Aesop Rock has long been one of the most intricate, story telling rappers of our time, creating his own niche in independent hip hop with his music in the early part of this decade. One of the original artists on El-P’s Def Jux label, his previous albums Float and Labour Days are amongst a few that have endeared him to hip hop fans around the world as well as in his native New York.
Recently relocating to San Francisco, questions have been raised as to whether this will cause a shift in his style of rap. Combining his own production with the beats of the talented Blockhead, he gets ready to present us with his latest album.
Titled ‘None Shall Pass’, this is his first album for nearly two years, and documents the transitions that have occurred in his personal life in addition to his trademark snapshots of life from all viewpoints.
On an unusually warm day in the centre of London, Louis Soul met Aesop Rock at Cargo to find out what makes him tick and his hopes for the new release…
So first of all, what music do you listen to and what inspires you when you write raps?
I listen to a lot of hip hop, mainly older shit though. I just got a car recently so I have been buying CDs and playing them again, so I basically just bought a load of EPMD records and a bunch of older shit. I like a dude called Tom Waits, he does a lot of lyrical stuff I really like…so usually, I like anything I can get my hands on that I think is lyrically interesting, well written, and has a visual aspect about the writing.
So what’s your approach to writing a verse? Do you have to be a certain mind state or does it vary each time you sit down to write?
It usually varies, I mean I got a studio at the crib so i’ll do most of it there but it depends on if I’m doing the beat…I’ll usually start with a drum loop then write to it, then add to the beat and then write a little more and go back and forth. A lot of times I work with Blockhead, he would send me a bunch of beats and I’d just go through them, and then write to those, then we would add to them.
So I don’t really write a verse start to finish…I haven’t done that in a long time…I always have little notes I take with me when I want to write to try and piece everything together and figure out how to make it work.
” I don’t want to be preachy, I just try to subtract myself from the equation of writing and write about things as opposed to what I think about things …”
So when you work with Blockhead, is that the general format the creative process takes?
Yea that’s how it starts…then he’ll usually come through with a bunch of discs and we’ll record everything at my crib, lay it out and figure out a general arrangement for the song, then I’ll go and re-work some of the lyrics and we’ll both together re-work out some of the arrangements and maybe add a few more instruments or whatever…everything starts as a skeleton, I’ll have the main idea for the lyrics and he’ll have the main idea for the beat and then we’ll rework everything….and the once the beats redone I usually go over the lyrics again…mainly so I just have them memorized
So you moved from San Francisco to New York a little while ago, do you feel that this affected the way you write raps in any way? Were a lot of your rhymes from your NY days crafted from your surroundings?
Yeah maybe…but at the same time, I don’t think it was the difference that San Francisco made. I’m just more secluded and don’t know as many people there…which I kind of liked actually as it gave me a chance to cut myself off to a degree. All I have to do there is music, so I can wake up and start working and finish whenever I want, so there are fewer distractions. I still write about New York, I mean I lived there for the best part of 30 years, and I’ve only lived in San Francisco for little over a year. It’s cool though, it just makes me look at New York from the outside looking in…but the main thing that changed was the kind of seclusion I had…
Your style is generally seen as more conceptual and complex than other types of hip hop…is this a conscious effort on your behalf to stand out?
Erm…not necessarily against other types of hip hop, but yeah just to stand out I guess. I just want to do something that I think is interesting and maybe just hearing the same thing over and over makes me not want to go that route. Especially lately I just don’t want to be involved as far as talking about myself and talking about what’s mine…I don’t want to be preachy, I just try to subtract myself from the equation of writing and write about things as opposed to what I think about things.
I know that there is a high competitiveness involved in hip hop, and that’s how everyone gets involved, and the spirit of competition and braggadocio… which is dope… and a dope way of trying to sharpen up…but you hit a wall with that kind of stuff and there’s only so many times you can say you’re the best… and some people just run it in to the dirt. There has to be some sort of forward movement to it…to even keep myself excited let alone the fans…I try to keep my fans interested and make sure I don’t get bored, so at this point it’s not about talking about myself too much.
