When Clams Casino -- civilian name Mike Volpe -- released his groundbreaking debut mixtape Instrumentals in 2011, he was months away from graduating from Essex County College with a degree to become a physical therapist’s assistant. He was 23 years old at the time, an intern at the hospital in which he was born. He was about to move out of his mom’s house in Nutley, New Jersey, located one hour west of Manhattan, and find a regular job.

Making beats had always been just a hobby for Clams. When he completed his degree, he started making music full-time and never looked back. At that point he already had under his belt collaborations with Lil B, Soulja Boy, and other artists he met on MySpace. In the coming years he would develop close creative partnerships with stars like A$AP Rocky and Vince Staples. But the fact that he is still best-known for his trilogy of instrumental mixtapes – Instrumentals, Instrumentals 2, & Instrumentals 3– testifies to the originality and complexity of his production style. It takes a rapper of unusual confidence, skill, and imagination to reckon with Clams Casino’s koan-like beats and emerge unscathed.

A Clams beat

A Clams beat is unpretentious. It is epic, but usually devoid of sonorous bells, hallowed organs, weepy orchestral strings, and other cinematic signifiers. It might contain a fuzzy ambient synth or any number of disembodied voices, pummeled, distorted, reversed, and stretched with all manner of digital tools so that the original sample is hardly recognizable.

A Clams beat is a universe unto itself. It often gives off a bittersweet taste because it contains several emotions -- nostalgia, melancholy, hope -- and the listener is left to draw his own conclusions.

A Clams beat is a soundtrack to the animal kingdom, to Mother Nature’s dispassion. A Clams beat lets us know that we are only dust in the wind.

A Clams beat is a psychedelic tale of life and death that evokes a timeless feel and unlocks an ancient power beyond comprehension. On Instrumentals, “Motivation” is sunny dawn after the monsoon blesses the crops of a South Asian village. “I’m Official” is Odysseus’s boat catching a gust as it skirts across the wine-dark Aegean. “Brainwash by London” is the tragic, unglamorous final breath of the last giant sloth.

A chat with Clams

Clams came by the HNHH studio in June to discuss his debut album 32 Levels. He wears a white short-sleeve polo and a bushy, kempt beard. A pair of sunglasses rests atop his bald head. He looks like a physical therapist. He looks a young Lex Luthor, before the disillusionment and minus the thirst for power.

He is 29 now. He wears a band on his left ring finger -- he is either married or about to be married. He is conversational but quiet. He doesn’t emote much, save for the occasional shy chuckle. He does not frequently grant interviews, but he needs to promote his album. He appears on the 32 Levelscover as a charcoal silhouette wearing a hoodie turned away from the camera with his hands pensively clasped behind his back.

Clams is no hermit but he is clearly introverted. He tells me he does not enjoy performing and tours only to make his fans happy and because he likes to travel. He seems to have his life pretty much figured out. He keeps his circle tight, makes music, and plays retro Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 games he downloaded to his Wii U. “I’m trying to finish up Zelda: Twilight Princess,” he says.

Photo by Elijah Dominique

Shoot your shot

The importance of MySpace in connecting musicians in the mid- to late-aughts is truly astounding, and there are few greater MySpace success stories than Clams Casino.

In those days, MySpace was a volume shooter’s game. One was wise to search for new and more prominent musical collaborators like J.R. Smith hoisting fadeaway threes, to not dwell on the misses and proceed with impunity, confident that the next shot would find pure nylon.

With the help of a friend, Clams Casino reached out to as many as 50 artists on MySpace per day. He estimates that he successfully elicited a response ten percent of the time. Often times, he would send out the same beat to a dozen or so different artists, and more often than not these beats would be snatched up by industrious so-called “internet rappers” Soulja Boy and Lil B. On one occasion, Soulja Boy released a song featuring a beat that Clams had pledged to A$AP Rocky. Such is life.

Can I get a witness

Clams has still never met Soulja Boy in person. He had never spent a significant amount of time with Lil B until last year, when he invited B down to L.A. for a three-day studio session. There they cut the ominous yet braggadocious 32 Levelssingle “Witness.” 

