Blockhead: He’s got the beats

by Keenan Ketzner

If you’ve been listening to the underground hip-hop scene for any lengthy amount of time, then you’ve probably heard of Tony Simon, or as he’s better known under his producer alias, Blockhead. Born in Manhattan, his music is just as textured and bustling as the city itself; long passages of voices quickly passing by. Short, dark alleyways that close in on the listener. Sounds stemming from every denomination of person. Blockhead’s music, in general, is anything but blocky.

First starting off as a rapper, Tony shifted focus to beat-making upon collaborating with underground MC extraordinaire Aesop Rock. The two artists couldn’t have been any more fitting for each other in regards to how they both avoid typical hip-hop clichés with their inventive ideas and extreme eye for detail. Ever since, Blockhead has been facilitating rappers with music that stays true to the style of golden-age hip-hop while giving it his own unique spin for over 15 years.

“There is no longer a drive to be original. Originality and authenticity were the driving forces behind the rap of my era. Now those two things are almost scoffed at and any new trend gets homogenized within weeks,” he dismays, referring to the shoddy state of modern producers. Yes, while trend-hoppers continue to experiment with any novel genre that’s become the latest bandwagon, Tony has been perfecting his craft and his own unique vision for so long that it shows absolute uniqueness, while still harkening back to the defining sounds of 90s hip-hop.

Probably one of Blockhead’s biggest releases was The Music Scene, which marked a significant step up in the technical aspect of his sound. Tony had made a serious move to digital equipment, becoming an early adopter of Ableton, and as a result his vision expanded twofold, with the album taking on traces of psychedelic music, trip-hop and even downtempo. Again, it took the scratching and sampling tricks of back-in-the-day and amped it up with dense soundscapes of golden vocal nuggets amidst smooth, ever changing instrumental mashups, sampling everything from 70s funk, to soul, jazz and even world music.

“I like things moving and fast paced, even when I’m slobbing around on my couch watch TV,” he said.

With The Music Scene still keeping the heads of many hip-hop enthusiasts bobbing, Tony continued to follow this up with other ventures into similar realms of music, spawning Interludes After Midnight, and his latest solo album, Bells and Whistles, both of which dive even deeper into psychedelia, with the former feeling like a Taxi Driver-esque vista of downtown NYC, and the latter playing more like a mindful spattering of aerosol art.

Outside of Blockhead’s solo works, Tony has also lent instrumental to those like Open Mike Eagle, Cage, Illogic, and many others. When asked about his method of collaboration, Tony plays humble.

“It’s pretty simple. I send rappers beats. I don’t really make tracks specific for anyone. I just churn them out and see who likes what,” he said.

And yet it hardly seems this way. The beats give each rapper a firm enough ground to perform over, while still exhibiting just what makes Blockhead’s music so appealing.

Thankfully, there looks to be more exciting music coming in the near future. A project involving Tony and a full band under the name “The Mighty Jones” will be releasing their album Gone Long shortly, with hopes of more solo releases from Blockhead. As it is, Tony Simon continues to be the king of his own castle, and won’t soon be compromising it for anyone else.

Published in the May 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine