Mystery man Clutchy Hopkins brings beats from the Southern California desert
Years later, the identity of this musician is still a closely guarded secret.
by Dominic Wagner
Southern California’s inland desert residents regard their local coffee shop, the Beatnik, as a haven for outsiders. These colorful people, who are considered to be too far beyond the scope of the American dream by mainstream society, come here to find sanctuary. It is a place where conspiracy is conversation and otherness simply is. That must be why my contact from the Clutchy Hopkins project chose it as the location for our meeting.
I stood in the back of the room nursing a beer, taking in a scene that could have easily been taken straight out of Berkeley in the 1960’s—Deadheads and all. On a small stage in the corner, two silver-haired musicians played music that could only be described as psychedelic bluegrass free bop. The shorter bard belted out lyrics from his motorized wheel chair followed by a series of haunting melodies from his flute. At the bar, a group of men were discussing the mind-altering properties of a local narcotic and how many of the folks who took it never returned. I moved in closer so that I could introduce myself and perhaps extract some information that could direct me to Clutchy’s whereabouts when suddenly I was overcome with darkness. Perhaps it was the desert air that shut down my bodily functions or some additional mysticism in my brew. Regardless of the cause, when a grown man faints, it is an instant crisis.
When I opened my eyes, I was flat on the floor, an elderly woman cradling my face in her hands. She pulled me into her rigid chest and called for assistance. As I lay there, suspended in twilight, shrouded in the scent of sandalwood and her woolen sweater, I lost all reference to place and time. There were flashes of light, seemingly concerned voices cascading throughout the hollow of my skull and the shuffling of feet that served as awkward percussion to match my inner cacophony of fear and bewilderment. Running off of my raw metropolitan instinct, I ripped myself away from her well-intended embrace and stumbled to my feet, making a beeline for the back door. In my battered head, I was back home in Brooklyn and there wasn’t any way I was getting took for my Razr and MetroCard. After three or four labored steps I fell again with a slow burn to the concrete. I felt the vague sensation that my chin was smashing into some infinitely solid structure. My mind was trapped in a body that, for the moment, showed no signs that it would lift itself off of the ground for a second time.
Rising from the abyss, I began to hear a singular voice emerge out of the liquid lull of ambient sounds like the rising sun: deep, gentle, and calming. The voice asked if I was okay. It led me to a bench outside and told me to eat a slice of the grapefruit placed in front of me. After I struggled to take a few bites, the voice began to give me a lesson in field medicine. It described how soldiers in the heat of battle would use superglue to seal the wounds of their injured comrades, saying this method was as good as stitches and that it had some superglue and antibiotic cream at its house, if I was interested. I touched my chin, which had begun a steady ascent to pain since I had regained consciousness. The three-inch gash I traced with my finger made the voice’s suggestion more appealing than a trip to the emergency room, especially since I didn’t have any medical insurance. A few minutes later, the voice called to me from a car parked out back. With some assistance I lumbered to the vehicle’s passenger sideand sank into the seat.
As we pulled onto the main road, the voice asked me why I came to the desert. I said I was there to interview a musician named Clutchy Hopkins. The voice silenced for a moment. I listened as its hands began shuffling through a stack of tapes in the glove compartment. A single cassette was extracted and placed into the car stereo. As soon as the beat dropped I realized that the voice that had been guiding me all along belonged to the very man I was seeking. This man was Clutchy Hopkins.
*His discussions regarding the following topics will not be included: A Swedish explorer’s exploitation of Australia’s indigenous people, extreme sports’ utilization of hip-hop music, and the making of Tetris and its impact on Russia and Britain’s economic relationship in the late 1980s.
What is it that you use music for?
It’s hard enough to live, so I bring people something to lift them up. Bring them some funk to make them happy for a moment. Even if you’re a happy person, everyone has to deal with everyday strife. So I just lay down some booty-shaking music. Even if it’s not for booty shaking, it might just be some down-tempo funk that they can bob their head to and relax. I make music that can help bring people together. Some of the reviews say it should come with rolling papers. You can make babies to the album or just relax with it or both.
Is that why most of the album is instrumental, to give the listener options?
