Sept. 15 2010 10:18 AM

Tony Simon, aka Blockhead, turns disparate beats into something new

Tony Simon, aka Blockhead
Photo by Maya Hayuk
Growing up, Tony “Blockhead” Simon spent a lot of time in art galleries. The Manhattan-based hip-hop producer and beat-maker tagged along with his famous sculptor father, Sidney, stuffing himself with hors d’oeuvres and eavesdropping on conversations between art-world luminaries and faculty at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Despite all of the inherited connections and readily available nepotism, Simon knew early on that the world of his father would never be his own.

“It just didn’t appeal to me,” Simon tells CityBeat by phone from his New York home. “Not even for a moment. I was pretty young when I got completely turned off to the art world. But more than anything, I was just completely devoid of talent in that arena. I can’t draw. I can’t sculpt. I’m terrible at it all. And the fact that I’ve been able to make a career out of being an artist, in one way or another, is actually pretty funny to me.”

While Simon has made a name for himself releasing critically acclaimed instrumental albums and producing beats for some of underground hip-hop’s biggest names, similarities to his father’s work are undeniable.

“I look at my music like a collage,” Simon says. “I take small pieces of sound and put them together to make something completely different. But I can see parallels to what my dad did. He just worked far more organically, taking a hunk of clay and transforming it into sculpture. What I do is more like taking little pieces of 20 sculptures and making it into a new one.”

Steeped in early-’90s hip-hop, Simon first started rapping in his teens. Ignoring his peers’ East Coastcentric tastes, he began collecting output in the genre from all over the country. Before long, he’d amassed a sizeable and significant collection.

He then focused his acquisition skills on equipment, gathering all kinds of gadgets and machines to use in creating beats of his own to rap over.

Simon solidified things by following the self-deprecating lead of The Pharcyde’s “Fatlip” and gave himself the moniker “Blockhead,” after the unusual size and shape of his cranium.

After spending time both rapping and making his own beats, it didn’t take long for the young performer to realize that his place was behind the turntables, not in front of them.

“With my white-guy voice and white-guy flow, it just didn’t pan out that well,” Simon said. “I realized I was far better at beat-making than I was rapping, so that’s what I decided to focus on.”

Things took a significant turn during Simon’s one and only year at Boston University. It was there that he met Ian Bavitz, the acclaimed underground rapper who goes by the name Aesop Rock.

Bonding over “rap-nerd shit,” Simon and Bavitz hit it off immediately and continued hanging out long after Simon had left campus.

When Bavitz came to New York City to visit friends, the pair would meet up and even ended up living together for a summer. They decided they’d work together shortly after.

“I met Aesop and he was a real rapper,” Simon said. “And we had very similar outlooks on everything as well as the same tastes in music. We just clicked. It really put things in perspective for me.”

Their friendship blossomed into a successful business partnership when Simon produced a track on Bavitz’s selfreleased EP, Appleseed. Blockhead production was featured on seven subsequent Aesop Rock albums, including the Mush Records debut Float in 2000, as well as all five Definitive Jux releases. Simon also lent his talents to the likes of indie rappers Slug, MURS, Mike Ladd and C-Rayz Walz while releasing four of his own instrumental albums on the seminal Ninja Tune label.

With a production style that’s somewhere between the beat-oriented tapestries of early DJ Shadow and the sonically layered madness of The Avalanches, Simon tends to get lost in the sizeable scope of his solo work.

His latest release, 2009’s The Music Scene, was no exception. The extensive and exhausting process left Simon longing to get back on the road and in front of a live audience.

“I’ll always be a studio-first guy,” he said. “There’s no question about it. But I’m at the point where I’m really happy with my live show. Fans should love it because it’s something you won’t hear anywhere else. I focus on the task at hand when I’m performing and just try to make it sound as good as possible.”

But with the road proving to be almost as demanding as time in the studio, it’s unclear when the next Blockhead album may be coming.

“This last one took a lot out of me,” Simon said. “It was the most complex work process I’ve ever had. I need to get my head back before I get into another instrumental record. But I definitely see myself continuing to make this kind of music.”

Blockhead plays with Signal Path, Nocando and Open Mike Eagle at The Casbah on Tuesday, Sept. 22.