As the influential producer prepares to release his long-awaited album '32 Levels,' he sits down in a #rare joint interview with longtime collaborator Lil B.
Lil B and Clams Casino on the set of "Witness" / Photos courtesy of Clams Casino
Once upon a time, they called it cloud rap. It had washed out, hazy production, often drawing on ethereal vocal samples from artists like Imogen Heap and merging with the aesthetics of bedroom electronic producers. Artists like Main Attraktionz, Lil B, and Nacho Picasso floated over these beats, conjuring up surreal, dreamy landscapes from the kush clouds. And then A$AP Rocky became a superstar, and the sound went mainstream. Today, rap and even some of the biggest budget pop music—The Weeknd, Rihanna, Beyonce—draws on some of the same ambient, texture-heavy palettes that came out of this world.
Ask anyone who was there, though, in those heady days of 2010 and 2011—eons in internet time—and the sound was synonymous with basically one name: Clams Casino. A physical therapy student from New Jersey named Mike Volpe, Clams Casino grew up on East Coast rap like The Diplomats, stumbling into the sample-driven sound of experimental ambient electronic music from the other direction. He connected over MySpace with a rapper named Lil B, then best known as a former member of The Pack, who was developing a style of stream-of-consciousness "based" freestyle rapping. With hazy beats for songs like "I'm God"—which flipped Imogen Heap's "Just For You," creating a subgenre of production in the process—and "Motivation," Clams helped Lil B land on his signature sound. The two went on to collaborate extensively, up through B's 2011 album I'm Gay (I'm Happy).
Meanwhile, the success of his productions with B put Clams at the forefront of this new movement, attracting attention from artists like A$AP Rocky and Mac Miller. He released a widely praised album of his instrumentals on the indie label Tri Angle. But then, as the sound he helped create continued to spread, Clams kept a low profile. His name popped up intermittently—most visibly in recent years on Vince Staples's excellent tracks "Norf Norf" and "Summertime"—but mostly he was quiet. That's because he'd signed to Columbia and was preparing an album, 32 Levels, due out July 15.
"I wanted to keep it quiet because I didn't want people waiting for it," he explained to me on a recent afternoon, coming through the VICE offices. "I knew it was going to take a really long time because I had nothing." He wasn't When he announced the album, with the release of the single "Blast" a couple weeks ago, the reaction was enthusiastic. But it was nothing compared to bombshell he had up his sleeve: a joint video with Lil B for the song "Witness." The song, co-produced by Keyboard Kid and one of three with Lil B on the album, was recorded as part of a three-day stint in LA, the longtime collaborators' first-ever in-person sessions together. It slaps. And it's one of many amazing pairings to come out of the project: Other guests include Kelela, who entrances with pop vibes on the beautiful "Breath Away," Vince Staples, and A$AP Rocky, who appears on the same track as Lil B for the first time. The album isn't just worth the wait: It's a strong argument for Clams as the pop auteur he's secretly been all along.
In person, Clams is reserved but friendly, sporting a bushy beard and plain gray T-shirt, happily sharing thoughts about his process and stories about his collaborators. His style is simple, and he hesitates to share much beyond the music: The sense of him above all is of a technician, comfortable on computers (his preferred instrument is production software) and eager to tinker with things on a minute level. Clams immediately projects himself as a smart, capable guy, the details-minded counterpoint to Lil B's grandiose ideas. The pairing is perfect. Which is why, in the process of the interview, we also got Lil B on the phone to conduct the duo's first-ever joint interview.
Noisey: This album was your first time working in the studio together with Lil B. How did that feel? What was different?
Clams Casino: Real natural. We just listened to some music and stuff first, just chilled. Actually just catching up a lot, meeting for the first time. That was kind of a weird thing to just get used to first. And then we started. It came real naturally. Maybe from working online and stuff for so many years.
Both of you guys, your careers are so defined by each other. His sound really came together once he started getting your beats, and he was really one of the first high-profile people you were working with.
It's definitely parallel the whole time. We were kind of doing our own thing and then crossing and going back and always going back, and he's always been an inspiration to me even before we started working, so it's cool. Definitely working with him or even just listening to his stuff has kind of helped me figure out where I belong in music.
Are you into the based philosophy and stuff? How do you feel you align with that?
