Aesop Rock - It Took As Long As It Needed To TakeWritten by Siobhán Kane
Is it really over fifteen years since Ian Matthias Bavitz released Music for Earthworms? With Aesop Rock, time takes on an elastic form, just as his references do, with his debut record featuring collaborations with Percee P and a sample from Led Zeppelin. This was the template for all that would come, not exactly a reaction to some of the bloated rap that dominated at that time (and still does) but a personal reflection on creativity.
And Rock is particularly creative, not only in terms of his rhyming style, but his approach, which emerged from a background in painting (he studied Fine Arts at Boston College). Boston College was good to him, since he met long-time collaborator and producer Blockhead there, and it allowed him time to develop as an MC.
After his 2000 record Float came out, he signed to New York’s Definitive Jux label (co-founded a year before by El-P and Amaechi Uzoigwe); it was a label that was synonymous with a more abstract and cerebral kind of hip-hop, accommodating idiosyncratic styles, often melded with complex, heavy, and interesting beats - home to Cannibal Ox, RJD2, The Perceptionists, and El-P’s brilliant Company Flow.
The label’s grasp on a more melancholic palette suited Rock, who has struggled with his own sadness and personal struggles; and at a time where he felt like he was going under, just after the release of Labor Days (2001), people like El-P were there to help that from happening, detailed in the song ‘One in Four’ from his Daylight EP (2002) - because at the core of it, Def Jux always seemed about community. Sadly, the mighty Def Jux is on “hiatus” for a while, though Rock still released Bazooka Tooth (2003) and None Shall Pass (2007) before that came about.
It has been five years since he has released a full-length solo record, but this year’s Skelethon (released on 10th July on Rhymesayers Entertainment) is possibly his most personal, and best, to date. However, he has remained prolific - in the past the five years, he has collaborated with Kimya Dawson (The Uncluded), Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz (Hail Mary Mallon), Allyson Baker (Dirty Ghosts), and Murs and Slug (Felt 3) – while privately working on his new record, which documents a time where almost everything fell apart. Those lyrics from ‘Daylight’ come to mind - “all I ever wanted was to pick apart the day/Put the pieces back together my way”, as creating is the one thing that keeps him going, as he tells Siobhán Kane.
Loss has informed this record to the extent that it feels like your most personal to date. Now that the record is completed, how would you describe its gestation and your own feelings about it?
I would say it took as long as it needed to take. I don't keep up the pace that is maybe common in music today among a lot of my peers, but I've learned there's not much I can do about that. It took a certain amount of time, as well as me involving myself in certain other projects during the making of this LP for it to be what it ultimately ended up as. I can't really just go into a studio and emerge in a couple months with an album - that just doesn't happen for me. Furthermore I can't really pick up a pen and write a rhyme about nothing- or everything- like I once did - I think it takes a certain allure to even get me to be excited enough about an idea to figure out the rhyme. Producing it all was another layer that maybe added to the time it took, but- hopefully- more importantly, it makes the product even more mine, more personal, and ultimately more a direct reflection of what these years have been.
Do you think a sense of isolation had descended upon you before you started making this work years ago, or through it, you actually became more isolated? Perhaps we are all navigating a strange loneliness.
I think that, while I tend to naturally isolate anyway, this past few years it has been more than ever. I find it difficult to identify with a lot of people, and consequently my faith in humanity plummets and I hole-up. Once you start feeling like people are essentially a selfish species, it's difficult for that not to snowball into something bigger. As for the second part of your question - I'm not sure. I do agree to a certain extent, but I think a lot of people are able to just plod along and not get down about some of the things that I find affect me. Sure we're all navigating our own paths, but then you get groups that stick together and help each other. Sometimes this comes off as a legit, friendly effort, while other times it seems like a bunch of assholes justifying each others behaviour. I wish it didn't seem like the latter so often, but from where I'm sitting right now - it does.
In this period, however, you were also working on so many different things, The Uncluded, Felt 3, Dirty Ghosts - were those collaborations a way of renewing an exhausted part of yourself? Also, how do you feel about those collaborations, as a listener, they are all diverse, and illustrate those aspects of you.
