“I Just Like Rap. I Like Hearing Rapping”: An Interview with Aesop Rock

In advance at his show this Saturday at the Shrine, Zilla Rocca and Aes Rock link up to talk collaborations, meals with Blockhead, and keeping up with new rap music.
By    September 21, 2016

I’ve played Aesop Rock for a T.A. in this Intro to Abstract Art class I took in 2001 in college. He didn’t get it.

I’ve been compared to Aesop Rock as a rapper, which bothered me but also was flattering.

I’ve lived in nine different residences since 2005, and in each home, I had a framed and autographed poster of Bazooka Tooth on my wall.

I’ve befriended people who have worked with Aesop Rock, who have interviewed him, or have just dapped him up after a show. And we’ve all traded notes about the experience like high school kids who got to first base with the same chick.

You look around and realize he has no comparison. He has done everything. He has been left for dead but could never be killed.

He influences Lupe Fiasco and Danny Brown.

The esteemed owner of this very website once compared Aesop Rock to Pau Gasol.

Tim Duncan is a better comparison. For 16 years straight, Aesop Rock’s excellence has become mundane. Boring. Expected. Unmatched.

Consistency is boring. Press wants new new new. Fans want hot hot hot. But mastery is neither.

Aesop Rock is a master of rap. He is 40 years old and is substantially better on the mic and on the beats then he was 5-10-15 years ago. That is true for exactly 14% of anyone in his field at his age.

If you listened to The Impossible Kid, you already knew that. 14 songs with stories about brotherhood, forgetting your favorite hobbies, and man’s best friend as feline. He’s the only person who could make these topics not corny as hell.

Aesop Rock has never sounded like anyone. He has spent almost twenty years being completely original all the time. Think about how hard that is.

He got dissed by traditionalists for years while he was outselling their fading icons tenfold. He worked with Nike and Jeremy Fish. He is soundtracking movies and shoving his way onto any serious list of Greatest MC’s Ever. He is impossible to duplicate. —Zilla Rocca

I’m a longtime disciple of your music going back to when I first heard “Commencement at the Obedience Academy” back in 2000 while I was in college. I’ve consumed or purchased everything with your name on it since then. It’s weird that I technically have been listening to your music for almost exactly half my life. What I want to know is what rapper(s) have you been a fan of that you’ve consistently supported for 15-20 years?

Aesop Rock: Camp Lo has had longevity and still brings out the goods. Much of Wu still got it. Nas, Andre. But this question ultimately is a little sad—because I could sit here and name people for you, but just the fact that it can be confined to a short answer in an interview is enough to recognize a problem. I’ve been talking a lot lately about turning 40 and still going, and how it’s a sort of lonely place because—even though I don’t feel like my skills and sensibilities have deteriorated, the number of people that have come before me and set examples of what rapping can be at this age is minimal.

There are very few people to look up to. I’m not saying nobody, but very few. People usually answer that with—“what about Jay, what about _____”—but it only proves my point. Of course there are exceptions, but that’s what they are—exceptions. Anyway, I got off track.

A few years ago, I was hanging out with The Knux and they talked about how the first time they heard None Shall Pass, they wanted to immediately shelf their debut album Remind Me in Three Days… because as fellow diehard fans of your music, they felt like their album was trash in comparison. Does it feel good or bad to inspire fellow rappers to either quit, go back to the drawing board, or attempt to kick your ass on wax (musically speaking)?

Aesop Rock: Well that is very flattering. I’ve had that feeling at times. I mean it can go both ways—on one hand it can light a fire under you. On the other hand it can make you say, “Maybe I should be focusing on other shit.” That happened a couple times in my life—things that I was very into, putting many hours into, then one day you just get hit with that wave of, “Is there a point?” In music I guess I’ve had that a few times, but always managed to let it inspire me and not defeat me entirely. I was always okay to fail. Lots of trial and error and frustration was worth it to me if I gained an inch in the end.

You’ve become one of rap’s greatest storytellers, but I don’t think you get credit for it, because the stories you tell are very specific to your life or your past. Most celebrated rap story songs are centered around crime, or a hilarious profane sex episode. But yours are built around little league baseball games gone bad, hating to eat vegetable as a kid, or a dog that saved a kid’s life in 1981. What made you want to hone in on that skill or write those kinds of songs?

Aesop Rock: At some point I found myself wanting to get better at telling a story. For some reason, it felt to me like that’s the kinda stuff that would age best. If you can manage to tell a solid story then you’ll be good forever. There’s a lot of romance attached to the idea of stories being passed down for generations, and how they bring people together, etc. I like all that. It’s also just not easy—at least for me. Writing a story rhyme is a real challenge. There’s so many examples of people writing story rap songs, and basically completely dumbing down their style just to get the story out.

On top of telling it, you gotta be able to tell it good, and make it specific to your take, and take all those cool wordplay elements and clever punchlines that we all work on endlessly, and insert them into the narrative organically. I dunno—that shit is tough but it’s a challenge I enjoy. As far as my subject matter—I dunno..You know, some people write action movies, some people write romance novels. I just write the stuff I think I can do justice to. I pick moments that I feel I may have a unique take on.

