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Aesop Rock is the self-deprecating antihero of indie rap. Amazed that anyone has taken an interest in his music, Aesop, who was born Ian Bavitz on Long Island in 1976, isn't out to save rap; he's content just carving out a little niche for himself and his friends at his label, Def Jux Recordings. If he had his way, he probably would never leave his couch, where he has been rumored to stay for weeks at a time. After reading about him in interviews and listening to him talk, you get the sense that he would be happy just watching movies, playing video games and making beats and rhymes for his friends. But Aesop has mad talent, and the underground craves his manic-depressive ruminations.
Take this lyrical come-on from "Cook It Up," off the new record Bazooka Tooth: "I'm clinically bonkers and hate just about everyone God's great earth offers/I won't be getting dressed up to impress your family, Dear/And if I can't wear jeans and sneakers, then I won't be landing there/There ain't no strings attached, but if you love television and manic depression/Get a carton of cigarettes/We can make it happen."
Juxtaposing this deadpan script with an up-tempo P-Funk backbeat is typical of Aesop's punk-rock brand of humor, which manifests itself in lyrics as well as in song titles such as the classic "Forest Crunk," from 2001's Daylight EP. His acerbic wit and polysyllabic rhyme flows are part of the reason Def Jux has become one of the premier underground rap labels. It will take you a minute to understand what this cat is saying, as he rapidly strings together non sequiturs in his trademark Del the Funky Homosapien-meets-Tom Waits delivery. But once you do, you'll be like, "Whoa."
The release of the anticipated Bazooka should satiate longtime fans' voracious demands. The album follows the critically acclaimed Labor Days and Daylight, both of which cemented Aesop's standing as a truly gifted wordsmith of the current indie hip-hop renaissance. With a video for Bazooka's first single, "Freeze," in heavy rotation on MTV2, it's inevitable that the MC's visibility will increase, a fact that he welcomes but also approaches with some reservation.
"Every record I do does a little better than the last, which in turn makes me more stressed out," he says from his apartment in Brooklyn. "I'm never really comfortable; I think it's kind of natural to feel uncomfortable, and I think if people say they are comfortable, they're just lying.
"It's just a weird kind of thing: You don't realize you're putting yourself out there until you're done," he adds, expressing his amazement and anxiety regarding the whole product-versus-process dichotomy. "It's just a whole lot different than going through the whole process of making a year and a half of material and trimming stuff down. All the public sees is this neatly packaged thing. It's a weird course of events that's very hard to get used to; it's always nerve-racking."
For Aesop, just getting from Labor Days to Bazooka Toothwas a painstaking proposition. During that time, the World Trade Center towers fell, his longtime girlfriend left him, and an anxiety attack caused him to cancel appearances on the breakout "Who Killed the Robots" tour, featuring Atmosphere and label mate Mr. Lif. If it hadn't been for his uncompromising work ethic, Aesop might have finally reached the level of insanity that he raps about.
If there is an underlying theme to Bazooka Tooth, it's one of trying to inject some levity into painful situations. And part of Aesop's catharsis came in the actual pleasure he got from making the disc. When coming up with material for Bazooka Tooth, he enlisted the services of the rap duo Camp Lo, best known for the 1997 classic Uptown Saturday Night. After hearing the twosome's criminally underrated "comeback album," Let's Do It Again, Aesop, a longtime fan, knew he had to have these Bronx bombers lace one of his tracks.
"Most people don't even know that it exists," he says of the recording. "It's phenomenal. When I heard it, I was like, 'Oh, my God, I've got to give these guys a call.' That was the first time ever that I called people that I just don't know."
Surprised that they even knew who he was, Aesop invited the guys over to his place. "It wasn't like I was like, 'Here's your money; let's kick sixteen bars,'" recalls Aesop. "They were like, 'Let's chill for a couple of days and get a vibe going and then make a song.' It came out perfect: They came through and chilled, we played video games, and we started writing a song." The result is "Limelighters," a playful track that may cause fans to dance -- something that is not too common at an Aesop Rock show.
Another rarity that might surprise longtime listeners is the more straightforward topical material on songs such as "Babies With Guns." Although Aesop is a fan of old-school, message-oriented rappers like Public Enemy, he rarely ventures into that territory. In light of recent events, however, he felt compelled to comment: "It's like, once you hear another story about a fifteen-year-old getting shot in Brooklyn, combined with the Columbine-like events of the last few years, it just seemed out of hand enough to actually write about it."