Aesop Rock weaves tales of struggle and urban decay. A lyricist, born and raised right outside of New York City, he now stands as part of the skyline six-foot something, much taller than most, with a face shrouded in a scruffy beard and cigarette smoke. He looks as though he could grab helicopters out of the sky or step across lakes as if they were puddles. His music sounds something similar, with his distinctive and cogent voice that demands a captive ear.
After a few small releases and one semi-successfully distributed album, Aesop had generated a loud enough buzz that the entire underground was listening attentively. Definitive Jux, an independent hip hop label like no other, also had their ears opened. Fronted by subterranean legend El-P, Definitive Jux was, and is, the premier label of its kind. Because the label signs the most progressive and talented of artists, Aesop was picked up and served as the perfect addiction to this elite conglomerate.
Producing most of the tracks on his latest release, "Bazooka Tooth," himself, he can now revel in the fact that not only can he paint the canvas beautifully, he can stretch his own too. As a visual artist by nature, he attended a prestigious school in Boston and received a bachelor's degree in painting.
It becomes apparent that his art background, without a doubt, transcended into his writing and producing. His new album blows a gaping hole through the wall of typicality, making passage for a dope new sound to enter and provide sustenance to ears hungry for another Aesop release. The drums hit hard behind the occasional cacophony, followed by beautiful arrangements of sounds and instruments. Aesop, lyrically, hits you with everything from his already unique assault-type cadence to a double time flow, within a cluster of brilliance.
It was a rainy Friday evening in Manhattan, I caught a cab to the hotel where Aesop was camped out for the weekend. The following interview takes place in his pod-like accommodations. We hung out and spoke. He smoked cigarettes, I cracked some not-so-funny jokes, we laughed, we cried. We talked about everything from Angelina Jolie to depression.
Where did you grow up?
Long Island, New York. Currently living in Brooklyn, New York. But childhood and high school in Long Island skateboarding a lot, doing music a lot and drawing a lot. Those are basically my three main things.
What was your favorite skate video back in the day?
When videos came out, it was just the shit. The Blind video, but before that, I remember when Hocus Pocus dropped, that was a big one. Animal Chin was always fuckin' pretty amazing. I don't have many of them anymore. I don't know where they went. Sometimes they'll use a song and send me the full one.
They used your song on a Tony Hawk video game. Did they hook you up?
It didn't pay well, but it paid enough for me to be happy. I would have done it, regardless, just because I'm a video game freak. But it was decent. More than I thought that they'd give me. But they know they can jerk me a little because they also have Black Sabbath, so they can be like, "Fuck it," but it was cool. Four was pretty dope, but I didn't like it as much as three.
Three was wack.
I like the levels of three better than four, but I like the setup on four where you can just ride around and do the missions as you want. That was dope, but I like the boards on three better, and I got really into the park editor. On three, I could just lace it. I have like ten parks that I made, and we were going to try and fucking do this shit when they licensed the song for four. My manager was like, "You should turn in all the parks you made and try to release them and shit." And I was like, "Why would I ever do that?" It was retarded.
Who'd you use when you played that game?
I made my own, I made Bazooka Tooth.
What's Bazooka Tooth About?
He's like my incredible Hulk; he's like my super hero. Except he's kind of lame because he doesn't have any super powers besides a Bazooka Tooth in his fuckin' mouth. He can blow shit up; he's a metaphorical super hero. An alter-ego, you know. Based on stress and bad situations, it just climbs out of the wood-work when shit ain't right. That's just a quick answer to anything, just blow it up. It's pretty morbid and pretty funny. I came up with it one day, I was with C-Rayz and El and I was just like, "I got this alter-ego named Bazooka Tooth," and I was like, "call my album that."
So, do you have any inspirations?
To a degree. The people who I know are some of my favorite artists in the world, and then beyond that, I just watch MTV a lot.
Do you draw a lot of inspiration from MTV?
