Interview by Cara Soronen
Aesop Rock is a lyricist who rhymes about life as it is actually
lived, in all its twisted complexity. His lyrics are packed full
with metaphors and intellect. Although you may not hear Aesop on
Hot 97 anytime soon, his last album, Labor Days,
combined melodic head-bopping tracks with a personal-is-political
message and earned him a strong fan base and credibility as one
of hip hop’s top current MCs. He is now one of the leading
artists on the ever-growing and never-dissapointing Def Jux roster.
As hip hop’s most successful independent label, Definitive
Jux, started by former Company Flow artist El-P, continues to release
album after album filled with the most intelligent lyrics and appealing
beats around today. The Def Jux family includes underground monumentals
Cannibal Ox, RJD2, Mr. Lif, C-Rayz Walz and a slew of other MC’s
who put music before money.
Bazooka Tooth, Aesop’s second release on
the label, was released in late September, and in October he launched
a three-month tour. Before the madness began he and I sat down
to talk a little bit about Def Jux, the new album, his new life
as a full-time “rapper” and his passion for video games
and bad reality TV.
Clamor: When writing “9-5,” (on the Labor Days
LP) which could be considered your anthem, what was your job
at the time, and what frustrations led to the writing of the
Aesop Rock: It’s pretty simple. What nine-to-five I was
working is somewhat irrelevant. But, you know, just the everyday
being somewhere and doing something you don’t wanna do for
long periods of time, knowing that you should be doing something
else, it’s sort of a frustration and a problem that pretty
much anyone can identify with, and that’s basically where
it came from. It’s just being cooped-up behind a desk.
So now that you’re not working that nine-to-five anymore
do you feel it’s going to be difficult to still relate
to that group of people you initially appealed to with that song?
No, I don’t think so. I mean I think I kind of consistently
stay on some relatively down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground subject
matter. And another thing I realize is, I still have a job. Granted,
I wake up late and hang out with my friends probably more than
most people, but now there’s a whole new set of stresses
and bullshit that comes along with it, you know? But you know,
I did that whole thing, I went to school, I did the college thing,
I did the work thing, and that’s always and forever embedded
in me. Especially how artistic things in general are run, like
the whole art gallery world, which I’m relatively familiar
with now, is very similar to the record industry. The difference
between the people that buy the product and the people that make
the product, the artist versus the consumer, they’re so vastly
different. So there’s so many similarities that can be drawn
and every now and then I’d be like “This is exactly
like the music world.”
It’s not getting to your head at all?
No, it actually like steers away from my head, I won’t let
it. I mean, if I ever get to the point where I can’t go out,
like can’t walk to the store and buy some cigarettes by myself —
You’re getting there though, what was it, you’re
the most downloaded, right? On the Internet?
[Makes yuck face] But, uh, nah . . . well, I mean the thing is
over the last year. Basically, I think that a major good thing
is that the masses are the people who buy the music and the people
that watch MTV, and they’re starting to get a little bored,
you know what I mean? Like with the fact that they only have ten
choices of who they can buy.
How did the Style Wars thing come up? They came to you and
asked you to do that?
They basically came to me, and it was like, fucking one of the
most honoring experiences I’ve ever had, ‘cause that
movie was in my junior high school library and we used to rent
it everyday and watch it at school and it was like, the shit.
You did the soundtrack for the bonus footage right?
Basically they did a DVD, it was the 20-year anniversary. Yeah,
it came out in ‘82 so finally they’re gonna release
a DVD of the movie. And they decided to release a second disk with
all this bonus footage blah, blah, blah, and they asked Def Jux
to kind of supply some music, so they licensed songs from us. But
on top of that, I got a call from the people that were editing
the DVD down and they were like look, we have more footage, like
bonus footage from like fuckin’ ‘79 and ‘80,
this like, fuckin’ priceless graffiti footage that like nobody
has except Henry Chalfant, who is the guy who documented Style
Wars in the first place. They said if you want it you can have
it all, and I was just like “Okay.” So basically for
next to no money we threw the video together ‘cause I had
a song on my album that kind of fit the concept, it was kind of
like a real urban, graffiti-based song. I played it for Henry Chalfant,
we’re sitting in the room and he’s like “I really
like it” and I was just like, this is really weird, you know?
I was more just like, I can’t believe I ever got to meet
you in my life, that movie’s my shit. So, it ended up we
made a music video with all this Style Wars footage that no one’s
ever seen before.
Do you write, or did you?
Graffiti? Not really any more. I fucked around when I was young,
but I’m a massive fan and I did my kind of like, photos — used
to go and take flicks and shit and fuck around in books, but I
would never consider myself, like —
What name did you write?
Just my name, Ian. Ian 1 on Long Island, I grew up on Long Island.
Like Long Island Rail Road, and all that shit.
Northport, is that what it is? I have a friend from there
and when I told him I was doing this interview, he was like “Oh
Ian, I remember him from the rail in Northport. He couldn’t
do a kickflip”
That’s great. Well, put that in my article . . . I couldn’t
do a kickflip.
