After rising to the top of the hip hop underground, Aesop Rock is soon to release his new album None Shall Pass signalling the return of his spaced out lyrics and distinctive sound.
Abjekt recently caught up with him to discuss the release of the new album and soon found out a lot more about Aes Rizzle.
From skateboarding as a kid to giving up being a waiter so that he could tour his album, Aesop has a lot to say and gives us an insight into just how much has gone on in his life and how that has a direct influence on the music he makes. Buckle up, it’s time to go in…
Starting right at the beginning, you started making self-financed records way back in the day, Appleseed, Music For Earthworms…
Was music something that you always wanted to do and you felt that making it yourself was the best way to start with?
Yeah I guess so. I always did it and I had some interest from labels but I never took anybody up on anything and I just fun doing it with my friends and I had this weird perception that if I even took a meeting with someone that it’d be shady and some weird shit would go down. After I was recording for a little while and going out around New York trying to rhyme, even before those two, there were a couple of tapes, and selling 10 or 15 copies made me psyched.
Music For Earthworms came out around 97 and we sold 200 CDs and stopped because I was cutting the covers up the covers for myself! And then Appleseed did around 2,000 CDs and it was crazy. That seemed like a lot at the time and I guess it was as I was just in and around New York mostly. It seemed natural to do it that way because I didn’t want to get involved and didn’t want to sign anything. I had a job y’know, it was just me fucking around and wasn’t anything that I ever thought would pay the bills.
Percee P’s on a couple of tracks right, how did that hook up happen?
He was just always around NY, around shows and when I was doing Music For Earthworms, I was working with this guy Dub L a lot. I think at one point he was like “Oh, Percee P’s coming by the studio” and I thought “Oh, that’s dope” and I think we all just ended up in the studio together one day and did a joint. Then me and Percee did a couple of shows together, then another song and he was just always at every New York show and had kind of been around for a long time and we just met at the studio and did a couple of jams.
Then, maybe a year ago or so, Egon hit me up from Stones Throw about doing Percee’s new record so we got to do another song together and I think that’s coming out soon.
Wicked! So then you went and signed for Mush Records. As you were saying, you didn’t want to sit down and talk about label stuff, so did you just feel it was time to make that move?
At the time I was friends with Dose One and we had gotten to know each other a little and Mush took him in as an A&R and he was like “Listen, Mush is super small” and the contract was just 3 pages long and was for just one record, basically the most simple thing possible and so I thought “Fuck it, if I don’t do this now…”.
I mean, it was basically an opportunity to get colour artwork y’know what I mean? I was used to going to the copy store and cutting it all out so it was kinda if someone else will package this for me, then fine. I had about 20 songs and I thought “yeah let’s just put them all on there” and that was the first official record. I signed in 99 and came out in 2000.
Blockhead produced a bunch of stuff on there.
Yeah it’s about half and half.
And you guys have obviously done a lot since, were you friends a long time ago or did it come about as the music happened?
I met him in 1994, we both went to the same college and he kinda failed out of college, on purpose because he didn’t really enjoy it. We got to know each other and he was rhyming at the time and he was really terrible and was making beats a little bit but didn’t get a sampler til a year later. I got a sampler around 95 or 96 and we have been best friends since then, for the past 13 or 14 years.
Even before Music For Earthworms, we’d make music on a 4-track, hundreds of songs. We have so much shit laying around. Me, him and Dub L along with a few of our close friends at the time would mix songs every day. We all had jobs and we all had shit to do but at night we’d smoke weed and make songs.
So it was quite an easy thing for you and him to do…
Yeah, I mean, there was a while where I was living at his mum’s house and we were around each other all the time – We’d make a beat and write a rhyme and record the whole fucking thing that night and that was it y’know? So yeah, there’re tapes and tapes and tapes of that shit.
Then I guess might be one of the biggest stepping stones was signing to Def Jux around 2000-2001. Did you see that as a big step at the time?