To a certain degree, from some of the better people. I like some of it, not all of it. There is as much bullshit on MTV as there is on the underground. But there is good stuff in both places.
I don't know about that.
I'm not fuckin' talking about pop singers for the most part, although I like Justin Timberlake. I think actually main street hip hop right now is better than it has been in years. Jay Z's obvious, I like Eminem, I like Redman a lot. Ghostface a lot. Obviously there's some half-assed shit out there too. But I mean, look at the underground, it's probably even worse.
Yeah, it's real saturated. So, how do you feel about that?
I just don't draw the lines; I don't even care anymore. I grew up listening to rap music, so I started rapping. So far as I'm concerned, I make rap records. I don't care. The inspiration can come from anyone, regardless if they've ever sold a record in their life or if they've sold eight million records. A lot of it's just the same. Of course, in the mainstream you get people that kind of buy their way into the industry and they just suck. But the same thing happens in the underground. Those people get worse if they're just talentless. There's good music and bad music in all levels; record sales aren't always what proves it.
So you went to BU. You have a BFA and a painting degree.
Yes, and unfortunately, I'm not really an active painter anymore.
How come you don't design your own covers?
I don't know. I always end up just hating it after I do it.
So you have attempted though?
Every time, I'm like, "This is the one I'm doin', man." Then I'll just try, and I'll be like, "Fuck this shit." I already have enough problems hating my music a week after it's done. To worry about the cover is just another disaster.
If you were able to own one piece of art throughout history, to have in your house, what would you have?
God man, that's a strange question. I don't know. Probably a Rembrandt paining, but I don't know what. I can't say which one. BU is a real classical training in art. Draw circles and squares for your first year type shit, which a lot of people hated, and I hated the first year, too. But you're kinda supposed to hate it for the first year. I think it kind of embedded in me that like, the same thing which I believe about music, that before style and before emotion or any of that stuff even comes into play, there's a skill and a craft involved. There's a skill and a craft involved in drawing, which you shouldn't learn before you even try anything. Same thing with rap music, with trying to rhyme and stuff, there are rules. Granted, Def-Jux gets pigeonholed as like being some pretty out-there shit, or left of center or whatever. And that's fine; I don't care what anyone wants to label it as really. But there are rules. It's hard to describe in words, like what is rap or hip hop music. But there are pioneers who set a goal. If you listen to, like, fuckin' Run DMC and BDP and a handful of other groups, you'll know what rap music is, you know. I feel like what I was doing with visual artwork and what I'm doing with music, it's a necessity to pay homage to the predecessors, the pioneers, just as much as it's important to realize that it's now 2003, and you have to be doing something new. You have to be taking the rules, but at the same time, pushing the medium It's just as important to be doing some new stuff, but you can't push the medium until you learn the rules. You gotta learn 'em to break 'em or bend 'em. After going to school for art and pursuing music for a long time, it's a lot of the same shit. And I'm sure the same applies to acting and any other of the arts; there are a lot of people who skip the whole generation of the skill part. There is skill involved that has to be learned before you can anything else. Unfortunately, that where a lot of the underground cats fall short, when they forget about that. Just 'cause Gang Starr was a fuckin' dope group…now you have a bunch of tenth-rate Gang Starrs out there. Gang Starr was dope because they didn't sound like anybody else. That's why BDP was dope, because they didn't sound like anybody else when they dropped. That's why Run DMC was dope.
That's why when I drop new shit, I want people to be like, "It doesn't sound like anything I've heard. It's rap music, it's hip hop music, I know that much, but he's got a style that is original." In a generation now, where biting people's styles is just so common, you'll have like three or four dope cats, and then you'll have like 15 cats trying to copy that, and they're mediocre versions of it. I'll see someone who I think is like, really original, really dope, like MF Doom and I'll be, "Wow, he's pretty incredible with what he does." But I don't want to be a second rate MF Doom. Nobody does Doom better than Doom, you know. It just makes me want to sound like nothing else before. That only comes after years of the craft, the skill. It's practice, and style is something that develops out of that, same as painting. An approach to song making and stuff is something that develops out of your practice. It's not like you pick your style, your style kind of picks you. People fuck up when they're like, "Oh, I wanna sound like this," and then they try. That's just not how shit happens. The real sounding music out there is the stuff that's just original. That's why I think Ghostface is amazing; because he's incredibly original. You can tell that he's been doing it for fucking ever. You can tell that he's…
He's not fucking around.