I know, Ok, all in fun. Where’d you go to college?
Uh, Boston University, School for the Arts.
You don’t anymore? Why not?
Not really. I did for a while after I graduated and like, I have
a degree, but I moved back to New York after college and had a
really tiny apartment and I was making really big paintings, and
we had like, a two bedroom apartment with five people and a dog.
I had a full time job and was doing music and painting, and something
had to give basically. I just had more doors opening for me musically
and so I just kind of, unwillingly phased out the painting. But,
I mean, like I still fuck around in books and shit. But I used
to spend hours a day on that shit, and that was like, what I had
planned to do with my life. It just didn’t quite pan out
like that. But it was just a lot more like, people knocking on
my door for music and I felt like I had a firmer grip on what I
wanted to do with music.
What do you listen to, what are you listening to now?
Well, it’s hard, ‘cause when your part of a collective
you like, and honestly think is some of the best shit out today,
you don’t really need to go out that much to get shit. But
I mean, I listen to my friends’ stuff and then I watch MTV
a lot, so like —
You watch TV a lot, huh?
Yeah, my other true love.
You watch all those reality shows and shit?
Some of ‘em. And like, Blind Date and that stuff too, I
really like that. I don’t like the news though. I can’t
really stomach any of the overly serious shit. Obviously, some
of those reality shows are like, at this point, I’m kind
of over it, you know? The whole reason those got famous is ‘cause
it’s like “Look! These aren’t special people,
these are just real people!” I was talking to this kid Nasa
the other day that works for Def Jux, and it was just like, I’d
rather see special people, I don’t wanna see normal people
anymore ‘cause I’m just a normal person. But at the
same time I’m not gonna deny that a lot of that shit is like,
the funniest shit I’ve ever seen in my life. But um, I just
get real drunk off like, bad TV and like, sci-fi movies and video
games basically. And that’s where like, everything I write
is me smoking weed, watching movies basically. That’s like,
where I find the most comfort and relaxation. I mean, I tried to
watch the war, but that was like, the worst reality TV show ever.
The War? Oh, we’re at war, didn’t you know? [Everyone
No, when the war popped off we had like, cameras inside of tanks and shit,
and for a week I was like, this is really interesting, and then a week later
I was like, this is not really what I wanna see. It’s like those are
real people being dragged out of their homes.
But they do make it look like it’s a TV show from what
I’ve seen, it’s fucked-up.
Yeah! It looks like Blind Date or one of those reality shows ‘cause
it’s like, CNN and then they have like, shit, like letters
flying by, like actions. I feel like they’re gonna start
shooting guns off and it’s gonna be like “BLAMMO!” and
they’ll have cartoon words on the screen. So after a couple
weeks of that shit I was like, Nah, I cannot watch this. Like,
to tell you the truth I don’t fuckin care.
So you didn’t run out and buy duct tape and plastic
for your windows?
I didn’t. You know, ‘cause it’s like, if we’re
gonna die, we’re gonna die. Once you accept the inevitable
apocalypse, then you can just stop worrying about it. Cause it’s
like, alright, I’m gonna die, I might as well try and make
some beats in the meantime, you know what I mean? And that’s
the thing, it’s not what everyone’s thinking, so everyone
is like “Did you hear about this?! Blah, blah, blah …political
blah, blah, blah.” That’s like, all I hear and I’m
just like, honestly man, I don’t care.
Feel bad not knowing about it, don’t you?
For a second, but not really. ‘Cause it’s like, I
know the basics. I know we have a dip-shit for a President, I know
we have a new enemy everyday.
You vote for ‘em?
No, I didn’t vote. But I wouldn’t have — [laughs],
for whatever that’s worth. But you know, he didn’t
exactly win the election either, you know. America’s a fucked-up
place. It’s like, my whole life I tried to not think about
politics, ‘cause I just didn’t want to and it didn’t
interest me and it didn’t affect me directly. When I was
growing up all I cared about was like, you know, I went to school,
hung out with friends, couldn’t do a kickflip and fucking
made music, you know what I mean? And basically nothing in politics,
regardless of who the president was, or the senator or the mayor,
ever directly affected me and my life. Until Sept. 11. You know,
when I was actually sitting at home and my city was blowing up.
You know what I mean? That was the first time where I was like,
Okay, now like, war’s in my front yard. This is officially
the first time I was concerned for the country, the globe, and
my position. It was the first time I felt it had personally affected
me. It was just kind of a stunning experience‘cause you know
there’s people — like I grew up listening to Public
Enemy and I mean, I wouldn’t do, I never did political rap
because I just didn’t know enough. I left it to people that
are good at it, people like Chuck D and Mr. Lif. People that can
actually do it well, you know?
People who know what they’re talking about.
Yeah, basically, you know? And I have like very dumb views on
shit, ‘cause I just never cared. And maybe that’s being
ignorant, but like, who cares really? You know what I mean? So
then once the city blew up your just like “Oh Shit.” You’re
watching TV everyday, then after a month of that your like “Alright,
so like, bottom line is we’re all dying within a few years” and
like, the details kind of just don’t really matter. You know?