I did, I was a fan of Company Flow, I knew El’s music and he was definitely making a lot of noise in the New York underground. Basically, I had become friends with the Cannibal Ox guys from just being around New York and then when I signed to Mush, my publicist in the US was Biz3 and when El started Definitive Jux, he started working with Biz3 also so we shared a publicist and we had Vast [Aire] and Vordul [Mega] as friends so we got to know each other around the late 90s.
So after my Mush record came out, I mean, Mush wasn’t really much of a home for me. I was a first step, and it was cool, and it wasn’t a bad deal but I didn’t feel like I was part of anything. I knew El was starting this label and I guess somewhere in the back of my head I knew that was where I should be and when El heard my stuff he felt that too and we just hung out because I was hanging out with Vast a lot and he [El] was looking for the first signings to his roster.
It was him, Can Ox and [Mr] Lif. And then it was RJD2, and El said “Why don’t you do this with me?” and it felt perfect and I told Blockhead and he said it made perfect sense. It seemed like the right thing to do, it was the premier New York indie label and it felt really natural at the time and when he asked I felt like “Yeah, what the fuck else am I gonna do?” and it felt like the right move.
And then you brought out Labor Days and it got quite a lot of critical acclaim in the underground. Were you aware of that, or is it not something you particularly pay attention to?
I was aware of it, it was scary, I didn’t know what the hell to do. I still don’t know! That kinda stuff makes me nervous. But I knew because when Labor Days came out, I was still working and I remember El called me and said “You’ve gotta quit your job, you have to go on tour!” and I said “I can’t go on tour, I need to work.” and he just said “No! You’ve got a new job now, you have to follow it up, you can’t just put out a record. I was trying to figure it all out and I figured that if I was quitting my job, then it must mean something but at the same time, I was still mostly performing on the East Coast.
Float had moved a couple thousand units so I guess I knew it was going that way but I think it’s because it was Def Jux’s first year, Can Ox’s album did really well, El-P was the figurehead of the label and there was Murs, Lif, El, RJ, Can Ox and me and I think I was in the right place at the right time. I sensed it was taking off a little bit but I still don’t know how big it is, it’s hard to get an outside perspective on it. I knew that people liked that record and I came to Europe for the first time after that record and toured the US which I’d never done. It was definitely like “Oh shit!”.
So next in the timeline after the Daylight EP was the Bazooka Tooth album. A lot was made of that album because it was quite a different sound to Labor Days. First of all, do you agree with that?
Definitely. I think it sounds different, I mean, it’s not a 180 or anything, they’re definitely related but yeah it had a different edge to it and was made around 9/11 and all that shit and a bunch of other personal shit that was going on in my life and it was a turbulent time in my life and it seemed to me that I needed to make a record that was turbulent.
It’s funny because I have this real problem with getting any kind of notoriety and I guess after Labor Days, I was just nervous so I didn’t know what the fuck to do. So part of me wanted to make this really abrasive record because a) that’s how I feel right now and b) I almost want people to know… I mean, when people start identifying with you and you aren’t really identifying with anybody, it’s weird because you’re wondering why people like this shit.
I dunno, Blockhead did a few beats on there but most of the production was by me and I knew I wanted it to sound a little off and turbulent and weird. It had a bit of a different sound to Labor Days and it sold faster and better than anything I’d ever done and at the same time it was criticised a bit. People either loved it or hated it, which I’m fine with y’know but yeah people were either “Oh, this is incredible!” or they were saying “Urgh, I can’t listen to this” so it hit both ends of the spectrum in that sense.
And after that you brought out another EP – The Fast Cars EP which came with a booklet with a bunch of lyrics on…
Yeah, it had the lyrics to Float, Labor Days, Daylight, Bazooka Tooth and Fast Cars – everything I’d done officially on a label.
Was it weird to go through all the old shit that you maybe hadn’t listened to in a while?
Yeah I hadn’t listened to Float or Labor Days for years up until that day when I was trying to transcribe it and shit. It was definitely pretty odd and annoying but it was funny. I don’t like to do the lyrics on the inside of an album, I dunno why, I just think there should be artwork so I never really put the lyrics inside.
