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'

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.

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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.

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