Rock Steady

Don't call Aesop Rock the savior of hip-hop. He's just trying to be original.

Likewise, the tragedy of September 11, 2001, inspired him to write "N.Y. Electric," a song that he says celebrates the spirit of New York. "I was living in downtown Manhattan at the time," he recalls. "I can pretty safely say that that was the most surreal day in my life. I wanted to make a New York pride song; I wasn't going to go into my little George Bush ramble. I'll save that for Mr. Lif -- he's better at it. So I was like, 'Let's do some N.Y.-anthem type shit.' I'll let everyone else do their anti-government songs. I'm going to do some N.Y. shit, because that's what the city needs more than anything."

"N.Y. Electric" is Aesop's "New York State of Mind." As it is in Nas's work, the influence of the Big Apple is pervasive in his music. "I just try to reflect the grittiness in New York. I try to protect the grit and the dirt that comes with it, which is a good thing," Aesop says. But whereas Nas made a name for himself reflecting the grimy realities of growing up in the Queensbridge housing projects, Aesop made his mark writing songs like "9-5ers Anthem," which details the grim prospects of punching the clock at a dead-end job and, as he says, "chasing the dream of someone that isn't us."

From the first time he heard Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, it was clear to a young Bavitz that he wasn't going to chase anyone else's dream. It just took him a while to figure out what form his dream might take. At first he thought it might be painting. He went to Boston University to study art and eventually earned a bachelor of arts degree. But as his interest in rapping grew, he realized he couldn't devote enough time to painting.

Rock me, baby: Ian Bavitz is Aesop Rock.
Rock me, baby: Ian Bavitz is Aesop Rock.

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With Mr. Lif, Akrobatic, DJ Fakts, DJ Idiom and Sa Smash, 9 p.m. Friday, December 5, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $22.50, 303-443-3399

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"Both are serious art forms that require 100 percent of your time, and I was doing both at the same time and kind of half-assing both," he admits.

After college, he moved to New York and worked a variety of menial jobs in art galleries. At the same time, he began to make some noise in the underground releasing Music for Earthworms and Appleseed,both of which have since become collector's items. These recordings caught the attention of Robert Curcio, the owner of Mush records, who eventually released the lyrically compact Float in 2000.

Around this same time, producer/rhyme-slinger El-P, whose group Company Flow had recently called it quits, was in the process of getting his label, Definitive Jux, off the ground. Aesop's quirky, uncompromising style seemed like the perfect fit for a label determined to sign unique artists. He trusted El-P's vision enough to sign with Def Jux.

"El learned a lot from his days at Rawkus," Aesop says. "He was kind of chewed up and spit out to a degree by the industry already. He stepped to the idea of owning and running a record label with a pretty good idea of how to do it well."

The two joined forces on Labor Days, which went on to become one of the imprint's most critically and commercially successful releases. Def Jux's eclectic roster has earned it the type of success and respect that Rawkus enjoyed in the '90s. In the last year alone, the label has put out records by RJD2, Mr. Lif, MURS and El-P that have appeared on many critics' year-end lists.

With this level of success, when anything is labeled "underground" and becomes too popular, backlash is inevitable, and Def Jux has received more than its fair share of criticism. El-P and Aesop lampoon this scenario on Bazooka Tooth's sarcastically titled "We're Famous": "I brought that genuine shit in '96/Before you knew the underground or independent existed/I watched the whole scene straight jump on the dick/After stepping to KCR lit and flexing my shit."

"Definitive Jux has gotten tons of love and respect in the last three years, and with that comes the fact that a lot of people are just mad and angry that we're getting any buzz," Aesop says. "So me and El, we're like, 'Let's just complain and brag at the same.' And we ended up making this obnoxiously arrogant six-minute song, knowing full well that in the real world, we're not really that big of a deal. It's just kind of a tongue-in-cheek title; it's just supposed to be 'fuck the haters' type of shit."

Ultimately, Def Jux is too close of an organization to be bothered by hipsters sippin' the haterade. Instead, it operates like a hip-hop clubhouse. El and Aesop are practically neighbors in Brooklyn, and the camaraderie they share with each other and their label mates is tight. They're not about to let anyone tear their playhouse down.

"We're all just cats trying to be original, which is what I think being a B-boy is about," Aesop explains. "We're trying to do some shit that no one has ever heard before, and that's the common bond between everyone."

So haters, take note: In the video for "Freeze," which provides a Fellini-esque take on The Little Shop of Horrors, the final shot shows Aesop opening his mouth to unleash a spray of animated ammunition. The scene depicts the MC's transformation from unassuming rapper to Bazooka Tooth incarnate, Aesop's self-described "superhero alter ego." To paraphrase a line from Repo Man, when he opens his mouth, everyone's dead.

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