Yeah definitely - I think without some of these other things to latch onto, Skelethon wouldn't be what it is. Each of those projects exercised a different part of my brain. Writing Hail Mary Mallon was really a breath of fresh air - to keep the fun and rawness in my rhyming. The Uncluded record - which people will hear probably early next year - is way more quiet and personal perhaps, and comes from a totally different part of me. Dirty Ghosts was all about getting my production/drum chops up, and seeing if I could nail the sound that Allyson [Baker] wanted. She had a vision for the project and I was trying to play my part. And Felt 3 was the first time I produced an entire record alone - which was probably too much to be offered, so by saying yes I kinda had to go all in and really try to prove myself in that arena. I think during that project I figured out a lot of things that would’ve taken years to learn had I strictly been working on solo projects. They all undeniably play into Skelethon, and each served as a sort of 'safe place' to go while trying to figure out my own work. All challenging, but somehow safe too.
Kimya appears on the song ‘Crows 1’ as well - how did you actually meet her, and how would you describe your working process? Both of your deliveries are idiosyncratic, but different - yet there is a definite sense of trying to understand things there.
We have some mutual friends and I had emailed her years ago to say I was a fan of her work. One day we were randomly back in touch on email, and she was working on her latest LP Thunder Thighs, and asked me for a beat. They were recording not too far from where I live, and I ended up contributing musically and vocally to a handful of songs on that record. The process was really easy actually - we're pretty similar in a lot of ways. We went on to record ‘Crows’ for my record, and then did a full length under the name The Uncluded. I would say 'trying to understand' is definitely a good description. She's wordy, and a lot of what she writes is about figuring out and processing different scenarios. Not saying 'here’s the answer', just kinda meandering around and doing a lot of the thinking out loud within the lyrics. That's something she does that I've always identified with. The Uncluded record is tender as fuck. If you’re the type of person that's nervous to admit you are overwhelmed, then it's probably not for you [laughs].
Originally Skelethon was to be produced by you and Blockhead, as previously - but it ended up being produced solely by you - do you think this is in part because you wanted to shatter what had gone before? Sometimes in times of personal struggle, you almost want to destroy the familiar in order to start anew, perhaps to challenge your own sense of being alive, I hope that make sense. What are your thoughts?
That makes sense but I don’t think it's totally accurate in this scenario. I think us being on opposite ends of the country – New York, and San Francisco, played into it a lot. I also think me being a scattered person who was working on all these other projects simultaneously made it difficult for me to block out any chunk of time where me and Blockhead could really find a vibe together on this one. Perhaps once I decided it would be better for me to try to do the whole thing on my own, the project may have become something else - a bit of a mission to prove to myself I could do it. But I don’t think those intentions were there in the beginning. Ultimately I'm glad we're close enough to be able to cop to it instead of forcing something out that just shouldn’t be. He is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I feel confident that we will always work together in some capacity - even if not for every project.
The instrumentation evidences a kind of stuttering, confusing time - especially the percussion - was this intentional, or did that feeling infuse the work naturally?
I don’t really know - I just kinda went with what felt right at the time. I mean, I'm sure I've made hundreds, if not thousands of beats in the last bunch of years, and these fifteen pieces ended up as my solo record. Something excites you in the moment, and you follow it. I think across the board from drums, music, samples, instrumentation, I've just been slowly getting better at figuring out how to make it all work together in a way that really mirrors what I’m thinking. The ideas have always been there, but getting them out of you in the right way is the hard part - and I think some of that has come together for me more recently. I think I just spent a lot of time with it over the course of a bunch of non-solo projects, and it all reflects back to Skelethon.
There is an urgency to your record, not only cramming many ideas into the album, but there is a sense of wanting to say certain things before it is too late. What kind of hue has time taken on for you this last while? Even the artwork for the record suggests that sometimes when things fall away, a core, or a clarity remains.
Maybe, but I could also point out that it did take me five years, so.... [laughs], but I hear you. The word "urgency" is one I’ve used before as a goal for my sound overall. I want to write the songs that need to be written, not just anything. I feel like the best songs are the ones that feel like the artist really had no choice but to write the song - it needed to be out of them. Obviously nobody wants to write ’filler’, and for me that means finding the right subject matter and treating each song as delicately as the next. If it bores you, don't write it. If you’re making a song to simply fill a hole in what you think is expected of you as an album-maker - don't write it. I wait until something feels important and I work on it with everything in me. Sometimes you can't think about time. I'm pretty old for this 'game', but I also feel like I'm making the best stuff of my life right now, and I can't let any pre-conceived notion of what an artist or album is supposed to be fuck up my ride. Probably because this is in fact a personal mission as much if not more than it is a public one.
