Clams Casino: hip-hop’s production maestro steps out of the shadows

With tape hiss and Imogen Heap samples, Michael Volpe has become one of raps most sought-after beatmakers and now hes finally fronting his own project

Clams Casino doesnt immediately strike you as one of hip-hops most in-demand producers.

Quiet, unassuming and equipped with a New Jersey accent that gives his words a no-nonsense brevity, Michael Volpe, sounds almost surprised when he recounts the tracks hes created and the sound that theyve inspired. As recently as 2008 he was spamming rappers in a bid to get them to guest on one of his productions.

At that point I would send out 20 beats to every email address I had, he says. Whoevers email I could get off MySpace or something I would finish a beat and send it to them.

One artist who did use his productions was Lil B, the Bay Area rapper who is also goes by the moniker Based God and who is known for his esoteric or nonsense, depending on who you talk to lyrics. At the start of this decade Volpe was making beats in his moms house in Nutley, New Jersey. Hed construct an instrumental hip-hop track, often laced with tape hiss and incongruous samples Imogen Heap is his most famous muse and then send his tracks out to artists such as Soulja Boy, Mobb Deeps Havoc and Lil B, not hearing from them again until the track usually uncredited would end up on the internet.

Despite Lil B and Volpe working together on their best-known projects (Im God, is the pairs biggest hit) they only met in person while working on Volpes new album, 32 Levels.

That was the first time we met and hung out in person, says Volpe. We started working online in 2008, its almost 10 years. Id done three shows with him before that but wed never meet properly at the shows. Hed come in and wed meet in the hallway or something and just say hi. He was just in and out.

Despite the lack of IRL connections, the pairs lo-fi spaced-out productions earned the sound the moniker cloud rap and they were bundled together with the likes of early 10s rap tearaways Wolf Gang and Main Attrakionz, and presented as a core part of the scene that mostly existed on Tumblr pages and MySpace accounts.

Some of his contemporaries made the transition into bankable mainstream acts Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, for example while others have failed to download from the cloud. Clams Casino has managed to sit somewhere in the middle. Forward-thinking imprint Tri Angle put out an EP of instrumentals that repositioned Volpe as a kind of psych-hop outlier. That was backed by free MP3 releases of his popular instrumentals on download site Mediafire, which made him known as an artist in his own right rather than just another unknown bedroom producer.

He almost didnt become a producer at all. Volpes profile as a producer began to rise at the same time he was studying for a physical therapy degree in New Jersey because his early music career wasnt exactly what youd call lucrative.

I hadnt made money until 2011 from music at all, he says. It was four years before I made any money. I remember getting paid $500 to do a remix and thinking Oh shit!, because Id been doing stuff for years for nothing.

Things changed after his self-released mixtape came out in March 2011, when combined with the success of the work hed done with the then little known A$AP Rocky, he started getting serious offers.

Fast-forward five years and on his new album, Volpe has assembled a cast of familiar friends (A$AP Rocky, Lil B) and combined them with newer acquaintances (Vince Staples, Kelela). Perhaps the most intriguing is the albums penultimate track featuring Future Islands frontman Samuel T Herring.


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Volpe was connected to Herring via his manager, who signed Future Islands to 4AD. They corresponded over email, then face to face.

I could never have planned the song to come out like that, he says. The first thing I sent him was completely different, it was New Wave-y sounding, faster, synthy and really 80s sounding. I sent him three options and he came back with Ghost in a Kiss.

When I first heard it I was shocked and wasnt ready for it, he says. I lived with it for a couple of weeks and then it hit me, but it took me a while. I didnt get it at first. What usually happens to me happened in reverse that time.

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