He's not. He didn't come out and say, "I wanna sound like this." He's just being himself, and he's crazy. So that's why I like it. That's the whole reason I like emcees. I like everything from fuckin' club rappers to people who are considered more poetic; all sorts of styles. If you're doing your best, then I like you. I like people who do their own shit. That's why with the new record, a lot of people were questioning me and collaborating with Camp Lo. Those cats are cats that don't sound like anything I've heard in my life. They put an album out last year that was kind of like, slept on. And it's fuckin' phenomenal. Like front to back, it's sick. There's some happier, more upbeat, clubby joints that are sick too. And then there's some real dark shit and some just real evil and raw skill shit that is sick too.
Do you think that someone like Ghostface is aware that you exist?
I doubt Ghostface knows I exist, but I don't care. It's like, I'm a fan, and that's fine with me, because I never expected any fans. I'm just a fan, and I'm happy to be a fan. Because it seems like nowadays the line drawn between the fanbase and the artist is sort of blurring. When I was younger, I remember I met Chuck D, and meeting Run DMC on some fan shit, and being just amazed that I was shaking their hands. That shit doesn't really exist that much anymore. The fans and the artist are too close somehow, and there's no difference really.
How do you feel?
I'm not saying put me on a pedestal, but I'm saying it's just different in every other form. Rock has fans and musicians. Rap has…everyone who's a fan of rap tries to rap for some reason. I guess that's good, but not everyone is really cut out for it.
But they get weeded out eventually.
But now with the Internet, anyone can put anything out.
A double-edged sword.
It is a double-edged sword because it's good we have a website, which is basically a Definitive Jux commercial these are our artists, this is what we're doing, here's the new projects, this is what's up-to-date and that's a good thing to have. But it also eliminates a lot of the hustle part, a lot of the shit that made me what I am, which was running around hawking tapes, and going to open mics and really practicing and trying my hardest to be dope. And like, not getting an album on a label until I was ready or until someone thought I was ready. Even now I look back and it was still probably a little too early.
What was the first one?
Float was the first one and I was probably a little premature then, even though I'd been doing it for like practically ten years by the time that came out. But when I listen to it now, it just sounds premature.
|Do you still record in your house?
I do a lot of it at my house. For this record, I did all the final vocals and mixes at El's house because he's got a big studio at the crib. Any of the money I've made off records, most of it's gone to equipment. So I've been building up my own studio. I have enough to do a pretty good sounding album at my house, but I really put forth an effort to make this sound, quality-wise, even sound better than most anything we've released. Like most of the old stuff was done on the digital 8 track at my crib. The beats weren't even mixed; they were just straight out of the sample. I would use the other six tracks for vocals. I would mix it on that, and that was it. That's how I've done my career until now, until this album, where I bought a computer finally. I bought some synthesizers and shit and I was able to actually make an album the right way. Finally get a sound that I haven't been able to get because I didn't have the money, and it's a shame. That's another thing about Bazooka Tooth. What it has over the rest of the records is that, sound quality-wise, it just kinda bumps more, and it has the mixes that should be there.
How much you bench pressin' these days?
I've actually never been to the gym in my life. But it's on the list of things to do. Go to the gym. I've gotta learn how to move without feeling pain. I'm like the least healthy motherfucker on earth.
What about smoking?
What about it? Are you gonna try to smoke me under the table? Do I smoke a lot?
