An interview with Aesop Rock
Hip-hop artist Aesop Rock released first self-produced album, Skelethon, in 2012 and is now touring the Midwest. The Dayton City Paper posed ten questions to the rapper. Five were included in the print edition, but the full interview is available here.
Skelethon is your first self-produced album. How did your creative process evolve with that record?
I guess it all just got more and more introverted until it was just me vs me. I had some help from some fantastic musicians, as well as a couple beat-maker friends that would hear everything along the way to give their input, which was awesome. Ultimately I guess I just had a lot to get off my chest, and this was the way it made sense for me.
You had to deal with some pretty tough shit after 2008’s None Shall Pass. How did that stuff influence Skelethon, your 2012 album?
It’s all in there – It can’t not be. All the songs are kind of just a diary of what’s been going on, granted a little more cryptic and dressed up as a song, but it’s all life. You face these things, these walls, they seem impenetrable when they come, like there is nothing you can do that could out-maneuver this adversity. But then you realize that a day goes by, then a week, then a month, and you’re still alive. A year, still alive. It all just keeps going. Since I try to make my songs a pretty good reflection of where my head is at, it all gets worked into the mix.
You have cited punk rock influences like the Dead Kennedys and indie rock like The Mountain Goats. Who are you listening to now and what is it that you dig about it?
Yeah, I just like music. Could be the energy and in-your-faceness of a DK type band, or The MG’s who just write fantastic songs with lyrics that would (should) kick anyone’s ass. That Ka – Greif Pedigree record really felt nice to me this past year. I just went to the Quicksand reunion show at the Regency in SF, which was better than I could’ve asked for. I like Billy Woods’ LP from last year and look forward to his next – he’s a crazy lyricist with a really original rap style. Love me some Tom Waits – his most recent stayed in rotation all year. It’s hard to say why exactly we enjoy what we do. There is some “X” factor to it – that indefinable quality that makes you like something for some reason you could never put into words. That’s really what it’s all about.
In the past, you did some work with 826 Valencia, a group founded by author Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari that gets kids into writing and art. Are you still involved with them or doing other similar projects?
I did a benefit show for them and I think all the proceeds from the Felt 3 instrumentals went there. They are a great organization. Most of the people I used to know over there are no longer there, but I’d absolutely help them out if they ever needed. You wanna get young people psyched on art and writing? I’m down for that. I have no planned work with them, but I like to point people in their direction if they are looking for a cool foundation to help.
Can we expect more collaborations like Hail Mary Mallon [a collaboration with tourmates Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz] and you serving as producer on more albums?
Hail Mary Mallon 2 is in the works – we have about 7 demos. I produced a bunch, and Rob will, too. Me and Kimya Dawson’s group record as The Uncluded will come out this summer. It’s called Hokey Fright. Using the word “produced” with that project seems a little crazy, we just kinda got together and tried to make some nice music to fit what we were writing. I’d say it ended at about 50/50 on music and writing on all of that stuff. I’ve been quietly producing a project for Blueprint – we both only work on it when we have breaks from our other projects, but it’s coming along. I am a long time admirer of how that man can rap, so it’s really exciting. I can see that at some point soonish I’m gonna need to sit down put all my focus into finishing that. Right now its a bunch of floating demos – but I think they show a lot of promise, and Blueprint has a really great concept going on in the lyrics throughout. I have some work on the next Rob Sonic solo, as well as the next Grayskul record. And we’ll see whatever else happens. I don’t really shop myself around as a producer, but occasionally something will fall into my lap that just seems fun. Or I just make stuff when friends ask. I’d love to do more – if the right stuff comes along. I always thought it would feel great to produce a full length for a really dope newcomer, and help shape the sound of his/her debut. That seems like it would feel rewarding.
Living on the coasts, the Midwest must feel like a foreign country. Do you get off the tour bus much, and if so, what do you think of this part of the world?
