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Aesop Rock counts as a major star in the world of independent rap, where he's remained a flagship act of El-P's Definitive Jux, arguably the most vital label in the hip-hop underground. Rock's mindful rhymes stream out at warp speed, with a style built around a Shakespearean jester's mix of self-deprecation and incisive urgency. Rock kept a strong focus on the streets and science fiction on his 2003 album Bazooka Tooth, but he places a greater emphasis on story-songs on last year's None Shall Pass, an album largely produced by Blockhead. On the heels of a monthlong tour, The A.V. Club spoke to Ace about his next record and how rappers are like the Golden Girls.
The A.V. Club: With None Shall Pass, you said you wanted to take yourself out of the equation. Why?
Aesop Rock: Lyric-wise, I didn't want it to be just, "I did this. I went to the store. I think this, because I like this." I guess my stuff starts leaning toward being a little soap box-y. Even if it's just braggadocio stuff, it still kind of gets that way, and it just bothers me. Maybe not "bothers" me; it's just so available for that, especially in rap music where a solo album is a record not only by a guy, but about the guy.
AVC: And his picture's on the front.
AR: And it's got the pictures in it, and it's all just stories about how meaningful every decision he's made in his life is. It's strange how it doesn't seem strange to write songs where you're not talking about yourself that much. I mean, I do because I rap, and I can't avoid it. Pardon me if this all sounds corny, but when you put on a record, I'd like it to be an escape from everything you do. You can get lost in a record and forget yourself to a degree, as opposed to someone being like, "I am this. You should be this." It sort of ruins the experience to just be berated. And I realize that rap is that, which is sort of what makes it beautiful. Now that rap has existed for as many years as it has, there's probably a way to take that element, that in-your-faceness of the music, and apply it to different subject matter, or different styles of music.
AVC: Similarly, you've said it's easy in rap to be left-field, because it's such a small box. Why do you think it's retained such a narrow definition?
AR: [Laughs.] I don't know. It's kind of embarrassing, to be honest with you. It's weird; people are so sensitive. Like, the amount of people that are worried that something they say will be misconstrued as gay—it's insane! It's just a bunch of sensitive motherfuckers acting really tough, but who actually get offended at everything.
AVC: It pops up at hip-hop shows, too, where they get onstage and ask, "Do you guys like hip-hop?" And it's like, "Obviously. That's why we're here."
AR: [Laughs.] And to a degree, I get it. These kinds of things sort of set hip-hop apart. It's like the person on the stage is leading the party, and I get that, and that element is cool. There's a lot of crowd participation, and that sort of thing can be done well, or terribly. It's basically like the ingredients for rap are awesome. Occasionally, the sum of the parts isn't as good.
People are very adamant about maintaining a certain sound or a certain era, like, "There were three years of rap that were great, so let's just keep doing that." The genre itself is just stuck in place. It's been treading water for a while. Everyone's been on the "hip-hop is dead" campaign for years, and now it's the most unsure-of-itself genre ever. Everyone is like, "Is it dead? I don't know! It might be dead!" It's like "What?" I kept getting asked [by magazines], "Is hip-hop dead?" It's like, "You realize that you're just promoting Nas' album, right? It's fine, but you don't think it was just a declaration that this is a genre of music that no longer exists in the world?" [Laughs.]
I think it's all over the place. It's like what I was saying where it's supposed to be the toughest motherfuckers in the world, but they're really the most sensitive people. Everyone in the media's saying, "So-and-so's wack, and this person's not real!" And songs about people, and everyone's getting offended? It's like, "Man, you guys are fucking all like the Golden Girls."
AVC: You often get tagged as being lyrically confusing and inaccessible. How justified do you feel that is?
AR: I guess so. I realize I'm not the only Dr. Seuss here. I remember when I first started appearing in magazines, almost 10 years ago. In the beginning, I was like, "It's cool that I'm in here, and a lot of the kids are [quoting] this [rhyme]," and now I don't really care anymore. I'm just hoping that people are still interested. Now every time I do something, I'm like, "Please be interested, people." So far it's been okay, and I'm like "All right, good, you can quote any lines you guys want. You can misquote me left and right."
AVC: Just spell the name right?
AR: Exactly. To be honest, I'm surprised that anyone appreciates any of it.
AVC: Your lyrics are pretty vivid, and so are your videos. How visually do you think when you're writing?
