For the rest of us, language flows on a nonlinear yet generally straightforward neural pathway before it reaches our tongues, picking up a few personal significances and even trace bits of wit if we're lucky. Every so often, though, a few people start receiving Valis-like transmissions from somewhere, which act possibly as a skeleton key to the mysteries of existence itself. Sometimes, like James Joyce or Philip K. Dick, they write books, or like Bob Dylan, they write folk songs. And if they're Ian Bavitz, they spit rhymes under the name Aesop Rock.
It all outlines a puzzle, one with many answers.
But Aesop does not sound like one to play around outside his beloved Xbox and PlayStation games. For after 10 years of slaving away in New York City with a million other MCs looking for cheese, Aesop has now become enshrined as an independent hero in an age where rap sets the scene alongside rock for a nation of millions. His connection with taste-maker hip-hop label Definitive Jux and his cryptic and poetic lyrical flow have earned him critical acclaim and a worldwide following that debates and critiques and listens very closely to where he might go next. According to Aesop, it's all reality. It's just his reality.
Aesop Rock performs November 24 at Gypsy Tea Room, with Mr. Lif, C-Rayz Walz and DJ Fakts One.
"I went to [art] school for painting, and I was painting for a few years after I graduated," he begins. "I was just doing really large, pretty realistic portraits, basically dead-on symmetrical portraits of people--pretty big, like 6 feet square. I do a lot of ultra-realistic shit when I'm painting, and that's exactly what I think I do in music."
Certainly enough, if hip-hop is "the Black CNN"--as Chuck D said--Aesop has delivered some stellar reporting from the front line, from 1999's "6B Panorama," which exhaustively documents New York from the perspective of Aesop's fire escape, to this year's "11:35," which describes several scenarios all taking place at the same place during January 21 of this year. But over the years, Aesop has also proved himself far too willful and eccentric to be read like some newspaper article.
"Diamond cutter spine/Armadillo armored that bends around the plates/Bugs in a beard/Ebony in the lungpiece/Bricks in the tin/Bazooka in the tooth that he's flashing at your friends." That's the line that kicks off the title track from Aesop's latest joint, Bazooka Tooth. And reality becomes further obscured from there, with references to circus lore, pop culture and whatever pieces of information happen to be in Aesop's way. It's bizarre enough not to yield to any readily discernible interpretation, yet intriguing enough to keep people listening--and guessing at what it means.
So for the intrepid, here are a few clues:
1) Taking a page from Eminem, Aesop has developed the character Bazooka Tooth to deal with a few personal demons brought on by underground fame. "Bazooka Tooth is...just kind of an alter ego superhero kind of character who just gets stressed out and has a gun in his mouth. That's about it. And there's all these other superpowers involved." As Aesop says on "Freeze," "They say, 'What's up with the name?'/I say, 'You all made Bazooka Tooth/I was about to ask the same.'" Aesop explains, "So when I say, yo, about Bazooka Tooth, I was about to ask you the same, [I mean] you're the motherfuckers that stressed me out."
Throughout Bazooka Tooth, Aesop chafes at the pressures placed upon him by the media and the public, both of which project agendas and expectations on him that he as a person might not be able to fulfill. He sounds resigned, if slightly uncomfortable, with the changes it has brought to his life. "It's a strange position to be in, as far as, like, not only the fact that I'm trying to live off the artwork or work that is personal, and at the same time, how you get the money for that is racing around and smiling for people and then going all over the country and all over other countries and selling the record, you know what I mean? You think of, like, Justin Timberlake. He does a three-hour performance every night, and it's like, wow, I don't know how that guy does it? 'Cause I couldn't do that shit. I'm not a celebrity or anything. But it is getting bigger each time, so it gets a little more stressful and weird every time."
2) As most who have seen the Definitive Jux DVD Revenge of the Robots know, many of the people around Aesop believe we will see the end of the world within our lifetimes--if not in this decade. Seeing two airplanes crash into the Twin Towers can have this effect on people, apparently. "Breaker 1-9/9-11-0-1 witness/Maybe you don't get this," Aesop declares on "N.Y. Electric," and explains the situation further. "I wanted to directly reflect the New York environment in the last two years, which has been a little bit weird, and just directly reflect some of the things that I've been going through in combination with the grittiness of the city itself."
Aesop prefers merely to document rather than solve the problems around him, since he figures "we're all gonna die anyway" in whatever shape or form the apocalypse takes. Tracks such as "Babies With Guns" show him as firmly entrenched in The Culture of Fear author Barry Glassner wrote about, good-naturedly waiting for the next Nike to drop. Discussing the line "Guns or cameras/One of y'all's gonna shoot me" at the beginning of "Easy," Aesop explains, "[As far as] a camera, I mean, I do these interviews and photo shoots a couple times a week, and as far as being shot by a gun, if you ever watch the news, then you know that every 15-year-old kid on the block's got a gun at this point, plus there's a war. That's definitely not that far of a stretch."
3) Since the deaths and martyrdom of Tupac and Biggie, fame in hip-hop has been a double-edged sword that can slay its superstars. The still-unsolved death of Jam Master Jay casts a shadow over the album, and Aesop solemnly acknowledges the scars it's left on him. "There's been several major tragedies in rap history since it started. This just kind of took the cake for me. When a pioneer falls, it's a little bit different, and it kind of affected me differently. Literally, the first rap shit I probably ever heard was my brother giving me, like, Run-DMC tapes in fourth grade or something."
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For an artist often described by the media as paranoid, he doesn't feel like his life is threatened in any serious way by his fame. But Aesop does fit the profile of other music icons, such as Jim Morrison, Captain Beefheart or Nick Drake, who gained their legend through a moody and tragic charisma. He freely admits his distaste of touring.
"Performing is fine. I don't like being away from home for a long period of time. I don't like to do the same songs every night for a week. I just...it's boring and tiring and frustrating basically." But he refuses to elaborate further on physical and emotional issues he only begins to discuss on Revenge of the Robots DVD before label head El-P and his friends arrive to provide the necessary distraction.
Such is the puzzle Aesop presents to the listener in 2003.
All one can say is that Aesop Rock is ready for the next installment. Most likely, he'll continue with the self-production he forged ahead with on this LP. All one knows is that it will challenge, confuse and prepare the hip-hop nation for life in the coming End Times. He concludes, "I never really know where it's going. Eventually, it's somewhere where it wasn't. I don't have much plans other than really needing to get home and work on shit. I don't really know what that means until I'm actually home working, so I try and keep busy and try and keep writing. I don't have any exact idea of what I'm gonna do next, but I know I just need to do [it], whatever it is."