Lil B has directed countless of his own music videos (“just him and himself,” as Clams says). “Witness” was the first video he directed with a full crew. He developed the concept himself; the original plan -- to travel to Europe and shoot the video there -- had to be scaled back for budgetary reasons, but the video turned out well. It begins in an angular, well-lit modernist mansion. Lil B casts Clams as a shadowy Bond villain who wanders through the forest and drives through San Francisco and the winding hills of Marin County in a Maserati convertible. Lil B rides shotgun.

Clams’ identity

The title “32 Levels” refers to a Lil B line on Clams Casino-produced “I’m God”: “The mind is so complex when you’re based… 32 levels. Welcome to my world.”

Clams came up with the title for his album in early 2015. It was the only title he ever considered. It has a private meaning to him, and while it may seem obscure, that is partly the point. It represents the moment when he found his musical identity, when his style matured and took flight of its own accord.

“I always worried when I was coming up that I would never have my own distinctive sound,” he explains. ”’I’m God’ was a major turning point for me for where I was heading musically. I listened through that song and tried to pull something from there because that’s when I really started figuring my own lane out.”

"I'm God" features a stunning flip of Imogen Heap's "Just For Now." The beat is windswept, wistful, the sound of a horse freed from her enclosure running wild in the meadow. It is perhaps Clams' most celebrated piece of production. Lil B originally released the track in 2009; the beat would later appear on Instrumentals 2. Lil B’s contributions work surprisingly well because his agenda, on a surface level, does not overlap with that of Clams: "Bruh think I'm gay 'cause I'm riding in my tiny pants / Bet I'm the only goon, nigga, in these tiny pants,” he raps.

When Clams speaks of the song’s personal importance, he is presumably referring to the instrumental and not the iteration that stars Lil B. They are two different songs.

Photo by Elijah Dominique

Happy accidents

Clams didn’t have any sort of vision when he made 32 Levels. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. The one trait that distinguishes 32 Levelsis the absence of traditional sampling, which has been Clams’ bread & butter for his entire career.

"To find things to sample, I used to just type a random word-- like "blue" or "cold"-- into LimeWire or BearShare and download the first 10 results," Clams told Pitchfork in a 2011 interview. While he eventually abandoned this tactic, he nearly abandoned sampling altogether on the album to avoid paying unnecessary royalties. He cleared only one sample for 32 Levels, and it came from a Polynesian meditation CD that Clams purchased at Bed, Bath, & Beyond. The rest he created himself from scratch or recorded with his musician buddies.

Clams spent a full year collecting sounds that he would transform using a battery of guitar pedals and effects -- compression, distortion, overdrive, delay -- (“I make a chain of like three to five of them and keep pressing buttons”) and later use to construct beats at his modest home studio. He has used the DAW Acid Pro since 2002.

He would record around his house or on the street on a mic that plugged into his phone and iPad. He’d pick up an acoustic guitar and strum a dozen-odd chords. It didn’t matter what the chords were. “I don’t actually know how to play properly but I can do enough, because I’m gonna chop it up anyways,” he explains.

He would record at various studios in New York, Los Angeles, and London. His engineers would know to start recording as soon as he stepped in the room, even when he was setting up. “The method is tinkering --  just pressing record and leaving it running for a half hour, plugging different things in.”

He cites a particular sound that occurs on “Be Somebody,” a song on the album that features Lil B and A$AP Rocky. It’s a unsettling, hollow explosion that detonates at the beginning of Rocky’s verse. Clams accidentally removed the patch cord from his guitar while the amp was still on. The guitar was hooked up to multiple effects, thus giving the explosion sound its rich texture.

“That’s the stuff that’s unique that I always end up using because it doesn’t sounds like anything else,” he says. “So once I caught on to that, I was like, ‘This is it. It’s the right direction to be going in.’”

What’s in a name?

Clams casino is a dish native to Rhode Island that consists of clams slathered in breadcrumbs, bacon, garlic, and other aromatics. Clams Casino has never tasted clams casino, he just likes the way it sounds, which is a bit odd but reflects his sensory, subjective and vaguely nihilistic approach to art in which beauty exists in the eye, or ear, of the beholder.

“It’s just a joke that started with my friends, and I stuck with it because it was catchy,” Clams says of his nom de guerre. “People hear it and they remember it. And that’s what’s important. There’s no deep meaning or story behind it.”