No, it's just apparent that you smoke a lot.
Am I going to try and quit?
I don't know about quit, but you're talking about going to the gym and stuff. Perhaps you come across sometimes as self-destructive.
Well, you know. Do you drink alcohol?
Occasionally. Not in excess. Do you drink alcohol?
No. So, you know, I'm winning. But obviously, I do some dumb shit. But I'm like anyone else who is like, "I've really got to get into shape." I'm feeling old. Obviously, a key element to that would be quitting smoking. I do need to learn how to walk without hurting.
Do you think that's from skating?
No, because I haven't skated in a while. It's just from not exercising ever. It's just from like, sitting at home a lot; not moving enough. It sounds dumb. But the older I get, I feel weird pains in my body that I've never felt before.
What games are you into?
I've played video games forever. I'll just put this out here right now. That's like, my shit. If there's one thing in the world that's stagnant right now, it's not music. It's fucking video games. We're having a fucking slump in my opinion.
Really? So you're way more worried about the video game industry than the music industry?
I am. Way more worried. To the point where I've seriously considered going to school for fucking video game development. People aren't doing enough with video games. I mean, they're making shit realistic, but I'm going to get tired of blowing shit up with machine guns.
Laura Croft's pretty cool, huh?
I don't know. Angelina Jolie is…anyone who knows me, knows that she will be my wife someday.
Really? You plan on marrying her, moving to the suburbs and having a family?
I do. I will father her Malaysian refugee child and I will do everything that she wants me to do just to stand next to her for an hour a day.
You plan on moving out of the city at any point?
If I do move out of the city, I will always keep a place here or move back here eventually. I don't think I could ever permanently leave…it's just one of those places. Except for maybe on, like, some sixty-year-old shit. Move somewhere really quiet and really serene. I could leave just 'cause every now and then it gets a little much. But when I'm here, I wanna get out. But when I leave, I miss it. It's like Catch 22. At this point in my life, I've been to cities all over the world and nothing really compares to it. I feel like the madness and the electricity of the city is what makes me be a recluse to a certain degree, and I kind of like being a recluse, if that makes any sense.
But perhaps people won't take notice as much 'cause there are so many other people.
Well, it's the kind of city that there are so many people that everyone is almost completely anonymous. There are a lot of people here, but that just makes you a fucking number. I like that better. I'd rather be a number than a name.
Do you ever chat with random people?
No. I like chatting with my friends. But, at this point, the only person I'm looking to meet is a wife. But as far as friends and people around me I've got enough. I don't go to bars and shit really to meet people. I have a tight-knit group of friends that I feel are gonna be there forever.
I hate the fucking traveling aspect of all this bullshit because I don't like to have to smile for the cameras or meet other people. But I do like that eight months out of the year, I get to sit at my house and write songs and kick it with my friends and just like, make music. So I'll do my best to put up with four months of Man.
But if you'd like to meet a wife, if you're on the road all the time, do you think many girls are really tolerable of that?
If I knew how to meet a wife, I would do it man (Laughs). I don't know if girls are tolerable of that. I've been in a three-and-a-half year relationship where I did not cheat on the girl one time. Since then, I've just not had relationships and played the field, (laughs) and done the whole go on tour and meet girls thing. That shit's all fun, obviously. But I think I would be happier with me, and like, a wife, and like, a row-boat, with a play station. (Laughs) Now, that's serenity.
So what do you want to talk about?
Musically, I'm the best, OK, so let's just move on. I'll talk about video games forever man.
PRO-Keds all the way, man. Granted, I got the "Dunks" at the crib and everything, but I was never like that much of a sneaker whore until I started getting sponsorships from clothing companies. You know, it's funny, I skated for like ten years and then after I quit, I started getting sponsored. We recently go the PRO-Keds sponsorship, so now I have like ten pairs of PRO-Keds at my house.
I want the white ones with the little blue tag on the back.
