BYT Interviews: Aesop Rock
phil runco | Feb 25, 2015 | 9:00AM |

By Philip Runco with Aaron Miller of Weird City Fest.

Word count, dictionaries, coded messages, outsider rap, meow meow meow meow meow.

You already know the Aesop Rock talking points. We’re all familiar with that yip yap.

After two decades of spitting, Ian Bavitz is legend. After Labor Days and None Shall Pass and Bazooka Tooth, he is a portrait of modern triumph.

But the problem with the discussion surrounding Bavitz’s music is that it often holds up his intellectual knottiness at the expense of ignoring his visceral, increasingly nimble delivery. In other words, Aesop Rock doesn’t make chin-stroking music, unless stroking your chin is what you do after you’ve punched through a wall.

Or, to paraphrase a colleague of mine, Aesop Rock’s raps are the perfect mix of poetry and fighting words.

In fact, that colleague – BYT’s resident rap Pai Mei , Aaron Miller – captured the essence of the emcee’s career a few weeks ago: Aesop Rock has created so much of his own thing that he kind of floats above – or at least off to the side and to the left – of most traditional hip-hop criticism. Back in the day, it was just a niche, then that niche turned into a genre. As it stands now, his style could be considered an archetype. It’s the gold standard of weirdo rap.

Almost three years have passed since an Aesop Rock record last refined the karat of that standard – with 2012’s fantastic Skelethon – but San Francisco-via-Brooklyn rapper has stayed busy. He collaborated with fringe folk singer Kimya Dawson as The Uncluded. He reunited with fellow Def Jux refugee Rob Sonic to make another Hail Mary Mallon LP, Bestiary, which came out late last year and is an unmitigated blast of futuristic throwback rap. And he teamed with Busdriver and Danny Brown on “Ego Death”, a lethal drone strike of menacing wordplay.

To some degree, the nature of this activity has been surprising. Bavitz has always come off as a bit of loner – an image that his lyrics frequently propagate – but the past two years have been defined by his ability to play well with others. Even his recent single “Cat Food” came about through an artistic connection: He recorded the song to pair with Whiskers the Undead, a vinyl toy made in conjunction with Kid Robot.

Aesop Rock is currently on tour with Hail Mary Mallon partner Rob Sonic. Earlier this week, the Rec-Room team sent some questions his way.

Aesop Rock plays Baltimore’s Ram’s Head on Saturday and DC’s 9:30 Club Sunday. Bestiary is out now on Rhymesayers.

aesoprock-hood-chrissypiper copy

How have you been holding up while touring the Northeast in the dead of winter? Has living in San Francisco thinned your blood?

It’s actually been kinda fun. I mean, there are moments of pure misery where I wonder why I did this to myself, but we’ve had a lot of fun times, and I feel the terrible weather will make the memory of it better some day. I’m happy we made it through New England with no major issues. We start heading south soon, so that should be nice.

You said once that the only thing that makes you nervous is whether kids are going to care about the music you put out, or whether there’s some sort of rap ageism. As you’ve been out there behind Skelethon and now on Bestiary, what do you see when you look out in the crowd? Who do you meet at the merch table?

It really just seems like everyone. Maybe I’m bugging, but, yeah, young and old – it seems like they’re all there. The shows have been great.

Nowadays I get a lot of kids who are like, “I grew up on your shit,” which is crazy to think about.

I think that I’m partly scared of some ageism, and partly just aware that not many – some, but not many – rappers really go super long without losing their edge a bit. I don’t wanna be one of those people that doesn’t realize they sound like any modicum of passion that they once had for this stuff is long gone.

I know for a fact that I am pushing myself harder than ever, but my job to a degree depends on whether or not others are simply over it.

Do you remember when you first met Rob Sonic?

I don’t remember the very first time. I know that it was early in the Def Jux days. I remember one time being at a mutual friend’s house together, and me and Rob just hitting it off and laughing for hours and hours. I also remember seeing him on stage at Brownies before we knew each other, thinking, “Wow, that guy could probably put me through a wall.”

Around 2000, there were a lot of events, both in and outside of the label, where Rob and I were finding ourselves in the same room, and we just kinda built from there.

How would you describe your chemistry with him?  What do each of you bring to the table?

I mean, the main thing is that we usually keep each other laughing. If you can be around someone for as long as he and I have been, and not kill each other, and generally stay in a good or great mood, then the work becomes pretty easy. All you really want to do in the studio is not lose the plot.

We have enough in common to know that our rapping and production sensibilities will line up in one way or another; the real challenge is just staying happy and engaged throughout the album-making process. Rob and I seem to be able to do that.

Does your approach to songwriting change with a collaborative project like Hail Mary Mallon or The Uncluded? Do you feel less pressure or think less about expectations?

Less pressure, less expectations, yep.

I dunno – my solo work weighs on me. I’m not sure if there is a better way to say that, but it’s just… there. It’s always there, hovering over me.

With these collaborative albums that I’ve been doing, it’s really been more enjoyable, and I am able to take some of that and breathe it back into my solo stuff. I think those projects serve as a nice break for everyone involved.