Do you ever worry that keeping to that style is going straight over some peoples’ heads?
It probably does but I don’t really worry about it, I don’t really think about fans or listeners when I do it. First and foremost I just have to please myself and my expectations…then after that its my family and crew and after that it’s the fans…if I worry about it, I’m just going to water something down for the wrong reasons, if someone doesn’t get it its not really my problem.
One of your tunes ‘No Regrets’, is a personal favourite of mine, was there anything in particular that inspired you to write it?
I don’t know what it was that inspired me, but I wanted to write a real linear…almost Slick Rick style story, something that had a definite beginning, middle and end.
I just liked the idea of this chick that grew up knowing what she wanted and not being affected by anything else…it’s kind of like about being able to be happy about what you’re doing rather than running chasing humungous goals your whole life and never quite making it.
I guess its just like you always hope you can do what you want to do, and enjoy it…it’s and its so rare that you get to do that…even me, I have to remind myself that actually, I’ve been living off music for a lot of years now and doing ok. But I don’t think that everyday, I have to be reminded or I get lost in how much shit that has to be done and you get stressed out or some shit. So just that idea of being discontent really…
” I don’t think it was the difference that San Francisco made…I’m just more secluded there …”
You’ve been on Def Jux for a big part of your career, what is it about the label that you think suits you?
At this point, it’s like a comfort thing…I don’t like to run around and change up my whole shit because I don’t want to slow down my progress. I think running around slows you down more than it will help. People do it because they think it’s the best move at the time. I’ve been at Def Jux since it started and any bumps they have had along the way I’ve kind of rode it out, for the most part they’ve done good by me and visa versa…so in my view if it aint broke don’t fix it. All I want to do is be in a situation where I’m not bothered and I can just be left alone to make my music. I know how they work and they know me and there’s no… ‘labelness’ to it and I get the freedom that they trust that I will put out something good.
In terms of your own productions, how well you do think that has gone down?
Yeah, its been a long time now…I get mixed responses but I don’t really care, I go for a certain sound, some people like it some people don’t…I got that Nike gig earlier this year which was all production so…
How did that come about?
They just called my manager and approached me; they were fans, so it just kind of fell into place really. I love producing and its something I’ve been doing a long time, I try to do something different each time and try not to have one sound…I don’t want to anyway
” I’ve always liked Slick Rick…just because to me he’s one of the most timeless …”
I read that you recently got married, has that affected your outlook in terms of staying the rap game?
No, I mean, I’ll stay in the game until the game kicks me out…it helps me to be more stable, it’s like a big anchor in my life. Its really weird how much it grounds you to a degree…at least in a successful marriage…which so far I have going on!
It seems like it adds to that ‘homebase’ kind of feeling…I feel like I have a home to go to and it feels like I have someone at my side at all times…when I’m fucking up and when I’m doing good. So in that sense I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time and it adds to that…being able to be secluded without being bored…I’m not like unhappy when I’m at home
Cool, just a quick couple of last questions…do you have a favourite MC at all?
I don’t know if I have a favourite…I’ve always liked Slick Rick…just because to me he’s one of the most timeless. You can hear a verse now that he wrote a long time ago and it doesn’t sound dated …where as there’s a lot of old skool motherfuckers…who are still dope but you’ll be able to tell when they wrote the verse but that isn’t the case with Slick Rick
Your new album is due out 28th August, what are your plans after you’ve put it out? Are you planning to tour?
Yeah we got a big U.S. tour in the fall and I think we are coming to the UK in December and all over Europe and Australia in January…so yeah that for about 4-5 months then i’ll get back in the studio and do as much as I possibly can before I get old and die!
‘None Shall Pass‘ is out late August on Def Jux. check the links below…
– Louis Soul