Anyone who questions the lyrical skills of Aesop Rock isn’t listening carefully enough. Or at all. His records reward the repeated listen, the close reading, the attentive ear. His beat-building abilities are on par with his bars making him the complete Hip-hop package. Put that together with his visual art background and his knack for surrounding himself with creative friends of all stripes, and you’ve got one of the most interesting artists of the twenty-first century.
I met Aes in 2005 while backstage at the Showbox in Seattle, and though I have tested our bond by embarrassing myself in front of him many times, we’ve been friends ever since. Whether it was dumping a box of shirts into the street after a show or drunkenly crying during Kimya Dawson’s set at Home Slice Pizza during SXSW in 2011, Aes has always had my back. He’s a good dude that way.
Aesop was most recently one-third of Hail Mary Mallon along with fellow Def Jux expatriates Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz. When the following interview went to press, Aesop Rock had a brand new record out (Skelethon on RhymeSayers Entertainment), and was on the road, “until forever,” he said.
Roy Christopher: Last time we hung out, I got kinda tipsy and annoyed the shit out of Rob Sonic. The time before that, I did the same and dumped a box of your merch all over East 10th street. Why do you even still talk to me?
Aesop Rock: Hm. These are facts. You dumped the merch, but you were trying to help so that gets a pass. The other was at a SXSW, so on one hand, exposure to drunken company is expected. Still, you are technically an adult. I want to like you. Our friendship is so complex. It’s like a strange riddle whispered into an elder sled dog’s ear seconds before starting his final Iditarod. What does it all mean? Who is Rob Sonic really? Why is Roy drunk and crying at a mid-afternoon, outdoor gig behind a pizza shop? Then I think to myself, “Ah, we are all dogs in this race. It’s cold as shit and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Mush!” That and you have been extremely supportive of me for many years, and I appreciate it a lot.
RC: Oh, of course! The last time we talked formally interview-wise, you said, “As I get older I get less obsessed with details and more obsessed with finding real general ways of saying a lot. Like an old man who doesn’t speak much, but when he does it’s some weird, clever statement that somehow sums up everything: That’s what I wanna be.” Does that statement still stand?
AR: That’s gross. Don’t quote me to me, man. I am a fucking supreme idiot. I think I obsess over some things, while other things go completely neglected. Obsession is the spice of life – you discover something, your brain gets zapped and you are alive in a new way, actively seeking information, being productive, finally finding some details worth paying attention to, etc. Musically speaking, I know I have reworked individual lyrics and sounds to extremes nobody who wasn’t obsessed would bother with, or redoing things that sound exactly the same to others 800 times until it hits what I was looking for – whatever that means. Details rule, and I assume are emphasized by the stuff we neglect, whether artistically, life-istically, whatever. You might leave an obvious fuck-up untouched because it’s the right fuck-up. Different things take different amounts of attention to become realized. Sometimes you wanna cut paper slowly and precisely with scissors to get a clean edge, sometimes you wanna tear it to show the rip. That’s my updated take on “details,” which I just re-read and feel is as vague as my 2005 version, with way more words. The second half of my ’05 comment sounds beyond douche-y, and I’m sorry I put you through hearing somebody say those words out loud. Let’s say that we’re officially even for the merch drop now.
AR: It’s pretty much aimed at not having any aim. Albums take me a little while to make, and I guess I wanted to have a home for some public fuckery, beats, videos: just an outlet for crap when I felt like making it, as well as contributions from others looking for the same. I had some like-minded friends and we made 900 bats. Sometimes I stay super busy with it and try to gather content, make stuff, etc. Other times it goes untouched for weeks. I think it’s a tiny arena where I can be creative with zero pressure or expectations, and I hope the others that have added things to it feel the same. It’s been hard to keep up with now that I’ve been consumed with Skelethon stuff, but I find it a rewarding outlet to have when I need it.
RC: New York City seems like the place to be for Hip-hop, but you bounced to the Left Coast. How’s the Bay Area different from New York for the way you approach this stuff?
AR: I have a really different life than I had in NY for many ever-evolving reasons. It was a big move. It’s not a bus-ride away, which is the furthest I had ever lived previously. I kinda nurse this need to be alone while yelling about feeling lonely. That has led me to a relatively isolated life. Socializing in general, in the sense of hitting a bar at night, etc. never was my thing, but now that I live out here I find it even easier to escape/hide, to a perhaps unhealthy extent. Making songs has always been something I did at night while other people were out, or at least that’s what it felt like. When I was younger, painting was like that: I would rather make some shit than go out. Jumping to the other side of the country enables that for better or for worse. It kinda seals the deal on a lot of the socializing because quite frankly I don’t really know very many people here. The approach feels like “me vs. me” more than ever.
RC: When you’re not messing around in the studio, you’re out on the road. Which do you prefer?
AR: I prefer the studio because I like making things. That said, because Rob, Wiz and I are all over the country these days, touring is a nice chance to hang with those guys. Because songs have felt like the byproduct of antisocial behavior for me, hitting a point in my life when someone was like “ok, time to tour!” – I was just like… “ummm what?” I mean, in ’01 I finally quit my day-job to do my first official “tour,” and I sorta freaked out and didn’t even end up going. It felt like the exact opposite of what I was putting into the songs, and I just couldn’t wrangle it in. It still feels that way. “Performing” is an awkward thing for me. I kinda hate it. I love it, but I kinda hate it. I mean it feels undeniably fantastic to be in a room with people getting loud for you and your songs, but I will never not find it fucking terrifying. I think over the years I have adapted to the point of coping, but the entire “on tour” experience hasn’t been something I have found comfort in. Regardless, I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.
RC: This is for the premier BMX ‘zine, so I have to ask, you ever ride BMX?
AR: Skateboarding played a gigantic roll in my youth, from elementary school through my young 20’s. In maybe 7th grade however, I was coaxed over to the local dirt track behind Pumpernickels restaurant. I’d say for about a year or so I abandoned skating and rode a bike. I enjoyed it, but ultimately had picked up skating again by the time high school came around. BMX is sick as fuck and I will still sit and watch that shit any time.
Here’s the video for “Zero Dark Thirty” from Skelethon [runtime: 3:32]:
Ed note: This interview originally appeared in Mike Daily’s Aggro Rag Freestyle Mag #13: The Hip-hop Issue in July, 2012. As that issue is now nearly out of print, I’m posting it here by kind permission of Mike Daily for those that missed out. Many thanks to him, Chrissy Piper, Dana Meyerson, and, of course, Aesop Rock.