Read enough interviews with hip-hop producers (or the rappers who use their work) and you’ll come to understand that successfully selling a beat is often a numbers game — and that volume wins. Take the “five beats a day x three summers” regimen mapped out by Kanye West on his song “Spaceship”; Drake producer Frank Dukes and his self-made Kingsway Music Library, a massive collection of affordable original music for other beatmakers to sample; or the catalog of beats Atlanta hotshot Mike WiLL Made-It has created (enough that “Mike could lock you in a studio for five days and not play the same beat twice,” according to Miley Cyrus). The most prolific producer usually wins the day.
Mike Volpe, who produces and releases music as Clams Casino, is taking the less-traveled path. If Mike WiLL could last 120 hours in the studio, playing through endless beats for an MC to jump on, Volpe would last maybe 12 minutes. And yet he’s helped shape the sound of some of the most talked about artists in rap today, from 2009 to now, from Lil B to A$AP Rocky to Vince Staples.
“I have a few things at a time that I’m happy with,” Volpe, 29, says. “I’ll go to the studio with a rapper and I’m like, I have four beats—that’s it! Other producers will have 50 beats stocked up and they’ll play them with the rapper going, ‘Next. Next.’ I’ve learned from going to a bunch of sessions that there’s usually no point for me to be there.”
“I’m not interested in being personally recognized, but for the music to be in the spotlight, sometimes I have to be, too.”
So Volpe prefers email to working in the studio. In May 2011—the year he says music became “full-time”—Volpe sent just four beats to a young local rapper. (Volpe was raised in New Jersey and resides there still, in Bergen County.) One in particular jumped out at the MC—the song that later came to be known as “Wassup”—marking the first exchange in a fruitful relationship between Volpe and Rakim Mayers, a.k.a. A$AP Rocky.
“I used to check [the late A$AP Yams’ now-defunct website REALNIGGATUMBLR] because I liked the old pictures from rap magazines and the funny captions,” Volpe recalls. “He posted Rocky’s stuff and I hit Yams up. He responded like, ‘We were just talking about your mixtape last night!’”
At this point, Rocky was living in Jersey and had already recorded a version of “Demons” to the “Numb” beat from Volpe’s first instrumental mixtape, which he’d released in March of that year. “He lived 10-15 minutes away from me,” Volpe says. “He’d record at Ishlab studio in Brooklyn, and then I’d go to his house and he’d play [what he’d recorded]. I remember listening to ‘Bass’ for the first time at his house. I’d go every couple weeks to listen to stuff.”
Rocky released his debut mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, that October; with five credits, Volpe contributed more beats to the project than any other producer. The signature Clams Casino vocal samples, which sound like ghost speech recorded at quarter speed, haunt the record and provide a warped companion to Rocky’s Houston-inspired DJ Screw allusions. Even more so than the beats he’d placed with Lil B in 2009 and 2010, this was Volpe’s coming out party.
But keeping with his preference for the background, he didn’t immediately make a play for a consumer-facing star turn, with a debut album—until now. Sitting on the couch in a white-walled back room at Downtown Music Studios, in SoHo, Volpe explains that, yes, that’s him on the cover of his debut album, 32 Levels. His knit brow, made more prominent by his shaved dome and full beard, suggests that he’s mildly annoyed by the question, but his tone is even and calm—even when he’s explaining that he doesn’t want to discuss a particular topic further. (At various points in the interview he declined to comment on Yams’ death, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.) He’s quick to acknowledge that many of his fans have asked about the figure in the hooded high-fashion black leather coat as well. Back to the camera, the album cover star you can’t recognize.
32 Levels, released July 15 on Columbia Records, features appearances from long-time collaborators like A$AP Rocky and Lil B and new friends like Vince Staples and Kelela. It’s a showcase of Volpe’s idiosyncratic sound — that’s his name on the album cover, his face in the promotional photos, his words in the press. “I’m interested in my music being recognized and sometimes, to do that, I have to put myself in the forefront,” he says. “Which I don’t wanna do, really. I’m not interested in being personally recognized, but for the music to be in the spotlight, sometimes I have to be, too.”
Thanks to the fateful gift of a drum kit at age 6, Volpe found himself in demand at a young age. “I played drums in a band and listened to alternative music — just neighborhood kids trying to make our own songs,” he says. In fifth grade he transitioned from Nirvana and Green Day to Busta Rhymes and Jay Z. The beats drew him to hip-hop (“I didn’t really know what they were talking about at the time”), and at 14 he began producing with a hardware sampler and digital recorder. Neither of his parents pursued music professionally, but their house, in Nutley, N.J., was full of equipment. “My father played guitar in bands in high school and collects old amplifiers and samplers from the ‘80s and stuff,” he says. “My mom doesn’t play an instrument but I’ve heard stories about when she was pregnant and would go to concerts with me.”
In 2009, Clams turned English singer Imogen Heap’s voice inside out to create the beats for “I’m God” and “I’m the Devil,” both of which landed on Lil B’s mixtape 6 Kiss and spawned scores of imitators. Two years later, in March 2011, Volpe released the first installment of a trilogy of beat mixtapes, Instrumentals. At that time, he was living in his mom’s house and finishing up his training to become a physical therapist—until he caught his first check remixing and the plan changed. “It was a big deal,” he recalls. “Five-hundred bucks for a beat I had laying around.”
In addition to Live.Love.A$AP, Volpe worked on Mac Miller’s debut album, Blue Slide Park, that year, along with the Weeknd’s third mixtape, Echoes of Silence. He also released an EP of instrumental electronica on the esoteric but influential indie label Tri-Angle Records.
32 Levels is his first official solo project since the Rainforest EP, and its title comes from a lyric on Lil B’s “I’m God.” It’s both the culmination of the relationships Volpe built over the last five-plus years, and the start of a new chapter—the one that puts Clams Casino front and center.
“Clams is one of the most interesting producers I’ve met,” Vince Staples tells Complex. “He’s able to draw inspiration from anything and morph it to fit the character of the artist he’s working with.”
Flexible as Volpe may be, 32 Levels is unified by the unmistakable sound of a Clams Casino beat. “The idea came from working on other artists’ albums and making songs that were really good but stuck out too much to fit on their projects,” Volpe says. “My music is very distinctive; it doesn’t fit in everywhere.”
On Jan. 24 of this year, the attention-shy Volpe did something out of character and tweeted at singer Jhene Aiko and her frequent producers Fisticuffs, accusing them of jacking his sound on her song “B’s and H’s.” “You guys have no shame about this? At all?” he wrote. On Feb. 6, he responded to a Twitter user’s question about the situation, writing, “@JheneAiko had her in-house producers remake my beat because they didn’t wanna pay me.” But Volpe refrains from elaborating on the situation to Complex. “Whatever is out there on Twitter, that’s it,” he says. “I don’t want to go into her business or my business in anymore detail.”
The episode is the dilemma of approaching celebrity in miniature. On the one hand, Volpe’s confident enough to step into the public arena and out sheisty behavior. But when asked to discuss the event, he’s reluctant and evasive. He’s not comfortable as a headline-making star but he’s not going to quietly lurk while someone presumably tries to play with his money. Remember, that’s his name and image on the album cover now; the stakes are higher. “32 Levels works because I’m the single thing that makes it cohesive,” he says, allowing himself a brief moment of ego before retreating back to conversation of his work.
If he continues like this, moving between the spotlight and the shadows, where does he see himself in ten years? “I don’t know,” he says, after a long pause. “Doing things I wouldn’t even expect right now. Things I can’t even think about.”