I don’t really care to know how many people we kill this
day,‘cause it’s all the same. You feel like you’ll
turn on any of the fuckin’ news with the war and you literally
just don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about
at all, you know? I just wanna be like “Guys! It doesn’t
matter we’re all gonna die! I don’t need to know the
details, just rerun Blind Date again! It’ll be funnier.” So,
I don’t know, maybe that just makes me fuckin’ arrogant,
but, Oh well — [laughs] You’re like “Yup it does!”
No, no [laughing] … I don’t disagree. Do you drink?
Um … I don’t know. Like, you grow up and you kind
of like, watch people around you and you decide which drugs seem
like they would be interesting to do, and when I saw drunk people
I was just like, that doesn’t really seem like it’s
for me. So I just never bothered to try it.
So then what’s for you?
Drugwise? I mean, I smoke weed. I smoke weed and I used to eat
acid a lot, ‘shrooms, I’ve tried like, a handful of
other things, but I don’t know, alcohol just always stood
out as something that wasn’t for me. Just like coke wasn’t
for me, like heroin wasn’t for me. It’s kind of funny ‘cause
I’m not like, ultra-preachy ‘cause like I smoke weed
every fuckin day. I definitely during a point in my life ate a
lot of acid, but um ... So I can’t really be that much of
a critic or a preacher, but like alcohol killed more people than
any of that other shit, you know what I mean? It’s more dangerous
that any of that shit, and it turns people into assholes when they’re
drunk and you end up fighting your friends basically. Granted,
I guess it has its perks, ‘cause there’s reasons people
do it. But it was just never for me. Knowing my personality and
just stepping back I was like, I’d be a really bad drunk,
I just wouldn’t pull off being drunk very well, you know?
But do you still go out with people, like out to bars ever?
Yeah, of course, I mean I’m the only one I know ever in
life that doesn’t drink, you know? So it’s not like
I’m against it to that much of a degree.
It’s just, when you don’t drink though, it’s
just kind of obnoxious to sit around and watch drunk people,
It can be, it can be. But like, I was always the kid who didn’t
drink, but it’s not like I didn’t grow up around drugs
and alcohol my whole life. People I knew were doing all that and
everyone was smoking weed, snorting coke and selling it, and this
and that and it was just like, that was my decision. But I recognize
that everyone drinks, you know? That’s just the bottom line,
it’s strange to not drink, like I’m the weirdo in the
situation. And I don’t go to clubs or bars normally, less
because of the alcohol and more because I’m just not all
that social of a person really. The times I’m like “Fine
man, I’ll go out with you man, yeah, let’s go out,
let’s do this man, we’ll go to the bar!” Then
I get there and I’m like, I’d honestly rather be home
trying to beat Zelda. I’d rather be stoned, making a beat,
trying to beat Zelda and calling ex-girlfriends begging them to
So you’re really a big fan of video games, huh?
Yes. I was a big fan of the whole Zelda series. There’s
a game on PS2 called Ico, which was pretty slept on. It’s
probably like, one of the greatest games I’ve ever played.
I don’t know, I wanna do that shit I think. I think that
making video games has a lot of potential to be intensely creative,
and intensely dope. And like, a lot of people fuck it up. There
was a time when I would just buy a game, beat it in like three
days, and then go out and buy another one and beat it, like, just
play them constantly. Now, it’s like, so much shit is boring
me. It’s just like, I feel … this sounds so stupid
when I say it out loud, but in my head this is what goes on. Every
now and then there’ll be a video game where I feel like,
wow, that was like a life altering experience. That shit was sick,
and like you can tell there was a lot of creativity and a lot of
honest to god art put into that. As opposed to just like, muscle
guy #1 shooting up the country, which can be fun, that obviously
has its place. I feel like a good video game is like, the best
thing you could possibly experience. Aside from like, sex and weed.
You gotta get out of here or no?
Oh, um I don’t know. What time is it? Yeah, I guess someone
else is coming. I mean, I know you really seem to be really enthralled,
I can tell.
Oh, yeah, I really am, really interested.
Is there a reason you came in here with such a hostile attitude?
No, I’m sorry, I just have a lot of things on my mind.
No, are you…[laughing at me], I’m just wondering.
I’m not much of a “people-person” either.
Me either, but, you know —
I’m trying, I’m smiling, we had fun . . . So are
these annoying, these interviews?
This one’s not! I mean, I wish you were being a little nicer
to me —
I’m being nice!
Ha! But yeah, they can be really the worst thing in my life. At
best, they’re like, okay, they’re tolerable. That was
good; but you gotta understand, most people are like, it’s
just the same questions, and when you do like eight interviews
in one day, it’s like, they walk in and you just wanna be
like, “Ok, I like Run DMC and BDP, that’s why I started
rapping.” You just wanna give them all the answers that they’re
already gonna ask you anyway, cause people just ask the same bullshit.
I’d rather like, let the albums speak for themselves and
then like … talk about video games.
Check out Aesop Rock and the rest of the Def Jux crew online at www.definitivejux.net.