AR: I try to make it like a setting. Sometimes it's a story, but even if it's not, I'll just try to describe this particular mood that happened on this particular day, in this place. I like it to be visual. I always attached myself to people who wrote that way, and who said stuff that was like—not only said "There's a bookshelf over in the corner," but added an adjective that helped describe the mood or something. It just helps me. People don't stress enough that when they're writing lyrics, they are writing. MCs are authors, and rock musicians who write lyrics are authors, to a degree. There's so much room to do so much more in rap, which we touched on. To take pride and be versatile, to do something they haven't tried before, and just say, "Let me try this."
AVC: You've said you were interested in writing campfire and ghost-story-type stuff for your next album.
AR: Sort of. I have a few things for whatever my next record's gonna be. I just like the idea of coming off, like, "Let's sit around and hear some stories," that kind of a vibe. Eating beans with some hobos.
AVC: Down by the tracks?
AR: Yeah, exactly. I want to be cooking a hot dog on a stick. That's the vibe I want it to be. Just, "Everyone gather around," and it's kind of moody, and "Let's hear some shit, you know, some really vivid interesting shit." When you see the scene in the movie where they're doing the campfire story, and it's always exaggerated, and everyone's on the edge of their seat, biting their nails, and it's like, "And then this happened, and then this Aaaahh!"
AVC: Is that how your new stuff has turned out?
AR: That's sort of how I picture it. I know it probably doesn't sound like that to other people, but some of None Shall Pass, I guess I was really going for it there. I'm not gonna sit there with a banjo, rap, and tap my foot, but that's the vibe I'd like to go for. It's something that's been in my head lately, over the past couple of years, as just something to go for.
AVC: Is it too early to go into detail on any of the new story-songs?
AR: No, it's not like that. Nothing's done, it's just a bunch of scraps and stuff, there's one I kind of like. I don't know if you know; there's this guy named Ricky Casso who was a satanic serial killer from the town I grew up in. I actually went to school with his sister. He did all these satanic rituals, and ended up stabbing this kid 17 times, and hung himself in jail. I'm three-quarters of the way through doing the Ricky Casso story. I think a few people have done books on him, but it's sort of this satanic-murder story.
I've started trying to write a couple of songs about my friend Camu [Tao], who died earlier this year, so there will be something that touches on that in some form. I've tried about 10 times so far, and haven't been able to track it down. Other than that, I have starts of things, and a bunch of beats sitting around, and some I'm like, "Eh, I'm gonna hold onto these."
AVC: You talk about imagining yourself telling stories to hobos, and in some of your videos, you're rapping to zombies or animals. How much of that speaks to who you think your audience is?
AR: Yeah, I guess it's like people who, without sounding pretentious, feel like they were outsiders for any reason. Depressed kids or something like that. Kids who have strayed away from the norm. I like the fantasy-type shit because it feels almost more real to me. Same thing with the lyrics—sometimes I'll describe something and people are like, "It's confusing. It's strange." It's kinda more realistic to me that way, in hyper-detail. Granted, it may have a surreal edge. I don't actually hang out with zombies in real life.
I've gone to this place where I've done enough stuff that people have been labeling as weird for so long that now they don't even want to try. They're just like, "This is the weird guy." Occasionally you're like, "Come on, did you even really listen to it? It's not that fucking hard to figure out."
AVC: Isn't the "weird guy" "Weird Al" Yankovic?
AR: Yeah, I don't have any polka medleys out there, yet. Didn't he do a polka medley on every album?
AVC: Yeah. He's said he polka-cizes songs that can't sustain an entire parody.
AR: [Laughs.] That's great. I should do that; just, like, scrap the song. It makes him seem really busy when in actuality he's not really done with the song.
AVC: The "Aesop" in "Aesop Rock" comes from a movie you made with a friend, right?
AR: Yeah. It's really not as cool as it sounds. It was a project for school this kid did.
AVC: Were you still in school at the time?
AR: Yeah, yeah, yeah. This was like, my first year of college, in 1994. The same year I met Blockhead. It was like this five-minute thing. "I have to do this film, it's due tomorrow. You have to be in it. The character's name is Aesop." We filmed it at an apartment. I remember I had to wear a suit. I feel like it had to do with the mob. I don't remember; it was a short film.
AVC: How is it not on YouTube yet?
AR: I don't even know that I've ever seen it. But I do get the, "You get your name from a movie, what movie?" And I'm like, "Um, not really, it was a student film. I wasn't really an actor."
