Graffiti or Vermeer?
An interview with Aesop Rock
Armed with a low-slung baritone and predatory intellect, Aesop Rock is widely regarded as revolutionary in independent hip-hop. While scrabble-worthy wordplay and homespun production that alternately skitters and drones have earned him legions of followers, detractors claim his lyrics border on a Dadaist randomness, devoid of significant meaning. In the midst of the debate, his previous releases—Float, Labor Days, Bazooka Tooth, and Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives, Danger, Fire and Knives—are reshaping the landscape of hip-hop’s underground. Perhaps most impressive is the manner in which he’s forged success, on his own terms on the outskirts of hip-hop’s commercialized arena. Wary of the pitfalls associated with the industry’s fast lane, Aesop Rock has managed to be prolific without the benefits of major label backing.
Guernica spoke with Aesop Rock this summer.
[Interview by Joseph DiPalo]
Guernica: A lot’s been made of your classical art background. Is that why you often pay homage in your songs to Rembrandt and “graffiti bombers?”
Aesop Rock: When I was young I was always drawing and doing art. Then I started taking classes at night, drawing figures with perfect proportions, painting, that sort of stuff. I was also into hip-hop music and pretty into graffiti - the idea of it. I’d go from Long Island to the city just to snap pictures … it was very technical and hard to get good at because it was illegal. I ended up going to B.U. for the arts, which was a pretty traditional training, the kind where they’ll completely break you down just to rebuild you. Nowadays you’ll see this new breed of artist shown in galleries and their work has elements of both, the traditional and the streets. I’m a fan of both sides. At school, it’s beat into your head that unless it’s a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, it’s crap. But at the same time, I was looking at graffiti and really kind of admiring it.
Guernica: If the purest art is generally made on the fringes, now that the music underground is sort of slowly funneling into the mainstream, where do you see your genre going? Is there a next movement? Who do you see as being form breakers?
Aesop Rock: To be honest, I don’t really know. I think the best way to successfully be a part of a 'scene' or 'movement' is to keep your mouth shut and your head in the dirt. I truly don’t know who's next, or who's now, or where hip hop stands as a culture or if everything is blurring … I’ve been called every name under the sun, categorized every which way possible, and every time I think I have some idea of what's 'cool' in the public eye I quickly get proved wrong. So I stay out of it. … I also think the best way to preserve any culture is probably to not question where it's going everyday. Just make something, maybe somebody will like it. If they don't, it doesn't mean it’s not what it is.
Guernica: So you feel that movements should happen organically, and that the desire to label things in some way compromises the process. That maybe a movement is best served by staying out of its way.
Aesop Rock: I do feel that way. Perhaps because hip-hop is consistently the most unsure-of-itself genre. Are your clothes hip-hop? Is hip-hop dead? Those shoes aren’t hip-hop, etc. Beyond that, I really hate when artists find a degree of success and immediately place themselves on a pedestal to be worshiped, or to preach their word because they now have some attention. It's the old bait and switch. Reeling people in with your art, then pressing on them with some completely unrelated personal agenda. Artists should stick to art. Cultures don’t begin because people sit around and say, "let's start a culture”.
“I think the best way to successfully be a part of a 'scene' or 'movement' is to keep your mouth shut and your head in the dirt.”
They begin because intelligent people and the true artists feel a need to think outside every box in existence at the time. It's one thing when media outlets begin critiquing and labeling these cultural pockets, but it's totally different when artists themselves get involved in this. The only true answer to any problem you find with a culture you’re a part of is to use your craft to make art in a manner you consider 'right' or 'true'. It seems people would rather talk about the culture, the music, its problems, its influences on society, than actually stick to the one thing that made this all fun and interesting in the first place: the actual art. Let the media bash it all they want, but as an artist, don’t become a part of it.
Guernica: In your work, you often refer to yourself as an earthworm, a metaphor for the underground. With the amount of attention you’ve garnered in the past few years, do you still consider yourself subterranean?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I think so. Because that’s always been my mentality, I’ve always had this pretty grassroots method. The few record labels that approached me early on, I didn’t even take the meetings with them. I knew if I was going to put out my material, I’d have to make sure it went the right way and that I never lost control of the music. I’m still doing it all from my living room so the process hasn’t changed that much for me. I guess my name is out there a little more, but it’s hard for me to judge how much. I kind of just keep doing what I’ve been doing and see how it’s gonna pan out, you know? (laughs)
Guernica: A lot of artists would kill for that kind of autonomy.
Aesop Rock: That’s kind of all I ever wanted, to do what I like to do and have an outlet for it. Years later, I’m still at my house recording on this mad scientist looking setup with wires everywhere. I think it was put in perspective for me one time when the New York Times did this piece on home recording, and there was a picture of me sitting in my studio, which was a wreck, and then next to it was a picture of Moby sitting at home in his studio, this pristine sterile environment with like 900 synthesizers that looked like they’d been dusted off everyday. (laughs) To each his own, I guess. This is how I’ve been doing music forever, just figuring it out as I go along. And I’ve been put in a situation where everyone’s like, yeah, keep doing what you want to do. So I can’t really argue with that.
Guernica: There are communities of people who consider what you do to be literature or poetry. Spin called you the “David Foster Wallace for the backpack set.” How does all of that sit with you?
Aesop Rock: You know, I didn’t go to school for this stuff. It wasn’t like I was going to be giving out writing on paper for someone else to analyze. Those weren’t the things that turned me on. I was writing on paper so I could rap it over music. That was my form and how it was going to be delivered. ... There have been times where I’ll donate lyrics to a book or something and it’s like, you can put this in there but it’s not a poem, it’s lyrics to a song. In my opinion, there’s somewhat of a difference. I feel like literature might be more the shi-shi gallery and I’m more a graffiti guy. People might say that what I do is poetic, and it’s cool, I appreciate that, but it’s somewhat frightening. Because now you hold this label of being a poet or a writer and I don’t know if I'm qualified to do that properly.