Instrumental music burns an impression in your mind even if you don’t know that it’s happening. Any instrumental album, if it’s good, can take you out of yourself. If you put in a good record and you take a drive, the next thing you know you’re one-hundred miles from your house and the album is over. That’s music that you can zone out to. Once I put on Catalyst’s record with Odean Pope while I was driving and that took me 200 miles from my house. Listening track for track, front to back and vice versa. Albums like that are timeless. They could have put on my album in 1969. They’ll be able to put it on ten years from now and people will be able to respect it. It doesn’t have a direct message to it. People should make their own decisions on what they want to hear and what they want to do. It doesn’t need a brand or specific tag on it. Listening to the album to me is like wearing a brand new shirt and shoes every day. Then suddenly it’s over and you may feel like you missed something.
How do you approach making music that has to reintroduce the concept of possibility to listeners?
Basically it’s just making music. For instance, I never sit down and make the decision that I’m going to create a rock track. It isn’t some thing you can teach someone to do. It’s just what it is—doing what you know how to do. I’m not consciously trying to decide what elements I have to add. It’s just how the tracks come out. For instance, Lord Kinjamon is a cat that I met while I was traveling in Jamaica. I met back up with him later on in Jamaica, Queens, and basically did some work. I still have some of the recordings. That’s where my reggae influences can be heard the strongest: Lee “Scratch” Perry’s percussion and arrangements. It’s a powerful thing and some cats can recognize it. I think it was some critic who said that there is no longer any genre left after electronic music came about. So what else is there besides mixing genres? It’s something that you can’t put in a category. If you can’t categorize it, I’m happy. I mean, if you want to sell records you could put it under hip-hop. But you can put it under jazz too. Really you would have to put one in every section because there are flavors from everywhere.
So the music defines itself?
Exactly. That always seems to be the thing that the Clutchy Hopkins project is coming back to. Let the music speak for itself. Some people refuse to believe that Clutchy Hopkins is real. They think I’m bullshit. I say believe that if that’s what you want to believe. But play the track and then come back and let me know. Everyone can debate all day long on what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and what happened back in the day and where everything is going. But regardless, we all have to eat. I think a lot of time is wasted on people over analyzing shit and staying true to something they don’t even know they’re staying true to. The music is the only real truth. It’s like with Frank Strazzeri’s album After the Rain. After his arrangement on “Cloudburst,” he hands it off to his son who is playing drums. You don’t have to look at the record to tell that they are related. Albums like that where you can hear something special, even if the musicians aren’t related, you can hear the bond between two cats who are just on it. They understand the give and the take. But today in music there is mostly just taking going on. Like in hip-hop. I love hip-hop. It’s a whole other world. What’s the first thing somebody does when they want to become a part of that world? They come up with a new name. With an alter ego, they can begin to work outside of themselves. You create an image and you rock it. Elements of that mixed with elements of the live performance are very important to me.
So would you say you operate with a hip-hop mentality?
The production of my work has some similarities. But it goes into different realms not consciously; just doing what I know naturally. I never come into creating music with a particular idea in mind. I’ll sit down and play something and if I like it, I’ll record it. Then I might walk away for a week, come back to it from another place and record a change. The next day I might add some percussion or a melodica. Building on it like that where I don’t feel pressured to start and complete a track in one day. I let it grow on me. I can’t even listen to something I’ve completed and have a clear interpretation until a month later. Then I can actually hear it. I step away and come back. The give and the take.
So what place do you think this classic approach to music making has today in an industry that prefers easily definable, easily replicated music? Do you feel you are in direct conflict with this culture that is reliant upon genre as a means to direct certain people toward a certain mind state?
It’s stale. Everything sounds the same. Another issue is the visual element that has been brought about the last ten or twenty years. With certain programs the musicians can see the music in front of them in waveform. It becomes a visual practice that was never part of music. Before these programs people read notes but the ear still mattered. There was still improve and reinterpretation. If you record something and it’s in front of you—it’s all at your fingertips—you can take something and make it sound like anything. But it isn’t what was actually recorded anymore. Don’t get me wrong. Certain musicians can freak that process and make some good shit. But then again, if everyone is jumping on that boat, it comes to a point where very few people are thinking outside of the box.
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In this desert town, where liquor stores are built to resemble adobe sweat lodges, Clutchy Hopkins is iconic. His prophecy is drawn from this sun-baked earth; a Martian landscape so clear that the horizon presses directly against the stars. Industry standards have very little pull on this plain. The night ended in his studio with each of us contributing our insights into the same sonic gumbo, alternating from the Fender Rhodes to the congas to the vibraphone in a cycle of sound. Soon I forgot about my pounding headache and the fleshy red canyon scrawled across my face. For one night, on the other side of time, I too became Clutchy Hopkins.
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