Anthony Simon was surrounded by art while growing up in New York City during the 1980s.
His father, a professional sculptor and painter, filled the house with his work. Other artists were frequent guests. Years later, when Simon became Blockhead and started DJ-ing and producing underground hip-hop, he realized that in a way he was carrying on his father's work.
"The sound is a collage," says the artist, who plays the Ottobar tomorrow night. "I can do what my father did but with sound."
On Uncle Tony's Coloring Book, Blockhead's new album of dense, mood-shifting instrumentals, the manipulation of tonal shades and textures is dazzling. Hip-hop beats anchor much of the music, but the cuts deftly incorporate elements of an array of styles - from show tunes to disco. Each of the 13 songs is an intricate tapestry of multiple samples. "I purposely made this album to hit on many genres," says Blockhead, who last week was en route to a gig in Chicago. "I wanted to hit on everything. But I never strayed too far from the formula, the way the songs were made."
Preserving the integrity of obscure samples - sweeping strings, soulful wails, R&B; backbeats, snaking jazzy horn lines - has long been a hallmark of Blockhead's work. Coloring Book, his third album, is the follow-up to 2005's Downtown Science. The new CD is a decidedly brighter and more playful album than his previous sets.
"When I started making the record, I was going to do it as a side project," says the beatmaker, who has produced tracks by indie stars Slug of Atmosphere, Murs and Aesop Rock. "I felt like I was being pigeonholed as a downbeat, depressed guy. There's still some melancholy to the new record. But I wanted to keep it upbeat, just wanted to do something a little different."
Good luck trying to peg anything on Coloring Book. Pedestrian labels like trip-hop and jazzy hip-hop don't serve the mutating, boundary-pushing music. Cuts such as "Put Down Your Dream Journal and Dance," built partly on a floating Michael Henderson vocal from the mid '70s, sounds as if the collage of samples were done live by a band. Another highlight, "Not So OK Corral," is a sassy, tripped-out jazz-funk mix enlivened by strutting guitar lines. In selecting music to sample, Blockhead goes the cheap route, haunting different vinyl shops for odd albums costing less than $5.
"It's like finding tools and making something new of it," says the 30-year-old artist. "The more obscure, the better. Any albums with strange covers are good." Blockhead, who started his career in the mid '90s as a rapper, says he finds more creative freedom in mixing than producing others. But it's difficult alone. "When you're working with someone else, the vocals fill in the blanks," he says. "Where working with instrumentals, it's more of filling in the spaces. It takes you in more directions, but sometimes it's easier if there's someone else there with ideas, someone with good ideas."
Onstage, though, stretching and filling the musical spaces becomes fun.
"Man, it's all about just going off the vibe of the crowd then," Blockhead says. "The music goes all over the map. But my way is always all over the map."
See Blockhead at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. in Baltimore, at 10 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $18 and available through missiontix.com or by calling 410-662-0069.