We go van. I’ve never had a bus. Seems too…. bus-y. I love the Midwest, they’ve been hugely supportive of me since day one.
At shows last summer, you pulled up a volunteer from the audience for a haircut to go along with your song, “Racing Stripes.” Can we expect the same on this leg of the tour?
I originally felt we would retire that, but I asked on a few social networks if people wanted the haircut again, and well… they seem to like it! Ha. It’s fun for us and it’s a fun part of the show. I guess we’ll take it night by night. If someone wants a haircut – we got you. If nobody wants one, well, that’s fine too. That said, don’t be a pussy.
The videos for your album are unique: “Homemade Mummy” is basically just you guys fucking around in an arcade, while “ZZZ Top” features some bad-ass knife throwing. Where does the inspiration for this stuff come from?
All over. I like to make videos, but I’m no pro – so they turn out like Homemade Mummy – which is exactly as you described. When the opportunity to make ZZZ came up I just couldn’t say no. The concept was something I’d never get a chance to redo, so we went for it. Some videos get budgets and some don’t. I don’t need crazy expensive videos, but it’s nice to have a couple that you can actually spend a little on. Not a lot, a little. I also love having something like ZZZ or Cycles [To Gehenna] – which seem really clean and cinematic, and then coming with something like Mummy, which is way more obviously homemade and DIY. I love all that shit. I think we’re looking to do the same with the Uncluded [the upcoming collaboration with Kimya Dawson]. We already have at least 3 homemade vids, and are now looking into a couple songs where we can pay someone to do what they do best. In all aspects of art and music and video, etc., I can appreciate anything from a cheapy DIY vid done creatively to a million dollar masterpiece done creatively. I’d also like someone to give me a million dollars so I can test that concept on my own work.
You’ve called yourself a “part-time art nerd.” What kinds of art are you into now?
Is that a quote? Ha. I quite often find visual art(ists) to be as if not more inspiring than music(ians). Maybe because I’ve worked so much in music at this point – I dunno. I probably have more visual art friends than music friends. That’s really what I always wanted to do – draw. I did it for a long time, through college, but eventually music started working for me more. But I still get massive inspiration for my music through looking at art, and being close with a lot of great painters/illustrators. I see Coro a lot, and he’s insanely inspiring. Alex Pardee too. Travis Millard has been doing the Uncluded art and it has been so, so awesome to see it come together. He’s a pal too. I like Nate Frizzell’s paintings. Aryz, who did the Skelethon cover is absolutely insane. I’ve also been way psyched on that dude Nychos. I just like cool pictures.
Speaking of art, the video for “Zero-Dark-Thirty” features killer murals by Justin “Coro” Kaufman. How did you get hooked up with Coro?
Coro is an old pal. He was a friend of a friend whom I remember meeting backstage many years ago. He was a “check out my black book” type dude – but he had one of THOSE black books, where you open it and you’re like…. oh, I see, this is like … not a “sketch” book. hahha. Coro is a phenom. That guy can do anything. He also teaches oil painting portrait classes, runs an illustration firm in SF, creates his own art, graphic novels, I mean just non-stop. We’ve known each other for a while and always wanted to work together. I had him do a t-shirt for me once. Then when we did the Hail Mary Mallon album I finally had a whole project I could give to him and he really smashed it. When it came time for Zero Dark Thirty, the concept involved needing a muralist who could work fast and accurate and be confident enough to paint random shit out of his head for a day. Coro is fucking awesome. I’m gonna leave this here – http://coro36ink.com/ – and also say that everyone needs to see coro’s recent graphic novel Transient (http://transientman.com/). It is stunning.
Aesop Rock performs on Wednesday, Feb. 20 at The Thompson House, 24 E. 3rd Street Newport, KY. Also on the bill are Rob Sonic, DJ Big Wiz, and Busdriver. Admission is $17 for 21 & up. Doors at 7 p.m. For more information, visit thompsonhousenewport.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@daytoncitypaper.com