There are many things I have liked about your work over the years, but one of them is your vocal - the way you rap is beautiful, really - do you think your relationship to your voice has changed somewhat over the years?
Well thank you, that's nice to say. I have a weird old muppet voice. I think that over the years you sort of figure out how your voice works, what it's best for, what it's good at, when it sounds terrible, but it takes a long time. There are periods I can look back on and think 'holy shit what was I trying there?’ But it's all just figuring out where your voice does its best work. Everything from what volume you sound best at, types of inflections, different rhyme patterns, you obviously learn things from the music you are a fan of, but then you have to take it in and process with the tools you have. Beyond actually writing a dope rhyme, the delivery is a priority. You can have two people kick the same rhyme and one can be dope and one can be terrible. I think it is an evolving relationship, and hopefully being able to pick out the good moments and expand on them in the future. But a lot of people find my voice severely irritating, so what do I know?
Def Jux, like Rawkus in its day, (and a few other interesting labels like Stones Throw) was a really interesting, vibrant label - mainly because it housed so many different styles and personalities - but I always felt there was a sense of Gotham City about the atmosphere of the label, that perhaps found its way on to people's work - a darkness, perhaps - do you think that you found each other because you both possessed that, or that the label affected your work more directly in that way?
While obviously you're affected by the people around you, I think there's a relatively straight line from my pre-Jux releases up through now, post-Jux.
Labels are another thing that have become unstable, and the way people are listening to music. When artists, whoever they are, create - they want not only to create for an audience, in order to connect, but to leave some kind of legacy, or mark on this confusing world - two questions stem from this, why do you think you create?--and has the way the music industry has changed affected you greatly as an artist?
OK two parts - why do I create - I don't really know, but I do know that creating, or more simply 'making shit' has always been the most important thing to me, since I was a kid. My main focus used to be visual arts, and from a pretty young age I felt very adamant about needing to draw - always. I don’t know why, and while some describe it as 'therapy', it doesn’t present itself in a way that I can directly associate with what I know 'therapy' to be - so that description always falls short for me. But for whatever reason, making shit always seemed way, way, way more important and interesting to me than just about anything else one could do. Eventually the creativity switched focus from visual arts to music, but the idea and drive is the same. It's important for me to lock myself up, and emerge with something in my hands saying 'I made this'.
To the second part of your question - the music industry is totally strange, but it also never wasn't strange to me. Of course things now seem crazier than ever, things seem to come and go quicker than ever, but at the end of the day the strange part for me is that it is a 'business'. I'm not a business man, so all of this buying and selling of things is just an abstract world to exist in. I just wanna make shit. Figuring out how to then sell it is its own monster, one I’ve stumbled through in no clear way for a lot of years now. I don't understand how most of this works, so I do my best to find some people who are passionate about that side of things and then dump an album in their lap. I'd like to think that creativity will conquer all, so if I do my part then the rest will work itself out. I don’t actually believe that's true, but that's how I have to live because I don’t really know any other way.
In this period of making the record, did you find that you could listen to music? Or access others' creativity- writers and such? Sometimes in a period of turmoil, energy goes away, and access to joy becomes more difficult. But if you were able to, who were you listening to, and reading?
I was pretty much in a bubble. I also work on music in some capacity almost everyday, so it does unfortunately become harder to be a fan of music in my off time. I definitely check new shit out - but I dunno - sadly it's really hard to find anything that moves me at all. Lately I play Ka's Grief Pedigree a lot. I guess I am biased, but hearing my friend Rob Sonic's new record come together has been really inspiring - he's a guy who, as a writer/rapper constantly bowls me over and keeps me psyched. When I discovered Danny Brown I felt it was a breath of fresh air. But it is definitely hard to crack the bubble once I’m just kinda in there working.
Hail Mary Mallon - and the record Are You Gonna Eat That? is just brilliant - you have collaborated with Wiz and Rob together before, and they pop up on Skelethon - this must have seemed like a natural progression for you as it all came together in the time you were writing Skelethon. There is a real sense of 'the crew' about it, bringing to mind people like the Beasties, RUN DMC - do you think you were looking for that, and are there more plans afoot for the future?
