed pretty smoothly. I don't know how to describe the final song because I feel like it falls in-between a lot of descriptions. It's hokey, but ultimately, I'd say it's pretty upbeat.
“I don't consider myself a songwriter. I know I sample, but whether you're making a riff on guitar or sampling a guitar, you use it for the same thing. I don't write anything. I can't read music. But the basic principles of songwriting here are the same: You need an intro, there's always going to be a break, an instrumental part, a verse, twists and turns. Music itself is pretty repetitive — that's what makes people like it!”
Hear “Big City Boy” for yourself on this month's free CD or atremixmag.com.