Back in 2009, El-P’s famed underground rap label Definitive Jux released their fourth Definitive Jux Presents compilation, featuring another collection of new and stray tracks from their acclaimed roster. Tucked away on that disc was “D-Up”, a collaborative song from Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic, two rappers with highly-regraded solo careers of their own, joining together to carve out a new artistic vision for themselves ...
... and boy, did they.
The two verbally dexterous friends joined up with DJ Big Wiz and in 2011 released their first album as Hail Mary Mallon called Are You Gonna Eat That?. The release on Rhymesayers had a tight turnarond, and despite some positive notices, the disc largely flew under the radar. Undeterred, the group unleashed Bestiary in late 2014, a fun, lightly sardonic disc that showed Aes and Rob’s tighter friendship and glut of live shows having refined and focused their vision. The difference was immediate to both fans and critics; the record even managing to crack the Billboard 200.
Now, hot off the release of their new music video for the single “4AM”, the dynamic duo took some time to answer some questions for PopMatters, which resulted in Aes talking about getting better at capturing his real-life personality and Rob (of course) talking about Conway Twitty.
First off, when was the last time you guys listened to “D-Up”? Personally, it is such a fascinating change from then to where you guys ended up with Bestiary. There was a pure rawness even in that early recording, but now, it feels like all the works you’ve done together have really coalesced Hail Mary Mallon into a cohesive “voice”. Would you agree?
Aesop Rock: I probably hear it a couple times a year lately. I actually really like it and I don’t find it to be too far removed from what we’re doing now. We knew each other for a long time before “officially” forming the group, so the sensibilities were all there from the jump.
Rob Sonic: I haven’t listened to it in a while, probably a few years. I would agree, just based on the fact that I really didn’t understand how to co-write songs, not that it was uncomfortable or anything it was just a bit different, like felt more like a feature to me back then.
Gotta be honest: this is I think the hands down funniest record I’ve heard from either of you. I remember, Aes, there was one interview you gave where you felt that some of your fans expected you to go on your balcony and give a lucid oratory every morning, when in fact you were more concerned with things like a knocked-over bottle of Pepto Bismol. I think your humor is one of the more under-appreciated aspects of your work, but cuts like your guest verse on “Happy Pills” with Murs really highlighted that. Even when compared to the first Hail Mary Mallon album, it’s not just the ongoing “Fundraiser Concert” sketch: sometimes you guys are just downright goofy. What do you both attribute for the change?
AR: For me it came with age. I feel like I am better at capturing my actual personality these days, as opposed to only trying to be funny within the context of a rap punchline or some overdone sarcasm. I think when I was younger, I was just trying to be an ill rapper, and I didn’t realize you could be everything. Like you had lyrical cats, and you had funny rappers, but it seemed like you had to pick a lane or something. Obviously that’s stupid, but it takes a long time to figure that shit out.
Rob, I think one of your most under-appreciated skills is how well you utilize your own flow to serve your lyrics. I listen back to “Super Ball” from Telicatessen and how you sound on “Krill” and it feels like there’s light years of difference, your verses taking on more weight but it’s just how effortless you make these things roll off, less “plainspoken” and here given real musicality and nuance. Sometimes in rap criticism, flow gets dropped from the conversation, so I was wondering: what has change for you over the years, and how have you applied this specifically to Bestiary?
RS: It is basically what you said. A decade has passed between the two records, so how I write and deliver raps should definitely be notably different. That’s probably the biggest thing: time. This is how I rap now, at least for this album it was.
Strange as it is, you know what vibe I get most off of this album? That of a classic-era Def Jux release. Artistic, pointed, but not without a quirkiness and good humor. For you guys, what was the noted change in sound between this and Are You Gonna Eat That?
AR: A lot of it just has to do with what beats we were each making at the time. Beats kinda ebb and flow and you go through phases and things sound similar for a while. I think our main goal is to stay true to the two-man rap format, utilize the “group” as much as possible, and make some fly shit. We try to write music for the group, stuff that wouldn’t work elsewhere.
RS: I don’t think that should be strange. On the contrary, actually. I think the difference between the two is the style of the songs. Aside from three tracks on Bestiary, Aes did all the beats, and they feel more uniform to me because of that and the sequencing of the record.
My favorite track on the whole thing, interestingly, is “Whales”, as it sounds like it’s not too far removed from Mike Ladd’s Majesticons project in terms of tone and just downright satirical nature. For you guys, what were each of your individual favorite songs ... and why?
AR: Thanks. I guess if I had to pick one, I’d say “Jonathan” just because I think it sums up Rob and I the best. I like the back-and-forth rap stuff, it’s a nice open beat. I dunno, for me that shit is nice.
RS: I like “King Cone” probably the best right now. It changes, but that’s one I just really like the movement of.
I am genuinely actually curious about this question, if not just ‘cos I don’t want to typify standard rap press tropes, so truly: what is the best country song you have ever heard?
AR: I don’t really have a “best” or “favorite” anything. I was listening to “Lungs” by Townes Van Zandt recently. Maybe that’s more bluegrass? I dunno. That’s a nice song.
RS: Anything off of The High Priest of Country Music by Conway Twitty.
Lastly, been following you guys for some time and you’ve had such interesting and distinct careers, so have to know: looking back on your career, what has been your biggest regret, and, conversely, what do you feel has been your proudest accomplishment?
AR: I don’t really regret much of my music life. I’ve done some dumb shit but I don’t really care. I don’t know that I really feel proud either. I just kinda keep going. My focus is always on the next thing.
RS: I passed up on a lot of stuff early on in my career well before Def Jux that looking back on now, I should have done, just based off the people I would have met/worked with. My biggest accomplishment is that I didn’t quit. That’s a tough thing to not do in this business.