Portraiture in a Human Form: An Interview with Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock: "I think I'm always surprised at how much the musicians I meet put weight on things that aren't music."
Aesop Rock
The Impossible Kid

The Impossible Kid might be the most apt title for an Aesop Rock album yet, seeing as how the rapper’s famously dexterous wordplay seems to always manage to scale new heights. Like the April Fools 2016 Netflix Star Wars series prank Fury Of Maul, Aesop often seems too good to be true. Rest assured however, the man and his seemingly endless wellspring of rhymes are very real. Fans are due for fifteen tracks of fire in bulk, the mind blowing and elaborate “Rings” video just an initial taste.

“It’s just a compulsion at this point,” Aesop says, of the drive to create. “I love rap lyrics, I love hearing people rap, I love molding a thought or idea into the shape that fits on a rap beat. Coming up with a line that really nails it on a personal level is beyond comparison for me. It’s my high. At this point it’s become the language I communicate in. It’s always been there, when other aspects of my life are failing, I have this.”

Born Ian Matthias Bavitz, he may have been raised Catholic but “Aesop” (an old creative character handle that stuck) seems to have a Protestant work ethic. However many pies he has his fingers in from collaborations with Nike to Kimya Dawson to his solo ventures, he remains a cerebral and passionate artist making soul nourishing art in an age of empty calories. Like jazz legend Thelonious Monk, for vaunted example, he can always be relied upon to turn the listener on their head and take you somewhere unexpected.

“Anyone I’ve worked with has come to me because they like what I bring to the table, and I’ve essentially had the freedom to do that,” Aesop says.”That doesn’t mean people don’t have opinions, but I certainly haven’t felt pressured to be something I’m not.”

While not as grimy as, say, fellow acclaimed indie rappers Jedi Mind Tricks, Aesop is still real world enough to be semi-relatable even when on his more obtuse philosophical tangents. Think more of a loner vibe than say, listening to the posi group rhymes of Tribe Called Quest mixed with backpack rap cred from before Kanye West’s College Dropout hit the scene (and way more consistent).

“I guess in recent years — at least on my solo music — I don’t really rap about rap that much. Sometimes I do, but not as much as when I was young,” Aesop tells PopMatters. “I think with all these other somewhat reflective songs I was making, I wanted to just put some opinions out about the state of music, tastemakers, image, things like that. I think I’m always surprised at how much the musicians I meet put weight on things that aren’t music. There’s this stereotypical high school jock mentality that comes into play when people start getting any semblance of notoriety.”

Much of The Impossible Kid seems to have running sub themes of examining the creative process itself, in as much as simply finding your own path while also dealing with life.

“I guess, for me, the idea of finding an identity through creative means has always been a way to deal with otherwise feeling awkward and uncomfortable out in the world,” Aesop elaborates. “It feels like the only chance I have of connecting with others is through this weird medium. Sometimes the things being promoted and praised by artists and press outlets and so-called leaders of our communities just seems flimsy and odd and foreign and … dorky. Of course, music will mean different things to different people, but it’s just a sample of my angle on some of it.”

The single “Rings” features a telling line “They will chop you down just to count your rings,” which is relevant. Public Enemy icon Chuck D recently tweeted “Actors act together.Bands play together.Athletes sport together. HipHop elemented together in its past.THE solo MC is a corporate creation”. While there are clearly people w heart like yourself, does Aesop feel the rap game has become a lot like sports where everyone is out for themselves instead of “All In The Same Gang?”

Get ready for one of my favorite answers in an interview ever.

“Certainly that mentality is prevalent,” Aesop reflects. “I mean, rap has always been, on some level, about braggadocio and style, but that stuff that starts as playful lyricism spreads out, and the next thing you know the artists have bought into their own hype to a degree that seems, for lack of a better word, poisonous. And I don’t mean getting out there and being confident, or talking shit because your dropping gems and styling. I mean allowing a superiority complex to permeate your identity to the point where it would be impossible to even have someone’s back.”

Here is where it gets really funny, if sadly all too accurate an assessment of the asinine world we live in these days:

“The amount of comments I receive that are in the realm of ‘Hey, I’m not riding your dick or nothing, but your new song is cool’ is mind-blowing,” Aesop says. “What is that? You want to assure me that while you like me, you don’t like me too much. Showing love is literally perceived as a weakness, and that is insane. Can you imagine that kind of sensibility elsewhere in the world? I picture like a judge on a cooking show tasting some food like ‘Hey Robert, I’m not riding your dick or nothing, but that risotto is cooked to perfection and you’ll be moving on to the next round.’ Or how about, ‘Hey Peter Higgs, we, the scientific community, are not riding your dick or nothing like that, but we have discovered a particle consistent with a Higgs boson.'”

There is a particular lyric in “Rings” where Aesop says that he used to draw and it is hard to admit he put it on the backburner. I tell him I gave up illustration years ago because I felt like had to specialize in writing or music or I wouldn’t “make it.” Why do people convince themselves of things like that? It’s kind of scary to, say, paint after you put it down. At least for me, it really dredges up different emotions than writing a song.

“I’ve always kept a sketchbook around, and I guess as of late I’ve been trying to do it more than I had in the past handful of years, but it’s just different — I’ve very out of practice,” the rapper admits. “I think it’s a few things. There certainly came a time when I felt like I had my hand in too many things, and wasn’t particularly good at any of them. Music was the one that I always felt I had a natural ability with, and what I wanted to do with my rhyming was a clear path in my head.”

