Back and Badder Than Before: An Interview With Aesop Rock

PopMatters talks with the emcee about collaboration, releasing free music, and his soft spot for Miami Vice.

Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman

Lice Two: Still Buggin'

Label: Rhymesayers
Release Date: 2016-09-29

Aesop Rock is a very busy man.

Just earlier this year, the New York native released The Impossible Kid, his seventh and arguably most acclaimed solo album to date. Particular praise went to his lyrical content, which reflected a more personal, direct edge than ever before. For fans of Rock's more abstract stuff, however, the emcee has also seen fit to release his second free EP collaboration with friend Homeboy Sandman under the name Lice Two: Still Buggin'.

A sequel to 2015's Lice, Rock and Sandman offer up colorful wordplay, varied production, and a camaraderie that's rarely seen in today's hip-hop landscape. As both emcees embark on the Hey Kirby Tour, Rock (born Ian Bavitz) opened up to PopMatters about collaboration, free music, and the soft spot he has for Miami Vice.

* * *

With your last two albums, you've had no features and handled all production. What do you enjoy most about returning to a collaborative project?

The solo stuff tends to be an exhausting exercise in self-reflection and attempting to make something "perfect" -- even if that's a foolish endeavor. My collaborative albums are always way more enjoyable to make. Sandman inspires me because he loves to rhyme; the guy writes all day every day. It's amazing. I think after painstakingly picking apart and re-shaping solo songs for a year or two, the feeling of hearing a beat, saying "let's rap to that," and just going without turning back is incredibly refreshing.

The opening sample to "Zilch" talks about how lice are actually becoming immune to standard treatments. Does this apply to where you and Homeboy Sandman see yourselves in hip-hop?

I don't know that it does -- or if it does it's almost irrelevant. We had a funny sample about lice on the first EP that opened the whole thing. Once we decided we were gonna be making the second EP a bit of a sequel, same number of songs, similar art, etc, we thought opening up with a similar talking sample could be cool. This one speaks of "changing and mutating" which I just took to mean that we're back and badder than before.

On the track "Oatmeal Cookies", you say that you hated yourself "before it was cool". What are your thoughts on this topic becoming such a trendy practice?

[laughs] It's just a humorous line, like I was emo before emo was a thing. It's like bragging on some -- I've been depressed yo -- I ain't new to this!

Your last project, The Impossible Kid, was lauded as your most lyrically straightforward to date. But for a project like Still Buggin', where do you find a balance between more playful bars and this personal edge?

There's some pretty playful stuff on both, and I also consider them both to be ... "lyrical"? I dunno. I just kinda try to write the stuff that the project calls for. The vibe of what I'm working on tends to surface by itself. I took more time to actually write The Impossible Kid material, so perhaps that are intricacies that exist in there that don't show up on a quicker projects -- but I mean it's all me. It all needs to balance and feel good.

The production on the EP is very eclectic given its short length. Was there a conscious decision to hop on varied instrumentals?

Sandman always has beats from eight million people; that's sorta how he works. He's open to working with anyone that supplies fly shit. I have always been different: the great majority of my work is on beats by a small handful of people. Being that I kinda look at these EPs as a break from my solo work. I was happy to just listen to beats and go with the flow. Much less combing over stuff for days and weeks and months. We listen to a bunch of shit, narrow it all down pretty quickly, and start writing. I think we've also tried to pick five different producers each time. It's freeing because it's not how I do my shit at all and it's been fun for me.

Still Buggin' and the previous Lice project are both available for free download. In an era of music pirating, how do you decide what you put out for free and what becomes retail?

I think we both view this as a break from our norm. Sand and I are both solo artists primarily. The idea for the Lice stuff came out all at once -- "Let's do an EP and give it away." I don't know why: just seemed like it would be cool to do, people dig free shit, and it lets the entire thing take on a life of its own. We don't really do too much promoting or set a release date or any of that. We mainly talk to Rhymesayers and Stones Throw and say "Hey we got another one, can we drop it next week?" I like to try to give stuff away now and then anyway, just something to thank people for listening. People have supported my endeavors for a long time, so tossing something out there on the house feels good.

Barring your Rhymesayers labelmates Atmosphere, most modern rap duos have become side projects for established solo artists. Why do you think this is?

Yea I think the "rap group" is somewhat of a dying breed. Of course there are examples out there, but so much of what I came upon were these group dynamics that allow for an entirely different type of song structure. EPMD, Artifacts, Tribe, etc. That back and forth rap that's always exciting. I don't really know what it's not the standard these days. But I do know that all the people I've done collaborative albums with kinda look forward to sharing the mic duties, because it just allows for things that solo music doesn't.

Sandman, DJ Zone, and Rob Sonic are accompanying you on the Hey Kirby Tour. Does your energy change depending on which act you're performing with?

Probably not drastically. I mean Rob and Sand both rap, and we all try to bring a high energy show. The only time I kinda let my energy change to adapt to a new stage show was with the Uncluded record with Kimya Dawson, but that was a different kind of album. For the stuff we're promoting now, it's just about trying to engage and rock: get people moving, etc. I'd love for people to feel they were part of the whole night, as opposed to just attending an event to stand and watch.

The last time you talked with PopMatters, you explained that every "piece" of your music is related to the one before it. What would you say is the relationship between Still Buggin' and The Impossible Kid?

I think I just mean that my writing style, while evolving over the years, doesn't make too many drastic, immediate leaps. You can listen to Lice Two and The Impossible Kid, and probably guess that they're ballpark same era for me. I do like to try to let my writing grow, but I don't want to force an overnight change. So stylistically speaking, I think if you play something like Appleseed (1999) next to Lice Two, it's gonna be a bigger jump than playing something I wrote in the same general time frame.

The final, most pressing question: why '80s icons on social media? On your Facebook page you have Miami Vice's Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and on Twitter there's an image of Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) from Magnum, P.I.. Is there a special meaning behind this or perhaps an '80s themed album down the road?

I'm an '80s kid, what can I say? I like '80s icons talking on phones to represent the hubs with which I communicate to the people. I got some backups, too -- always ready to make the change should the mood strike. But Tom and Don have done well for me.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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