I don't know if I know fully what it means or if anybody does. I feel it's mostly about being unique or being yourself and just doing what you want to do. I'm sure it can mean whatever you want it to mean, but at least personally that's what I take away from it and how I use it to make music.
When other artists reach out to now, what do you think they're trying to get from you?
They hear something different in it that they don't really hear from whoever else is sending them beats. And a lot of the time it doesn't work out. Probably 75 percent of the people that hit me up don't really know what they're getting into. Like I send them something and they're like “what is this?”
Like “I saw you were on the A$AP Rocky album,” but they don't actually realize what the sound is.
Yeah, that happens a lot! I mean, I listen to a lot of stuff. I work with a lot of people. I'm open to doing anything, but it's a very small amount of music that I make that I'm really happy with, that I'm cool with sending out. Sometimes I just have two or three beats sitting around. I'm like “I've got this one, this one, and this one, and that's it, or you can come back later.” And they may not be able to work with it. And when I do find somebody that knows how to work with it, like a few people—Rocky, Vince Staples, Lil B—I go hard with working with them because they know how to use it and not many people do. A lot of big artists, or A&R people for major labels, they'll be like “yeah, we need beats for this album,” and they don't really know. Maybe they hear my name or something and they don't really know what they're going to get. So I send a bunch of shit and just never hear back.
Oh, we've got Lil B on the phone. Hey Lil B! What it was like for you making and directing the video for “Witness”?
Lil B: It was just amazing. The vision for the video came to me just automatically. Clams's music to me is where there's no boundaries. It was just exciting for my mind to be as free as Clams's music is. The music is just extremely free, freer than my mind. Really it was about just keeping the natural essence, keeping things authentic to our legacy, wanting to support Clams's legacy and make sure I could do the best that I could do for him visual-wise that shows him in the best light of how amazing of an artist I think he is. I really think Clams is gonna have a historical album. It's gonna impact music and change a lot of perspectives of people in general.
We were talking about what it was like for you guys to work in the studio together for the first time after all these years of sending music back and forth online and kind of helping to shape each other's sound. What did that feel like to you to get to do that?
So very authentic. It felt like home. It felt like what we need to be doing and what we've been wanting to do. You remember the old phones, like where you called the operator and I guess they plugged in the socket? It's kind of like that. It's perfect. A perfect connection.
Left to right: Clams Casino, Lil B, and Keyboard Kid
This video is more cinematic than some of yours in the past, with this fancy house, fancy car, out in nature. Why take that approach to it?
Clams's project is a huge deal, so we're all going to take it 100 percent serious. I can joke around and do what I want and be great in my area and play around and be the best, but when I'm with Clams, he's the greatest and amazing, so I'm going to make sure I do what I've got to do.
Were these new songs, new ideas, or did you guys come in with ideas that you wanted to share with each other?
New ideas. Everything was no pressure, being inspired and making music from the heart and coming in with no slate, no boundaries.
Clams Casino: I think for “Witness,” especially, it was just having fun because Keyboard Kid was just in town doing a show for one night, so it just happened by like stars aligning. I think that comes across in that song, just really no pressure and having a good time with it.
Lil B: Clams’s album is going to be, like—I mean, pffff—one of the best ever. I cannot wait to buy it and digest it in full. I mean, this is serious. This is a real big deal.
What do you see next for you, B, or for you guys working together?
Definitely us working together. Me and Clams have always kept it organic with the way we work. It’s just always the right time. It’s never no pressure. He always comes through if I need him. I always come through if he needs me, and we always meet at that right time. And for me, I’m going to continue to give back and give the art to the people that they want. I’ve been witholding music, but it’s time, and we needed Lil B art, so we’ve got to go.
Thanks Lil B! So yeah, Clams, your sound has become more mainstream in the last few years. There are even songs on this album where the production is kind of what the production feels like on a Rihanna album or a Beyoncé album now.
Clams Casino: Yeah, I can see a lot of people listening. Sometimes they don’t want to say that they’re listening, but I can tell who is and who’s not. And the stuff I hear is some stuff behind the scenes, too, so I know. I definitely hear it going around. I think it's cool that it's come to the mainstream. I'm not mad about it.
Does that change your approach to your own work, to have your sound become more pop? Does that make you want to change the way you operate?
No, exactly the opposite of that. It's like, “it's mine, and I'm not going to let you have it.” Someone who helped me realize that was getting in the studio, hanging out with Doc Mckinney, the producer. He was like “yo, people are running away with it, you can't let em take it. That's your shit.”
