- Aesop Rock's rhymes are the hip-hop equivalent of studying a slide under a microscope.
Both denials may come as a shock to fans of the Brooklyn MC, whose dense, polysyllabic verses have made him a hero of the hip-hop underground. But not only is Aesop a self-proclaimed "dumbass," who isn't ashamed to admit that he rarely reads books; he also says critics who have him pegged as a theorist instead of a realist have it all ass-backwards.
"Abstract art just never did it for me," says the 26-year-old Aesop, who studied art at Boston University when he was still known as Ian Bavitz, "and I don't think my own shit is all that abstract. When I write, I pay meticulous attention to detail -- maybe too much."
In fact, Aesop explains, his hyper-realistic scenarios are the hip-hop equivalent of studying a slide under a microscope -- placing reality in a different context.
"Maybe the situations I describe are a little weird, but I think the world is a funny place," the gravel-voiced rapper adds. "And to fully capture it, it probably sounds kind of strange."
That's how an innocent summer spent playing video games (and dropping acid) turns into a disorienting track like "The Greatest Pac-Man Victory Ever," from Aesop's new album Bazooka Tooth. A memoir of what he remembers as "the last summer I could really enjoy myself," it's a collection of personal recollections that reads like a subatomic diary.
Some fans inevitably find bits of themselves in those entries, which Aesop admits to finding a little strange. While flattered by those who glean deep meaning from his lyrics, "I get a little scared when people put me in this position of 'teaching the kids.' I don't wanna teach the fuckin' kids!" he says, with a laugh.
Yet while many listeners invariably focus on his tangled thickets of verbiage, it's the production of Bazooka Tooth that surprised many longtime fans. Mostly helmed by Aesop himself, rather than his old cohort Blockhead, the album features a dense and complex soundscape to match its rhymes, with left-field electronics and challenging beats that demand close attention.
"Before I even started on this album, I knew [producing] was what I wanted to do. It seemed like the right time," Aesop explains. "I played piano for six years, I've played bass for a long time. I felt like I kinda had this wasted talent," he adds, laughing. "But it's been a bit more nerve-wracking, too."
The whole project, in fact, reflects what Aesop describes as a "difficult time," following the release of his acclaimed 2001 album, Labor Days. Besides some family problems and temporary homelessness (he ended up crashing for a while on the couch of Def Jux label head El-P), Aesop also "happened to wake up, and the World Trade Center fell down. It was an overwhelming time, and that tied it up in a nice bow."
In addition, the last few years have seen an increasing amount of interest in the Def Jux label. Aesop confirms that there have been discussions about individual acts or even the whole label being snapped up by a major -- a prospect, he says, that makes him extremely uncomfortable.
"I don't have any interest in going bigger. Or if it does get bigger, I want to keep the same team," he says. "Massive amounts of fame is a pretty scary idea for me. Any success I get, I want it to be on my own terms, with my close friends on my side."
Is the uncompromising Bazooka Tooth the sound of an MC shying away from the brass ring, then? Aesop considers for a moment before rejecting the idea.
"I mean, you never want anything from outside to affect what you do. You don't wanna read the reviews and start sweating your style, but you do read the reviews," he admits. "At the same time, when I'm in the studio . . . the last thing on my mind is my fan base or my critics or anyone else."
However, those concerns do make themselves heard on Bazooka Tooth -- specifically, on the track "We're Famous," a message to the increasing numbers of Def Jux haters trying to knock the revered hip-hop indie off its perch atop the underground.
"It seems like with every piece of shrapnel we get, there's a couple of other people waiting to tell us why we shouldn't have the fans we've got," says Aesop, who seems more bemused than annoyed. "But everything we've achieved, we've achieved 100 percent on our own terms. I mean, we're not biting people, which is B-boy rule No. 1, and we have a team of cats that are totally different from each other.
"Hey, Ja Rule isn't dope -- but I don't complain that he has a lot of fans. So to those people hating, this is like 'Fuck you -- if you can't accept what we've done, maybe you should get your own shit together.'"
Aesop's goals reflect the strange position he's in, poised between the under- and overground: "I don't wanna be what I was, which is a nobody, with tapes in my bag at every fucking show, trying to prove to everyone that I can rap and that they should buy my tape. But I don't wanna be the poster boy for the new hip-hop generation either.
"I don't even know what I wanna do," he admits, laughing again. "I'm trying to save some money for this kid I might someday have -- but so far, it isn't working out so well. So I think I hope I can just do well enough to make another record."