Aesop Rock stopped at the bottom of the stairs leading up to his brownstone apartment in Brooklyn to talk to his elderly neighbor. We were headed a block up the street to the deli, and Aesop wanted to know if his neighbor needed anything. "Not tonight," said the neighbor. You got the impression that neighborly good deeds from the quiet kid upstairs weren't uncommon.
Despite the fact that Aesop is rap's new face; despite that he's the anchor on the powerful, influential and increasingly omnipresent independent rap label Def Jux; despite that he's ogled and adored; his neighborly behavior is not surprising.
Aesop, born Ian Bavitz, a Long Island native and Boston University art student cum indie rap superhero, is one of the game's most introspective. His dense lyrical patterns and cultural references are praised as genius. His fifth full-length, Bazooka Tooth, may just save rap -- and music.
That's not to say Aesop thinks it will, or cares if it does. Aesop's uneasiness with his new fame is well documented, mostly in the hidden track on last year's Daylight EP and on this year's Revenge of the Robots Def Jux tour DVD, but also on this album.
But Bazooka Tooth is refreshingly different, both from his previous work and from what else is out there now. It's one of the best records of the year, hip-hop or otherwise, good enough to punch music in the head.
We invaded his home -- the first level of a brownstone, cathedral ceilings, bare walls, except for Def Jux tour posters, laundry piled in the corner, videogame paraphernalia -- to talk about the new record, video games, the Def Jux crew, and what he thought about people like us.
Prefix Magazine:Who is Bazooka Tooth?
Aesop Rock: Part 1: That's my little superhero alter ego. I think he could probably get his ass kicked by most superheroes but -- PM:I thought he was a bad motherfucker?Aesop Rock: Part 1: He is. I mean he can handle like citizens and civilians pretty well. PM:Not the big guns. Not like Spiderman?Aesop Rock: Part 1: Nah, but he doesn't really need to fuck with Spiderman, so that's good. He doesn't really have any super powers. He just has a gun in his mouth, and that's it. He can't really fly or anything ... PM:He's on the cover of the record. Who actually did the cover art for this one? Aesop Rock: Part 1: This dude named Tomer Hanuka. He's just an illustrator. The first time I saw his work was on the cover of a New York Times Magazine one month. I really liked it so I just held on to it for a minute. Then I researched his name, and he'd done a bunch of other shit that I'd liked. I ended up calling him and seeing what he was about or whatever. I was probably about halfway through the record, and I gave him what I had done so far and just kind of sat with him for a few hours. I didn't want to give him too much direction because I just liked his work. So I just gave him my little basic short story about Bazooka Tooth and he just sent that (the artwork) over a few weeks later and that was basically it. PM:You just let him go with it ... Aesop Rock: Part 1: Yeah, pretty much. I liked it so ... PM:It's a memorable cover.Aesop Rock: Part 1: That's hopefully the point. PM:It seems like the whole Def Jux label tends to put out covers that aren't standard for hip-hop.Aesop Rock: Part 1: I try to do that, and I think most of us try to do something that's at least memorable. I wasn't interested in doing the photo of me pointing at the camera; that didn't really do it for me. I try to come up with something that's gonna pop off the shelf a little bit. If they don't like the music, maybe they'll just like the cover. PM:A lot of people say your lyrics are genius, especially after Labor Days. How daunting is that?Aesop Rock: Part 1: It's pretty weird. It's hard to kind of live up to anything like that. You start feeling like it's your job to teach people; you don't really want that on your shoulders. PM:Is that something you felt after Labor Days?Aesop Rock: Part 1: Just talking to kids even at shows every now and again, you know ... This is all shit I just do and I've done for years out of my crib. And look at my crib; it's a fuckin' mess. You know, nobody really wants me as a fuckin' teacher ... It's cool to have a lot fans and just to have kids who really believe in what you're doing. But sometimes, when people rely on you when you've never ... I just wanted it to sound dope when this all started. It's cool, and I guess some shit I've done has helped some people through some shit or something, but I don't want to have to live up to that every time. It's a little bit too much ... pressure. But I'm glad people like it. I take it as a compliment, but I'm far from a genius. PM:Do you ever think people just didn't understand what you were going for in a certain song?Aesop Rock: Part 1: To a degree, but at this point, people who know underground hip-hop know my shit. And they know if they like it or don't like it. I'm kinda no longer out there trying to ... It's like I have my fan base and I don't know that it's going to ... I don't really worry about trying to prove if I'm dope anymore. It's either you think so or you don't, so I'd rather just write about other shit. I pretty much, me and a lot of the label has some pretty loyal fans. So I can kind of do what I want and even if every song isn't up someone's alley, for the most part it seems like my fans are kinda not going anywhere yet. So they're just letting me do what I want, basically, which is what I would do anyway. So if