Almost a year after his first proper LP, New Jersey-born Hip Hop producer Michael Volpe, better known as Clams Casino, has released Instrumentals 4, the most recent entry in his instrumental mixtape series. Volpe first broke onto the scene as a high-profile producer in 2013 after producing several successful tracks for Lil B and A$AP Rocky. His trademark style of tripped-out synths is most heavily indebted to the late ‘00s Chillwave scene, but his bare, sputtering percussive style owes more to contemporary Trap and earlier Southern Rap.
This compilation documents how the producer has refined that sound over the past two years. It includes two previously unreleased tracks (“Say Your Prayers” and “Wavey”), several Hip Hop instrumentals (three of which were made for Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 album), two remixes—one of DJ Shadow and one of Sia—and the solo track “Time” from the #savefabric benefit compilation.
The opener “Say Your Prayers” doesn’t play games with the listener; almost every sample and synth in the whole track is used in the first thirty seconds. This is true of most of the mix: Volpe’s music concerns itself mostly with how set parts interact with each other or move in relation to one another: a definite hip hop approach to production. That said, “Say Your Prayers” is composed of a couple loops that change only slightly in the chorus, and then return to their stasis in the second and third verse. Consequently, since there’s no rapping here, the emphasis is mostly placed on the song’s sound design—what the synths sound like, what the percussion sounds like, what space they occupy, etc.. In this respect, “Say Your Prayers” is a mock hymn in which dry drum machine samples revolve around a synthetic chorus. Its most remarkable quality here is the sheer contrast of these sound spaces: Hip Hop drum samples are quick, low-reverb bangs—they describe small warm places like car cabins and garages. Choral vocals describe cathedrals—large cold, desolate places. In general, Clams Casino’s sound banks on the trippy contrast between the former gravity and the latter weightlessness. The second track “Uncle”—an A$AP Ferg instrumental—uses this same technique with lofty Björk vocal samples. The third track, “Wavey”, has a more mid-range vocal sample that’s been fed through Dub-y level of delay feedback, foiled by the punch of a drum ‘n’ bass snare. This is not a new sound, and it’s the premise for a lot of chillwave—see particularly Lone’s album Lemurian.
But with each of these tracks, and later ones that repeat their construction (“Time,” “Kali Yuga,” “Leave With You”), they fail because their sound design simply isn’t that interesting, and in some cases, the production is frankly sloppy. For instance, on “Say Your Prayers”, at about the 1:25 and 2:45 mark you can hear clips where Volpe has looped the tracks without fading their edges—it’s a bit technical to explain, but the clips are obvious, and from a producer’s standpoint, there are quick fixes to those problems. In “Wavey,” I called the vocal sample Dub-y, but good Dub would never reuse the same delay patterns through the whole song. Good Dub plays on how echoes move in between one another to create new rhythmic patterns.
Instrumentals 4 gets most interesting when it moves away from the trippy-synth-plus-dry-drums formula and instead focuses on exploring possibilities with songwriting, structure, and development. The “Stem / Long Stem” remix (originally by DJ Shadow) stands out on the mixtape because of the way its bell samples build and weave with one another, because of the way its builds into its loops and constantly introduces new elements. It uses a few vocal samples from the original track, which add dimension to the song. Overall, it competently updates DJ Shadow’s sound for the age of Trap.
The rhythmic minimalism of the Vince Staples tracks succeed because of their stripped focus on creating interesting rhythms. In the original track for “Surf”, Staples’ flow nicely complemented and played on the rhythms of the production, but the song’s samba feel remains just as interesting on its own as it did with Staples—without the vocals the experimental quality of the production is highlighted.
But ultimately, more tracks fall into the rut of dull formula than compelling experimentation, and the compilation remains a release mostly reserved for rap fans interested in hearing their favorite songs without the vocals, producers interested in learning a trick, or people who like to listen to Trap as ambient music. Clams Casino tweeted a link to the album on WeShare, so you can get free .mp3s for a quick listen—but honestly we only recommend it for those in the aforementioned three categories.