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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."
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.
"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.