article by walt miller.|
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He's felt pressure before, but probably nothing like this. As one of the finest MCs to emerge in the past several years, Aesop Rock (real name Ian Bavitz) has been lauded as everything from hip hop's underground messiah to a literary genius (when he rarely reads), and neither of those plaudits is entirely unthinkable when put into context. With the release of Bazooka Tooth, most of which he produced on his own, he's raised the bar even further. What? Aesop Rock without Blockhead's pinpoint, ear friendly productions? Hell yes. In the latest logical step in a long tradition of shaking things up, Bavitz takes over full control of the mixing desk -- and with it, full responsibility for his own success. Whether or not fans warm to Bazooka Tooth's decidedly leftfield indulgence and inventive sonic angles is a question that we'll have to wait to see answered. In the end, it won't matter: brilliant, envelope-pushing releases like Music For Earthworms, Float and Daylight have already cemented Aesop Rock's place in hip hop's pantheon...
...which provokes someone like Bavitz to shirk complacency and take a risk at his career's highest point to date. Keep your money on Aesop Rock.
Splendid: I'm really digging Bazooka Tooth.
Aesop Rock: Good, man. I'm glad.
Splendid: The cool thing is that you produced just about all of it.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, eleven out of fifteen, so most of it.
Splendid: In that sense, do you consider it sort of a milestone for you?
Aesop Rock: Yeah... Yeah, I do. I've always done, like, sub-beats and all that shit, but I made it a point before I even sat down to do this record... I told everyone around me that I would produce most, if not all, of this album. It was hard. It took a long fucking time; I put a lot into cleaning up my production and trying to get it to a level where I thought it would actually match what people thought I could do on the mic. I don't know. I actually like it. (laughs) I get a lot of, like, people saying, "Wow, this album sounds so different, production-wise." And I'm like, "Yeah, it's 'cause I produced it." Everyone's used to me rocking on Blockhead's beats, which... that's my fucking best friend and he's someone who I'll always work with, but he understood too. He's like, "Man, you've got to do your shit." And my beats sound different from his. So it's like we have two different sounds. They both work, but people are going to be like... this is a good chance for people to love me or hate me.
Splendid: I love your style, definitely.
Aesop Rock: Thank you, man. That means a lot, because it's a little nerve-wracking. Whether I produced this record or not, this is supposed to be my biggest record so far in my career. That's what everyone's been telling me, anyway. As far as I'm concerned, I don't give a fuck. But my label and my publicity are saying, "This album's going to be big for you!" And I'm like, "Alright, cool", then I'm like, "Well, fuck!" I just realized that I produced most of this and I'd never done that before. So, it's kind of like a little bit extra nerve-wracking.
Splendid: That's pressure for you.
Aesop Rock: People are going to be like, "Well, I hate the fucking beats." And it's going to be, "Ah, fuck you." (laughs)
Splendid: The thing is, Bazooka Tooth might be a little less accessible than the earlier stuff.
Aesop Rock: You know what's funny? I swear to God, fifty percent of the people I talk to who have heard the record are telling me that it's way more accessible. And the other half are telling me it's way less accessible.
Splendid: Well, I love the stuff that takes a little effort on the listener's part. That's the stuff that I end up liking the most, in the long run.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I mean, I sort of always try to do that. I'm trying to make a rap album that lasts longer than a week, which is hard to do these days. I guess music in general doesn't have the longevity that it did, but especially with fucking rap music it's hard to hear something and want to go back and kind of hear it again and realize, "Hey, there's actually some layers in there."
Splendid: When you work on your own, what's the process like?
Aesop Rock: It's fucking so scattered and weird. So much shit changes for me. Basically, with the money that I had from my last releases I bought a computer and I bought a ProTools setup. I always had a little studio, but I made a bigger little studio. I'd never, on any album I've ever done, mixed a beat. It's always just straight out of the fucking sampler, because I recorded everything on a digital eight track that I had for years that I was comfortable using. I didn't want studio time and I didn't want to deal with this other bullshit, [though I was] obviously wishing the record could technically sound cleaner. But I never had the opportunity to do it cheap. And this time around I was able to spend a lot of time in the studio because the studio is about ten feet from where I am right now. And I had more equipment and was able to achieve more of a sound that I wanted, whereas before I was limited because I didn't have the money. Now I still don't have any money in the bank because I spent it all on fucking music equipment. We actually mixed the whole record at the Def Jux studio, and when we were sitting to do it, it was weird because this was my third album, and I had an EP plus I had a couple of records out before I was signed, and I had never, ever mixed a beat. (laughs) I'd never actually tracked a beat and been able to get the sound of it that I knew could be there. So, each I record I did sounds a little better because I learned how to freak my equipment a little better, the shitty equipment that I had. But I think, sonically, this one has a lot more thump to it and a lot more... it sounds a lot more professional, which is good. It's something that I've been trying to do.