Absolutely on all fronts. It was a reason for me and Rob to break away from our solo efforts and write some fun shit. Wiz is a dope DJ who's been doing this shit for a long time, and I think the idea of writing a rap project with a group dynamic was something that excited all of us. The chemistry, friendships, and mutual admiration was already there, so all we really needed to do was pull the trigger. Groups like Run DMC, the Beasties, EPMD, are such great models because they are groups in which the chemistry of the members was equally responsible for the songs as the beats/rhyme/cuts. I had never been in a rap group before, so being able to think about songs in a way where I have a whole other vocalist here to play off of - I dunno, it really makes you think in a different way. There are definite plans to continue with more HMM records, and I think since we each also have our own solo outlets, when we do come together as a group, the focus is making songs as a group - not so much going for self.
Back to time again - years ago, when you first started rapping, do you remember what excited you about the form? One thing I have always loved about rap, is the verve required with language - all the great rappers have had a real grasp of language. What is your relationship to rap like now?
I'd say ultimately the draw is the same. If anything I am less involved in the 'scene' and more involved in the 'craft', so I don’t worry as much about looking cool. I just wanna write to the best of my ability and make it a me vs. me situation. I think in the beginning maybe I felt like I had something to prove to others, whereas now I don't think about others at all, and most of the proving I need to do is to myself. But when it's all whittled down, it is and always has been, a love for putting words together, and seeing how far you can take a simple idea like rhyming words together.
In terms of language, your own grasp on it has been something I have greatly admired, when did this relationship with language begin and do you find it quite a cathartic thing to shape and re-shape, and edit? I know that your background is actually in painting, it must have found its way in there, somehow.
I'm not sure how it started. I've only ever written rap lyrics, so all of my writing has been in that form. Re-shaping and editing is as fun as it is painful [laughs]. It's a lot of work, but the reward is the song, and for me it's worth it. I guess the stuff that has always moved me is when someone is able to write something that really feels tangible - a realistic setting or an emotion or story, something that is greater than just the words being put together. Being a fan and memorising lyrics, you start to dissect them, and you start learning the 'why' and 'how' of enjoying things, like - you know you like a song, but then you really get in there and say 'ohhh, he did this, and this is why this part stands out'. Same with drawing and painting - you can appreciate a picture, but getting in there and realising 'oh this line looks like this because he did this, or this shape pops because of this’, I just got fascinated with that part of it - the process leads to the product.
Who do you love in rap now?
The few I mentioned before, and, well, I hate being the old and bitter dude, but not much [laughs]. There are things I like, and rappers I think are great, but I find so few people to really be taking it anywhere interesting. So much of rap starts and ends with a display of 'skill'. It's cool and sometimes inspiring in the short term, but nothing really sticks.
How did your relationship with Rhymesayers Entertainment come about?
I've known those guys for a really long time. I met Slug in the Overcast days and Siddiq not long after that. We've always had a good friendship and once I finished writing Skelethon, they essentially took the attitude of 'we're here if you need us'. I thought about it and said 'yeah I need you, thank you'. They’ve been very supportive, and I'm a weird dude so that means a lot.
How do you feel about the live aspect of what you do? Your live performances are radiant and incendiary - what have some of your highlights been and what is your relationship to the live experience?
It's always a challenge, and it's never been an environment I'm that comfortable in. I started writing songs never having any idea I’d need to perform them on a stage in front of people, and that's kinda been a monster for me since day one. It's the kinda thing you just learn because you need to. You go on a stage and sink or swim. Nowadays we're smarter about it; we rehearse a lot and think of the best way to translate a song from the studio to the stage. Performing with Kimya in the last years has been awesome and different. I don’t need to yell as much, and I can virtually do my verses at a talking level - at least on the songs over her acoustic guitar- and it feels awesome. I can hit inflections that I can't do when I am doing the more high-impact hip-hop performance that I'm used to. But having all eyes on me in a room will never be something I find comfort in.
Skelethon is out on 10th July on Rhymesayers Entertainment. iTunes.
Over the years Siobhán Kane has written for various publications on music and culture including The Irish Times, Thumped, The Quietus and The Event Guide. She occasionally contributes to radio,and amidst trying to write her doctorate and teaching, runs the collective Young Hearts Run Free, putting music and literature events on in unusual spaces, raising money for the Simon Community in the process.Website: www.youngheartsrunfree.ie