In any given artist’s lifetime, the progress of a good idea is often stunted by the appeal of another that could be much bigger. Dynamite designs are tossed aside for the sake of pursuing some newer, more daring revelation and the scope for entering a cycle of indefinite distraction becomes full blown.
This is a fundamental tribulation of the arts confronted by The Next Best Thing – a soundtrack and graphic tale conceived by Aesop Rock and acclaimed skateboard artist Jeremy Fish. As just one in an abundance of projects that Aes (AKA Ian Bavitz) has successfully put to bed between his last full-length emceeing endeavour, 2003’s Bazooka Tooth, and his forthcoming album, None Shall Pass, it seems that he himself has found a channel which allows him to juggle whilst steering clear of this road to creative block.
His latest hip-hop odyssey finds our protagonist in reflective form, framing the surrealist, abstract fluency of his hardball Long Island vernacular with elements of loose ‘70s funk and a firm reconnection with scratchwork. The intention, as Aesop has it, was to produce something of a verbal photo album of vivid snapshots taken throughout his experience of the lifecycle so far, from the cradle to full blown adulthood. DiS pulls up a beanbag while Aesop tells us a story.
A verbal photo album? So this is what you've been up to, Mr Rock?
That’s pretty much what I was trying to do. They’re not necessarily autobiographical but they could be… you know, it’s basically more about stuff that I’ve lived through. I was trying to capture these different time periods, these moods of somebody from birth to age 30... a story where you could think, “Oh, that reminds me of when I was five years old or when I was in college”. Just these different periods that make people what they are, I guess.
Since your last full-blown album appeared, the all seeing eye of the internet says you’ve moved to San Francisco, away from your label Def Jux’s spiritual home in New York. That kind of relocation must have caused a bit of a shake up; do you feel that the move has come to affect the approach you take to your music?
It’s weird to be out of New York because I’ve been there forever but at the same time I enjoy the secluded aspect of San Francisco. I don’t know all that many people there and I kind of like it that way. I get to section myself off and work on my shit without having too much of an outside influence on it, which is kind of refreshing. It’s something where, the older I get, the more solitude I enjoy and my music is the kind of thing where I’ve really just got to close my door to everybody and not come out until I’m done. This is kind of like a big field trip for me.
This is a relatively mellow affair placed up against the neurotic Bazooka Tooth, which you said at the time was named after your “pissed off superhero alter ego”. Has the move to more relaxed climes rubbed off on you enough for that guy to take a back seat?
I think he’s still present but it was just a different time in my life. I dunno if it’s because of the west coast thing necessarily but that was a frustrating period. I mean, I started making it around 9/11 and there was just a bunch of shit going on in the city and a bunch of shit going on in my family and so a lot of elements played into me just having a bit of a turbulent time and I’m not one to shy away from that when it comes to music so that was a record that was supposed to be a bit abrasive. Whereas, with this one, it wasn’t supposed to be 100 per cent autobiographical and it wasn’t just me vomiting up all this nervous energy. I did really get to kick it and work on songs of a different nature. I moved and got married and my life is just less hectic than it was a few years ago. I get to throw all my time into the music now and I’m trying to make music that reflects the time where it was made. This wasn’t a record that was made out of as much frustration as Bazooka Tooth was; it seems like more of a cohesive piece to me.
The guys you tend to work with are pretty much always label mates and genre buddies, but this time you’ve got folk rocker John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats involved. How did this happen?
I was a fan of him for a long time. 1994, I think, was the first time I heard them and I just really thought he was a good lyric writer for many years. I’d seen them play a lot of times and at one point I had read an article, like some top ten list, and he had put Bazooka Tooth on his top ten of the year and I was like, “Holy shit, this dude actually knows my shit?”. So I was at a show and I just walked up to him and said hi, introduced myself and we basically kind of fanned out on each other and started this friendship… this was maybe three or four years ago. Basically, we had planned on doing stuff together for a while but it just never came about, and then at some point this year when I was recording that song (‘Coffee') I thought: “I’m just gonna send this to John and if he’s feeling it he can sing on it and if he’s not then we’ll try something out later”. He was into it, recorded his parts and had it back to me within a week, so it felt good to just finally get it together enough to do it. I’m so used to collaborating with other rappers because it comes around so easily but doing something with a vocalist that sings… I’m just not used to it. It was a little nerve wracking.
When you’re in your more regular element - coming out with the entire roster as you did with the Revenge of the Robots and Fantastic Damage tours in 2002 - there must be a real sense of pride in what you’re doing?
