Aesop Rock: A Definitive Original

posted April 27, 2007 12:00:00 AM CDT | 13 comments

The Long Island native known as Aesop Rock (a.k.a Ian Bavitz) may not be the most popular MC on the underground hip-hop scene. But hes inarguably among its most distinctive artists, matching intelligent lyrics packed with historical, mythological and pop culture references against backing beats clearly designed to challenge hip-hops increasingly stagnant status quo. Perhaps thats why Nike approached him to record the latest installment in their Original Run CD series, which is designed to provide the soundtrack for a pulse-pounding workout. We recently caught up with Ace Rock as he put the finishing touches on his next CD, None Shall Pass, to talk about his influences, his critics and his experiences working with corporate America.

Tell me a little bit about your earliest connections with hip-hop. When did you first fall in love with the genre?
My earliest connections with hip-hop were listening to the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill and Run-DMCs Raising Hell. One day my mother said she needed to borrow those two tapes from me. I was so young, I thought it was cool maybe she liked rap. Needless to say, I never got the tapes back. She wasnt a fan of cursing. Anyway, the second I knew my mom hated it I loved it even more.

Who were some of the artists who originally made you want to try your hand at MCing?
I always liked how explosive someone like KRS-One was. He really let you know that he was taking control of the next three to four minutes of your life with each song. Being from Long Island, I also checked EPMD a lot, and really liked the rawness of their stuff. I always thought Slick Ricks rhymes were more timeless than anybody in the whole game, to this day. So I guess it was a bunch of people.

Talk to me about the origins of your unique style. Did it take a while for you to go from mimicking your rap idols to creating your own sound?
I dunno, it's hard to pinpoint an exact place. I definitely started by mimicking others. I would steal the entire pattern from like an Erick Sermon rhyme or a Q-Tip rhyme and just write different lyrics in. That was way early, but doing things like that helped me grasp what one can do with syllables and placing words on a beat. Eventually I just kept going with that. The thing I think I fell in love with more than anything is exploring how different words sound next to each other. I'm not concerned with how they read off paper, but sometimes if you pick a string of words in a row, the rhymes and alliterations and everything combine to make a sentence that really grips you, or pops out over a normal sentence just cuz of where all the individual sounds in the sentence fall. I started really choosing my wording carefully, and seeing what I could do to make a punchline really punch, or a grouping really stand out, just based on how it is delivered.

Your lyrics are deep on an intellectual level, with lots of references to history and mythology. What inspired your interest in those subjects?
I think just watching movies. I was raised being plopped in front of a TV, and not much has changed. I like watching movies as inspiration. Some people read books, some people take walks, but I like to watch movies. I like monsters and mythology. I like a lot of sci-fi and fantasy shit. I like a lot of westerns, or anything with really interesting dialogue. Something where the people are gonna be saying things you wouldnt normally hear in a conversation in 2007. I like that shit. I just really like hearing how different people speak.

Is there ever a concern that your lyrical smarts might render your music less appealing to the mainstream?
Im not really concerned with how appealing my music is to the mainstream. If you wanna take some risks and consciously do some shit that you know isnt popular, youre gonna pay for it by never being popular, at least on that level. It's funny because every year, and this year more than ever, I get some calls in from various major labels. I guess they say, Oh, this guy is doing pretty good indie numbers... ring ring ring. I like to hear what they are talking about, just cuz I have a natural curiosity about that stuff. But at the same time, I'd love to call them and be like, Honestly, man, what is anyone at your company gonna do with this? Do you guys REALLY want an Aesop Rock record? I mean, Im not gonna make a hit, or at least not your version of one. So what can you really offer me?" At the end of the day, I want to make cool music. I'll deal with the side effects of being a weird guy.

You've released your last few albums on Definitive Jux, which has definitely gained a rep as one of the most consistently excellent labels in hip-hop. What makes the label a good fit for you as an artist?
Well, the only thing I ever really looked for in a label was that I dont wanna be bothered with label shit. All the shit you hear about? I dont want that. And while Def Jux is still a label at the end of the day, I know them and Im comfortable with them, and thats good enough for me. I need a label that lets me not have to think about the fact that Im on a label. Once I get in a comfort zone in anything in my life, I dont like to leave it. At this point, I know I can make my shit on this label, so thats where Im at.

Some people accused Bazooka Tooth of pushing the production, subject matter and rhyme flows too far towards inaccessibility in an attempt to maintain the respect of the underground rap scene. Does that sort of criticism affect you at all?
To be honest, I have heard so many criticisms about so much of what Ive done that I really dont care. I mean, I do care, but I try not to. With Bazooka Tooth, Ive heard everything from Its Aesop Rocks attempt at being mainstream to It's too inaccessible to a bunch of other comments that contradict each other. The thing is, each of these records carries with it a vibe thats necessary for the point of that record to come across. Bazooka Tooth sounded like it needed to, as did Labor Days, Float, Fast Cars, etc. None Shall Pass, my new record, doesnt sound like any of them. It sounds how it needs to sound in order to work as its own thing. People will criticize it to no end, Im sure, but others will love it. Of course I hate it when people dont like the music, but its to be expected.

Are there any specific lyricists on the current hip-hop scene who inspire you to want to become an even better MC?
I cant say Ive discovered anyone new recently. I know its a cliched answer, but I really look to my crew for sick lyrics, cuz I am surrounded by some of the best in the game. I like a lot of stuff, but not on a level where it would actually inspire me. Most rap lyrics these days, even on shit that I actually like and bump, arent exactly inspiring. I do look outside of rap sometimes. Tom Waits is about as ill as it gets on the lyrics, for my buck.

Talk to me about getting involved with Nike's Original Run series: How did they approach you regarding the project, and what was the appeal of it for you?
Nike contacted me somewhat out of the blue, basically saying, Here is this weird project were doing, we like you, wanna try it? And I looked at it and thought, This is the weirdest thing Ive ever been invited to do, and I'd be an ass to say no. The appeal of it was almost 100% in how unlike anything Ive done it was.

How did Nike's requirements for the project force you to adjust from your usual approach to making music?
Well, the subject matter and what I was being asked to do made me wanna change the approach already, but their main thing was to just chill out on the samples, so I got to do a bunch of live instrumentation stuff. I usually will start with samples and decorate with live instruments bass, guitar, keys, etc. But for this I started with the instruments and went from there. Other than that, there was almost no restrictions. They said to make approximately 45 minutes of music, with 8 minutes of warm up, 30 minutes of body [work] and 8 minutes of cool down. I asked what tempo and vibe, but they said, Its on you. So I was being asked to do me, and I just took the opportunity to try to make something cleaner and almost gasp! jazzier than my normal stuff. It was pretty fun.

Were there things you learned from this experience that you'll try to incorporate into your next album?
Sure, things like that always offer up ideas. I like to drag my foot through that world occasionally. It was really almost like solving a puzzle, to a degree. Plus, I dont exactly deal with a Nike-sized corporation on a daily basis. The whole thing was foreign to me, but it ended up being a lot of fun and a pretty big challenge.

When can we expect another Aesop Rock CD, and how do you think your sound has changed in the four years since Bazooka Tooth was released?
The new album, None Shall Pass, will be out later this year, hopefully by the end of summer. Since Bazooka Tooth, Ive had an EP out and that project with Jeremy Fish, and a few other things that have hopefully kept people aware of what Ive been up to. I really wrote something this time. I think its kinda good. It feels like I did something right, but we shall see...

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