AVC: You mentioned Camu earlier. What's the status of the Weathermen album? Has everyone affiliated at Def Jux come to a consensus? According to Wikipedia, it's coming out this year.
AR: I think it says that every year. Everyone wants to get it done, but we just can't get all together at one time. And after Camu passing, we're all like, "Let's get this done. It's time." There's basically scraps of it floating around out there that people seem to like. It's a matter of someone saying, "Stop what you're doing, let's all go to one place." It's just a matter of getting everyone together for 10 to 15 songs and shit. Is that vague enough for you?
AVC: Is there still talk of you doing a kids' workshop at McSweeney's?
AR: Yeah, there has been at the 826, the place where they do all the kids' stuff. To be honest, I'm fucking scared to do it. The idea of teaching a workshop in there is great, but the details of standing up in front of a bunch of kids trying to pretend that I know anything is pretty intimidating. They did just ask me to contribute to McSweeney's Quarterly next time. I was really honored, I guess is the word. I'm happy I got the foot in the door with those guys, because I think that they do a lot of pretty cool shit.
AVC: Why are you scared about teaching?
AR: I don't know. I mean, I like kids and everything. I'll go kick it with 'em or whatever, but I'm just nervous. I've talked to them about it, and they're like, "Please. We'll give you teachers' assistants. It's really not that hard." Just the idea of being in front of a group of people, trying to teach, or telling someone to do something for any reason. [Laughs.]
AVC: But you've said you have a desire to help out younger generations, and you've said your approach to lyrics is like telling stories to a younger version of yourself. Doesn't it seem like it'd be a good fit for you?
AR: Oh, definitely. It's almost too perfect, which might be why I'm so nervous.
AVC: Speaking of McSweeney's, are you still trying to get cartoonist Chris Ware to collaborate with you on something?
AR: That's like my never-ending quest in life. I've come to the conclusion that he'll never do it, but I'm going to keep asking him once a year.
AVC Why does he keep turning you down?
AR: I think he's just very busy, and has no idea who I am or what I do, or anything about my world. I think the only music-related stuff he does is like ragtime stuff, like releases of Scott Joplin albums. He has his yearly ragtime magazine [The Ragtime Ephemeralist]. I'm assuming he doesn't fucking care. [Laughs.] He has much better and cooler things to do, but the first one or two times, I got a message back that was like, "I have a lot to do right now, but thank you." The blow-off, which I was like, cool, whatever.
AVC: Was it from him, or from his people?
AR: Well, I started writing for [art and culture magazine] Juxtapoz, and they were all like, "Who do you want to interview?" And I was like, "Give me an interview with Chris Ware." And then they were hitting him up and nothing happened. Finally I got an e-mail that said, "Send five questions." So I've literally had that e-mail in my inbox for about a year now. I was like, "What five questions am I going to ask Chris Ware?" I'm just very into his shit, and I can't boil it down to five questions. So now I haven't done anything with them at all. It's almost better that it doesn't happen. I need some heroes that I don't get to meet.
It's almost another reason for me to be kind of introverted, cause after a while, I don't want to meet these people. I don't want to work with them. When it comes to stuff like, "Who's your dream collaboration?", I don't want to collaborate with anybody, because I just don't want to know. I want there to be this mysterious impenetrable hero of mine that I can put somewhere, and he will never be ruined by the fact that he has shitty breath or that he's kind of a dickhead.
AVC: You're pretty outspoken about being a videogamer. Which are you more concerned about, the state of videogames, or the state of hip-hop?
AR: [Laughs.] The thing about the state of hip-hop is that people are too concerned. I don't think that there's a problem with being too concerned about videogames, especially for me, because I'm not in the industry. I'm just a consumer. But hip-hop is constantly like, "What are you doing for the scene?" And it's like, "You know what I'm doing for the scene? I'm shutting the fuck up and I'm just going to put out music. How 'bout that? Instead of getting in 20 magazines before I even have an album out, and just talking shit left and right, I'm just going to write music."
AVC: So you're not going to the Hip-Hop Summit, then?
AR: I'm not. [Laughs.] I mean, I do like Rock The Bells and some of the bigger fests; I'm not like a total bitter asshole. Pick up any rap magazine, and half the magazine is articles about hip-hop, and it's just about the actual existence of a genre called hip-hop, or what the genre is doing, and it's like, "Man, just make a record. There wouldn't be shit to complain about if you just made music."