People had been asking me to do lyrics, even the label at one point, Ese, one of the owners of Jux said “You should do lyrics” and I didn’t wanna do lyrics, it just seems like it takes up so much space so I came up with doing all the lyrics at once to make up for all the shit that I didn’t do. Seemed like a good idea at the time and I knew it was going to cost a lot and the label told me it was going to cost a lot to make but we did it. No-one was expecting to make money on it, we just wanted to break even if we were lucky, so I thought “Fuck it, I’ll do it”. It’s more of a thing for the fans that have been following along. Took me fucking forever.
I bet man!
I remember the first day I was typing lyrics like “This sucks! What the fuck have I gotten myself into?” but at the end I was so psyched, I love the way it came out.
Yeah man, the booklet looked amazing!
Thank you man! The guy that did the Fast Cars video, did the book for that and he was stressing out like a motherfucker. I was sending him lyrics past the deadline but he stuck in there. And I had a different kid, Bisc1 doing the packaging for the actual CD Fast Cars. I wanted them to be able to sit together but they also had to stand on their own two but everyone ended up working together and it came out pretty good, I was psyched.
Was there stuff when you looked back, that you thought was either really good or really cheesy?
I have a hard time listening to anything that’s more than a year old. I was listening to Float, and it’s not a great record or anything but there were some parts where, with hindsight, I’d say that’s a pretty good line and I wished I could use it now and flip it better. I know more about songs in general now I think but in the early stuff I was just gunning with the lyrics, putting too much in the songs. I had no idea about the best way to make a song, which isn’t necessarily putting as much shit as you can into it. There were a couple times when I thought it was pretty cool but I was just thinking “Man I put way too many lyrics in there”.
It’s cool but I can’t ever listen to this shit really. I can put it on but then within about 10 seconds I’m all “Aaaaargh”. I mean, Fast Cars I can listen to because it’s not that old but even then… but yeah most of the rest of it I can’t even fuck with. I just heard it too many times.
In between that and the new album, you did something for Nike – an exercise thing. How was that to do, was it cool?
It was kinda hectic because I was moving towards the end of making my album when the offer from Nike came through and I never get offers like that ever so it was super odd. Which is kinda why I liked it – It’s a big production gig which was cool for me to get and it had to serve a purpose other than just me talking about whatever the fuck I want. It was for athletes and had all these elements to it that were weird but at the end of it they said “You can do whatever the fuck you want, you get the final say”. I was like “Really? You guys are a major company, you’re gonna let me do whatever I want?!” and they told me they’d give me comments which I could take or leave.
So it was cool and they gave me a very artist friendly deal as far as who owns what for how long and it really catered towards being a good deal. It was stressful because it was 45 minutes of music and they were explaining what it is and I said I was in and asked what the timeframe was and they told me they needed it mastered in 40 days. I was like “What the fuck man?! Y’know a) I have my own record out in 3 weeks and b) that’s not that much time!” but that was the schedule they were working on so I thought I’d try and do it.
It was good because I was so in over my head working on None Shall Pass, so deep in it, that this gave me a whole other thing to think about for a little while. So every day for 40 days I was working on this weird project that had just come up so but it was cool because when I went back to my own album, I had this new view on it. I had taken a month off working on my own shit, which I hadn’t done in years and this allowed me to get away.
When you do these side projects, you can experiment and just try things to see if it works or not plus doing something for a company like Nike is interesting because I’m an independent artist and, like we’ve just spoken about, I’ve either done my own shit or been signed to indie labels so when a company that big comes to me and tells me to do what I want for 45 minutes I’m like “Well fuck yeah, alright!”. If me doing this on my own terms has gotten me this far then I’d be an idiot to say no. It was just an odd project that got tossed in my direction.
Another thing you did in between with this short story with Jeremy Fish. Had you two know each other beforehand, like you and Blockhead?
Not for too long. He lived in San Francisco and I was living in New York up until maybe a year and a half ago and we had a friend in common in San Francisco and through our common friend, I found out Jeremy was a big fan and he had an opportunity to pitch a cartoon to Disney and he wanted to know if I wanted to do some music for it. Fuck yeah I wanted to do some music for it! And I had just bought a Jeremy Fish print a week earlier, completely randomly because I really liked his shit.
