With ’32 Levels,’ producer Clams Casino steps out of the ‘cloud rap’ pack


Clams Casino doesn’t expect listeners to notice all the work he puts into creating his woozy, intricately detailed music. In fact, he sort of hopes they don’t.

“To me, the best-case scenario is when someone likes it without knowing why,” said the 29-year-old producer known for collaborations with adventurous hip-hop and R&B artists like ASAP Rocky, Vince Staples and FKA twigs. “They can tell something is different, but they’re not sure what.”

A prime example of what’s been called “cloud rap,” his signature sound — which blends dreamy instrumental textures with hard-knocking beats — has helped distinguish songs such as Rocky’s gloomy but pretty “LVL” and “I’m God,” a viral hit by the Bay Area rapper Lil B that’s built around an unlikely Imogen Heap sample (and has more than 2 million plays on YouTube).


Now Clams Casino is extending that deceptively complex approach on “32 Levels,” his full-length solo debut after an earlier EP and several mixtapes. Due Friday, it features guests including Staples, Rocky and Mikky Ekko in songs that introduce clear pop hooks to his meticulous productions.

In “Back to You” he layers the winsome sigh of Kelly Zutrau (of the indie-R&B trio Wet) over a skipping groove, while “A Breath Away,” with the Los Angeles-based future-soul singer Kelela, suggests an artier version of Janet Jackson circa “The Velvet Rope.” There’s even what amounts to a space-age torch song, “Ghost in a Kiss,” featuring Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands.

“Hopefully it’s accessible at the same time that it’s challenging people,” said Clams Casino, who will mark the album’s release Thursday evening with a sold-out performance at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever cemetery.

“I’m trying to push things forward,” he added, “but kind of sneaking it in.”

Born Michael Volpe, the producer started making beats as a pastime while he was training to become a physical therapist in New Jersey. Music eventually took over, though, and by 2013 he was working with the high-profile likes of Blood Orange and the Weeknd. He also began traveling to L.A. several times a year, eager to get in on the freelance songwriting and production work that goes on here. (One of his more unlikely credits might be Pia Mia’s “Fight for You,” a thumping pop number from the teen-dystopia film “Divergent.”)


With “32 Levels,” whose title borrows a phrase from “I’m God,” Clams Casino’s goal was “just being able to do what I wanted to do,” he said. Today most hip-hop and pop records are made by committee, with an artist (and his or her team) soliciting tracks from any number of studio wizards, each of whom is expected to conform to some degree to the project’s overall vibe.

“A lot of people can have a say in what ends up coming out,” Clams Casino said. “For this I was attracted to the idea of having control over everything creatively, where I didn’t have to compromise.”

He’s not the only producer to step out on his own lately. You can see traces of the same ambition in work by such serial collaborators as Diplo and DJ Snake. And like DJ Shadow, a master of sampling who built many of the sounds on his new album from scratch, Clams Casino relied less on sampling for “32 Levels” than he did in his earlier work; instead of hunting online for source material, he recorded himself playing drums and other instruments, then used software to manipulate the recordings.

You can tell he’s proud of his work too: “32 Levels” comes with instrumental versions of each of its dozen tracks, all the better to appreciate the spooky ambient sounds floating beneath Staples’ rapping in “All Nite.”

True to his retiring nature, though, Clams Casino insisted he wasn’t trying to prove anything about his abilities by favoring original sounds over samples. His real motivation, he admitted with a laugh, was steering clear of the potential legal troubles that can arise when sampling copyrighted work.

“It was more like, ‘How can I do this without having lawyers come after me?’”

Twitter: @mikaelwood


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