Album Review: Clams Casino - 'Instrumental Relics'
Clams Casino is one of the few hip-hop producers who can earnestly claim to not only be a pioneer of the genre’s sound, but also a tide-changing reformer who changed its sonic makeup forever. His innovations in cloud rap and alternative hip-hop in the early 2010s brought atmospherics and expressionism to the forefront of beat-making and revolutionized the sound of the underground in that era, an effect which quickly progressed into the mainstream. Ripples of his impact can still be felt across the spectrum of hip-hop; whether it be in Future’s trunk-knocking but distinctly moody and nocturnal trap beats or in the emo rap trend that is still prospering and surged up in the mid-2010s with artists like Lil Peep.
The sound of hip-hop would be markedly different today without Clam’s early 2010s productions for the likes of A$AP Rocky, The Weekend and Lil B, which also served as a launchpad for the careers of these now venerated artists, as well as his seminal Instrumentals mixtape series (particularly Instrumentals and Instrumentals 2). His latest release Instrumental Relics compiles his finest, most enduring and most influential beats from the most prolific of eras into one collection, saving them from being lost to the sea of low-quality YouTube rips and dodgy .zip sharing websites.
The compilation opens on probably the most iconic and synonymous beat of his career: the stunning, hazily psychedelic and uniquely melancholic I’m God, which has been bait for vibey YouTube videos with vapourwave aesthetics and lo-fi beat compilations since it dropped. What strikes me most on hearing this production again in 2020 is how instantly captivating it remains and just how much the production holds up on a technical level. The beat is thick and densely layered with cavernous reverb and eerie tape hiss, yet each element is given its appropriate space in the mix and the levels remain even enough to avoid any muddiness. The sticky wordless female vocals are chopped in any number of strange and alien ways, so they come off more as chanting or baying than singing and yet they remain an instantaneous earworm. The beat itself is surprisingly dense with its twittering high-hats and prominent handclaps, plus another good slathering of reverb and echo alongside some flawless sequencing, creating an icy and distant effect.
"We’re treated to many great examples of the man’s impeccable and surprisingly tender ear for melody and strange yet affecting samples, which often gets overshadowed by his virtuosity with atmosphere and mood."
A good few of Clams’ most iconic productions for rappers of this era pop up across the album and demonstrate the influence and star-making power of his signature sound. The oppressively lovely All I Need, which intertwines tribal percussion with suitably spectral reversed vocal snippets and icily beautiful synth breaks, was bizarrely given to Soulja Boy, but there you go. Motivation is an absolute behemoth of early cloud rap, opening with gorgeous synth chords that sound something like a sentient air raid siren going through a dark night, filled with torrential downpouring of static and hiss. The beat opens up as you’d expect: with more spookily spliced vocals and fuzz, but also contains flourishes of breathless synth, a spacious but intensely driving groove and some pleasingly glass splitting sub-bass. With the beats surprising grandiosity and bombast, it’s not difficult to see why an I’m Gay-era Lil B was drawn to it. Numb spins an impressively otherworldly tapestry out of its combination of haunting N64 synth leads, head bobbing 808s and shockingly subtle deployment of bongos. Its aesthetic of haunted Majora’s Mask cartridge was of course a perfect fit for an up-and-coming A$AP Rocky.
That’s not to say at all that the deep cuts on here, primarily from his instrumental mixtapes, aren’t just as worthwhile and vital. Near-forgotten gems are abound, such as the aptly-titled Gorilla off his Rainforest mixtape; a lumbering monster populated by synths that howl and yelp and an enormous beat that lurches forward menacingly. Humid and oppressive as the environment that inspired it, it cycles between rumbling ambience and panoramic intensity. We’re treated to many great examples of the man’s impeccable and surprisingly tender ear for melody and strange yet affecting samples, which often gets overshadowed by his virtuosity with atmosphere and mood. Realist Alive recontextualises pitched-down vocal snippets from Adele’s Hometown Glory into a series of distant, defeated calls to prayer atop an uplifting bed of crackling lo-fi synth and subterranean drums. Unchain Me is one of the less memorable tracks here; or would be if it wasn’t for its ingenious interpolation of goth rock anthem Cry Little Sister, most famous as the theme from The Lost Boys. The track is indicative of Clam’s gothic tendencies as well as the subtle untraceable nostalgia that underpins his best work. It’s a truly brilliant bit of sample selection.
"It would be a genuine travesty to lose any of these beats to the data-stew of the internet, as they remain landmark touchstones for both hip-hop and internet culture in the 2010s."
Overall, this compilation is a fantastic pruning of some of the best tracks from Clams Casino’s seminal early work. Its purpose is twofold: an excellent introduction to the ethereal and haunted world of his early beats for those who may only be familiar with his more directly mainstream (but still excellent) work, as well as an exercise in curation to collect these beats in one sleek, convenient package that is readily available on Spotify for long-time devotees to return to. It would be a genuine travesty to lose any of these beats to the data-stew of the internet, as they remain landmark touchstones for both hip-hop and internet culture in the 2010s and will hopefully continue to intoxicate and inspire young artists and producers for many years to come. More importantly though, these remain fantastic, often lovely and always mind-bending pieces of music in their own right, more than worthy of a lovingly assembled document to their wonder. It was an absolute pleasure to return to these beats and a time when the musical and cultural landscape was arguable less homogenous, more diverse and constantly fluctuating. Did I mention they still slap?