For the most part, subtlety isn't exactly among the top 10 things to love about hip-hop. Productions are often patently bombastic, if not downright outrageous, and even at their most creative, many MCs aim straight for your lower regions before considering your more contemplative parts. And that's all well and good for hip-hop lovers around the world, but the lack of emotional diversity in the genre has left a noticeable void, one which appears to have been effortlessly filled by New Jersey-based producer Michael Volpe (a.k.a. Clams Casino).
Although Volpe's Rainforest EP follows a widely praised free mixtape of instrumentals that were originally made as beats for use by the likes of MCs Lil B, Main Attrakionz, and Soulja Boy, it's considered to be his full-fledged artist debut, as the five tracks were apparently always intended to be heard only as instrumentals. The fact alone that the record was released by the increasingly impressive Tri Angle imprint should give you an idea of what to expect from these five cuts of downtrodden beat work (though Volpe openly admits he'd never heard of the label before owner Robin Carolan approached him). But while Balam Acab, Holy Other, and the rest of Tri Angle's small roster will cite hip-hop merely as an influence, Clams Casino is there in the thick of it, offering its patrons an alternate reality opposite Swizz Beatz's Top 40 studio productions and Kanye West's rampant ostentation.
From the start, the Rainforest EP is a world unto itself, and "Natural"—quite possibly the loveliest production on the record—is a welcoming gateway. Distorted, low-bit-rate harp sounds and tectonic rumbles usher us into Clams Casino's lush landscape, a place where disembodied voices call out with moans from unknown locations, broken drum samples lurk behind tangled messes of audio fragments before leaping into view, and filtered synths swell up and float in the air like a morning mist or midnight fog. "Waterfalls," "Drowning," and "Gorilla" all follow that formula almost to a tee, effectively skirting any semblance of monotony thanks to Volpe's attention to sonic detail and versatility with conveying the many subtleties of heartache and desperation. It's on "Treetop" when the producer tries something altogether different, crafting a synth-driven beatscape completely void of vocal samples, with shoddily recorded nature sounds used in their stead. Clams Casino succeeds yet again in this stylistic sidestep; the song's touching psychedelia could rightly soundtrack the most impressive aerial shots the BBC Nature crew has in its repertoire. "Treetop" isn't a soaring tune, but—like the rest of the excellent Rainforest EP—it's that attachment to the Earth that makes Clams Casino's otherworldly hip-hop familiar enough to reach any true lover of beats.