So I was getting ready to move to San Francisco because I had just gotten married and my wife lived in San Francisco and had a job she couldn’t leave so couldn’t move to New York, so I thought “Fuck it, I’ll just move to SF”. Long story short, I was moving to San Francisco at the same time as Jeremy was doing this Disney thing and it all fell into place. So we started working together on this thing for Disney and it was pitched. Basically some people liked it but basically this shit takes forever so there’s a cartoon floating around in that world. In the meantime, I said to him I didn’t really know anyone there except my wife, so I told him to come kick it and he became my little tour guide when I moved out there and we hit it off right off the bat and became really good friends.
So we decided to collab because there was no reason not to, I just needed something else because when you’re doing solo record after solo record after solo record, I almost couldn’t think of anything else to say. And he’s the same way, he’d done so much Jeremy Fish stuff and it was refreshing to sit with someone who was having some of the same issues in the visual art world as I was in the music world.
We came up with a few ideas of things we could do and the one we used seemed obvious. I mean, Disney used to do that sort of stuff, a book with a record, and its perfect because it had music and visual. So we sat around and came up with a concept for it, it wasn’t like I made a song and he drew the pictures – I wrote and showed him the first 8 lines of the first verse and he was showing me pictures so we could see what worked with what and I could change a line and he could take a little picture out.
I brought him over and had this whole other beat for the song and he said the beat didn’t fit the pictures and he was right, so basically it was a full on collaboration and doing shit that’s interesting. And the B-Side for that, Fishtales, was for a that weird fisherman video for Element Skateboards and he said “You wanna make a fishing song?” so I said yeah, I’d make a fishing song! Me and him are probably going to do a lot more shit together, he did all the art for the record.
I was going to say, you must have hit it off pretty well if he’s continuing to work with you for this new album cover. I just saw the inlay on myspace and it looks super fresh!
Thank you! Yeah, he killed it and he’s helping out with the tour visuals and we’re doing a video for None Shall Pass and it uses a lot of the characters, animated. We’re just really good friends at the moment and his shit seems like the visual version of me. It’s kinda evil and cute at the same time, showing a good and evil view on life and I think it hit me in the right way. And when I met him I realised he was just like me – he’s originally from the East Coast, grew up skateboarding and has a lot of similarities to me.
So you’re a skater then?
Oh yeah man, I skated for a long time. I used to work at a skatepark and used to build ramps man!
Shit, I didn’t know that!
Yeah yeah, actually Jeremy interviewed me for Thrasher and we were going shoot skate photos. I hadn’t skated in about ten years and when I moved to SF, he had a skateboard company, The Unbelievers, and he gave me a set up and we went out to some parks and I skated some bowls and we wanted to do this thing for Thrasher but we just didn’t turn it around in time.
I mean, I’m rusty as hell, but we went and found some ledges and I wanted to do a ledge trick, I knew it’d be stupid but we’d shoot it all sick [laughs]. But yeah, I’ve been skating more again lately, just for transportation really, I’m a little old to be busting my fucking ass. A lot of what led me to music was the music on skate videos.
I used to buy skate videos and they’d have hip hop on or Husker Du or Jawbreaker and you’d hear so much different music and there are so many different people that skateboard, you’d have rap kids and weird dirtbags, so when all these people come together, you end up hearing a lot of music.
Do you have a favourite skate video?
Shit yeah, my first video ever was Future Primitive, Animal Chin and all that shit. I mean I think Blind Video Days is universally thought of as the greatest skate video ever, so that would probably be up there.
Back to the music then, your new album drops at the end of next month…
Yeah, August 28th.
How was the recording of that? Like you said you were really going for it…
It was awesome. I had moved out of New York and besides Jeremy and my girl, I barely know anyone in San Francisco, so I was really secluded which I prefer and I had a lot of time and some of the songs changed and changed and changed. I’ve got a bunch of live instrumentation, more than I’ve ever had before, I played a lot of bass and my wife did all the guitars and I have some other friends that played bass and drums. I tried a different approach, I don’t think it sounds like Labor Days or Bazooka Tooth, it’s just trying to take some departure from what I’ve done before.