Yeah, we get all the ones that the girls used to wear. They're kind of a throwback. I mean, they were considered the break dance shoe of choice at one point. And as far as everyone knew, they were gone. And now, we get to go to the showroom and pick out shit that isn't even out. But even if it was out, I wouldn't know. But I don't care. All that means for me is ten pairs of hot kicks.
Are you just an admirer of graf or do you partake in it as well?
I was a wack graffiti writer for a little while. I did my little thing, I was alright. I'm a massive admirer, I'll put it that way, and have been since I knew what it was. Then I tried it, and I did it in Long Island for a little bit. I still do it in my books and shit, but I wasn't compared to the people I got to work with, obviously. Meeting them was definitely one of those fandom moments where you get dwarfed.
That dude Kay Slay, he's pretty big.
Huge, I didn't even know K Slay was fucking DEZ until…
Yeah, those two look nothing alike.
Yeah. Gained a little weight, pumped some iron. But yeah man, that was dope. It was dope to fucking work with Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver. I remember when we had the Style Wars video in our jr. high and high school library and you could take it out and watch it, which was weird. And we would watch that shit every day. And now, it's like 20 years later, and they're like, "Oh, we've got all this footage that never made it into the original Style Wars move, you want it?" I was like, "Yeah, yes I do." That fell into my lap and it was a big thing for me. I was like, "If I quit or die tomorrow, at least I've got that under my belt." Just the fact that Henry, who produced the original Style Wars, and being invited to his house…we shot some of the video at his house. He just has stacks of portfolios of graffiti shots from the 70s and shit that are just amazing. He really just embraced the whole thing and he kinda trusted the cats that were editing the DVD to pick an artist or musician that would represent the footage well. Then when he met me and he heard the song, he liked it. Then I had meeting with him a week later and he was like, "Yeah, I like when you say this," and I was like, "Wow, you're talking about one of my lines, that's pretty sick." It was just dope, man. That whole thing was real humbling. It was one of those things I can tell my kids about, even though they might not understand. The Style Wars was just one of those things that no one outside of hip hop fans even knows what the fuck it was. So I told people, cats that I knew, "Yo, I'm getting all of this Style Wars unused footage." People that knew were amazed and people that didn't know just really didn't understand the impact of it. I was like, no you just don't understand. This is staple movie of fuckin' hip hop culture, graffiti culture, you know. It has cost barely any money to make the video. The video is obviously simple, it's just me rapping, but cut with the classic footage.
"One of Four" (a song off the Daylight EP About Aesop's bout with serious depression) what was the response to that?
It was a real fenced in decision as to whether or not it was gonna get released. It was made, and given to the property people, and then it was, you know.
Who made the beat on that?
The lyrics don't really ever say that you got better, or that you feel better.
Yeah, well there's a reason for that. I mean, I guess I'm obviously a little better than I was at that point, but you know, it was just a bad time and place, obviously.
Were you hesitant to go get help because you were afraid of losing that creative edge? Do you think that drove you?
No, it's not because of that. Just 'cause of a general fear of…well, not even fear, just like disbelief. I was always just like, fuck it. If I got a problem, I should be able to fix it. And so it was more of a like…I wasn't hesitant of fear, I was hesitant 'cause I was like fuck that shit. If I can't fix this shit then it doesn't deserve to be fixed. It was supposed to be like that or whatever. I wouldn't say I was hesitant because of that. I wasn't actually talked into it (laughs), but I who's to say if that's good or bad.
But you were still able to put out another album.
It didn't hinder the creative process; you're not a zombie.
It DID hinder the creative process.
Getting help did hinder it…
Well, just that time period of my existence, which was just around right after Labor Days came out, basically.
Do you use the negative thoughts as a driving force in creating?
