Release Date: Jul 15, 2016
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): Rap, Pop/Rock
You can count on one hand the most influential beats of the 2010s. There’s “I Don’t Like” from Young Chop and the one-two punch of Lex Luger’s “B.M.F.” and “Hard in da Paint”, and Willie B’s “Rigamortus” presaged the jazzy brilliance of To Pimp a Butterfly. But competing with Luger’s productions for the most imitators has to be Clams Casino’s “I’m God”, the song that for many changed their view of Lil B from an internet curio to an artist worth exploring.
In the way that dubstep artist Burial dominated the left-leaning bit of his genre, the equally mysterious Mike Volpe, aka Clams Casino, slinked through the experimental side of hardcore rap and became a renowned figure with only a few interviews, some scattered releases, and a very humble attitude. The proof was always in the pudding as his woozy work for Lil B and A$AP Rocky helped break those artists, while remixes for Lana Del Rey and Big K.R.I.T. made them instantly cooler.
In the early days of hip-hop, producers were king. DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Eric B and Rakim. Pete Rock and CL Smooth. The artists behind the boards and turntables were often given higher billing and were also the higher selling points at the time. That quickly started to change in the ….
Clams Casino is not, in the strictest sense, a hip-hop artist. But his influence over and relationship with the sound of the genre’s past decade have largely come to define his work. Since the New Jersey-bred producer first bubbled up in your 2009 RSS feed, he’s either been at the cutting edge of rap’s mainstream (or at least ripped off by those who were), or sharply diverging from it.
“The mind is so complex when you’re based/32 levels/Welcome to my world,” Lil B ad-libbed on “I’m God. ” Upon it’s release in 2009, “I’m God” was largely received as an internet curio, its submerged Imogen Heap sample, unhurried beat and Lil B’s impressionistic, stream of consciousness rapping cutting a contrast against the crisper sounds of rap’s mainstream. Seven years later, the Clams Casino-produced track sounds more like a blueprint for modern rap production rather than an outlier.
“Yes.” Cloud rap is a yes, an affirmation. To quote Squadda B and Mondre M.A.N., it’s “that shit that you can trust.” What it affirms exactly is largely down to the artist themselves — whether it’s Raider Klan’s throwback vxsthxtics, Main Attraktionz’s kush-coma hymnals, or the free-associative panegyrics of Lil B — but generally speaking, those who pertain to the Cloud Body say “yes” to anything and everything that life might throw at them. Cloud rappers ultimately aim to ascend, to rise above socioeconomic situation and land somewhere in the haze of a daydream.
Clams Casino’s three Instrumental mixtapes - and the gauzy, slump-hop productions they advertised - have redrafted the outer limits of rap, while various versions of his syrupy, discombobulated sound seep into the charts. At best, Clams’s beats seem beaten, staggering in a space filled with distortion, as if someone’s trying to hoover up the song before it finishes. 32 Levels begins and ends strongly but sags in the middle like an old sofa, never bettering Casino classics such as A$AP Rocky’s LVLor FKA twigs’ flutteringly majestic Hours.
It was three years ago that Michael Volpe, a.k.a. Clams Casino, dropped his third Instrumentals mixtape, and it's been five since he released his influential EP of humid, doleful bangers, Rainforest. So although Clams has kept busy producing for the likes of Danny Brown, A$AP Ferg, Vince Staples and FKA twigs recently, there was a sense that 32 Levels should be something of a grand return — a magnum opus, even.In that context, it's a bit of a letdown.
As the producer most associated with the emergent talent of A$AP Rocky, Clams Casino had a big 2012. Coming on like Enya after 15 blunts, all new age melodies and huge woozy drums, Clams (his real name is Michael Volpe) had an interesting sonic aesthetic. Four years on and a combination of pan pipes and big beats no longer sound so fresh, so Clams has done what any producer would on his debut album and drafted in features.
Michael Volpe is the rare kind of rap producer whose instrumentals are better remembered than the songs they were made for. But then he's a rare producer in general, arriving out of nowhere with an already well-defined and magnetic sound. Layering samples from all kinds of sources (choral music, new age, pop, R&B) and fastening them to sharp drums, Clams Casino productions were both mighty and mystical.
The New Jersey producer Clams Casino is known for deep core beat mining, crushing ground under the weight of deliberate tempo drum drops, releasing gasses that form smoggy, hazy surroundings with enchanting hues. This galvanizing formula has emerged in a series of instrumental collections, beginning with 2007's leviathan Rainforest EP, that have attracted beat lovers and vocalists alike. Now Clams Casino has made the jump to Columbia Records and finally released his debut full-length with them, 32 Levels.
Clams Casino has steadily built himself a reputation for being a sterling remixer and producer, but his debut album 32 Levels sees him attempt to establish himself as an artist in his own right. A series of instrumental EPs and mixtapes have hinted at what to expect from a Clams long player, but the album serves up some surprises. While previous releases dealt mainly in atmospheric, chilled trip-hop, 32 Levels sees him leave that all behind and leap forward with a record of R&B-flecked pop sensibilities.
“Leave it up to Clams / He got us,” Lil B intones at the beginning of Clams Casino’s full-length major-label debut, the first genuine album from cultishly revered producer Mike Volpe. It’s a statement that speaks not only to Lil B’s trust that Volpe will come through—as he has on all his best tracks—but to his gratitude at finding someone who understood his misfit approach, who took Lil B’s bizarre meme-riffs and flat affect and surrounded them with ethereal, ambient bliss, together creating the spacey “based world” of cloud rap. Volpe—a physical therapy student who recorded his spectral soundscapes as a hobby, then sent them to Lil B and other rappers unsolicited—recognized these kindred spirits on the genre fringes.
Opening on the instrumental ‘Level 1’ – little more than a chopped-up vocal loop, but a gorgeous and hypnotic one at that – the album next reunites Clams Casino with Lil B and A$AP Rocky for the chilly and distorted ‘Be Somebody’. From there the so-hot-right-now guest vocalists just keep coming: Warp-signed R&B chanteuse Kelela, Kelly Zutrau of NY alt-poppers Wet and Future Islands’ Samuel T Herring all swing by, but it’s buzzed-over Long Beach rapper Vince Staples who steals the show on album highlight ‘All Nite’ – his urgent technical rhyming is utterly refreshing amid the current trend for slurred, semi-sung raps. Clams Casino’s productions are strong and downright weird enough to not have the spotlight stolen from them by the nine guests on ‘32 Levels’.
While it's a non-official starting point, many attribute Lil B as being the originator of cloud rap. In the few years it's existed, the sub-genre has taken on many forms, forever moving away from the Based God's off-kilter rhyming styles and poor, but likable flows. Only the young and malleable impersonator Yung Lean comes close. However, the real jumping off point for the genre came when weed-infused Harlem by way of Houston rapper ASAP Rocky drenched his debut mixtape in it.