An Interview With Aesop Rock

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Ian Matthias Bavitz (AKA Aesop Rock) is a man who hardly needs an introduction.

As one of the pioneering forces behind the seminal Def Jux label, Aesop Rock has practically redefined hip-hop for a whole generation by elevating the insular, cultish intelligence of the genre and making it naked and indisputable.

To provide a reference, data scientist Matt Daniels compared Aesop Rock's lyrics to the first 35,000 words of Herman Melville's Moby Dick and 35,000 words of Shakespeare and concluded that Aesop Rock was the most verbose of the bunch.

Currently, Aesop Rock is touring behind Bestiary, his new album with DJ Big Whiz and Rob Sonic (released under the moniker Hail Mary Mallon).

He spoke to Empty Lighthouse via e-mail about that album, being seen as more than just that "word-guy", and the supposed "beef" between him and former Def Jux head El-P. Read the full exchange below.

Q: Thanks so much for speaking with us today! How has the tour been treating you?

No problem. So far so good. We have a little break coming up in a few days which I'm sure everyone is looking forward to, but all in all everything has been great. Some nice folks in this van.

Q: What's up with the bowling alley/fundraiser themes on Bestiary?

Oh it just kinda happened. I feel like during the making of any record there is a time when you think of some dumb theme that could tie it together, but ultimately pass on the idea.

We kinda just thought of it and jumped in the booth to bang out the skits, and a child was born. Also I guess it helps show that we don't take ourselves overly serious.

Q: By this time, the name Aesop Rock is canonical; you've been near-unanimously identified as the artist to listen to within this loosely-defined avant-garde-ish offshoot of underground hip-hop. Do you ever wish there was less emphasis on things like how extensive your vocabulary is and the technical/abstract elements of your delivery? It just seems that type of attention always trumps some of the more interesting characteristics of your music: you don't really rap "at" us and you touch on stuff that's still kind-of taboo in hip-hop like introversion and anxiety.

To a lot of listeners, Aesop Rock pioneered the idea that the default setting of chest-thumping bravado in hip-hop, while fun, is also kind of bullshitty.

It's just a little strange there's so much noise about your music being too abstract or that it doesn't make sense when it has clearly resonated with a lot of people and isn't even terribly inaccessible.

Did you see this type of categorization coming when you were starting out?

I never really saw it coming, but I do know what you mean. The vocabulary stuff has come up more lately with that rapper-vocab study that came out last year- which on one hand is really neat to see, and on the other hand compares rappers by using something other than rapping, which makes it all feel a bit weird. But yea I do think much of the nuances of what I try to do are lost in the wordiness. I mean I have to take the blame partly - a lot of this stuff is just very dense and can be a hard egg to crack for some people. It's not really a casual listen; you're either engaged fully or you're being annoyed.

Some people just flat-out are not into that kinda thing and that's fine. I don't even know if I would listen to me if I wasn't me, but if someone thinks it's "nonsense" they can fuck right off.

I do wish people saw me as more than word-guy, but im really just happy anyone listens at all. Ultimately I do what I do, and people can take or leave it.

Q: There's a definite sense that you've been trying to challenge yourself on all of your post-Def Jux material.

Is there anything about Def Jux's hiatus that forced you out of your comfort zone? Or is it just coincidental? Are you still in touch with El-P?

I'd like to think I always challenged myself, and these are all just phases I go through. I kinda just take my surroundings and work with it.

It's totally possible that leaving NY in 05 really shook me into some other direction, but to me it always feels like a clear step from whatever I did last, and I never really approach an album with a "what-do-I-want-to-do-now" attitude - its more like I work on music all the time, and whatever comes out comes out.

My life was way different in the Jux days, and I have a ton of fond memories from those years. It seemed a lot of what we were all doing at the time was just being together, and making songs from the p.o.v. of a solid NY rap crew. Once all that dissipated, I didn't really have any desire to join a new crew, or even really rap about any of that stuff for awhile. I just wanted to be alone and see what happened, and that's kinda still where I'm at.

El and I are fine. People seem to always want to know the "story" of what happened at the end of all that - but to be honest it's not really a story for anyone. These are people that were my best friends, and what's gossip to some is my actual life that I gotta deal with every day.

I just prefer to keep my dialog with the fans about my music. I got love for everyone.

Q: You've been producing for awhile now, but have been way more productive on that front in the past couple of years. Do you see yourself in any Felt-type situations in the future where your contributions are solely musical?

I produced a project for Blueprint that will come out this year. I've given a couple beats to people here and there, but I'm pretty bad at selling myself as a producer. I'm also not exactly in demand as a producer. If I'm honest I don't think I'm a very good producer. I do think I did a good job producing Skelethon, and I have some good beats on my resume, but I don't really consider myself a good "producer".

To me that's someone who can sit in a room with an artist and make a song on any given day. I make many, many beats over a long period of time before finding anything I think is even acceptable for public consumption.

It's a slow process for me, a ton of trial and error, and not something I feel confident enough about to be out there pushing beats on people.

I released a beat tape in 2014 and I'll probably continue with installments of that.

If I ever found someone I really connected with that wanted me to produce a full album, I would attempt to make it work, but I mostly just do it for myself.

Q: I've read in previous interviews that you're a Tom Waits fan. Have you had a chance to check out the Aesop Waits mash-up?

I checked one song briefly, but did not really get a chance to dig in. I'm flattered that anyone would make it.

I honestly just didn't wanna listen to myself. I love tom waits and I think he should let me sample him for free forever.

Q: You've stated before that you rarely read novels, but are you going to give John Darnielle's book a chance?

Ha well... It's sitting at my house. I like to think ill read it. I absolutely love john and his lyrics have been an enormous inspiration to me. A couple of my friends have written books that I tell myself I will read, but at the end of the day reading a novel, for me, is just not gonna hold my attention.

Even if I absolutely adore the subject matter and writing, it's just not the medium I get the most out of. I don't retain the info.

I forget the beginning of the page by the time
I'm at the end of it. People seem to be genuinely offended when I say that, but I can't really control what sinks in and how.

Q: Thanks again for your time! Feel free to add anything.

I appreciate it!

Aesop Rock will be appearing Sunday, February 15th at The Outerspace Ballroom in Hamden, CT:

Sun, Feb 15th.
Outerspace: The Ballroom (295 Treadwell St.)
Bestiary Tour feat Aesop Rock w/ Rob Sonic & DJ Abilities
plus special guests Homeboy Sandman, DJ Sosa and Ceschi
21+ // $20 adv // Doors 8pm

Check out Hail Mary Mallon at Rhymesayers

Photo credit: Chrissy Piper