Music critics and rap fans alike have labeled Aesop Rock too verbose for his own good, accusing the rapper of writing nonsensical bars that require the aid of a dictionary. It’s true that with an Aesop song, you often have to listen over and over and over again to make sense of the words he’s strung together — and then listen again to unpack the message. His wordiness is even proven: According to a May 2014 study published by data scientist Matt Daniels — wherein he compares the vocabularies of 85 rappers — Aesop does indeed have the biggest vocabulary in hip-hop.
“I think I’ve always been a kid that, like, when I heard a word that I didn’t know, I looked it up,” Aesop says. “When I write stuff, I want it to be unique….I just like hearing words, I like hearing how they fit together. There’s a million little things that you can tweak within the English language that will really put a lot of weight on different aspects of your sentences and different aspects of your rhymes and lyrics. It’s part of the deal to me; it’s part of what I like about it.”
Regardless of your opinion on Aesop’s lexicon, the New York rapper has been an indie staple since 1997, when he self-released his first offering, Music for Earthworms. Almost twenty years hence, and after over a dozen solo projects and collaborations, he’s still a brazen leader in the underground scene, and continues to be lauded as a one-of-a-kind MC and producer.
Even though Aesop continues to be immensely popular, he still manages to stay out of the public eye and keep to himself, something he does to save his sanity. “I don’t really feel like I’m a part of [hip-hop], I guess, as much as I actually am. In order for me to operate and move forward, I just have to tell myself I’m on the outskirts of all of this,” Aesop says. “There’s always so many phases that come and go, and really it’s tastemakers deeming what’s cool right now. It’s way easier for me to say, ‘You know what? I’m just not cool. Y’all can have that shit and I’ll be over here doing what I do.’ I don’t really give a shit about trying to keep up with [current music]. That’s why I shut down and make songs and hopefully that’s enough.”
Aesop sees huge differences between the hip-hop scene from which he emerged and the current climate. Back then, there was a real line in the sand between what was indie and what was mainstream; indie’s spirit exuded an us-versus-them mentality, which he advocates. For him, indie rappers were proud of being independent, of going against the grain and having an underground sound. Aesop was an underdog and proud of it, as most indie rappers were back then. But now, the internet has leveled the playing field, and because of that, the boundaries in the genre are blurring. Aesop just tries to stick to his own lane.
“With music, you sort of make your own goal. It really just becomes a you-versus-you,” he says. “You’re just exploring what you can do, whatever feels right at the time. You go deeper into that. It’s always little personal goals that you attack. It becomes a way more personal mission. Shutting off [current culture] is helpful, and I think I’ve done a lot of that, shutting down of what’s cool right now and what’s not. It’s been a mission to keep myself entertained and then I put it out there and hope anyone else will listen to it, too.”
On the next page: “It’s definitely a lot to stomach and it’s not something that you’ll get on one listen.”
Even though he’s now signed to Rhymesayers Entertainment, Aesop’s been able to preserve the same indie ethos he’s had for years: He still records and produces at home, including the first album he released on Rhymesayers in 2012, Skelethon, which was also his first entirely self-produced album.
He’s always working toward his next solo album, but he’s recently been concentrating on collaborative projects. In 2013, he collaborated with Kimya Dawson to release Hokey Fright under the name the Uncluded. “It just felt like nice and fun [working with Kimya] because even though the solo stuff is fun, once you get too in over your head, it can become a chore sometimes — you set up all these rules for yourself to adhere to that don’t even really matter in the long run, but all the stuff that makes doing the solo record a little bit exhausting,” Aesop says. “The Kimya thing popped up and I was like, ‘This is very easy and feels really natural.’ A lot of all that was liberating and freeing for both of us, from the way the songs were written to the recording process.”
With Hokey Fright, Aesop’s cadence maintains that same urgency but is paired with the soft tonalities of Kimya’s voice. At first, Aesop’s deep register juxtaposed with Kimya’s folksiness might not make sense. A deeper listen confirms that both artists are on the periphery of their genres, where they don’t quite fit into the mainstream. Kimya is often described as anti-folk, while Aesop is underground rap at its finest. The name the Uncluded originates from Michael Bernard Loggins’s book Imaginationally: Michael’s Lovable Fun of Dictionaries; the word is defined as keeping things that you don’t appreciate out of your life. Sounds like “uncluded” pretty much speaks to Aesop’s mindset.
For Aesop, working with Hail Mary Mallon comrade Rob Sonic exercises another part of his musical brain. The duo released their second full-length, Bestiary, in 2014. True to form, Aesop’s role is to make his part sound tense and vital, while Sonic lightens the mood and makes it all seem less effortless; Bestiary on the whole is a meditation on the duo rapping their asses off. Even the name Bestiary was something they landed on randomly, a mythical term for “a compendium of animals or beasts — kind of a collection, a book that would gather beasts together and tell you about them. The name just popped out of one of our mouths and I was like, ‘This is great, just a collection of animals.’ ”
Now, for Aesop, music is a compulsive habit that he can’t knock. Songwriting is his favorite aspect, though he hesitates to call himself a writer. He feels like what he pens isn’t literary enough.
“Writing…is all I do,” he says. “I don’t really feel like I have a choice at this point. When I’m stressed out about life, I go and write about music, and if I’m not stressed out, I still go and write. I take it seriously because it is all I really have these days. It means a lot to me to learn and improve, to feel like I’m moving forward. But it is kind of like an OCD scenario where I just have to get up and do it.”
Aesop’s wordplay is dense, which really does keep his music out of reach for some. But for Aesop, no fucks are given. He jokes, “I don’t even know that I would listen to me. At this point, it’s just kind of what I do and it’s what gets me off and it’s what I get excited about. It’s definitely a lot to stomach and it’s not something that you’ll get on one listen. Sometimes some of my biggest fans still don’t know what the fuck I’m saying half the time. I don’t really have an interest in changing it.”
Aesop Rock is currently on the road with Rob Sonic and Homeboy Sandman. Catch them at the Gramercy Theatre on Saturday, February 14.