I'm not going to let people just have it and be like “I'm onto the next thing. Because everybody's doing that, I'm not going to do it anymore.” And honestly nobody's done it successfully to the point where it's good enough. Some people can think it's maybe it's about what type of sampling it is, but it's a lot more than that. It's a lot more detail. They don't really know, and they kind of just steal the surface stuff of it.
Has your own approach to production changed over the years?
Yeah. A lot of it has to do with not being able to sample stuff and clearing things. Because of legal stuff I've had to get used to not sampling, but I still wanted to have the sound that I love and love to make. Now the majority of it is recording. Instead of finding samples I'll play instruments and make them sound like old samples that I found. It took a long time for me to get used to that process, a few years. Some things I just found and sampled, but like 80-something percent of it is recorded by me or by musicians and buddies that I work with and then sampling that, chopping it up like we found something.
Did you have to teach yourself new instruments and stuff to do that?
Not really. I still do the majority in my computer, so I could play shitty piano chords one at a time. I don't know how to play piano, but I can do a little bit. And then put it in the computer and move it around. I recorded drums at the studio then ran it through a ton of effects, fucked it up, and then sampled it. Keyboard: same thing. I don't really have to be good because I'm not good. I can just play enough to be able to sample.
You worked with a lot of live vocalists on this album, too. What was it like bringing them in? Did that change the way you were thinking about the music at all?
Sometimes. In the case where we were starting something from scratch with a vocalist, it would probably change the process a little bit because if they're in there writing stuff I'll leave room for them. But a lot of the stuff is beats I already had made.
One of the things that immediately stuck out to me on this album is that you have A$AP Rocky and Lil B on the same song. For a long time there was kind of a sense of a beef there, that Rocky had kind of taken your sound and run off with it. There was always rumor of a beef. What was it like making that song and bringing the three of you together?
I think there was some stuff. I don't think it was ever serious. The reason I had reached out to Rocky originally was because of Lil B. I found the Rocky video online, and I hit him through Yams's website. And he had already been using my stuff. He already knew about me because of Lil B and stuff I'd done with him.
People are going to freak out when they find out about this song.
I think it's important. I'm glad to have that done. The best place for that to happen is my album. Where else? That's the connection between all of it. But there's no tension on my end. I don't get involved with rapper stuff. They say whatever they want to say. I'm in the background. I'm not going to speak for either of them, but I don't think it was ever a serious thing. I think it was more people on the internet, people wanting to make something of it, more than it was them. I know they have a lot of respect for each other, and I'm glad to bring them together on that song. So that's a really important one, especially for me.
On a personal level, where are you these days? Are you still in New Jersey?
Yeah, I'm chilling. Nothing too much to say about that. I stay out of it. I like to put music out, but that's about it. I stay pretty much to myself otherwise.
Do you just mostly make music from home?
Yeah. I work mostly from home. During the process of this album I did a lot of traveling to record samples in other studios, but a lot of the beats I made at home, taking it back and just building it up.
Thematically or conceptually, what is this album about?
It's just me exploring and experimenting with different types of artists and how it can all be held together. There's a theme like there always is with my music sonically, but not one that can be put into words for me. As far as what the people say, the lyrics and stuff, I don't get too far into that. I let them do what they want to do and just try to get the best and most authentic performance out of them. I tell them “just say whatever's most important to you.” Because it'll come across if I start getting involved. It's not going to work out. So the lyrics or the themes of the songs may be different across the board, but that's not really my job. I never tended to make that stick together. But I feel like they may connect, too, on some level. Nothing I can put into words, though. Just sonically.
Were there any songs where somebody did vocals and you didn't want to make a song that said that?
Not that I can think of. There was stuff that I did want to use that I just couldn't, on my part, take it there. I had a song with Mac Miller that I really wanted to put out. The theme of what he was talking about and his part was really good, and I just couldn't match up the beat to what I wanted, or make it fit into the rest of the music. That was on me. But I don't think there was anything that people did vocally that I was like “you can't say that.”
Are there any songs where people's words really hit on something emotionally you were trying to get out?
I think all of it somehow. A little piece of all of it. I think the reason that I chose these songs was, on every song, a moment like that.
Kyle Kramer is Noisey's Based World correspondent. Follow him on Twitter.