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Hip-hop heads love to argue over who did what, and when. Take the debate surrounding the sampling of Indian music: while mainstream cats invariably point to Timbaland as an originator (dating back to his production of Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin' " in 1999), indie purists cite El-P, whose work on Company Flow's "Fire in Which You Burn" in 1998 featured a prominent sitar loop.
Given Kanye West's recent double-barrelled assault on the singles chart (with his own "Through the Wire" and Twista's "Slow Jamz"), beat freaks have been offered a new subject for discussion: who was the first producer to use a sped-up vocal sample? When it comes to popularizing the use of helium-voiced snippets, there's no question that credit goes to West and Just Blaze for their work on Jay-Z's The Blueprint in 2001. But long before those Roc-A-Fella boardsmen were speeding up Stax Records samples, Anthony Simon (aka Blockhead) had already perfected the tactic at his home studio. Too bad no one was around to hear him do it.
"When I first heard The Blueprint, I was like, 'Fuck! I've been trying that for years,' " explains the producer, reached at his home in Brooklyn. "Obviously, I can't say for sure that I was the first person to use sped-up vocal samples, and anyways, it doesn't really matter because I'm fed up with that style now. It's played out."
Outdated or not, the approach figures prominently on "Insomniac Olympics", the final song on Blockhead's just-released debut, Music by Cavelight. Heretofore best known as the producer behind Aesop Rock's epochal Labor Days, the New Yorker is something of a reluctant soloist, a bedroom recorder who never expected this batch of beats to surface in record stores.
"Music by Cavelight is a compilation of miscellaneous instrumentals I made over a period of five years," explains Blockhead, who appears alongside Kid Koala and Amon Tobin at the Commodore on Tuesday (March 23). "Most of them were made in the late '90s, when I was into a darker vibe of music. At that time, I was strictly into underground hip-hop and Portishead and basically anything that was slow, brooding, and cinematic."
To be sure, Music by Cavelight is resolutely moody, but Simon himself is not--a fact attested to by Party Fun Action Committee, the comedy record he released last year on Definitive Jux. That album played like an indie-rap version of Spinal Tap, offering up a stinging attack on hip-hop artists who take themselves too seriously. Asked to reveal the source of his acerbic sense of humour, Blockhead avows that he's no stranger to satire, having hosted a skit-based cable-television program (The Baby Show) in the late 1990s.
"Public-access TV is a pretty big deal in the New York area," he explains. "There's four channels devoted to it and pretty much anyone can get on. The best part of having a show was that there were basically no rules; me and my friends could do anything we wanted, as long as it didn't include live body-fluid exchange. For some strange reason, the station manager always frowned on that."