“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” – Siobhan Kane talks with Aesop Rock
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].