This edition of Champion Sound features Ian Bavitz, better known as Aesop Rock; an artist who has not only just released a rather brilliant new album, but also – in part – can be held responsible for this column’s existence. Having discovered hip hop through the back door, it’s difficult to overstate the influence that Aesop Rock records had on me in the early part of my hip hop education. To somebody virtually unfamiliar with rap music outside of the top 40, the discovery of his sprawling 2001 classic Labour Days (as well as the usual touchstones of MF DOOM, Stones Throw, OutKast etc) was a complete eye-opener to the vast potential of the hip hop form.
Aesop’s newest release, Skelethon, is not just a reminder of his raw talent as an emcee, but it’s just about as good as anything he’s ever written. Having taken complete control of the record’s production too, it feels as though his grasp over the final product is firmer than ever, resulting in perhaps his most personal collection to date. So before our usual run-down of the latest in hip hop mixtapes, here’s what Aesop had to say on the record, its reviews, and rapping his way into his mid-thirties.
Hi Ian, so Skelethon is out and has been received positively as far as I can tell. Are you somebody that reads your own reviews?
Yeah, I guess I am. Maybe not everything, but a lot. It's so easy to read them - and even when I feel like I'm gonna take some stand and not read them I end up checking them. It's all pretty abstract though - it's difficult to read them and not just be like "yeah you're wrong, you missed it," whether or not it's a generally positive or negative response. Nothing I've read about the record feels particularly accurate in relation to my experience of making the songs, but I guess that's the nature of having your art critiqued. It's also weird to work on something for a long time, and then just pull up a review with a giant "7" at the top. Like they just summed up years of my life with some BS number - It's hard to not just think "ah fuck off". Ha.
There must be some things that are often said about your music that you are tired of hearing?
I guess the fact that after this long people still occasionally toss words like "gibberish" around when speaking on what I do. That's one of those things that will just make me stop reading whatever it is. There's a lot though, too much to name. I think one just has to get used to being misunderstood, or maybe just know that nobody out there is going to feel the way you do about your own stuff. Nobody is going to really ever "get it" the way you meant it. That just doesn't happen. Some people identify with aspects of it and are attracted to it, but my relationship with this stuff is completely unique. I think that's something that's important to remember when reading critiques of your stuff.
Firstly with the Felt 3 and Hail Mary Mallon records, and now Skelethon, you’ve been doing a lot more production work of late. Is this a side to music you’re beginning to enjoy more? Could you also see yourself producing records for other people more regularly, or was Felt 3 more of a one-off?
Well I've always done production on my records. I've worked a lot with Blockhead, but I've also done a lot of my records myself, dating back to my self-released stuff in the 90s. Felt 3 was maybe the first time I felt pressure with it because I wasn't rapping, and I was kind of in charge of the "sound" that the record would ultimately have. That was new for me and I guess having that really concentrated period of stuff that I wasn't rapping on probably benefited my production. I've always enjoyed it, but I am finding that I can actually achieve what I'm setting out to do more often than I used to be able to. [In term of producing records for other people], I definitely would. I'd do anything if it felt right. I'm not exactly being pelted with production offers, but would definitely pursue anything that seemed interesting. Felt 3 was a unique and unexpected offer from those guys [Slug from Atmosphere and Murs]. I think most people still don't view me as a "producer" that much, so I don't get too many offers in that department, except for the handful of friends I've done stuff for in the past. I've been doing some of that, but it may be too early to comment on.
So I was reading an interview you did from way back in 2007 and you said you thought you’d probably end up moving back to New York eventually. Is that still the case?
Actually I kinda doubt it. I love New York, but once I was out for a year or so I felt like maybe it was good for me. At this point though it's just so damn expensive, and crowded, and a million other things. It's a unique place and I'm glad I got to spend the better part of 30 years there, between growing up in Long Island and living in various parts of NYC for a long time, but I think I'm at a different place now, where I'm actually allowing myself to be intrigued by other areas of the country. I could see moving to the woods somewhere, or just picking up and moving to another city that I am unfamiliar with. There's just so much out there, and I think jumping head first into some unfamiliar terrain every now and then suits me well.
Moving on to the album then, what is your writing process like and how do you develop your ideas? With a song like ‘Fryerstarter’, for example, how do you go from “I want to write a song about this donut shop” to what eventually came out?
