With A$AP Rocky celebrating the 10 year anniversary of his classic debut LIVE.LOVE.A$AP, we spoke with Clams Casino about the unique chemistry he shares with the Harlem rapper.
Some of New York’s more traditional rap fans had a problem with an obnoxious kid from Harlem mixing distorted boom bap with woozy chopped and screwed vocals. Double cups and gold grills appearing in a rap upstart named Rakim’s colorful music videos served as a painful reminder that Atlanta was now inspiring the birthplace of hip-hop… and not the other way round. However, A$AP Rocky’s LIVE.LOVE.A$AP and its melting pot of influences were an inevitability.
Rocky was part of a generation of New Yorkers who found themselves during an era where the South had all the coolest rappers. Although Rocky and his friends worshipped the line-pushing hubris of local heroes like Big L and Cam’ron, their ear was more inclined to the melodic yet sedated trap sound of DJ Screw, SpaceGhostPurrp (who produced “Keep It G” on LIVE.LOVE.A$AP) and Pimp C — music which made most sense when processed through a mind fogged by drugs. Everything had to be purple.
By bringing all these elements together, Rocky’s debut mixtape gave the world something fresh and exciting. Released on Halloween 2011, the album was a bridge between the East and the South. It also presented a warped take on electronic music, which in turn attracted Aphex Twin fans. Rocky essentially united the hustlers and the internet cool kids, summarized perfectly on the refreshingly honest “Demons,” where he boasted: “I’m a hipster by heart, but I can tell you how the streets feel.”
He also transferred the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony flow to the catwalk, projecting an infectious, larger-than-life confidence that inspired teenagers everywhere from London to L.A. to buy a “Comme Des Fuckdown” beanie. The street guys had been given a seat next to Anna Wintour at New York Fashion Week. Yet the production from Clams Casino (who produced five tracks on the album) is perhaps an even bigger reason behind why LIVE.LOVE.A$AP has been embraced as a classic.
“Palace” is the perfect opener, with Clams’ use of crashing symbols and a transcendent choir (sampled from a song that typically plays over images of polar bears roaring during National Geographic documentaries) feeling like an epic, mountain-top coronation. Harlem’s new King can’t quite believe how great the beat sounds, rapping: “Goddamn, how real is this?”
You could make a convincing argument that Clams’ “Wassup” beat, where Rocky drops cocky sing-a-long melodies about being “that pretty motherfucker,” also wrote the template for the decade’s dominant lo-fi rap scene. It’s a deep meditative groove that sounds like it’s being played out of a broken cassette player, and a “ticklish” Rocky made it cool for heterosexual alpha-males to be effeminate. This is all commonplace now, but it wasn’t back in 2011.
“Bass” is even better, immersing you in a whirlpool of thumping bass lines and scattered, moaning synths. It’s dripping with attitude and sex, and experimentalist Clams (real name Michael Volpe) deftly flips the downtrodden song it sampled (Imogen Heap’s “Just For Now”). Clams’ production creates something so euphoric that Rocky is able to simply repeat the word “bass” over and over, and yet still make a profound impact on the listener.
The producer’s work on LIVE.LOVE.A$AP retains its raw power today, still capable of improving a late night car ride, or acting as the fuel for a party sequence in HBO’s Euphoria. Clams Casino beats were the launchpad that A$AP Rocky used to become an international star. “This project was all about being fearless,” the producer, who has also worked with Lil Peep, Mac Miller, and The Weeknd, said during an afternoon phone call earlier this month.
Trying to deflect the attention away from his own contributions to the project, the 34-year-old continues: “It was about creating a new sound. That’s what A$AP Rocky represented.” To celebrate A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape turning 10 and coming to DSPs for the first time, we spoke to Clams Casino about the project’s legacy, his unique chemistry with the Harlem rapper, and where the producer’s head is at in 2021.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
How did you discover A$AP Rocky’s music? He had already recorded rhymes over one of your beat tapes, right?