AUDIO: Bazooka Tooth
Splendid: You must feel a lot more freedom, as well.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, totally. I've always just kind of had to settle. Knowing that if I had this piece of machinery I could do this thing that I really want to do, but I can't, so we have to do it like this. That's what I've kind of been doing, like, for a career. (laughs) Now, I'm just like, "Finally, I can do shit the right way and get a good sound out of it and let people hear it." There are so many changes that happened before this record... that, and the fact that it's been mixed and recorded like a proper album, and the fact that I produced most of it... just a couple of elements that are going to get commented on a lot. It's whether or not journalists still think I'm cool these days. (laughs)
Splendid: I noticed, in the past, a lot of people focused on Blockhead's productions, so it's good you're sort of breaking out on your own...
Aesop Rock: Yeah, well he's doing... he's got a solo album coming on Ninja Tune, an instrumental album. And he's got that... I don't know if you've heard that Party Fun Action Committee album on Def Jux. It was a record we just put out last month. It's like a comedy record with him and his boy. It's kind of like a Weird Al, if he had any idea what was going on in our generation, basically. And a little more raw and offensive. Very funny, though. He's got a lot of stuff going on. He was one of the people who encouraged me to produce the whole shit, or try to do most of it. We kind of grew up making beats at the same time and I was just like... I was writing rhymes most of the time, and I wasn't progressing as fast as him. I didn't even have time to make the shit that I wanted to. And this time I was like, "I don't care if this record takes me fucking forever. I'm going to put a lot of time into it." And we're also people who believe that songs have more to them than... even a rap song can have a build up and a peak and a bridge and a low point -- all of these musical elements that people don't expect out of rap music. They sort of expect, "Okay, this is the beat, this the rap." And I think that me and Block and even El-P and people who are working with Def Jux -- especially RJ, he's a perfect example -- are making beats that have layers to them and have fucking depth and change. There's emotional peaks in the songs and there's things that are present in other forms of music that haven't always been there -- especially aren't in a lot of rap music today, you know what I mean?
Splendid: You incorporate rock elements and string sections; you put effects on your vocals. It's a pretty unique production from where I'm standing.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I'm trying to do something... what's the natural evolution of rap music? What pays tribute to the pioneers but is still the sound of 2003? I want to fucking base it all on what I learned. But I don't wanna sound like anything I've ever heard. The reason I like people I like is because they didn't sound like shit that I heard -- which is what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to basically say, "Hey, this motherfucker is really dope. And the fact that he's really dope and really original doesn't make me want to copy him. It makes me want to be really dope and really original in my own way." I don't know. I'm just trying to not sound like anyone. (laughs)
Splendid: It seems like there's a section of rap that's very keen on advancing the music.
Aesop Rock: Pioneers are interested in advancing the music, too, because they were the ones so interested in it that they invented it, you know? (laughs) I mean, I'm still trying to make rap music based on who taught me. Based on BDP, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys and who I grew up with -- EPMD and KMD and all these groups. These are the fucking groups who said it for me. If someone comes up and says, "What's hip hop?", the only thing you can do is play them the albums that defined it for you. There are no words; there's not a good sentence that sums up what hip hop is. I think that anyone trying to do something original in hip hop today has to have some sort of respect for it, because anyone can admit... I don't think hip hop is dead, which a lot of people like to say, which I think is a bunch of bullshit. But I think it is, to a degree, struggling to expand.
But finally, I think, within the last year or two, there's been some actual -- both in the underground and especially in the mainstream -- stuff that sounds different. Stuff that's really fucking creative. They're actually starting to give people more options. The listeners right now have what, like ten options -- the same ten videos that get run everyday, all day. I think that no one wants to take risks, because if you take a risk you could lose money. But I think we're coming to a point in American society where people want more of a choice. They really want to hear everything. If they like rap music, they want to study everything in the spectrum of rap music and maybe pick something they've never heard before. That's the reason you get open on hip hop in the first place. Kids with new styles, that's all I wanna hear. I wanna hear what you've done with your fucking life. You've been rhyming for how long and this is what you amount to right now. Your style. And I'm not at all trying to be a fucking sheep. I'm not trying to be a fucking mediocre version of Gang Starr. I wanna be a... a gangster. (laughs)
Splendid: I was listening to "We're Famous".