Well I really like Bob's Donuts, and have been going there for a lot of years fairly regularly. I started writing about it and liked the idea of treating these late night missions for hot donuts almost like a religious experience - and once I had that basic concept in place, the rest was just piecing together the puzzle. My writing process is pretty disjointed and comes in spurts. I always have notes, these days on my phone, just lists of things I want to include in a rhyme somehow somewhere. Long lists. A lot of it is just moving around the pieces over long periods of time and getting them to cooperate with the larger picture. It's almost like I start out with a pile of details, and piece them together to form something bigger, instead of starting with a sketch and refining - if that makes any sense. But yeah - I'd say the process of constantly taking notes and writing things when they pop into my head throughout each day, then patching that all together later is a pretty good, general explanation of how things come together for me.
Skelethon feels live a particularly inward-looking, personal record. Was it difficult to write in that sense?
I don't really know - not necessarily. I mean, it was difficult, but I don't think that's why. I think I've always put a lot of myself into the songs. That said, I remember when writing None Shall Pass I was so, so sick of using the word "I" and just making everything about me. It felt like - how many self portraits can I make? So on that one I tried to write in the 3rd person a lot, even if the stories were ultimately a reflection of a part of me. I wanted to try to do some storytelling on that one. I think with Skelethon I was able to dip back into the "I" stuff, while feeling out ways to not make it seem too overdone. I don't want to sound preachy or tell anyone how to live, or have a "message" of that nature in my songs - they're more about trying to figure out different scenarios and pilot your way through things while talking out loud, admitting your faults, and showcasing that I don't have all the answers, or even some of the answers. I am not in a position to tell anyone how to live or to phrase my words as some life instructional, so I try to keep that as the basis.
Do you think that recent changes to the way that people consume music will affect how your music is perceived at all?
I never, ever know how people will perceive my music. Things change constantly, and all I can do is what I do. People will like it or not. I don't have the ultra-high output that a lot of current popular artists do, but that's just how it is, and I can't worry about it. I just do my thing and once it's done I cross my fingers and hope some folks are still on board.
Speaking very generally, it seems as though people are less willing to invest as much time in records as they used to be. Your music demands a certain degree of concentration, but perhaps the independent rap community is actually a slight exception to that trend?
I don't know anything about the independent rap community or any sort of larger thing it represents. I guess at one time I felt a certain way about what independent rap was, but honestly these days this is all a fairly isolated mission. I put the time in that I think that my songs need, that's all I really know about. I'm sure a lot of people would find my process weird, but I don't get a lot of other people's processes either. That's just how it is I think.
I watched a trailer for a documentary called ‘Adult Rappers’ recently, which seems to be a film about the idea of age and hip hop. It’s interesting, I think, how for the first time we’re approaching an era where ‘older rappers’ is even a thing. I’ve heard Slug talk interestingly on this subject in the past, and Atmosphere definitely seems to have steered away from the sample-based rap music they were making when they were younger. I was wondering what your take on it was, and how you see your music changing over time?
Well, in my 20s I definitely thought I'd be done by now - but here I am feeling like I have more to give and more tools to give it than ever before. I think the age stuff is just what you make it. Perhaps the older you are the less chance you have of getting stuff written about you in whatever popular media outlet exists at the time because they want to cover the fresh new faces - but if you're here to make music than fuck all that shit anyway. It can be frustrating, only because people know me, and therefore think they know what I do and what I will do. It's good that I have a solid fanbase that supports me, but I'm also not a new name, which can work against me. People see 'new Aesop Rock album' and may not go there because they have a preconceived notion of what it is I do - but I can't really control that anyway, plus I probably do that with a lot of artists too. But yeah, I feel like I have a better grip on this stuff now than ever, and I don't feel myself slowing down.
Featured mixtape: Angel Haze – Reservation
“I run New York” snarls Angel Haze, in a refrain from the Gil Scott-Heron-flipping lead single of her new EP, Reservation. It’s a bold claim at the best times, but in a year when the east coast is alive with inspiration from talent new and old, what separates this 20-year-old native-American born emcee from the pack? For starters there’s her versatility, both stylistically and in terms of persona. Throughout the EP’s duration (which is 14 songs and nearly an hour long, I should add), Haze expertly straddles scrappy, street-hardened battle raps (‘New York’, ‘Werkin Girls’), with affecting personal tales set to R&B hooks (‘Hot Like Fire’), half-pace dubstep wobbles (‘Wicked Moon’) and most impressively of all –successful pop/rap fusion (‘Drop It’, ‘This is Me’).