I mean, yeah. Everybody does. People create better things out of negativity, in general, and people struggle. Pain is key in creating things from day one. No one wants to hear a record just about being OK all the time, 15 songs in a row, you know, it's all good. For some reason that just never happens and it probably won't happen. People tend to write their best and paint their best and create their best when referring to negative times, for whatever reason. I think that's because negative times and struggles call upon venting more. When you're happy, you don't have that much to get off your chest.
Would you rather be creative or happy?
Probably happy. I don't know, maybe not. I don't really have an answer for that. Yeah, probably happy. I think I could say that. But at the same time, there's always something going on somewhere that's negative, and artists from everywhere will draw upon that to create, for whatever reason, just 'cause it's just more interesting for whatever reason to everybody in the world to hear about pain, whether it be regarding love or regarding the ghetto or anything. Any kind of bad feeling or negativity; it's more interesting to create and more interesting to hear. And that's just kinda how its' been since day one. They pick up the utensil to write or to fucking do whatever they do because they feel like they need to, you know. It's like there's no other choice. And someone who's just kinda happy-go-lucky is just skipping through life not really needing that. The people that are dopest at what they do, do it because they need to do it. It's not a choice really. So now I have a few records out and I have larger fanbase, but if this shit fails and I do go into my little video game Plan B, I'm still gonna be fucking making music, just for me and then I'll give a copy of it to [my publicist]. Because that just needs to happen. It's not a question. Because for some reason, when I was young, it just happened. Some people make things and some people take the things that other people made and use them to help them. I was always the one that just kinda made shit. I drew pictures from when I was you, you know. And I mean, I knew that art was gonna be my shit in some form. I always thought it was gonna be like visual arts. But I was also always doing music. From when I was a kid, I was playing the piano, and I played the bass for a while and started making beats and this and that. Writing is something that I never did until rap music. I don't read books. Some guy just left here who was like quoting some author and I was like, "Alright, guy, I don't know what you're talking about." I don't know these things. The only thing that ever made me pick up a pen to write was rap music. Drawing was just a different story. For some reason, I was always doing it. I was just as inspired by graffiti as I was by Vermeer and Rembrandt. It all kinda coincided for me. I saw the necessity in all of it. I mean, you look at someone like Rembrandt and you look at someone like Phase 2. They're really not that different in the scheme of things. Or someone like Van Gogh who was notably crazy and notably lived a painful life. And then you look at a graffiti artist, who, for whatever reason, has this desire to beautify the city by destroying it. It's dope to me, you know. They both create out of this unspoken and indefinable necessity to just do it. Someone like fucking Pablo Picasso who was in the studio for like 13 hours a day, every day of his life, which is pretty much unmatched by any artist in any field. Be it music or acting, you know. And someone like Picasso made a lot of shit that I thought was fucking, pretty ugly, but then he did a lot of shit that I thought was dope, too. But it almost doesn't matter because the fact that this motherfucker was that diligent, that he had something in him that made him need to be there making things, whatever it was, making quick little things or taking time to make massive masterpieces. Whatever it was, it's there with some people when they're born. There's no problem if you don't have it, it's just that you weren't meant to be creative, but that's fine. But for some reason, from day one, I had to make shit, I had to make something. I had to make something out of nothing. I don't really know why. People say it's to get shit off your chest, but it's not like you sit there and you're like, "God, I'm stressed." And then you make a painting and you like (makes a swoosh noise) feel better. So the "get it off your chest" thing is, to a degree, a bunch of bullshit. But it's not really a bunch of bullshit. It's not immediate satisfaction. It's just a desire to make something and then to look at it and be like, "Wow, this is original, this is something that no one's done." I find that everything we've talked about, be it fucking video games or movies or music or fucking artwork or fucking any of that shit…I just like people that do what they do best. The people that obviously had to do it. They didn't have a choice. They didn't do it for the money; they didn't do it for the fame. They did it because there was no other choice. That's just kinda what I do. I don't have any definitive answers to why or what or all that shit. I'm just happy to do the shit. If music one day stops, I'll do something else. I'll fucking knit or something. I'll just make shit all the time.