ThePressure5

It feels like your lyricism has gotten less dense over the years – at least in terms of how many syllables you’re packing into each verse. What’s driven that progression?

Yeah, I think that lines overstuffed with syllables just became counter-intuitive at some point. There were other aspects of what I was doing that I wanted to explore, and it required that I slow the fuck down. It’s still pretty dense, and when you add in the rhyming and wordplay, it gets even moreso, so the syllables were just unnecessary for me. I started trying to fit my words against the beat in different ways in order to showcase other things. I think that’s all stuff that will just keep changing as I keep going.

 Your former label boss and past collaborator El-P has similarly loosened up in terms of delivery. What’s it been like to the see the crossover success that he’s had later in his career with Run the Jewels? What was your reaction to the RTJ records?

I haven’t heard the records, but the success isn’t surprising at all. They are talented dudes in a good position that seem to be making music people want to hear, which is pretty much what they’ve always done.

EL-P worked on few songs on None Shall Pass. Blockhead produced a bunch too. But with Skelethon, you handled the production yourself, and I was interested to see that you did the same with Bestiary. Is self-production the move going forward? Where is your confidence as a producer right now? Are you still learning?

I didn’t produce all of Bestiary; Rob Sonic did four songs.

I don’t really have a plan, so I’m open to whatever.  With where I was in my life, it seemed like it made sense for me to try to do Skelethon alone.  Most of the stuff I have been doing lately is the same, but not all.

As for my beats, yes, I’m always learning.  I wouldn’t say I’m a confident producer by a long shot, but I do think that when I take my time and use my little methods, I can come up with something that feels 100% like me. Perhaps that’s been important to me as of late.

Having said that, Blockhead did produce “Cat Food”. What’s the history of that song?

I got the opportunity to collaborate with Kid Robot on the Whiskers toy, and felt like I wanted to add some music to the whole thing, just because sometimes I feel weird when I have my name on a project without any actual music attached.

So, yeah, I wrote that song and the B-side, “Bug Zapper”, in the early stages of designing the toy. It was after Skelethon sometime, and after the Uncluded, but before the new Mallon stuff. I think.

As a proud feline owner: Do you think guys who own cats get a bad rap? Have you had to fight male cat owner prejudice? Why are they your pet of choice?

I don’t feel any of that. I didn’t realize that was a thing. My cat is awesome and fuck anyone who thinks otherwise.

I like her because she does funny shit, and because it’s a lot of good times for very little effort. I love dogs too, but I’m just not responsible enough for that shit. The cat will go fuck off all day, and then knock over a lamp just to remind you that it’s alive. I can identify with that.

7727396222_408901bce7_o

The next season of “Game of Thrones” is around the corner. Tough question: Who’s your favorite character? And if you were the GoT universe, where would you envision yourself?

So many awesome characters.  Tyrion is pretty incredible.  The Hound… lord. Arya and Brianne are both amazing. Jamie has been super good too. My man Grey Worm. I mean, really, the reason it’s great is because there are so many great things going on at once that it’s overwhelming.

I’m sure that my head would be on a pole inside ten minutes.

What else has your attention right now culturally? What’s the last thing that you found engrossing?

Last feature I saw was “Birdman”, which I loved. “John Wick” too, which also was good. I watched the “Black Mirror Christmas” special on the road, which I thought was great.

I’ve been re-watching “Fringe” while on tour, because it has a ton of episodes and it’s easy to get into a comfortable zone with the characters. It’s nice to have a constant.

I feel like there’s more, but I’m blanking. Oh, I watched the 30 for 30 on Tania Harding/Nancy Kerriga. Good times.

You’ve discussed how you’re continually making an effort to expand our vocabulary. What the best new word you’ve come across recently?

I mean, it’s not really an effort to expand my vocab as much as just writing down things that I want to investigate further. Sometimes it’s a phrase or idea, and occasionally it’s a word or something that may be new to my lyrics, or something that sparks an idea and seems worthy of visiting later.

I can’t blow my load with the specifics as it will ruin my life’s work, but it does look like the act of deveining shrimp will be getting a shoutout sometime soon.

Back in 2008, you talked about removing yourself from your lyrics – that is, avoiding literal descriptions of what you’ve done or what you think about something specific. But it seems like that’s the direction mainstream hip-hop that has headed even more so since then. Can you connect with that sort of rap?  Have you ever listened to a Drake record?

I don’t really understand this question. Drake seems like a good rapper, but I don’t know his records. I connect with lots of rap across the board, whether or not I can identify with the message.  It’s so rare to find the complete package, somehow that really touches on all the things you specifically look for in a rapper.  But I am a rap fan, so if someone has a couple things going on that I like, I look for a way to appreciate it.

What’s next for you? Do you work on Aesop Rock songs – or just lyrics – concurrently with a project like Hail Mary Mallon?

I’m just plugging away. I’m always working on solo stuff, and Rob and I have discussed jumping back into another Mallon record pretty soon. I hesitate to announce any projects before they are done, but new music will always be coming.

Aesop Rock portraits by Chrissy Piper. Hail Mary Mallon photos by The Pressure.