On The Impossible Kid, you made a full length album with no guest rappers laying verses. When I look back at your catalog, you’ve typically handled the bulk of the verses on everything with minimal guests. But you’ve also developed this awesome chemistry in Hail Mary Mallon with Rob Sonic and Lice with Homeboy Sandman. What’s the best and worst part about doing solo records compared to trading verses and cutting your workload in half on the mic with Rob or Homeboy Sand?

Aesop Rock: Rapping with two people really opens up what you can do with the song structurally. But beyond that I think of those projects as really getting back to what’s fun about rhyming. My solo works tend to be heavy-handed and somewhat draining to make. I keep these other groups close just to exercise a different muscle. We get to make chorus’ out of inside jokes and build on stupid shit that makes you laugh until it’s a song. Those projects are symbols of those friendships and they occupy a different place in my heart. I find it all important to me, one helps the next.

From the old days of Mush/Def Jux through Impossible Kid, you’ve built this universe of collaborators that are very specific to your records: Rob Sonic, Kimya Dawson, Blockhead, Blueprint, Grimace Federation, and Hanni El Khatib. You’ve had Camp Lo, Breeze Brewin, and C Rayz Walz pop up as well as the Weathermen, but you’re now like a director with a close circle of people he wants to use on his projects again and again. Do you consciously make stuff that fits them, or are they just hanging at your crib and hop on joints? How does it work when you bring this cast of homies on your albums?

Aesop Rock: I have different relationships with all of them but love them all. They all make me tap into different sides of myself. Rob is the old homie plus we’ve toured together for many years now which gives us a unique bond. Him and I collaborating is 2nd nature. Kimya is a close friend and our work together has been very organic and some of my favorite stuff. Blockhead is one of my oldest friends so we’ll always circle back to each other in one form or fashion. Hanni is a friend from the years when I lived in SF and he was at Huf. We would chop it up about music and skating and so on. Grimace Federation is a group I had done a few remixes for, and we have developed a more working relationship where they will do some instrumentation for me. And Sand I was just a fan of. We became friends and have done a few tours and recordings.

All these people bring out a different side of me and I consider them friends. And that’s who I wanna be working with. I hit a point where collaborating just changed for me, what it meant and what it should mean. The people I work with over and over are folks I have a specific love and appreciation for, and maintaining that feels stronger than any need to move on to find something new for no real reason.

Billy Woods is a friend of mine, so I was thrilled when you guys linked up. You have also dapped up newer artists like Ka, Danny Brown, Homeboy Sand, clipping, etc., the past few years. After all the years you’ve spent writing, performing, and recording rap music, how often do you still want to listen to rap music, much less new guys with unproven track records?

Aesop Rock: Kinda all the time. I listen to a ton of new shit—just browse the sites and at least listen to what people are doing. I don’t feel much, but there’s always someone rapping you know? I just like rap. I like hearing rapping. Even on a day where nothing dope drops, someone always got a rhyme to kick you know? Sometimes that’s enough. Then other days you get that real gem you were waiting for. Of course you’re not gonna get chills every time, but fuck it. I still peep a lot of what’s going on and get genuinely juiced off hearing someone go in.

I once asked B Dolan what it’s like when you’re a rapper and producer and you have the choice of rapping over someone else’s beats versus building a beat from scratch and then writing a rhyme to it. From your albums starting with Bazooka Tooth, it appears that you prefer the latter. I’m a rapper and producer and I hate rapping over my own beats because I’ve heard every component of the beat 300 times, so it’s hard to just hear the finished product and be inspired right away to rip it. How do you approach rapping over your beats versus a beat from someone else? Is there any difference to you?

Aesop Rock: A lot of the time, when making a beat, I will only go so far as a single loop. the main groove, basically the first part that caught my ear and made me wanna make it in the first place. Then I use that to write to—while it’s still fresh to me. I don’t waste time adding 80 layers to the beat until later, (usually). If I’m feeling it and it’s moving then I wanna get some thoughts out and at least feel out some patterns or a chorus. Then if it passes the test I spend days, weeks, months, just picking at it, adding parts, taking away parts, etc. That’s when I’ll decide on the instrumentation aspects, and get fancy with the drums and all that. But I do like to try to at least start the rhyme when that initial wave hits. Nothing better than a big, dopey, tough loop to write to.

Here are four of your best songs ever in my opinion. One’s gotta go. Pick the loser and why:
1. “The Greatest Pac-Man Victory in History”
2. “Cycles to Gehena”
3. “Blood Sandwich”
4. “No Regrets”

Aesop Rock: “Pac-Man” would go. I hated how I was using my voice in those days, and my beats were pretty crappy.

What do you and Blockhead typically get at the diner nowadays when you link up?

Aesop Rock: Nowadays we pretend like we’re gonna eat something healthy—so we’ll go somewhere that has a nice grilled fish over brown rice. But then we’ll get ice cream on the way home anyway.

What’s the one lyric or verse from another rapper that always sticks in your brain?

Aesop Rock: Oh man, so many. It’s funny which ones stick in our heads.

“Yes return the last dragon, balls of fire, back to attack, and sharp like barbed-wire…” – Erick Sermon

“I travelled the milky way and the stars of the gods than returned 6 million feet beneath to get cigars” – Redman

“Automatic Artifact with naps, causin’ heart attacks” – Tame

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