In 2012, Michael Volpe seemed to have the world at his feet. His lo-fi beats-turned-breakout tracks for Lil B and A$AP Rocky paved the way for two disparate new rap icons and helped forge a fresh sound in the process – so-called cloud rap, which slowed hip-hop into queasy drifts of bass and synth. But as offers flooded in from rap and pop A-listers alike, the New Jersey native retreated further into the shadows. That is, until now. On the brink of his long-awaited debut album, Chris Kelly finds out what kept him so long.
After a few quiet years, Clams Casino is returning with his grandest artistic statement yet. The producer born Michael Volpe emerged at the turn of the decade, producing breakthrough tracks for Lil B, A$AP Rocky and Main Attrakionz, and his lo-fi style – with its moody melodies, faraway vocal samples, and massive, in-the-red drums – came to define the sound known as “cloud rap” and make him an underground star in his own right. His trio of Instrumentals mixtapes remain required listening for fans of hip-hop, electronic music and all points in between, and he’s gone on to produce tracks for The Weeknd, FKA twigs, Vince Staples and other. But those collaborations have been increasingly rare recently, with his output seemingly limited to a handful of songs per year.
Thankfully, it was worth the wait. On July 15, Clams Casino will release 32 Levels, his debut album and first proper body of work since 2011’s Rainforest EP. The record (which takes its title from seminal Clams-produced Lil B track ‘I’m God’) charts his development from crafter of mixtape cuts to producer on major labels’ speed-dials. As Lil B collaborations give way to songs with singers like Kelela and Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring, the album tells the story of Clams’ creative growth. This is very much by design. “The sequence of it is really important to me, and that’s the only way it really works,” he says via Skype from his New Jersey home. “With the range of music and the different types of artists – the whole scope of it is so wide – it needs to be organized in a certain way.”
“I’ve never seen myself as a performer or a DJ. I’d rather be making new music than going on tour”
32 Levels is the culmination of more than two years of work, beginning with almost a year of sample collection in studios in New York, L.A. and London before even making a beat. “I knew it was going take a really long time to complete my album, and that’s why I didn’t say anything about it until it was done and ready to come out,” he explains – a reticence that comes across in our interview as shyness. Over that span of time, he worked only on the album, except for a few things that kept him from “going crazy or getting too sucked into” the project. “It’s very important for me to step out for a few weeks, recharge and refresh my mind, and punctuate the work on this album with other people’s stuff,” he says. Some of those tracks would end up on albums by 32 Levels guests A$AP Rocky and Vince Staples. But the record doesn’t just feature his longtime collaborators; Clams also wanted to see the directions that new and different artists would take the album.
“The idea of collaborating with these people was I wanted to do something different for myself, but at the same time, it’s an outlet for them to do something they can’t do on their own projects,” he says. “It inspires me to explore, which is the main idea of the album – I never want to get stuck doing the same thing. It’s about me getting deeper into the musical world I’ve created, and getting these artists to help me explore these places.”
On 32 Levels, the musical world that Clams creates is at first reminiscent of his early work. On the front half of the album are a trio of tracks that feature Lil B: menacing lead single ‘Witness’, claustrophobic A$AP Rocky collab ‘Be Somebody’ and the blown-out based world of the title track. Then, Clams begins to explore new directions. ‘Thanks To You’ is a tentative first step into different territory, with vocalist Sam Dew picking up where that Imogen Heap sample left off on ‘I’m God’, and then the playing field is wide open: the bouncy ‘Back To You’ features vocalist Kelly Zutrau and sounds more like something her band Wet would produce; ‘Ghost in a Kiss’, featuring indie frontman Herring, is heavy with baroque melodrama; and standout ‘A Breath Away’ finds Kelela in a particularly Janet Jackson-esque mood.
“It sucks when someone takes my style because they think it’s hot and try to copy it”
Even working with the artist most associated with his beats, Lil B, provided a new kind of experience. Despite producing for him since 2009, Clams had still not worked face-to-face with the Based God (their IRL relationship had been limited to a few pre-show hellos) until the making of the album. “It was a big deal for me. That was the first opportunity we had to sit down and talk. On the first day, we caught up and took it all in,” he says. “It was a weird feeling but it was all cool, it felt like we had known each other because we worked together so much. It felt right at home, especially when we started making music – it came right away, without even thinking.”
While the vocal collaborations drove the album’s development, Clams is fine with being better known for his instrumentals. “Some people don’t even want to hear the vocal versions, and that’s cool,” he says, noting that – with his fans in mind – 32 Levels will be packaged with the instrumentals. “I didn’t even listen to the instrumental version until it was mastered,” he admits. “I knew it would work, but it’s a whole different experience.” That’s not his only fan service. Though he’ll probably do more live dates now that he has a cache of new music, it’s not something he relishes: “I’ve never seen myself as a performer or a DJ. I’d rather be making new music than going on tour.”
It’s clear that Clams sees himself as a behind-the-scenes studio dweller. The fact that he’s a dedicated gamer is perhaps less surprising than the way in which video game soundtracks influenced the sound of 32 Levels. “A lot of the dark moods are inspired by Mortal Kombat games from back in the day, those old soundtracks that are burned in the back of my mind from playing when I was really young,” he says, noting that old RPGs and Zelda inspired some of the album’s atmospheres and ambience. But apart from that, he tried his best to shut out other music so it wouldn’t subconsciously affect his creative decisions. “I know how easily I can overthink stuff and I don’t want to start hearing stuff that sounds similar to mine.”
Hearing music that sounds similar to his own is not an uncommon occurrence. Since breaking through with those Lil B and A$AP Rocky collaborations, his brand of lo-fi maximalism has permeated hip-hop, R&B and beyond, and he sees both negatives and positives in his influence. “It sucks when someone takes [my style] because they think it’s hot and try to copy it. There’s probably a majority of people who are doing it for the wrong reasons, or don’t know what else to do, which will probably hurt them in the long run,” he posits. “But when people take inspiration from my music and spin it in their own way, it’s rewarding and inspiring.”
As an example of the latter, he points to Jonathan “MP” Williams, a fan who reached out to Clams and has since worked with A$AP Rocky and the TDE crew, and ended up co-producing tracks on 32 Levels. “I hear my influence in his music, but I also hear him taking it and making it his own, which I really appreciate,” he says. “That’s really cool to see. That makes me happy.”
Once 32 Levels is released, expect Clams Casino to be back at work, producing for other artists and possibly scoring video games or films – as long as it’s behind the scenes. Because even after spending the better part of a decade in the music business, he’s still just a guy who’s most comfortable making beats in his northern New Jersey home – outside of the city, and on his own level.