Since the final years of the 20th century, Aesop Rock has helped redefine the parameters of underground hip-hop.
Aesop Rock took the early millennium hip-hop scene by storm with innovative sensibilities on albums such as Float (2000), Labor Days (2001) and Bazooka Tooth (2003).
His dark, densely packed arrangements are built on samples from jazz, funk and rock, and his intricate, hyper-literate rhymes are latticed together with abstract imagery that ranges from the psychedelic to the surreal. He delivers all of this in a hard-as-nails declaratory style that flows like rich motor oil pumping through a high-tech engine.
Rock says he isn't sure how he arrived at his unique style.
"I'm not sure where it comes from," he said in a recent email interview. "Really, it's the same story as many MCs—it's the culmination of a bunch of influences over many years, mixed with my own take on things. I put the words together how they feel right to me."
Aesop Rock will perform Monday, Aug. 13, at the Rialto Theatre. Also on the bill will be rapper Rob Sonic and turntablist DJ Big Wiz—both frequent Aesop Rock collaborators—as well as Edison and Dark Time Sunshine.
Born Ian Bavitz in New York in 1976, Aesop Rock started playing piano and bass as a child but never really got serious about music until his older brother bought a four-track tape recorder.
"I would futz around with it," he says. "... It was always something I did on the side of what I was 'really' doing. It wasn't until a bit later that people started wanting to actually hear my music, and it sort of took over.
"I basically kept up with bass and trying to freestyle and write some rhymes through high school. It wasn't until I started making beats in about '96 that I feel I started recalling some of what I had learned on piano as a kid, and tapping into some of this musical know-how I had stored away without realizing. I guess it all connected over the years."
Because his music is so complex, you could listen to an Aesop Rock album a dozen times and still hear new things. In some ways, his music is like free jazz: If you allow it to play in the background, you can feel the vibe and energy, but it rewards close listening with intense pleasures, both intellectual and instinctual. It's like combining algebra and alchemy.
This results from long hours of meticulous writing, he says.
"I try to keep it layered up in a lot of ways, but my goal at the time is not to give the listener a task. It's just to keep it interesting for myself. I like keeping things somewhat detailed, not always 'dense,' although that can be a side effect.
"I just love putting words together that I think sound good next to each other, so once I have my subject matter figured out, it can be like a puzzle, trying to fit all the pieces in. I keep a certain standard in my head and won't allow myself to cut any corners within that, so it can get pretty OCD within the details of each rhyme."
That complexity can be a deterrent for some listeners, he says. "I read some article this year about me that kinda summed me up by saying the density is all there if you really want to dig in, but if you have no interest in that, I basically sound like Charlie Brown's teacher. I think that's probably pretty accurate."
Rock hooked up early on with DJ-producer El-P's groundbreaking Definitive Jux Records, but he occasionally produced or co-produced his own idiosyncratic music, even while collaborating with Cannibal Ox, Camp Lo and Mr. Lif.
In 2007, Aesop Rock composed All Day, a hypnotic, continuous 45-minute piece for Nike's Original Run series, and later that same year, he released the acclaimed None Shall Pass album, which featured El-P, Rob Sonic, Cage and John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats.
Five years have passed since that album, during which time Definitive Jux went on hiatus. Rock is back in record-store racks with the new Skelethon, which marks a new label (Rhymesayers) and a new direction.
"It's my first entirely self-produced album," Rock says. "Beyond that, I just tend to feel as the years pass (that) I have a slightly better grip on figuring out how to make what I actually hear in my head, versus just making what comes out. I guess time and some experience have led me to here, so by default, the most-recent material feels the most complete, or like 'me,' if that means anything."
Rock nevertheless has included some of his friends on the album, including Rob Sonic, DJ Big Wiz, garage-rocker Hanni El Khatib, singer Kimya Dawson and guitarist Allyson Baker (of the band Parchman Farm), who also happens to be Rock's wife.
He says he finally feels comfortable producing an entire album himself.
"I think I am figuring out how to match my writing to a sound that I feel goes with it. It's a ton of trial and error, but being able to write an album over music you specifically made for yourself is a pretty interesting experience. There's a higher level of attachment to the songs, I think, just by nature of what it is. I hope the music and words can ultimately complement each other."
After many years of underground and mainstream hip-hop worlds coexisting in parallel, Rock still isn't convinced the mainstream is progressing much.
"Some (mainstream rap) feels pretty cookie-cutter, while other stuff, in my opinion, will occasionally show signs of a love for the craft of rhyme-writing peeking through," he says.
"The main problem you get is that the overall sound gets tapered down into a very small box, comprised of what people feel will sell at any given moment. That kinda erases a lot of what each individual lyricist might bring to the table. The uniqueness gets brushed under the table, even though that's the part you'd think you want to preserve when 'discovering' a new talent. It makes people root for sameness instead of applauding something original."