Anthony Simon, a.k.a. â€œBlockheadâ€ is perhaps best known for his work producing Def Jux indie-rap headliner Aesop Rock, but thatâ€™s not how I found out about him. (Blockhead was behind all Aesopâ€™s big releases, including Labor Days, Bazooka Tooth, and last yearâ€™s None Shall Pass.) I know it reduces my indie cred to near zero, but Iâ€™m not a huge Aesop fanâ€”I never dug his flow. I appreciate the Rockâ€™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 â€œUncle Tonyâ€™s Coloring Bookâ€ as one of his favorite releases of 2007. He was right, and I quickly got my hands on Mr. Simonâ€™s complete discography. I come to find out heâ€™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 havenâ€™t been able to find it, but apparently Blockhead began with some sort of mixtape titled, â€œBlockhead’s Broke Beats,â€ released on Mush Records during the unfortunate month of September 2001. Heâ€™s got a few other mixtapes, but I donâ€™t have any of them so I canâ€™t speak to what their about.
Other than his work as a producer, Blockheadâ€™s musical career began as part of the Party Fun Action Committee, in which he teamed up with â€œJer,â€ an independent musician also based out of Manhattan. The duo released only one record, in 2003, titled â€œLet’s Get Serious,â€ 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. Itâ€™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 â€œThe Mystical Knights of the Vizual Roundtable;â€ â€œKornhole;â€ Andrew Q and the Free Jazz Crusaders;â€ and â€œThe Brothers of the Alpha Pi Kappa Fraternity.â€ Song titles include â€œPeter Pan,â€ â€œBeer,â€ and â€œBack N Da Daizâ€ (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 â€œMental Stormâ€ exposes the limitations of the abstract rap genre pioneered by Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Jedi Mind Tricks, and â€œI Shoulda Knownâ€ is the funniest takeoff R. Kellyâ€™s â€œIn the Closetâ€ that Iâ€™ve ever heard. (And Iâ€™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 albumâ€™s most bizarre track (â€œPeter Panâ€) explore whether it is possible for a straight man to admire the old John Barrie character. I canâ€™t say enough about this album, but I have to stop somewhere because I havenâ€™t even gotten to Blockheadâ€™s solo work yet!
Blockheadâ€™s first official solo release was on Ninja Tune, 2004â€™s Music by Cavelight. As an album, Cavelight doesnâ€™t really hold together. There are quite a few standout tracks here, including â€œYouâ€™ve Got Maelstrom,â€ which, after you get past the corny title, is very cool hipsway. Great music to bang to. If youâ€™re already a fan of this instrumental genre, youâ€™ll love it. If youâ€™re not, itâ€™ll probably be good background music for you, but I doubt itâ€™ll turn you into a convert. I love it, of course, but I recognize itâ€™s not for everyone. Try â€œInsomniac Olympics,â€ below. Itâ€™s pretty funny to imagine it as the theme to the Olympics.
Blockheadâ€™s second official release is where he finds his voice. 2004â€™s Downtown Science is introduced by the haunting â€œExpiration Date,â€ which takes the listener down a slow spiral of mystical keyboard swirls, culminating with a distorted voice wailing, â€œItâ€™s not unusual,â€ and then taking that singer down into the eddy. Right after that comes â€œRoll Out the Red Carpet,â€ which begins with an old recording that sounds like itâ€™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 thereâ€™s the funnier hipsway of â€œCrashing Down,â€ 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 Blockheadâ€™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, â€œColoring Book.â€ It starts with a sample: â€œIâ€™m going to pretend to be anything I like today!â€ and continues with an almost eerie sample-based hook: â€œFor those who fancy coloring books, lots of people do, hereâ€™s a new one, for you . . .â€ 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. Iâ€™m a big fan of MF Doomâ€™s Special Herbs, and I enjoy RJD2 and even the X-Ecutionersâ€™ instrumental works, but about halfway through most of their songs I find myself wishing for a rapper. Iâ€™ve never heard a hip hop instrumental album like this one: It doesnâ€™t need lyrics. It is a complete whole.