WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN: Joel Hamilton is a hard guy to pin down. Paging through his discography, career highlights jump out from all corners of the map. Although his mixes often feature direct, powerful central elements set against backdrops of wide, immersive ambience, his production style is best defined by its adaptability.
If a common thread runs through his discography, it’s the prevalence of artists with distinct, singular voices. Often referenced are the unmistakable thumbprints of Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and Marc Ribot. He’s gone from gritty to pretty with Dub Trio, Matisyahu, Sparklehorse, Jolie Holland, and thanks to a newly released Blakroc record, he’s crossed paths with true hip-hop heavyweights like RZA and Mos Def.
We caught up with Joel by Studio G’s Neve 5316 and found him fresh off a two-week recording stint in rural South Africa. Already back into the swing of life as an in-demand NYC producer/engineer, he told us about tracking sessions beneath a bullet-ridden chalkboard in the Nkomazi countryside, long days in the studio with a haunting “mermaid choir,” and pumping out dub tracks for Disney.
The new Blakroc record has been doing pretty well. A lot of Rock/Hip Hop crossovers in the recent past saw Rock artists bringing in Hip Hop elements. Jay Z made some news last summer when he came to this neighborhood for a Grizzly Bear show, and made some comments about modern rap growing stale.
It’s funny you bring that up. Damon Dash had been Jay Z’s producer and partner for years and he was Executive Producer on the Blakroc sessions. If we had the idea to get RZA on a track, he was the guy who could pull out the Rolodex and make it happen. At one point, he basically named all these people and said “Me, Jay, Rick, we’re all getting out of Hip Hop.”
I was a huge Hip-Hop fan from the early days. There were parallels with Hardcore at the time. They shared this urgent “revolution now”, kind of vibe that’s common to street music. The idea with Blakroc was about going around the Hip Hop idiom in a lot of ways. It used to be so authentic, but it’s been xeroxed so many times that it barely resembles the original art form. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but when it comes to the mass-market stuff you’d hear on the radio, it has none of the soul anymore. It’s been emasculated in a lot of ways.
Emasculated by sheer machismo?
(Laughs) Weirdly, yeah. But to me that is emasculation. If you have a real cause with some substance, that’s about as masculine as you can get. It’s that kind of genuine focused passion that gives people the strength to walk into Rwanda or go into the hood and do a needle exchange program in the early 80s. There’s a kind of power that comes when you’re there trying to do something that actually makes a difference…