Clams Casino: I was looking for more local New York artists to work with because a lot of my time was spent producing internet rappers from L.A. and the Bay Area. I wanted to work with more people from my area. Rocky had very little music out at the time… maybe a couple of videos or songs on YouTube, but that was literally it. There was just something about his voice that grabbed me, and I thought I could bring something unique to it as a producer. When I reached out and emailed, he hit me back and told me he had already completed a song [“Demons”] after listening to my beat tape. He was a fan. It just all lined up so perfectly. I kept sending him beats and the songs he made got better and better. It felt like it was meant to happen, you know?
I feel like the sample of the dude losing it on the subway, screaming “you don’t put no fear in my fucking heart!” on “Bass” really signifies the project’s ethos. There was a vacuum in mainstream hip-hop in 2011, presenting this opportunity for something new and fearless.
Yeah, I guess. I think hip-hop was wide open in 2011. There was nothing new or exciting, not for me at least. The project was all about being fearless. It was about creating a new sound. That’s what A$AP Rocky represented. My main goal in making music is to create something I haven’t heard before, or that no one else has. That’s what keeps my heart beating and it’s where all my beats for this project came from. All the beats I gave Rocky were just raw and rough — I guess that ended up inspiring [a lot of SoundCloud] kids, who knew they could make something that moved the people without the need for a bunch of expensive studio equipment. It wasn’t about the quality anymore, but the feeling.
I think part of what sounds so new is how you flip such niche samples and re-structure Imogen Heap howls so they take the place of synths. You didn’t typically hear eerie choirs like those on “Palace” on trap songs back in 2011.
Those choirs trigger emotions. They stir something deep inside of you. Turning organic sounds and voices into instruments is something I really love doing. There’s so much harmonic stuff going on in those natural textures; the synthetic sounds don’t really compare. I also like to re-create synthetic sounds so they might sound more like a groan an animal might make or something.
I had actually sampled that Imogen Heap song twice before I had even made “Bass.” [Edit note: Clams sampled the song on three Lil B songs: “B.O.R. (Birth of Rap),” “I Am God,” and “I Am the Devil.”] It’s a mental exercise to find new ways to bend a sample. It’s a mathematics equation that I enjoy solving. Look, I guess I had been working on beats like “Palace,” “Wassup,” and “Leaf” for like three years. I had so many different versions and a lot of care went into them. Rocky heard something different in them, though, and really brought them to life.
Your upcoming EP, Winter Flower, shows a lot of evolution as a producer. It’s ethereal in its beauty, but it also sounds a little broken. Just like your work with Rocky, it retains this rough diamond energy. Would you say that’s a mentality that has stayed with you?
The new EP represents how the world felt during lockdown last December, which is when I made it. But I also wanted it to be hopeful. The new music is all about lasting through a dark cloud and making it through to the light. Maybe that’s where my head is at right now. It’s about persevering. But yeah, I would say the mentality is the same in a lot of ways. I still get bored by things that are overproduced or too thought out. I am more attracted by creating things that sound raw.
Back to LIVE.LOVE.A$AP, but there’s a real electronic influence in your contributions… it is definitely music that makes a lot of sense to people high on MDMA at raves. How did your musical background inspire that?
One of the big things I realized [when revisiting LIVE.LOVE.A$AP] was how big of an influence The Prodigy had on me growing up. Songs like “Firestarter” really affected how I made beats. Their tracks just forced you to take notice through being so gritty and experimental. I played a few shows with Rocky in New York City and when we played “Bass” people were reacting in a way I hadn’t seen before. Maybe it reminded me [of The Prodigy]. Everything just changed overnight and the record deal [for Rocky] then happened so quickly. It still feels like yesterday.
Given your chemistry, it’s a shame there isn’t a full length A$AP Rocky and Clams Casino album out in the world. Could that ever happen?
Yeah, it’s never ruled out. We do have some unreleased music, which will hopefully be out soon. I am always down to do more though.
Why is your chemistry so great? Like, why are people still talking about this mixtape 10 years later?
Rocky had a confidence like he could woo Rihanna before he even had a record deal, and I think this aura comes out in the music. It’s like spending time with the dude who is the heart of the party. It’s pure confidence, and that makes other people feel good. It catches on. Everything just lines up when we work together. Something clicks. It’s impossible to explain that kind of stuff. You can’t really define magic like that.
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.