Anthony Simon, a.k.a. “Blockhead” is perhaps best known for his work producing Def Jux indie-rap headliner Aesop Rock, but that’s not how I found out about him. (Blockhead was behind all Aesop’s big releases, including Labor Days, Bazooka Tooth, and last year’s None Shall Pass.) I know it reduces my indie cred to near zero, but I’m not a huge Aesop fan—I never dug his flow. I appreciate the Rock’s lyricism, but I rarely if ever find myself wanting to put on one of his albums. No, I found out about Blockhead through one of my favorite blogs, Passion of the Weiss, when Jeff picked “Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book” as one of his favorite releases of 2007. He was right, and I quickly got my hands on Mr. Simon’s complete discography. I come to find out he’s also worked with Cage and with two of my favorite underground rappers, Slug (of Atmosphere) and Murs. Okay, I thought, Block needs a post. A big post. A tribute. To his own work, not to his many songs with Aesop.
I haven’t been able to find it, but apparently Blockhead began with some sort of mixtape titled, “Blockhead’s Broke Beats,” released on Mush Records during the unfortunate month of September 2001. He’s got a few other mixtapes, but I don’t have any of them so I can’t speak to what their about.
Other than his work as a producer, Blockhead’s musical career began as part of the Party Fun Action Committee, in which he teamed up with “Jer,” an independent musician also based out of Manhattan. The duo released only one record, in 2003, titled “Let’s Get Serious,” but it may be the funniest musical record ever made. It tells a story of two exaggeratedly white owners of a record label (Stephen Richardson and Lars Haighmael) going through a collection of demo tapes, looking for rappers with street cred but all the while talking about how much they loved their summer homes in Vermont. It’s hilarious satire, exposing how simplistic all of the major-label rap genres are, from rap-rock to Frat-rap and everywhere in-between. The fictitious record execs check out demos by bands like “The Mystical Knights of the Vizual Roundtable;” “Kornhole;” Andrew Q and the Free Jazz Crusaders;” and “The Brothers of the Alpha Pi Kappa Fraternity.” Song titles include “Peter Pan,” “Beer,” and “Back N Da Daiz” (actually credited to Tony Simon). Just by the names of the bands (and/or the names of the songs), you can tell that the album hits on everyone from PM Dawn to Limp Bizkit, Everlast to Dream Warriors, etc. In particular, the tune “Mental Storm” exposes the limitations of the abstract rap genre pioneered by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Jedi Mind Tricks, and “I Shoulda Known” is the funniest takeoff R. Kelly’s “In the Closet” that I’ve ever heard. (And I’ve heard a lot of them, believe me. Most suck.) They even go outside of rap to take on Cure/Depeche Mode Europop and Heavy Metal. On the album’s most bizarre track (“Peter Pan”) explore whether it is possible for a straight man to admire the old John Barrie character. I can’t say enough about this album, but I have to stop somewhere because I haven’t even gotten to Blockhead’s solo work yet!
Beer-Party Fun Action Committee
Mental Storm-Party Fun Action Committee
Blockhead’s first official solo release was on Ninja Tune, 2004’s Music by Cavelight. As an album, Cavelight doesn’t really hold together. There are quite a few standout tracks here, including “You’ve Got Maelstrom,” which, after you get past the corny title, is very cool hipsway. Great music to bang to. If you’re already a fan of this instrumental genre, you’ll love it. If you’re not, it’ll probably be good background music for you, but I doubt it’ll turn you into a convert. I love it, of course, but I recognize it’s not for everyone. Try “Insomniac Olympics,” below. It’s pretty funny to imagine it as the theme to the Olympics.
You’ve Got Maelstrom-Blockhead
Blockhead’s second official release is where he finds his voice. 2004’s Downtown Science is introduced by the haunting “Expiration Date,” which takes the listener down a slow spiral of mystical keyboard swirls, culminating with a distorted voice wailing, “It’s not unusual,” and then taking that singer down into the eddy. Right after that comes “Roll Out the Red Carpet,” which begins with an old recording that sounds like it’s out of the 1920s, which the song then chipmunks and slows, distorts, and then pairs a drunken, rolling horn section with a steady marching drumbeat, in what can only be described as the audio version of seasickness. Then there’s the funnier hipsway of “Crashing Down,” which weaves beats around a slowed-down, sing-songy sample of some old guy laughing. Every track does something different, but the common theme (as well as in much of Blockhead’s work) is old-time samples, sped, screwed, slowed, and otherwise distorted by the digital age.
This brings us to 2007, and the incredible Uncle Tony’s Coloring Book. A few words about the title track, “Coloring Book.” It starts with a sample: “I’m going to pretend to be anything I like today!” and continues with an almost eerie sample-based hook: “For those who fancy coloring books, lots of people do, here’s a new one, for you . . .” This the track that, to me, best shows off his incredible talent. More than just a turntablist or beatmaker, this is an actual instrumental song, with a complete theme, a beginning, middle and end . . . Like any reputable classical or jazz piece. I’m a big fan of MF Doom’s Special Herbs, and I enjoy RJD2 and even the X-Ecutioners’ instrumental works, but about halfway through most of their songs I find myself wishing for a rapper. I’ve never heard a hip hop instrumental album like this one: It doesn’t need lyrics. It is a complete whole.