Guernica: And then there are people who find your style random and overwhelming, almost in the same way older generations can be overwhelmed by today’s technologies, the streaming digital world. Is it fair to say your sound is a product of the information era?
Aesop Rock: Yeah, I see what you’re getting at. It’s all about where you get your stimulation from. Some people get it reading. I always thought movies, you know, moving imagery and visual stuff was really interesting and it made me want to write for some reason. And yeah, the technology is out of control, on so many levels, from what Sony is able to do with a radio to what the U.S. is able to do with missiles.
"Cultures don’t begin because people sit around and say, 'let's start a culture.'"
To a degree, I spit back at it and to a degree I’m a product of it. I have this big love-hate relationship with it all. It kind of gets this whole bad rap, the world of movies and television, that it’s not as sincere as a painting or a song or a book. But in my opinion it’s just as relevant and it was majorly relevant to my growing up. I don’t want to say I was raised by television but to a degree I was. I was around for the dawn of video games and have seen everything progress from there.
Guernica: But why is there such a divide between the people who hear your material? How is that some say what you’ve been able to do is genius while others think your wordplay is completely random and nonsensical. Why is your style met with such mixed reactions?
Aesop Rock: It’s probably because it’s not the most accessible music in the world. It may pose a slight challenge to the listener beyond your average pop song. I'm no genius by a long shot, but these songs are not nonsensical, that's pretty preposterous. I'd have to be a genius to pull this many nonsensical records over people's eyes. It's not exactly fast food but when people pretend I'm just spewing non-sequiturs and gibberish I can’t help but think they simply haven’t listened and are regurgitating some rumor they’ve heard about me. Even if it's not laid out in perfect sentences—is any rap?—you’d have to be an idiot to not at least grasp a few things from these songs. Or have had no interest in pulling anything from them in the first place.
Guernica: So who do you think your audience is? Is it the youth of the underprivileged communities, as once was the case with rap, or is it more the art school intelligentsia? A combination of both?
Aesop Rock: I don't necessarily aim for one group, though if those are my choices then I'd have to say it's most likely more of the latter. … I would love for my fan base to include all types, and it definitely does, but there's always room for more diversity. I guess I always sort of picture myself telling stories to a younger me, probably because I know how that guy thinks, I can warn him of traps I fell into, I can applaud his stubbornness, etc. It makes me feel good if I can turn around and give back to the cultures that I felt were responsible for shaping me. So when those art school kids show up at my shows I know exactly why they are there. My entire approach to writing lyrics these days is based around a vision of being the old man who eats beans out of a can and tells folk tales around a fire to the wide-eyed youth, tall tale style. So my target audience is that youth, and old people with similar stories.
Guernica: You take on a lot of big themes in your writing. The institution of labor, prescription drugs or, on a track like Holy Smokes, organized religion. Do you sit down to write with a particular topic in mind or is it something that just sort of leaks into your process?
Aesop Rock: I never want to be that guy who sits in the studio and thinks ‘what are fans gonna want from me?’ So if I do something like Holy Smokes (a song that critically examines the Christian Right) I’m not doing it to make some big preachy statement. It’s more like I grew up and had to go to church every Sunday. My parents were churchgoers and their families even more so. It was something I lived through that, once I got old enough to have my own opinions, seemed really weird to me. I don’t think that song is necessarily offensive but it’s definitely a topic under a bit of scrutiny and has been for a long time. It just played a prevalent enough part of my life that I felt like it deserved a song at least. … A song like that is autobiographical and it’s coming out because it’s time to come out. Those experiences are what built me. It’s a chapter of my life.
Guernica: That’s a chapter of your life. But as far as the intermingling of art and politics is concerned, do you consider yourself a political artist? What should the artist’s role be? Should they help shape the discussion?
Aesop Rock: The artist's role in politics is whatever he or she makes it. I’ve tried to, and still try to, avoid a ton of political subject matter. I definitely touch on it, but not in a way where I’m telling somebody what to believe or what’s right and wrong. I'd actually like to learn to talk about it less than I already do. I prefer the idea of music as an escape from that, rather than an opportunity to announce one's political stance. You hear that all day, on TV or you go out to get food and people are talking about Iraq, get coffee and people are arguing Bush. I get it, it's everywhere, it's important. But when I was young, music was my escape from everything stressful, be it family or school or the news. I’m doing my best to find that again, creating an alternative mood or place to escape to for the length of a record.
Guernica: Meanwhile, your work is often satirical, but there seems to be an almost hellish apocalyptic theme to a lot of it.
Aesop Rock: I guess that’s kind of my go-to scenery, this wasteland-scape, sci-fi thing. I paint the environment as an exaggerated version of what it is. It’s not that inconceivable to envision New York City as this city that could grow into some weird futuristic monstrous Robocop land. That being said, if you use that exaggerated version of the city as a basis or a springboard, then whatever you talk about has to take place in the same exaggerated environment and has to be talked about in warped-out ways. … It’s not hard to take a risk in rap music creatively. So much is just standard that it’s pretty simple to step outside that box by not even going that far. So, me painting the landscape in a certain way, apocalyptical, it’s kind of like, hey, I'm allowed to and you’re not doing it so what the fuck.
Aesop Rock’s latest record, None Shall Pass, was released August 28th. You can visit his myspace page HERE.