Photo: Rhymesayers Entertainment

Aesop Rock Holds His Tongue for the Sake of Cinema

Aesop Rock talks with PopMatters about his new instrumental score for Bushwick, as well as his creative process, future projects, appearance on Colbert, and his own admitted lack of versatility.
Aesop Rock
Bushwick (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

In 2016, a study was conducted by researcher Matt Daniels thank ranked rappers by the extent of their vocabulary. When the dust was settled, there stood one MC that was head, shoulders, and chain above the lauded likes of MF Doom, Nas, and every member of the Wu-Tang Clan: Aesop Rock.

Over the last two decades, Aesop Rock (born Ian Matthias Bavitz) has become a cult favorite, a ‘thinking man’s rapper’, with his elaborate and obtusely-layered wordplay straying far beyond the central themes of modern hip-hop. His 2016 release The Impossible Kid was hailed as his most personal and focused work in years and now he has added another string to his bow; soundtrack composer for upcoming thriller Bushwick.

Bushwick (dir. Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott) tells the story of Lucy (Brittany Snow) and Stupe (Dave Bautista), two civilians trying to escape the titular Brooklyn neighborhood as in the midst of a modern-day American civil war. It’s an unnerving watch, with Bavitz’s soundtrack providing a reflective heartbeat that accompanies the film’s moments of tension and tranquility against the backdrop of his former place of residence. Such a change in creative direction is a bold move, but he has never been one to conform to the conventional mores of hip-hop.

So how often does a rapper provide the instrumental score for a major motion picture soundtrack anyway? PopMatters caught up with Aesop Rock in his adopted hometown of Portland to discuss such a shift to such an unknown an imposing and unknown musical terrain. Along with Bushwick, he opens up about the creative process, future projects, his appearance on Colbert, and his own admitted lack of versatility.

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Bushwick is your first foray into scoring for film. How did it feel to be approached for such a project? Were you given much info before writing the tracks?

It felt awesome. I guess I’m the back of my head I’ve always wondered if I’d be able to pull off a feature — and my self-hate always arrives at “nope”. Jon and Cary were pretty familiar with what I do, and that made it pretty comfortable for me. I read the script, I have lived in the neighborhood it was filmed in, and I knew which of my stuff Jon and Cary felt was headed in the right direction. From there it’s just cross your fingers and hope it all works.

Your last album The Impossible Kid had was praised for it’s production and you’ve experience crafting extensive instrumental tracks (All Day, a 45-minute piece commissioned by Nike designed for running). How did the process for the writing of the Bushwick soundtrack differ?

Well, I’ve always worked until I decide I am done. Doing something like Bushwick, a lot of people need to agree that the piece is working with what’s going on on the screen. So it’s a lot of tweaks and re-works, just kinda moving pieces around and getting things to hit right. Much more trial and error. I do feel like I got pretty lucky with Bushwick, as what I was making was generally in the right direction. We, of course, had a lot of things get tossed — but once I found my groove, I felt like I got it going. You just gotta go in realizing you’re not the boss.

The trailer for Bushwick is full of intensity yet the score has moments of mid-tempo groove. How did you find it matching the onscreen moments with the right aural accompaniment?

Are intensity and mid-tempo mutually exclusive? There’s always a few roads to the answer. They could hand me a scene, and I could see it working with a single kick drum, whereas they could’ve envisioned some giant overture — and it’s possible both would work. I guess initially I was making a lot of “sketches” — little short pieces with not much to them. Just an attempt to hit the “vibe”. Once we got that in, I could expand and allow it to become more dynamic.

How did it feel making tracks that you knew you weren’t going to be rapping over? Was it a source of liberation or one of frustration?

I mean I knew what I signed on for, and have done a couple of instrumental releases in the past. No frustration. It was all tied to the movie from day one so I never even really heard myself on any of them. There are a few I could probably do something with rap-wise, but I guess I just associate it all with moving pictures — not vocals.

Are there any particular soundtracks that inspired you in the creative process for the soundtrack?

Not specifically. The thing is — I’m not all that versatile. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a knock on myself. I just kinda feel like you could listen to my most recent two to three records at any given time, and know that you’re gonna get something in that wheelhouse. Cary and Jon came to me because they liked what I did and could see it in the there movie. I don’t claim to be a composer, and I realize my approach is pretty dopey in comparison to the true masters of score work. That said, if someone thinks what I do specifically would work for their film, then, of course, let’s see what we can do.

Though you’re now based in Portland, Bushwick is set in your old stomping ground of New York. How do you find the environment around you affects the writing process?

I think it somewhat depends on how much you let it. Same as an author in New York can write a story about Denver; I can make music about New York from elsewhere. There are elements that will naturally steer you, environment, age, peers, etc. But it’s not like I’m not in any control of what I do. I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve rapped a lot. I like to think that’s all in the toolbox to be tapped into when I need it.

You’ve now provided the soundtrack to a feature film, your songs are filled with allusions to cinema and you released The Impossible Kid with an accompanying video of a shot-for-shot stop-motion recreation of The Shining. Would you consider yourself a film nerd?

Probably not as much as true film nerds, but I do enjoy a good movie and always have. Love visual stimulation as much if not more than audio. Artwork, films, TV — it’s always informed my work, no matter what I’m working on. If I can get my foot in the door with movie work, and people are enjoying my contributions to that world, I can see attempting more.

Have you made any plans to do any more soundtracks for cinema?

Yes: I recently did an original soundtrack for an upcoming Bob Byington film called Infinity Baby. Super good cast, funny movie. There’s a little info floating around about it out there, and I’ll continue to promote it as it finds a home.

Since releasing The Impossible Kid you made your network TV debut appearing on Late Night with Stephen Colbert (backed by Yo La Tengo). How did you find the whole experience?

Oh as you’d imagine I suppose: surreal, nerve-wracking, all that. Yo La Tengo is amazing, and I was lucky to have them. That entire day was just so hectic, as we also had an Irving Plaza show that night. It was fun. I felt awkward and out of place in that professional of an environment — but it was a cool day for sure.

It’s been 20 years since your first full-length LP Music for Earthworms. Are there any particular recordings from your career that stand out for you?

Hmm. To be honest, the only things that stick out are the most recent. Once they get past a couple of years old, I have a hard time listening to them. I have a real need to keep it moving, and I’m always most in love with what I’m doing at the moment. Each last release certainly sends me back to that time period, the people, the environment, etc., but I can’t say one stands above the rest.

There’s been a big shift in rap over the last decade. What hip-hop (if any) are you enjoying these days?

I really hate to be that guy, but I’ve been taking a much-needed break from keeping up with anything these days. Ka keeps it consistently amazing. Always waiting on new Doom. I’ve had my head in the sand for a bit.