One of the unsung joys of hip hop — and, especially, hip hop production — has always been its appeal to the sort of weirdo who likes to sit in their bedroom, making things, happily removed from the rest of the world. If you want to play rock ‘n’ roll, you probably need a band; even if you just want to go the acoustic singer-songwriter route, you’ll end up on a stage somewhere, pouring your heart out to a bunch of strangers. Hip hop production, though, is the perfect artistic outlet for those who prefer to remain anonymous, faceless, and unrepentantly strange.
So it has gone for Michael Volpe, who goes by the curious pseudonym Clams Casino, and makes some of the most interesting and idiosyncratic hip hop beats you’ll hear anywhere. I have no idea if Volpe is in fact a weirdo — indeed, up until recently, I didn’t even know what he looked like. He’s not even one of those determinedly anonymous types like Burial, whose facelessness draws attention to them; he just hides in plain sight, an artist whose entire public persona is his art.
And that art is fascinating. Volpe’s beats are instantly recognizable, which is all the more impressive given the level of diversity that his output exhibits. He’s produced for a variety of vocalists, from the equally idiosyncratic Lil B and Danny Brown to the more mainstream likes of Lana Del Rey and Foster the People. When the context demands it, he can dial back his own distinctiveness to let the vocalist in question take center stage — who knew, for instance, that he produced Vince Staples’ killer “Norf Norf” from last year’s excellent Summertime ‘06?
Generally, though, Clams Casino beats are best appreciated with no vocals at all. Volpe released three instrumental mixtapes between 2011 and 2013, and all three are compulsory listening, whether if you’re interested in the art of hip hop production or you’re just after some atmospheric instrumental music to accompany you through this late capitalist hellscape we call life. Clams Casino tracks are characterized by a certain … wooziness, a sense that the beats are built on an ever-shifting foundation, drifting in and out of time as echoing, wistful samples drift in and out of the mix. It’s a world away from the basic kick-kick-snare sound that is the fundament of hip hop rhythm, and if nothing else, it’s a demonstration that hip hop production is the most interesting field of endeavor in music today, a place of almost limitless sounds and possibilities.
With all that said, it’s interesting and unexpected that Volpe has chosen to include vocalists on his first “real” album, 32 Levels, which is out on Friday. They’re a rum assortment, to be sure — CC mainstays like the aforementioned Lil B and Vince Staples are counterbalanced by the decidedly non hip hop likes of Future Island’s Samuel T. Herring and lesser known talents like Kelela and Sam Dew. It’s only once you actually hear how these artists are used that Volpe’s choice to include them makes sense; these aren’t so much MCs rhyming over a beat as they are vocalists whose voices are contributing another element to the track. It’s a cliché to talk about voices being used as “just another instrument,” and clearly the artists’ lyrics don’t deserve to be brushed aside as meaningless, but still, it’s clear that the music is very much the point of the enterprise here: the vocalists are used in the same way they’re used on, say, a Massive Attack album, i.e. as people who can contribute to the track’s general atmosphere.
This approach works better on some tracks than others — Herring’s contribution, the spooky “Ghost in a Kiss,” is a triumph, mainly because Herring’s whisperings are a perfect complement to the clattering beats and atmospheric electric piano figures. Other tracks work just because they’re so good: Staples’ “All Nite” could have walked straight off Summertime ‘06, and thus is a curious fit on what’s meant to be a Clams Casino album, but it’s also a really good hip hop track that can’t help but have you bouncing in your seat. And Lil B is so closely identified with Volpe that it would just have seemed wrong to omit him, and he’s duly included, rambling in his inimitable way over a backdrop of ghostly music boxes and “swag swag”s.
Elsewhere, the approach yields mixed results — “Thanks to You,” featuring Sam Dew, for instance, is perhaps the most interesting production on the record, marrying a herky-jerky stop-start rhythm to strange, airy synth sounds that sound like they’ve been lifted from an old Doctor Who record. Dew’s vocals are pleasant enough, but they distract from, rather than adding to, the atmosphere created by the music. (The fact that the lyrics are kinda ropey doesn’t help matters.) It’s no accident that the two most engaging tracks on the record — “Skull” and “Blast” — are those without vocals.
All in all, it’s a mixed bag, and if you want a showcase of Volpe’s talents, it’s hard to recommend 32 Levels over any of his instrumental mixtapes. (Especially since you can download all three of them for free.)