Angel Haze has all the technical attributes at her disposal; she’s demonstrably driven, a sharp lyricist, competent singer, and most of all she raps as though her life depended on it. While there are moments that she might give an impression of vulnerability, give her an inch and she’ll bite - hard. But underneath the taunts and bravado is a complex human being; the type who wonders aloud what it would be like to be beautiful - to be gentle - but can’t help feel angry at a world and an industry that doesn’t always allow for that. Does Angel Haze run New York? It’s still a bold claim, but if she keeps up this momentum perhaps posturing will find reality. [Ed – since writing this she’s earned herself a deal with Universal, so there you go].
Jay Ant + Iamsu! – Stoopid
I meant to write about HBK Gang’s Iamsu! in the last column, but somehow his excellent KILT mixtape was squeezed out at the last hour. I intend to make up for this here, not only by pointing you in the direction of that release, but also a new collaboration with fellow Bay Area rapper/producer Jay Ant. If I had to choose, this joint-tape is maybe the stronger of the two, with Su! and Ant sharing production duties and trading verses to devastating effect. Stylistically, Stoopid is a more steady-handed, modern update of the hyphy sound, occasionally moving closer to traditional territory in the tape’s more energetic moments. It’s in the purposeful, slower rhythms in which the pair excel though, such as the spatially perfect bass ‘n’ clap productions ‘Stoopid’ and ‘That N*gga’.
Meyhem Lauren – Respect the Fly Shit
Fans of Action Bronson’s retro New York rap would do well to check out this mixtape from his close-affiliate Meyhem Lauren. Not only does Respect the Fly Shit feature Action on five of its twelve tracks, but behind the dials are two of his most regular collaborators, Tommy Mas and Harry Fraud. As such, you probably know what to expect here, but the tape is given an extra energy by the nature of how it was recorded; holed up in an Austin hotel suite during SXSW with a revolving door of touring emcees. Although the exhaustive guestlist (Roc Marciano, AG Da Coroner, Sean Price, Heems and more) makes it difficult to view this as a pure solo statement, Meyhem makes it count with every opportunity. There’s an audible chemistry at play too, as these like-minded individuals assemble in one-place, inspiring one another and bouncing punch-lines off the hotel room walls.
Antwon – End of Earth
Sticking with a retro vibe for a second, Antwon’s new record End of Earth is a curiously diverse nine-track collection. Beginning with a vocal-less drone intro and the marching doom-rap of ‘Laugh Now’, the album quickly finds itself in the more familiar territory of lo-fi Miami-synths and spacey post-Clams (are we using post-Clams yet?) productions. Amazingly, all of that just about hangs together, and when he hits his stride it feels like Antwon could be on the cusp of something great. Bonus points are also awarded for this brilliantly nostalgic video for album standout ‘Living Every Dream’:
Jackie Chain – Bruce Lean Chronicles
If there was one Jackie Chain for every mono-flow Keef-a-like coming out of Chicago right now, the world would surely be a happier place. Bruce Lean Chronicles is the second tape Chain has released this year, as the Alabama rapper finds himself in the familiar position of being signed to a major (Universal), but with no debut album scheduled for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to envision what more he has to do to be given a push; these twelve southern rap cuts are all tailored to radio, but the label continue to bide their time while Jackie offers up first-rate material on the house. On Bruce Lean Chronicles, Chain sounds in his element over cheap sounding club tracks (‘So Throwed’, ‘Only Way I know’), blended with the crisper, vintage-sounding beats provided by the likes of DJ Burn One (‘Windows’) and Big K.R.I.T. (‘Parked Outside’).
Starlito – Post Traumatic Stress
Starlito continues to prove himself as one of the most consistently inventive mixtape rappers on new project Post Traumatic Stress. The Nashville emcee flips a collection of previously released beats in his trademark death-bed drawl, further exploring his intriguing persona through smart wordplay and narrative. The title track, for instance, takes a refreshingly personal look at infidelity, as Lito’s gradual and expertly detailed storytelling reveals the full extent of the heartbreak caused. While Post Traumatic Stress is a relatively short half-hour tape, Starlito is rarely worth ignoring, and this project whets the appetite nicely ahead of a sequel to his Don Trip collaboration, Step Brothers, due later this year.
Find Kyle on Twitter here, where you can read the tweets he didn’t immediately think better of and hastily delete.