this record fails, it's OK. I never expected any of them to that well. I just do it because I like doing it. Having any fans is a plus. I'm not really thinking about what someone's gonna think of this shit when I'm making it. If I like it, good. If my friends like it, that's even better. After that, whatever happens happens. PM:If your friends like the record that you put out, is that better than selling a million copies?Aesop Rock: Part 1: It's more important for me right now, yeah. I'm not try to really ... I wouldn't be a good face of America right now. I don't really think it's headed there. Every record I've done has done a little better than the one before it, so that's a good sign. But I recognize that what I do is a bit in left field as far as what most people are willing to give a chance to. So I'm not really worried about it blowing up like that, and if it ever did I'd probably step out of it. PM:Yeah?Aesop Rock: Part 1: Probably. If I can't walk through the fucking store by myself, then, you know, what am I doing? On one hand, I'm doing my best to try to push the record as far as it will go. But I'm not worried yet about it becoming too big, I don't think it's too much of a threat. And if it ever was, I don't think I'd be too comfortable with it. PM:So no TRL, huh?Aesop Rock: Part 1: Not any time soon. PM:Seems like you took more control over this record. You produced a lot of the tracks. What led to that?Aesop Rock: Part 1: I've been producing for almost 10 years now. It's just something I always did, and for some reason I just felt like I wanted to take it into my hands to do more this time. Before I even started the record I knew that it what I wanted to do. Maybe it's me just ... I don't even really know why. I just felt like it was time to do that. Most people who know of me know me for lyrics or vocals or whatever, and I wanted to kind of even it up a bit and put a lot more beats out there. Some people really like it and some people would rather hear me over Blockhead's stuff, who I usually work with. Either way I'm always going to work with him, because he's like one of my best friends. There was no falling out or anything. Unfortunately people wish there was for some reason. PM:I guess it's a better story.Aesop Rock: Part 1: Yeah, unfortunately we're still friends. And he actually has a solo record coming out this year. But we'll always work together regardless. He supported the idea of me doing it just as much as I did. I felt like I wanted to just try it, and I had the blessing of him and Camu and El (El-P, solo artist and owner of Def Jux) and people around me who I think are pretty good producers. PM:Blockhead still did a few beats on the record, right.Aesop Rock: Part 1: Yeah, Block did three and El did one. PM:When you were first getting into it, you were primarily focused on vocals, right?Aesop Rock: Part 1: Yeah, pretty much, and then I started making beats because I needed beats. PM:Blockhead wasn't always around ...Aesop Rock: Part 1: Not when I first started. I didn't meet him 'til '94 and I was rhyming before that. So I guess I was technically making beats way before that, but not really anything good. It was with my brothers. Basically my older brother had this shitty old drum machine. Basically, I just needed something to rap on. PM:You ever think about producing a whole record for somebody else?Aesop Rock: Part 1: Yeah, it's coming to where I would actually finally be interested in that. At this point I'm just kind of giving beats out to other people who I'm close with. I think Murs is probably going to use some shit and Lif might be using some shit too. I'm just trying to gather up the arsenal at this point. I have a lot of stuff just 'cause I didn't always use all my shit. But at the same time I never really produced out for anybody, I've always been like, 'If I'm not going to use it, it's not going to go anywhere.' There have been people interested in the past but I've always been like, it's not really my thing to produce out for people. For some reason over the past couple of years I've been thinking that's an idea I'd definitely like to pursue. I would be down to do that or do some weird other project, do some movie soundtrack or some weird other shit that I could just lock myself in my room for a while and do. PM:A movie soundtrack is an interesting idea.Aesop Rock: Part 1: If it fell in my direction I would most likely ... unless the movie really sucked. But I would be willing to try it. PM:Didn't your name came from a part that you did in a movie?Aesop Rock: Part 1: That story is kind of blown out of proportion. It wasn't really anything. I had like a line in my friend's home video. The character's name was Aesop and it just stuck. But that questions been like, 'So you used to act, right?' Not really. PM:But you're into movies as a spectator?Aesop Rock: Part 1: I'm into movies, yeah. I'll take anything that's on a screen and move, I'll just watch it. PM: It sounds like you have a vault full of stuff that you haven't released. You plan on releasing a lot of that stuff? Aesop Rock: Part 1: Actually, yeah. Just like, last night I popped out of bed at like 2 or 3 a.m. for no reason and I went through like all this old shit and started putting it together. I'm trying to get a bunch of shit together to do like, Junk in the Trunk: Unreleased Shit Volume 1 or whatever so when I hit the road I'll just have rough mixes of a bunch of shit. Because I do have so much shit that just sits around.