It’s the classic super hero double life; By day, mild-mannered Mike Volpe is studying to become a physical therapist, but the 24-year-old spends much of his free time rattling the foundation of his mother’s suburban North Jersey home, knocking out airy and ethereal hip-hop soundscapes with a devastating low end. Known as Clams Casino to the rap world, he’s landed production credits for the likes of Soulja Boy and Mobb Deep‘s Havoc by way of sheer internet hustle (he’s never met most of the rappers he produces for). Most notably, he serves as one of the principle beatsmiths behind Lil B’s bizarre and sprawling internet takeover. Clams’ self-released Instrumentals compilation, however, sent him on a different path and attracted unexpected attention from the world of instrumental electronic music. This week he releases his proper instrumental debut, The Rainforest EP. Volpe sat down with Hive to talk about his creative process, the transition from rap producer to solo artist and bouncing back from a major hard drive crash.
When did you first get into production?
I’ve always played music. Growing up, I started off playing drums. I got my first drum set when I was six; my father’s a musician, he collects crazy instruments. His house is full of stuff that he doesn’t even use. He’s got keyboards, old samplers, all different kinds of drums. I started producing hip-hop during my freshman year of high school. I tried to teach myself guitar and piano, but I don’t really know how to play.
Do you change your approach in making beats for an instrumental record and beats for a rapper?
I’m still working that out. I never thought of separating them before. Now I have to, but I don’t really want to. I don’t want to think too much about it. I’m sure it’ll come, hopefully. I’m probably just gonna keep doing what I’m doing.
How did you get in touch with Lil B?
I started sending him stuff [through Myspace] in like the fall of ’08. He used to put the funniest shit out, and nobody would get it. I would crack up and my friends would be like, “What the fuck are you listening to?” I just kept listening and listening to it.
Did you ever expect “I’m God” to grow into one of his more iconic tracks?
I had no idea. I [initially] made it for Sha Stimuli – I work with him a lot. I sent him so much stuff for his first CD and he was like, “Oh, yeah I love this,” but he never ended up using it. I sent it to a bunch of people after that. I never even thought about sending it to B [at first] because I didn’t think he would like it.
It’s funny because now the Imogen Heap samples are a staple of his whole aesthetic.
Yeah, and they all [sample] the same song, too. It’s not even different songs by her!
He told me that people now just submit beats to him with that sample all the time. He doesn’t ask for it.
Yeah, that’s so funny. People always think that I made those. Really, the only ones that I gave him were “I’m the Devil” and “I’m God.”
Now, did he hit you with the concept for “I’m the Devil”? Was he like, “I need this beat flipped in reverse”?
No, what happened was, I sent him the “I’m God” beat, and sort of half of the “I’m the Devil” beat at the same time. But ["I'm the Devil"] switched up in the middle and got faster. He called me and was like, “Yo, you gotta change this part. Keep it slow the whole time.” So I fixed it and sent it back to him.
Does he give you specific direction on beats like that a lot?
He’ll send me samples sometimes. Like “Real Shit From a Real N*gga,” he sent me that. For “Cold War,” he told me exactly what to do. He sent a YouTube link to this [Janelle Monae] song, and was like, “Loop this part right here from 1:40 to 1:50,” or something. “Just loop that, minimal drums, a really basic beat.” I wanted to go crazy on the sample, but he was like, “Nah, nah just keep it basic.” He sent it to a lot of producers that he talked to because he was like, “You made the best one.” I guess he’s got a list of producers that he [sends samples to] and whoever hits him back with the one he likes the most is the one that he uses.
It seems like otherwise, most of your creative input just entails sending off emails with beats attached. Is it common for you to not even hear the final version of a song you’ve produced until it’s released to the public?
Yeah, all the time, with the biggest songs, too. I had no idea about the Havoc song. The thing that I hate most about that is the mixes that come back. I work so hard on getting them how I want them, and it takes two seconds for somebody to record on them and get the vocals too loud.
A lot of the press for the recent instrumentals place your stuff alongside chillwave or other electronic music. Have you gone back and listened to any of the acts you’ve been compared to?
If I hear it enough that it sounds like [a certain] artist, I’ll go listen to a song or two on YouTube, but I’m not really into it. I definitely check it out but I don’t usually get past a few songs.
What have you been listening to lately?
Shit … I don’t know. Not a lot of new stuff, really. My whole computer crashed in May. The power went out and ever since I couldn’t turn it back on. Stupidly, I didn’t have anything backed up. I took it to a few places and I couldn’t get it fixed, so I don’t have anything I’ve done for the past four years. So really, I’ve just been listening to old stuff that my friends had.
Wait, how are you so calm about losing all your music?
[Laughs] Yeah, it sucks but there’s nothing I can do about. The only thing I’m really mad about [losing are] the actual sounds that I had. It took so long to build up that library of sounds. I don’t feel like I’m gonna need the separate tracks for my own beats. All the beats that I wanted to get out there are all out there. When I got my new computer, I had to go around and download my own mixtapes from other people. So I have all that stuff but I don’t have the actual sessions. I look at the positive side. It’s probably good for me creatively to start over so I don’t get too comfortable in doing the same things.
The Rainforest EP is out now on Tri-Angle Records.