I’ve been fortunate because a lot of these dudes, people like Cage and El, they’re not much older than me but they were making a little noise before I was - like Juggaknots, I got to work with Breezly Brewin’ on this new record - these are the people who set the tone for a lot of the New York underground scene. Over the last ten years or so I’ve become pretty good friends with all these people, and it’s dope. There have definitely been some surreal moments where I do take a second and look around on stage and I’ll think, “Damn man, these are some talented people I’m sharing a stage with”. It’s hard sometimes because you get caught up and there’s so much stuff to worry about in putting out a record. Especially independently, if anything fucks up it’s really on me, so it’s rare that you take the time to step back and look at what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with, because it’s such a race all the time. But I do, occasionally; I’ll find some video or something on the internet or come across some old tape in my house, put it in and it’s us rocking together six or seven years ago and I’ll think, “Wow, I’ve been doing this for a minute now”. I signed to Def Jux in 2000 and it seems just like yesterday but it’s fuckin’ five or six records later.
There has been a lot of positive activity and the acclaim for it seems to have a further reach these days. For example, Cage finally released his Def Jux debut, Lif put out Mo’ Mega and El-P went on to make a significant dent on the Billboard charts for an underground release. Do you feel that the label is in a good place? Is there a mission statement there or are you just flying by the seat of your pants?
It’s a bit of everything and I have a feeling the entire music industry is flying by the seat of its pants at this point. Everything’s changing so fast that we don’t know what we’re doing because nobody knows what they’re doing. We’re still and I think every label’s trying to figure out – in 2007 – how to promote a record when you have so much activity on the internet and CD sales are just plummeting, nobody knows how to do it. Even in the beginning of Def Jux, everything was vinyl singles, kind of like how you were suppose to do it… well, people who are my age. I don’t know how old you are, but that’s how I’m used to it. Now it’s just hard to figure out what the people want because they don’t even know themselves, they just want the songs. It’s interesting how everything goes down and how promoting becomes a different game in terms of the things you need to do to make noise for your new record but at the same time I don’t want to worry about promoting and marketing, I don’t really give a fuck about that shit; I’d rather just make some jams and put ‘em out. Now the record is done we have to figure out how to present it in this way that nobody has ever done in history because there’s never been a time in history like now. Major labels are fumbling, indie labels are fumbling; nobody really knows what to do. The future of Def Jux is uncertain only because the future of the music industry is uncertain.
In terms of what the future holds for your own career, you recently went down a new avenue and put together an instrumental album for Nike. Obviously you’re going to get a few critics there and the whole thing seems like a bit of a mutually unusual partnership. What did you make of the experience?
Yeah (laughs), I’d say it’s definitely an unusual choice for both of us. When the offer came in my first reaction was, “Why the hell are you asking me to do this?”. But once I read through what they were talking about and what they wanted, I thought it was a weird project at the bottom of it and I don’t get opportunities like that very often. I had critics about it but I also have a closet full of Nikes and Adidas…
I’m pretty sure most of us have had a pair or two kicking about under the bed at some time or another…
Exactly, so in that sense I didn’t have to think twice about it, any doubt was more in the sense of, Can I pull this off? They’re asking me to do this sample free, 45 minutes of instrumentals, music that would be geared towards an athlete to train to. And I was just like: “Fuck is that supposed to sound like? I don’t know”. It came at a really odd time when I was trying to finish my album and, on top of that, their deadline was 30 or 40 days after they asked me to do it, so my reaction was like “Well, fuckin’ A, what the hell”. It was so odd to me but I thought I’d be an idiot to turn it down. They were completely helpful and polite throughout the entire project so it wasn’t like it was the swooping in of some evil corporation to pick at my stuff. I basically had full creative control over the whole project and I didn’t mind sticking my foot up in that world for a second because I knew I had my little indie cocoon I could run back to when I was done.
So have you felt any sense of a stronger pull toward this kind of production freelancing over the emceeing, since you’ve cut your teeth on it with a few projects lately?
I don’t know, I like it a lot and I know I can’t be rapping forever, it’s definitely easier to do that stuff when you’re older but I’m gonna just keep doing what I’m doing and when I hit the wall I hit the wall. At this point, everything’s so uncertain with this business that I just want to stay afloat with all of it. I’m not really sure what my goal is other than to stay active.
Aesop Rock’s new album, None Shall Pass, is released via Def Jux on August 27. Look out for a review in the coming weeks. Hit up MySpace here for more information, songs and tour dates.