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Mike Volpe isn’t your average 24-year old physical therapy student from New Jersey. He’s also known to many as Clams Casino, a hip hop producer who has skyrocketed into the consciousness of electronic music fans worldwide, first with his beats for internet rapper Lil B and teen hip hop star Soulja Boy and now for his own releases: a mixtape of instrumentals that’s now getting a vinyl release by the incandescent Type label, and ‘Rainforest’, his debut EP on the consistently impressive Tri-Angle Records. His sounds range from awe-inspiring peaks to cold, distant valleys, and that contrast is no more noticeable than on ‘Rainforest’. From the ever-expansive journey that is Natural (video below) to the almost-cataclysmic stature of Waterfalls (listen below), Clams Casino’s music takes hip hop beats to a newly subconscious level of understanding. At times it’s almost too heavy to process but when it finally sinks in, it frees up previously dormant thoughts hidden behind every dull moment of the day, creating wild mental images that you can only hope to recall at a later point.
But whatever the mood, the boy knows how to push the right buttons. Cold War and I’m God sample vocals from two completely different women (singers Janelle Monae and Imogen Heap respectively), the first to create some serious head-bopping and the other to draw out pristine clear-headed moments between each beat. Whether you relate on an atmospheric or deeper emotional level, his music will raise both questions and the hairs on one’s skin. It’s a world apart from the sounds of other young hip-hop producers out there right now like AraabMuzik or Lex Luger, for whom the biggest beats and baddest samples are the arsenal they use to get the reaction they desire: “That shit was fire.” With Clams, it’s almost the opposite; his music is bare, reflective and intent on working on listeners from the inside out. It may not be fire but it’ll melt a cold heart in just one listen.
I meet the producer at St. Marks Place corner, half-wondering what to expect from him. Ultimately, he’s a perfectly calm, collected soul who’s excited about the interview. We speak about his origins, his lack of studio gear, his reach as an artist vs a producer and his take on tackling a dual identity.
Let’s start this with the name; how’d that come about?
Clams Casino: My friend called me it one day, and I don’t even know why he started calling me it, but it stuck. It’s got a good ring to it, you know?
It’ll make people hungry!
Clams Casino: I hope so, as long as they remember who I am! [Laughs.]
You’ve been making beats for close to a decade, I hear?
Clams Casino: I played instruments for as long as I can remember, but when I was in high school I bought myself a little crappy Yamaha sampler and a recorder, and my friends would come through, rapping and just messing around. Soon after that, I just moved to the computer, got some software and that’s it.
Do you still use the Yamaha kit now?
Clams Casino: If I can find it, I totally would! Recently, I’ve just been clicking and dragging stuff. I rarely use any sort of keyboard or surface control thing. I would like to use stuff like that, but I got used to clicking stuff. I’ve been doing that for about nine years with Sony Acid. I’ve been using Sony Acid 5.0 for four years now.
You’re obviously associated with Lil B and the “based” movement; do you feel like you’ve attributed a lot to it in your own way?
Clams Casino: I mean, I can’t take full credit, because he was saying and repping “based” before I even stepped in there, but I’ll say maybe I’ve helped move it forward in a way with the tracks I’ve done. Lil B’s done a lot to help me out.
With Soulja Boy?
Clams Casino: Yeah, apparently through a bunch of channels. Soulja Boy must’ve seen B do a freestyle on Ustream or something, because we got in contact shortly thereafter.
Are you getting paid for beats like that now?
Clams Casino: I am getting paid; not for all of them, but for some, yeah. Like shit off mixtapes, I don’t get money off of, but for exclusive beats and remixes, yeah I’m getting paid.
Does it surprise you, the jump you’ve made; from making beats for those artists and now to a label that is way different to the scene you were previously associated with?
Clams Casino: It’s happened really fast; after putting the ‘Instrumental’ tape out up until now, things got crazy. I just put it out because people were asking for those beats for a while now, and I just thought “I’m gonna throw these together and that’s it.” It’s weird, because people are thinking of me as an artist, which I actually have never thought of myself.
It’s peculiar, because in electronic music, people think of a producer as an artist.
Clams Casino: That’s weird to get used to; I never thought I would see my name included in any “artist” category. I like it and I can always have a legitimate name behind what I put out; it’s funny, because I didn’t even try!
Do you feel like now that you have an identity in music that’s not necessarily hip hop oriented, that there will be a difference between people listening to you from a producer and/or artist perspective?
Clams Casino: I hope there’s not any difference. Even when I was working with people, they would asking me why the beat wasn’t bare. I’m sure that there’s people found out about me as an artist and have not heard about my previous stuff; but I hope there’s not a separation, I hope they can check me out from beforehand too.
It’s a weird balancing act, huh?
Clams Casino: I don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next few months, especially with my lack of computer and equipment. I was lucky that the EP was finished during the time I did it, because if I waited a few days to wrap stuff up, it wouldn’t have happen at all!
Clams Casino: The computer just crashed, powered down. Can’t do anything with it now. But I’m definitely getting a new one soon, it’ll just be a completely different experience, making new beats. As long as I can get Acid again, I should be fine. [Note: he’s kitted out again now.]
How are you sending beats now?
Clams Casino: All I’m losing right now is tracks I’ve been making. I have a lot of tracks I’ve sent out to people in my email history, so I’ll just go on my phone and forward beats from a few months to a few years back. My iPhone is making things a bit less stressful.
The label you’re releasing your EP on is well-versed in emotionally-driven music. Have you looked into Tri-Angle before?
Clams Casino: Up until recently, I had no idea who they were, but after checking out people like How To Dress Well and a few others on the label, some of that music is really amazing. Really grand stuff. I feel like it makes perfect sense that the tracks on the EP are out on a label that puts out stuff that’s so, uh…epic.
What’s next for you though? Is there going to be a live PA or are you going to DJ?
Clams Casino: I’m looking into it, live is going to take a while to put together, maybe once I get this new computer or something. But DJing is definitely something I’m interested in; if I do DJ it’s just going to be a lot of stuff I like, a lot of hip hop that I love.