Aesop Rock: Yeah? (laughs)
AUDIO: NY Electric
Splendid: Is there a story behind that? The prelude sort of hints at what you're talking about.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, you know, Definitive Jux as a whole -- as good as we're doing... We have a lot of fans, we have a lot of coverage. We've been covered by more magazines than a lot of other underground groups have -- and you know, I think we deserve it, actually. (laughs) But, you know what? There's a lot people that don't, and there's a lot people that are very vocal about the fact that they don't think we deserve it. Just to sum it up simply and not get into details: for every fan of Def Jux, there's two people that hate us. Not just don't like us. Hate us. For whatever reason. For God knows what reason. Because they have nothing better to do than say, "I don't like it", and find something else. So every now and then you just have to make one of those songs. As much as I don't even want to rap about the fact that I'm rapping anymore, sometimes you just gotta be like, "Look, y'all motherfuckers don't think I got history in this shit and think that I didn't perfect my craft before I started leaning left? You got it wrong." (laughs) That's kind of like a simple way to sum up that shit. So the title is obviously really intentionally arrogant, because in the scheme of things we're really not that famous. But to a bunch of people who hate us, they hate us because to them we're famous. We're famous on a small scale, so you can imagine how many people... if six million people buy an Eminem album, that means twelve million people are fucking hating him. Despising him to the point to where they want to be vocal about it. Same goes for Jay-Z, same goes for any of these multi-million selling artists. And it's the same thing for us, on a smaller level. We're moving more units than most independents do, because our music is fucking... better, basically. But people don't like that. People can be like, "Oh, I don't like that sound," but respect the fact that we hustled and got to where we are and don't worry about it. Do your own thing and see if it works out for you. It's not that easy, unfortunately. That's not how people think. You don't see me at home going, "What the fuck? Ja Rule is famous? I'm making phone calls." Ja Rule is obviously pretty fucking talentless, but I don't care. I'm not jealous and I don't feel like he's stealing my fucking spotlight or anything. Who cares?
The dopest feeling about being a part of what we're trying to do with Def Jux as a whole is just like, when we get there -- and we will get there -- we will have done it completely by ourselves. Completely on our own terms. I'm not turning in some fucking album and then sitting in a meeting for two weeks deciding what would be the best single, or hearing the album's good but we need to keep going until we get a hit. I'm making my fucking record and over the course of my record I'm saying, "This is my first single. I really like this shit. This is how I want to come out." And then I give my album to El-P and I give it to the office and I say, "This is the album, this is my artwork, every one of these songs is going on the album, this is my single and my B-side." Basically, they sign artists they trust to make good shit on their own, people they know have what it takes to do it by themselves. And everyone is a fan of everyone else.
Splendid: With everything good you're saying about Def Jux -- and there's a lot, apparently -- where does Mush come in, as a label?
Aesop Rock: They were in and out, pretty fast. (laughs)
Splendid: Did you have a bad experience?
Aesop Rock: I didn't have a bad experience, like a beef, or anything. And I pretty much had creative control over it, for the most part. But there was no chemistry, really. I basically gave them the record. This isn't to put them down, or anything, but we never really got along that well. It turned into one of those "turn in the record and every six months I make a phone call to make sure my checks come in" deals. That's where that stood and it was just not meant to be. And that's cool. They're doing their thing. They were taking the label in a direction that I wasn't really feeling, and it wasn't meant to be. And for me to be honest and be my full-on creative self, I need to be comfortable.
And Definitive Jux, basically... after meeting El-P, who I met through Cannibal Ox, who I'd been friends with for a while -- I talked to El-P. We had the same publicist. We were on the same label or whatever, and I'd met him over the years a handful of times. But after building with him on some music shit, and talking with him for a couple of hours, we kind of knew. We were kind of like, "This shit could work." We were clicking on a friendship level, we were clicking on a creative level, and that's what you're looking for. And at this point, I'm like Def Jux's biggest fan. And I don't care what any review says of anyone. I think everyone from Lif to S.A. Smash to El-P -- these are like my favorite rappers, and some of my favorite people in the world, which is very hard to come by. No major label has it like that, I'll you. You don't see every artist on whatever record label going out and chilling every day. I'm out in public with the same people I'm on stage with. And I'm at home with them, and out at the bar looking for girls with them, and I'm playing video games with them. That shit doesn't come easy. I think Mush was trying to do that. I just wasn't feeling the direction they were going. Def Jux was just a start-up label right around that time. What Company Flow did was kick a huge hole in the wall of hip hop for a lot of people. And I knew that the amount of respect I had for what they did was already a good starting point. And then, finding out that El had respect for what I did... there was just no bullshit involved. There's no bullshit involved. We're all honest enough with each other that we can speak the truth about each other. And it doesn't hurt that we all live around the fucking block from each other.