It’s fun, I always like the new shit most and I always try and make each one stand on their own, so they all have their own vibe. So whether or not you like Labor Days, it doesn’t sound like Bazooka Tooth and whether or not you like Bazooka Tooth, it doesn’t sound like Fast Cars. So I wanted to do a bunch of stories, it’s not all linear like “Once upon a time” shit, but I wanted to capture certain parts of my life, like when I used to skateboard a lot or when I was at junior high or when I was a kid. I want to almost take myself out of the equation, I didn’t want to rap about “me me me”, I wanted it more visual and paint pictures of things.
Being so secluded this time round made it more easy to treat it more like an author was treat it. So much rap is all about braggadocio, which is cool, it’s how everyone starts but at some point you get to where you think “how much more can I say about me and how I’m dope?”. I hit a wall with that shit to be honest and it’s almost like people can’t admit they hit the wall with that shit, because the spirit of competition is pretty deep in rap music and you’re supposed to feel that forever.
At some point you get burned out talking about the same shit and when you’re someone who writes every day, you’re supposed to be versatile and there’s a LOT of shit to write about. Rap covers a very small spectrum of what there is to write about in the world. So I’m trying to increase the subject matter a little bit and at the same time increase the production of the whole record.
A lot of Blockhead’s stuff had live instrumentation put on it, the same with mine and we came together and added stuff to each other’s beats and keep trying to make it something different whilst working with the same people.
Who have you got on the guest spots for this album?
Breezly Brewin’ from the Juggaknots
Yeah! Me, Breezly Brewin’ and Cage do a song together, El-P’s on there, Rob Sonic, this guy John Darmielle from a band called The Mountain Goats sings on there. It’s mostly just fam y’know. I don’t like to reach out too much to people I don’t know, because I like to keep them as my heroes and sometimes when it’s someone you look up to, they ruin the hero part of it when you get to know them. That’s why I always work with Blockhead, because I know him so well and I like to see how we made Float, Labor Days, Daylight, Bazooka Tooth and Fast Cars, I mean for the most part we made everything in my career together and they all sound really different still, and that’s cool to me.
Are you planning to come over here and do any live shows? Because the last time I saw you was a long time ago with C Rayz!
We’re trying to come here in December. I’m touring the US in September, October and November but I want to try and get out here for December for at least a few weeks. Right now, we don’t have it booked but we hope to get it done soon.
Yeah because El came over here recently and his show was off the fucking scale.
Yeah he really pulled out some shit this time round.
It was so fresh, so it’d be great to see you over here too… Not to put pressure on you or anything!
I know, I know. I had a lot of shit, like I moved, I got married and it all slowed me down but I’m super psyched on the new record and even our US tour is the biggest I’ve ever done, we’re hitting 45 cities, so we’ll definitely be over here at some point.
Looking forward to it!
Thank you man.
You’ve been playing some primarily guitar based festivals lately too, like Pitchfork…
Yeah, when you’re between tours, it’s easy to do those because it’s one offs and I can be in the studio for a month and then just go out and hit one of those, they’re easy to do. Just to stay out there, try out new material. With the tour, we have to practise for a month, but these one offs we can just go out and do them.
Was it hard to come out as “the hip hop guy”?
A lot of those rock festivals are starting to do more hip hop now. It kinda works to your advantage, in 2001 we were one of the first rap groups to play SXSW, so it was like Def Jux and a bunch of rock acts and it worked for us because people came to just see some hip hop, but now there’s tons of it – Ghostface and Rakim were just there. Coachella and Bonnaroo too. It is mostly rock but there is some hip hop now and people like it because it’s something different.
When I went to Coachella in 2004, Atmosphere, Living Legends and Eyedea & Abilities played and like you say, people seemed to like it because it wasn’t the norm. Atmosphere played before Cursive and Bright Eyes, so people go to hear some rapping.
Last time I played Coachella, I played before Arcade Fire, before they’d blown up, and we came out and you get lumped in with bands you wouldn’t be expec ted to play with, which is what makes it cool.
Well that’s it, I really appreciate it. Good luck with the new record!
Thanks so much!