Name: Blockhead aka Tony Simon
Occupation: DJ, producer
Nationality: American
Current Release: Aesop Rock's Garbology, produced by Blockhead, is out via Rhymesayers.

If you enjoyed this interview with Blockhead and would like to stay up to date on his releases and gigs, visit him on twitter, and Facebook.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What did you learn from the masters of production for your own work?

Before I ever had my own sampler, I used to find samples and bring them to other producers. One of my earliest experiences was taking some samples over to my friend Kasm’s house and backseat driving while he constructed the beat — that was around '93.

In '94, I got my ASR-10 and started making my own beats. My influences were honestly not one producer as much as that era of beats. The early '90s. Samples with breaks, and also layering samples, which is something I did from the jump.

It’s hard to say what I learned from the masters cause it’s everything but it's also very nuanced. You find small things that different guys do that you pick from.

What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important instruments or pieces of gear for you?

I’ve never been a gear guy and never had a proper studio. I’ve actually minimized my studio over the years.

When I started, I had a sampler and a guitar amp. Eventually I got proper speakers but it never grew beyond that until I started using Ableton. Then it was a computer, a sampler and some speakers. At some point, I stopped using the sampler entirely and just used the computer. And at some point past that, my speakers broke so I started using headphones. So now it's pretty much just my laptop, a side keyboard and some headphones.

For me, it’s never been what you have as much as how you use it and I’ve never been bothered by the limitations of a small set up … it allows me to be creative within a spectrum I understand.

When it comes to sampling vs playing something yourself, what are your preferences?

Oh I’m almost all samples. Always have been. I’ll play a bassline here and there and maybe pad out samples but the foundation of what I do is found sounds from other peoples' albums.

Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.

I’ve found it’s made me far more organized. Before using my laptop, I’d just have piles of records scattered around with post-its stuck to them to tell me what’s on that record. Now, I have all my samples filed in my iTunes and organized by what sound they are. If I need a horn, I can sift through horn samples. It makes the process so much more exact.

As for sketches, I generally sit down and make a whole beat. One with layers and changes already in it. I’ve never been one to make a short thing and leave it at that. Most of what I make is almost fully realized when I finish it that day.

Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?

Well, Abelton changed everything for me. Prior to that, I was layering samples with no time stretch capabilities. Which, as you can imagine, isn’t easy. Once Abelton came into play it allowed me to pretty much not have to worry about the limitations of bpm and pitch issues with a sample and just dig into sample matching ideas that would have otherwise been impossible.

Where does the impulse to create a beat come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?

It’s really none of that for me. I make them when I feel like it. Sometimes I make them out of duty.

I’ve been doing this so long that the idea of “inspiration” doesn’t really exist. I love making music and I do it often but I never feel obligated to. I’m not an obsessive worker … until I am. I could go months without making music, and then make a whole album in 3 weeks. It’s really just riding waves for me. And nothing going on in my life tends to dictate it outside of how busy I may or may not be.

For example, I was super prolific during the pandemic cause I had nothing to do for a year.

For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?

I literally just sit down and start going through samples and that guides me. I almost never go in with a plan or a mood in mind. I’m guided by the source material.

What do you start with? How difficult is that first bar of music?

Usually, a sample, and I just build off that.

Using an example, can you tell me how you produce a beat? In your opinion, what makes a great beat?

I start with a sample. That sets the tone. Depending on that sample, I either start laying other samples or I make drums. It’s arbitrary in most cases but sometimes making the drums second helps guide my choices later on. It’s basically me just stacking as much stuff on top of itself until I feel it’s full and I’ll have options to play around with if the beat ever gets used.

What makes a good beat? Man, there isn’t a clear answer for that. Sometimes a minimal loop is a great beat. Sometimes a highly produced track is a great beat. For me it’s whatever works with the song and isn’t boring or cliche.

When will you leave a beat to work its magic by itself as an instrumental and when will you add vocals to it? Do you see beats as an artform in their own right?

I’d say 80% of the time I make beats, I have no goal for it. Every now and then, I’ll finish something and think “This is definitely an instrumental track” but that’s generally due to it being a weird BPM or the mood just seems specific enough to only work like that in my mind. But most of my beats could really go either way.

And, sure, beats are an art form. It would be weird if they weren’t.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

When I work with rappers, it’s very much an “I do my part, you do your part, and then we discuss how we wanna move forward from there” kinda deal. I’m open to ideas for sequencing my beats, but ultimately, I’m gonna be more in control of that part. Same with the rapping … I don’t think I’ve ever asked a rapper to make a change cause I know that’s their shit.

And to be honest, making rap songs is pretty easy on a sequencing level. The vocals are carrying the weight and my job is just to fill in the blanks.

How do you choose vocal collaborators for a particular beat and what, in your opinion, sets a great vocalist/rapper apart from a 'merely' good one? Do you produce beats specifically with a vocalist in mind?

I tend to only wanna work with people who I know or respect (preferably both lol). There are tons of MCs I wish I could work with but I don’t know them, so it is what it is. I’ve been listening to rap long enough and have a fairly defined taste for it now, so I can tell when a rapper is someone I want to collaborate with.

I don’t make beats with people in mind while I'm doing it, but I certainly have made beats where, after it’s done, I think “so and so would sound great on this.”

After you've recorded all the vocals, what is the arrangement process like for you and what is different in hip hop production compared to, say, a rock or pop piece? How do you stand in terms of producing "freestyles" versus "songs"?

I’ve only ever made songs so a freestyle is not really something I’m too concerned with. The arrangement process is just me finding what sounds right and where to complement the vocals.

I don’t really take rock or pop (or anything really) into consideration when I sequence a song. There is a formula to all music and only so much you can do within the “verse/chorus” structure but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring about it.

That’s where all that layering I do comes in handy cause it gives me a multitude of options to play with and see what works best.

How do you see the balance between writing for current trends, referring to classic sounds or creating a personal signature sound?

I don’t really care to be honest. I do what I do with no expectation of fame or mass appeal. It’s been that way for a while and I’m fine with it.

Sometimes I’ll hear something in a current trend that I like and I may try it out in my music, but it’s never something that would overwhelm my style.

Many listeners will usually focus on the contribution of the rapper(s) in a hip hop song. But the beat and musical elements provide for the emotional foundation of that performance. How much of yourself is in the finished production?

I mean … it’s me cause I made it! (laughs)

But I tend to make music that is more emotional than I am as a person. Not sure why that is, aside from me just loving a good melody and being drawn to  minor chords.