Features | Interviews

Aesop Rock

By Peter Hepburn | 25 March 2005

Since his 1999 breakthrough debut, Float, Aesop Rock has been one of the most recognizable, divisive, and talented voices in the underground rap scene. His sophomore album, Labor Days, was arguably the finest and most cohesive of the brilliant first wave of Definitive Jux releases. The equally strong Daylight EP (2002) held fans over till 2003’s Bazooka Tooth. This year he has returned strong with the Fast Cars, Danger, Fire & Knives EP: a tighter, cleaner collection of his songs reminiscent of some of his earlier work

The EP comes complete with The Living Human Curiosity Sideshow, a book that collects Aesop’s lyrics from all the aforementioned albums and EPs. Considering that the most common criticism leveled against Aesop is that his quick, complex flow makes comprehension of lyrics nearly impossible, the book comes as something of a godsend.

We caught up with Aesop Rock (known to his mother as Ian Bavitz) on St. Patrick’s Day as he was preparing to head down to Austin for SXSW. We talked to him about music, work, and the pains of transcribing six years worth of songs.

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CMG's Peter Hepburn: If you could just introduce yourself, tell us who you are…

Aesop Rock (AR):
Aesop Rock from Definitive Jux records outta New York and I make rap music for the people.

CMG: How’d you get started?

AR:
Just like anybody who’s just a fan at one point. I was young, and any fan of rap eventually tries to do it. It’s just inevitable and so I just started trying to freestyle with friends and my older brother had a four-track when I was in high school so I just started making little rap songs on that. Eventually I met Blockhead, who I work with know, in like ’94 and we started working together on four-track songs and more and more four-track songs. Eventually we got into slightly better studios and started working our way around New York, did every show I could and let people know my name. Selling CDs out of a bag sorta thing. Eventually just got heard by a couple more people. Kinda worked until people knew who I was. Eventually got a couple offers from some labels until I landed into the hands of Def Jux in 2000.

CMG: Who would you say your top influences are?

AR:
I dunno man, that’s a hard one. Quite honestly at this point it’s friends of mine that influence me. It’s so across the board it’s hard to name. People from like underground shit to like Top 40 shit and rock music from today, from the ‘60s, I dunno. When I was like 17 I was such a hip-hop snob and if it wasn’t rap then I wouldn’t even give it a chance. The older you get the more you learn how to just open up and appreciate everything for what it is. I try and just grab influences from a bunch of places and kind of patch it all together, which hopefully equals some kind of original style.


CMG: Who do you think are the most important rappers to watch in the underground?

AR:
Well, my whole crew of course. MF Doom is pretty fucking on-the-scene right now. Definitely a veteran and someone everyone should be taking lessons from. Cage has got his record coming out this year with us. It’s phenomenal and he’s always been an influence on me. Lotta people are really doing it now and depends on what kind of style you’re into.

CMG: What’s the atmosphere at Def Jux right now?

AR:
Crazy. We’re all super good friends and at the same time we’re all pretty reclusive. We’ll all sit around our houses and then at the same time we’ll all just chill like once or twice a week. Everyone’s always excited. We’re always looking to see what the big record for each year will be. Right now it’s [El-P] working on his solo record pretty intensely. Finishing up the Cage album, SA Smash. Esteem seems pretty high and the morale…everyone’s pretty amped.

CMG: I’ve been listening to the Fast Cars EP a fair bit. I was curious, how do you see it as a move forward from Bazooka Tooth?

AR:
I’m just trying to do things that are interesting to me at the time. There’s always gonna be a little change, and there’s always gonna be a little evolution as far as the style goes. It overfull sounds a bit more playful than Bazooka Tooth. I don’t want to make the same record two times. I try and have some sort of natural evolution combined with actually consciously making a couple changes. A lot of that is ‘cause I don’t really stop working on music. I’ll finish a record and take a break for a year, but I just kinda keep making songs the whole time. I get to watch everything kinda change and when it comes time to make a record I can look at what I’ve got already and flesh it out with new stuff. All an effort to not be too formulaic. A lotta people will make a good record and then people like it and so they’ll go back and make the same record again. That’s just not really that interesting to me.

CMG: Going back to some of those older records, especially Labor Days, which is one of my favorites, I’m wondering if you still hate work.