He continues: “I felt like I actually knew I could get to my goals: which is never a feeling I had with visual art. I put tons of years into working on drawing and painting, schooling, etc. but it was always just outside my fingertips. I never really felt totally in control of whether or not my images were successful. In music, I could conjure an idea and conceivably get there with some work. Drawing was all work — and I wasn’t even sure if I could get to where I wanted to go. So as much as it was a passion; it was intensely frustrating at times. I ended up focusing on the music because that feeling of progression and being able to actually feel some improvement is priceless. I chased that, and the other kinda fell away from me, at least in terms of real life goals. I still like it, I still try, I just have to accept that I’ll never really get to the level I wish I could be at.”

It’s admirably shocking to hear a statement like that from a rapper who doesn’t really “need” to express that kind of humility, but perhaps it is illustrative of Aesop’s greater character. It certainly might explain a bit of his thought process and why his rhymes are almost like in-depth architectural drawings for the imagination at times. The same sense of detail is prevalent in the “Rings” music video.

“It was a lot of fun. Rob Shaw, the videos director, has done a lot with me at this point,” Aesop says. “I remember reading the treatment and just thinking ‘Well if you actually think you can split my face open and make some drawers in there, then yes let’s do it.’ He doesn’t really balk at my indie budgets, he just picks a vision and figures it out.”

Does Aesop still prefer and have the most love for the album format? People have whole careers launch on Soundcloud these days, with artists like Tommy Genesis and Post Malone getting big lifts off the platform.

“I think I’m connected to albums mostly because it’s what I grew up on, so in terms of making projects, that’s what it is to me,” Aesop answers. “That said, I pretty much never listen to anyone’s albums straight through. I buy it, pick the songs I like, toss the rest, and add the ones I like to some kinda ever-morphing mix on my computer. So what I put out there is not really consistent with how I absorb this stuff. ”

Metal warriors Mastodon named an album Blood Mountain after the perils of the music industry. Is a new track that uses the phrase “douchebag mountain” a fair assessment for the music industry or was Aesop having a bad day when he wrote that?

Aesop laughs, answering, “I think [the line] ‘Before climbing douchebag mountain I was skate or die …’ was just kinda me knocking myself and all other people who choose music as a career, kinda playfully. It’s certainly a narcissistic path. I was just saying ‘Hey, before I made a go at this bullshit, I was doing this other thing that existed strictly as an outlet for a passion of mine.’ Music is that too, but a music career isn’t always, because it entails so much more besides actual music making. It involves me sitting here answering these questions in a way that hopefully makes me sound important enough for someone to wanna hear what I make. Stuff like that.”

How does Aesop approach doing something like recently soundtracking skateboarding for Nike versus how he crafts his own stuff?

“The Nike stuff is fun because it’s a quick in the sense that they don’t really need ‘songs.’ They need one-two minutes of a vibe that will play at the same time as skateboarding sounds,” Aesop admits. “For every beat that makes it’s way to a record, I have another 20 scraps that sit around, often existing as a single musical element over very basic drums. Sketches I guess you could say. So for Nike I can say, ‘Here’s five-to-ten ideas: lemme know if you want me to expand on one.’ They pick what works, and I can usually just tweak one or two things, give it a slight intro, or a layer of music that comes in and goes out at some point — just things to kinda keep it moving. Ultimately the skateboarding is the focus there, so I just need to give it vibe.”

He continues: “In a related sense, I have been working on scoring this feature film, Bushwick, which will be out later this year. That’s an entirely new beast for me. Granted it kinda starts similarly: I make a ton of fairly stripped down ideas, things that could fit particular scenes, vibes, etc. As they tighten up their edit, they would lay in my very basic mp3s, move them around, try different ones in different places, etc. Some were a shoe-in from the jump, some were in the trash from the jump, and some would last a month and then they’d decide it wasn’t working. There was also a time when they went to re-shoot a few scenes, and new music was needed. It has been a ton of back and forth, and slowly shaping these beats to fit the scenes. Sometimes it’s more background music, other times they want very specifically choreographed changes to fit a scene: speed it up when the gun comes out, get slow and heavy when this person falls, then 10 seconds of eerie drone, then come back with a hammer. It’s been awesome figuring it out, and definitely new for me.”

The track “Lazy Eye” brings some serious funk, another one of the strongest tracks. There is a telling lyric: “Act natural / Whatever that means for you”. At what point in the early days of his career did Aesop realize he had to just go his own route style-wise?

“Thank you. I mean for me something like that isn’t a choice,” he says. “I can’t really do anything else: it wouldn’t even be fun anyway. I think maybe very early on when you see how magazines or even fans put you into categories it can be confusing, especially when you notice that the way you’re being summed up is sometimes such a far cry from what you feel like you’re doing, and who your influences are. But if you get too caught up in that, which I’ve seen people do, you start forcing something to appease people you aren’t gonna agree with anyway. People will put me in whatever box they feel the most comfortable having me in, and nothing I can do will change that. If you alter what you’re doing strictly in the hopes that someone will compare you to something else next time around — you’re doing it wrong.”

In closing I ask if The Impossible Kid is perhaps his most autobiographical album title yet?

“I mean, honestly, they are all equally autobiographical. It’s all just phases,” he answers. “It’s always weird to see reactions to the record that read something like ‘this time Aesop went for this sound.’ People don’t always take into account that, while my releases are staggered over years — and people are often getting a couple years of work at one time, for me it’s all been one long, gradual evolution. I never go into anything with an idea of how I wanna attack it differently ‘this time.’ I mean maybe you learn from what you did and sorta try to control the direction, but really the ride has a mind of it’s own, and from where I’m sitting every piece is related to the one before it.”