In April, when ‘Instrumentals Mixtape’ was released as a Mediafire link, the idea of a free mixtape by an unknown producer ending up on a best of album list was unheard of. But as one of my favourite all-time records, this list would be drastically incomplete without it. The speed of music can be measured with the story of Clams Casino’s extraordinary album – revolutionary on release, classic in months, it’s made an unassuming 23-year-old trainee physiotherapist called Mike Volpe from New Jersey one of the most in-demand hip hop producers of the moment.
This is because he makes music like no-one else. The beats on this album, all composed for rappers he had never met but simply emailed tracks to, recall little in hip hop. Raised on a diet of commercial beats, in interviews he’s mused on the links critics have made to shoegaze, vintage 4AD, or even labelmate Balam Acab, and how unknown this was to him when he composed his music. But rap’s forward momentum, which makes hip hop one of the most consistently new forms on the planet, constantly searches for new chinks, new hacks to old technology, new ways of making songs that bang. The pitch-shifting of The Heatmakaz, the soulful, layered space of Johnny “J”, or the work of cLOUDDEAD may tangentially spring to mind, but the heady vastness of his tracks really have little precedent.
The beats do bang, but with an emotional intensity and instant hit of pure beauty, with diamond melodies emerging through the ether, samples from a very non-rap-canonical range of sources (Imogen Heap, Bjork) glimmering through. When I chatted with him in Madrid, he talked about the way his tracks are composed, with basslines subdividing into new forms, samples processed until they find a place on new jam with a beat from an earlier track. The songs work as ecologies of sound, each element reliant on each other, at once vast and particular, caught in static flux. Emotionally, his songs are incredibly complex – rather than the empty bliss of so much music which aspires to Clams’ sense of space, his songs are astounding complex essays on feeling, catapulting between longing, joy, ennui, dread, affection and, yes, bliss, with astounding fluency. Many make dreampop, but Clams has offered one of the fullest and most articulate visions of what dreaming, imagining and drifting is. On What You Doin’, he runs the gambit, and ends with a simple, assured plonk, a closed piano lid – as if to say, “See? I told you I could do it.” All this, on a free mixtape of rap instrumentals. Before Clams, it was unheard. After hearing it, it’s impossible to imagine a world without it.
It’s tempting to draw links between the flurry of information broadcast at terminal velocity by our laptops and the oceanic waves of sound on the album; or the way the handbrake turns of emotion mirror those of online life. And indeed his career – from the fact this didn’t get a physical release till months after (on Type), to the idea of him downloading files at random from Limewire – is entirely dependent on the online world. But while this album’s genius (and genius is not too strong a word) is how closely it fits our unique historical moment, it does Mike Volpe’s talent a huge disservice. In any era, he would shine; and to live today in a world annotated by a musician of Clams’ skill is a joy.