AR:
I quit my day job pretty much the day Labor Days came out and haven’t been back. I’ve entered this whole new realm of the word “job” that I wasn’t even aware of. Full-time rapper is not exactly not-a-job. I still have to make ends meet and pay the bills. A nine-to-five labor day is hard, and I’d been working an irregular job and it was very demoralizing and soul-sucking about going to an office every day and doing the same shit. The punch-in, punch-out thing; it’s painful for anyone after long enough.

That being said, there’s a whole new set of stresses and annoyances that come with quitting that and trying to put your own team together so you can have a successful career in music. It’s not exactly like, “I’m a decent rapper so I can have a rap career.” There’s a whole world I didn’t even know about. It’s been cool learning about it and everyday I’m figuring something new out about what I’m doing and how to do it best. But yeah, work sucks.

CMG: Do you think it’s easier to maintain your sanity and balance now that you’re being adequately paid for your music?

AR:
I dunno, man. Seems like the second you make your first dollar off of music you start to change uncontrollably. To a degree, but it’s not like I can sit and make music all day, everyday. I wish I could, but there’s so much other bullshit that I need to handle. It’s not like I can make a schedule really, like, “okay, on Thursday at 2:00 I will be creative,” and that will be my blocked out time ‘cause if Thursday at 2:00 I feel like shit then I’m not gonna do anything. The list of what needs to get done is so different than when I was working a day job. Like I said, it just comes with a whole new set of things, and you’ve just got to learn how to balance between being your normal creative self mixed with everything from scheduling your time properly to worrying about record sales and doing shows. There’s a lot of shit that goes into the equation as far as turning any sort of art or music into a career. It’s now a job, but it’s not that it’s not a fun job. Anyone who thinks it’s just easy fun and games to sit around and be a rapper, I can tell you it isn’t that.

CMG: Do you still stay in touch with the people you listed on the hidden track on the Daylight EP?

AR:
Yeah, definitely. Those are all good friends of mine.

CMG: What are you trying to achieve with your trademark combination of manic imagery and fast, intricate delivery?

AR:
It’s more of just a style that I developed over many years of me doing this.

CMG:
Do you think it reflects living in New York?

AR:
Yeah, a lot of the imagery definitely. It definitely reflects living in New York and it reflects 2005 in America. I never grew out of the whole era where it was cool to have a different style than the next guy. It was celebrated to be original. It was like b-boy rule number one to not bite and still have fly shit. Nowadays it’s more celebrated to be a little more formulaic and it’s harder if you’re doing something original. It used to be like, “do you listen to rap music? Yes or no?” Now it’s like, “do you listen to rap music? Well what kind?” It’s pretty stupid, so I just let my style evolve and talking on subjects and saying rhymes and phrases that interested me. I never really stopped that. Fuckit. I don’t give a fuck. I’m here to do what I like to do. Any element of my style of how I sound, from delivery to different patterns, it’s all just a patchwork of different shit. It’s all me just happily evolving.

CMG: For long-time fans, the lyric book that comes along with Fast Cars is invaluable. Did you put that together?

AR:
Yeah. I had a designer I worked pretty closely with but I had to transcribe all the lyrics obviously and then I sat with the designer and worked on just a basic style elements of how it was gonna get laid out. We wanted something that was cool to look. Sometimes you get lyrics inside of liner notes and you can’t even read them ‘cause they’re printed in some weird way. We wanted something interesting but readable. Like you said, it’s pretty much directly for the people who’ve been around. Anyone who’s just picking this up as my first record are not gonna fucking care about the book. It’s for kids who’ve been fans for awhile. In music now you can’t just do music. You’ve gotta have you’re little enhanced CD or DVD that comes free with the package or all that shit. None of that interested me and I was trying to think of something cool that I could do that hasn’t been done too many times so that’s where I came up with it. It ended up being better than I thought it would be.

CMG: How was it going back through all your lyrics and having to write them down?

AR:
It was fucking awful man. It was so annoying I can’t even describe. I literally came up with the book idea and started the next day and I was immediately regretting all of it. Some old stuff I’ll pick out a line and be like, “oh, this is cool,” and then I’ll hit another song and I’ll be, “Wow, this sounds like such a fucking piece of shit.” It was interesting cause I’d never really done that. I don’t go back and listen to the old stuff all that much ‘cause I listened to it so much when I made it that, unless I’m still performing it, I don’t really listen to it. An album cut off of Float or some random album cut off of Labor Days I just haven’t heard in awhile. It was weird. When all was said and done it was kinda fun to go back and read through rhymes I don’t even remember writing.