Splendid: It must be just a natural thing to collab with El-P, then.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, you know... basically, last night, we were up till six in the morning making a jam. "Hey, you got any beats?" "Yeah, I got some shit layin' around." "Alright, come over and we'll fuck around." We made a joint, and now he's like, "Oh, this shit is going on my next album!" And it's sick, it came out fucking sick. And that's the kind of shit that basically goes on. And it's fun. It's more fun than touring, more fun than being in every magazine, it's more fun than any of that shit. It's just like kickin' it with my people, and really being on that level. Someone who buys the S.A. Smash album and someone who buys my album are going to think that we don't know each other at all. And I fucking love their album. It's a mutual respect for the music based on friendship. I remember meeting Camu (Tao of S.A. Smash) years ago and him being like, "Yeah, man. I really don't like your shit that much." And I'm like, "That's cool, man." He was like, "I haven't really heard much of it, but what I'd heard, I was like, 'Ehhh'." Then, I remember we were all booked for a show together, and I stepped on stage and I basically killed the show. And El was laughing. As soon as I stepped off stage, El grabs me and he's like, "Yo, man. Camu is just bugging." And Camu goes, "Yo, dog. You got it, man." We don't even listen to rap half the time. We don't go searching for who's new and hip. So all this kid knew about me was that I had some buzz, and he didn't care. And it came to that point where I knocked the wall of respect down and we're both like, "Okay, your shit's dope." We're working together on some shit. We have totally different styles but it just comes together to make some new, sick shit.
Splendid: So you're collaborating with Camu? Is it going to come out eventually?
Aesop Rock: Oh... This isn't even a project I'm talking about. All of us, in general. We all have different styles and when we end up collabbing it works out weird and really interesting. And it's just dope to have this family that sounds so different and has so much respect for each other. It's dope because when we do collaborate, it's guaranteed to be a new sound. If you put Lif, Murs and El-P on a song together, that shit is not going to sound like anything you've heard. It's 'cause you can sense the crew aspect of it, the friendship, the fucking respect... and on top of all of that, they're all killing it. They're killing it from every angle, and that's basically all we're trying to do.
AUDIO: No Jumper Cables
Splendid: I wanted to touch on some earlier stuff. The Overground -- that was a collective you were involved in with Blockhead and Dub-L.
Aesop Rock: Oh, that is a fucking amazing question, man. Yeah, that is actually what that was. That was on some friendship shit, too, you know? I met Blockhead in 1994 and he was rapping and he was fucking really bad. (laughs) He was rhyming and we met in college and we were friends from then on. He was involved with a crew in New York called the Overground, which was basically a bunch of childhood friends fucking around with music. And I ended up becoming real close with all of them. We ran with them, basically. We were just dumb kids who would make four track songs every fucking day. We would make hundreds of jams; Block started producing more. They were kids who knew they were like... I don't know, out of all of them, I think I started taking shit a little more seriously... at least on the rhymes. Block started really getting heavy into the production and it just panned out because I was really feeling what he was doing. And he knew I was taking it pretty seriously. We took it from a hobby to like real life, which is a pretty dope feeling. To know that your homeboy... we always sit down and go through old freestyle tapes and shit. We all sucked and it's mad funny to listen to. I'll have a kinship with all of those people for the rest of my life. We don't all necessarily still get along; most of us do. No one has beefs, and most of them are still real close friends of mine, even if they're still not doing music.
Splendid: Dub-L was in the Overground. He helped you with an early album, Music For Earthworms.
Aesop Rock: Yeah, he was making beats. When the Overground was formed, he was the one that was making beats for them before I even knew those kids. He's still doing shit. He's got Ground Original, which is his label. Block's working with me a lot. He's got his solo projects. This kid Jer is on that new comedy record with Blockhead. Every joke that we used to make, fucking around, is on their record, and it's all just funny to us. A lot of those beginning friendships... you been rhyming for a while, but when you actually settle into a crew for the first time, it's just a dope feeling.
Splendid: Did you go to art school?
Aesop Rock: I did. I went to the School For The Arts in Boston University.
Splendid: Was that your original goal? To become an artist?
Aesop Rock: Well, you know. Being an artist is like a weird goal. I wanted to do it. I got a degree for painting and I was painting for a few years after school. I was painting, I was doing music, and the doors were starting to get kicked down with music, and my apartment started getting smaller. I was making huge six or eight foot paintings and trying to afford an apartment in lower Manhattan. It wasn't really working. Once I had like eight paintings in my bedroom, I couldn't even sleep in there.
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Walt Miller won more than twenty awards as Movement Director for Cirque du Soleil.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - ben colen :: credits graphics ]