The Making of Aesop Rock’s “Daylight”

David Ma speaks to storied producer Blockhead about Aesop's timeless 2001 single.
By    January 20, 2021

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David Ma walks the block with a halo on a stick, poking your patience.

The contrast between what artists think of their own work versus what fans think remains fascinating. Listeners love the hits, makers scoff; think it’s corny, too easy, what have you. An example of this is “Daylight,” the standout off Aesop Rock’s much praised Labor Days, an effort that cemented Def Jux as a subversive powerhouse by 2001. Produced by Blockhead, it remains a prominent notch in both of their respective back-catalogues. “Oh for sure, some people think that that’s the best shit either of us has ever done,” he says, laughing. 

“I remember playing it for El-P and thinking he wasn’t going to like it because it was so different from all the other Def Jux stuff at the time. It was happy feel good shit, I thought he would think it was corny. And his reaction was exactly what I’d thought it’d be! I don’t think he liked it very much,” says Blockhead. “But then he was also like, ‘This needs to be the single.’”

There’s footage of an in-store performance where El-P and Aesop jokingly repeat: “We hate this song, but you love this song. We hate this song, but you love this song.” I spoke with Aesop in 2007 and even by then he was over it, not just the song, but seemingly the whole album. “I don’t even like Labor Days that much anymore [laughs]. I know that that’s the record that introduced me to more people than my previous stuff, but I get tired of listening to my own shit.”

Blockhead met Aesop in the late ‘90s and remembers the two connecting over music in early college. He then produced “Plastic Soldiers,” a minimal track on Music For Earthworms where one of Aesop’s most effectual lyrics memorably go: “Your ignorant bias is my Goliath.” From there, a working relationship bloomed on Float, a furthering their “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper” dynamic.

Labor Days’ impact felt immediate, message boards were set ablaze. It was released during an eerie calm that was exactly one week after 9/11. In the early 2000s, labels could quickly prop up and move some serious units before quickly folding. The landscape was new and constantly changing. Def Jux made such noise that it turned heads at Def Jam (over copyright infringement) and settlements ensued. Aesop was backpack hero status and Def Jux was on an infernal run—Fantastic Damage, Deadringer, The Cold Vein, all in about 14 months.

Blockhead and Aesop had an easy chemistry and would work with each other for many, many years after. Ninja Tune went on to put out some of Blockhead’s most striking instrumental work, and of course, in more recent years, Backwoodz Studioz has been a frequent collaborator. Here, we look back on that stage in his life, the soaring indie-rap boom, a fleeting and fertile time where Blockhead cut his teeth and dropped a classic along the way.

Before we get into the song, give us a little background on how you and Aesop met.

Blockhead: We went to college together and I met him at Boston University for one year I was there. I left stayed and we stayed in touch. He’d come to NY during the summers and we’d link up. He lived with me for a summer actually and we just started to make music. I used to rap back then too so we’d fuck around and when Aesop started to take rapping seriously, that was sort of my signal to stop rapping and focus on beats. I was super mediocre.

You’ve made thousands of beats. Is it presumptuous to even ask if you remember how you made this one?

Blockhead: There are very few times in my life where I can recall that much about a specific one, but this is one of them. It’s one of about three I’ve ever made where I can trace back to an actual moment. With this, when I layered the flutes over everything is when I felt it started to come together. It was just one flute sample and I played it out on keys. I had the main loop first and I remember thinking it was corny. I used to name my beats back then and I called that one “Graduation Day” because it sounds like what you’d play at a graduation or something. So when I layered the flutes over it, remember being little like “Okay!” And you know how music hits you, it’s the same way when you’re making it because sometimes it just happens when you’re just mixing and matching sounds. I just kept building from there but those are the main portions.

What was the reaction like when other people heard it? What was Aesop’s?

Blockhead: I think Cryptic One and Alaska from Atoms Family was there too. And I forget who, but one of them was like “What’s this?” And both of those dudes are into abstract hip-hop stuff that’s more aggressive, kind of like pre-Jux, Company Flow stuff. And I was shocked that they liked this soft, pretty beat [laughs]. Then Aesop’s ears perked up and he was like “I’ll write to this” and I was like, “Oh Really?” Then he came back with the lyrics and I was like “Holy shit.”

What else if anything do you recall about the mechanics of the song? Talk about it more.

Blockhead: After Aesop did the verses, I could tell it was such an usual vibe for him to be on. And it came together even more when we added the “Yes yes y’all” vocal sample. We both liked the song but felt like it was corny and were like, ‘Let’s just go as aaallll the way with it and bring it home!” So I grabbed the sample, I don’t think I should say it because no one has guessed it ever, and I also don’t want to be sued for it. But it’s the [inaudible] song that was only on the cassette version and was called [redacted] and there’s a guy at the start of it. It was over-the-top “Yeah hip-hop!” kind of thing [laughs]. The sample didn’t even have anything to do with the song.

It’s so crazy to think that song is almost 20 years old. Tell us what goes through your head when you think of it now.

Blockhead: It’s impossible for me to hear old stuff and not pick it apart. The drums are wack, I immediately thought that and have been thinking that since I made it [laughs]. I think I sampled a rim shot off a D’Angelo record and I don’t think it really fits. The way the drums are patterned is silly. The beat is older than 18 is probably 20 years old because I made it a year or so before we used it. I can appreciate the sample layering and I think I did a good job on that part, but it’s hard to not listen and roll your eyes [laughs].

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