CMG: I was wondering what you thought of Illogic’s Celestial Clockwork, and Madlib and Doom on Madvillainy.

AR:
You gonna put me in a funny situation here?

CMG:
Naw, just curious.

AR:
Okay. Celestial Clockwork. I haven’t the newest version ‘cause he’d been working on that shit for a long time and he’d even done other projects and put out other projects in the span of time he was working on Celestial Clockwork. I remember the working version of it that I have from several years ago was really dope. Illogic is someone I like. Blueprint I obviously like as well, and I think they’re a good team.

Doom is like one of my heroes. Ever since KMD. He can do no wrong. A lot of people are mad he put out like five records in one year and threw people off. To me it was like, “yeah, maybe, but I don’t care.” I’ll take as much of it as I can ‘cause he’s definitely one of those MC’s MC. He writes shit that you’re just constantly like, “shit, why didn’t I think of that?”

CMG: What’s the worst comparison you’ve ever gotten in a review?

AR:
That’s hard to answer without naming some names, which I’d rather not do. Sometimes they compare you to other groups or artists and you know and everyone around you knows that you have no similarity at all. You’ll read, “this group sounds very influenced by this,” and you’re like, “what you talking about man?” That’s the kind of thing you get used to pretty quick ‘cause it happens a lot. It’s all part of this. Every time I put a record out it’s just like, “feel free to shit on me in magazines or give props or whatever you want to do.” Everyone’s opinion of me is spread all over the table and they all argue with one another and I have a handful of fans and half of them get excited when I put something new out and some of them are disappointed with the new shit and it’s just…no one’s ever fully happy.

CMG: Do you go back and read some of the reviews?

AR:
Yeah, I try to read ‘em. I’ve hit points where I’ve said I’m never gonna read them again, but inevitably if you see your name in a magazine you’re gonna read it.

CMG: What are your plans for you next LP?

AR:
I dunno. Like I said, I stay working, so I’ve got shit now that I’m just gonna keep. I don’t have any due date in mind. I’m about to go do this tour and I’m kinda just wanting to chill out and make as much music as I can for the next six months to a year and see what I have at the end of the year. Then maybe put a date on the record. I almost wanna wait a couple years to do it, but I know I probably won’t end up doing that. I just won’t, knowing myself.

CMG: Is there anybody you’d particularly like to work with on the next record?

AR:
Not necessarily. I’ll probably keep it within the same family. Possibly just get a couple more live musicians on the record, if anything. There has only been one time in my entire life where I’ve contacted people I don’t really know at all to be on a record, and that was Camp Lo and I was a fan. For the most part I never go outta my way to contact someone who I’ve never talked to. It’ll probably be pretty family-oriented. We’ll have to see.

CMG: Do you enjoy touring at this point or would you rather be in the studio?

AR:
I would rather be in the studio, but touring is pretty important piece of the whole puzzle, so I know it has to be done. I like doing the individual shows and meeting people. I just hate the schedule. It’s really rigorous and annoying; physically and mentally draining. After like 20 shows in a row it’s hard to put on a good, honest performance when you’re driving all day, getting out and performing, then going to sleep, and then getting up and driving again. It’s not exactly lavish, but it has to be done. It’s kinda good ‘cause it forces me not to work on new shit and that way when I get back home and into the studio I have a handful of ideas that are kinda waiting to come out.

CMG: One last question. If Timbaland remixed one of your songs, who would you have sing over the bridge?

AR:
Shit, hmm. Are we talking like R&B people?

CMG:
Yeah, whoever.

AR:
Honestly, probably Pharrell. He usually makes better hooks than any of those R&B bitches. Most modern female R&B singers just don’t make shit that’s that interesting to me. Timbaland makes shit that’s interesting to me. Maybe like Tweet, ‘cause I liked the shit she did with Timbaland, and if Aaliyah was alive it woulda been her. I think Pharrell makes the best singing choruses, and I don’t really get tired of them for some reason, so I’d have to go with the Neptunes/Timabaland combo.