Rap at 40 with Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock is over the hill. Chop him down like an illustrious redwood and you’ll count 40 rings. Perhaps that brings to mind the time your parents reached that 40th birthday milestone; the gag gifts of Depends adult undergarments, black balloons, black icing on the cake, and the Grim Reaper as the main character of every Hallmark card. Aesop Rock might have released the best album of his career thus far, but it hasn’t made him impervious to the gallows humor of quadragenarianhood.

“Forty to me is gag gifts, black balloons, and being over the hill,” he wrote in an email. “I do think that there has to be a way to embrace that without making shit music, but it’s difficult to find role models in rap that have pulled that off. I’m not saying nobody has, I’m just saying rappers tend to burn out before then.”

When I asked how it feels to see the words “40 year old rapper” and know it applies to him, his answer was one definitive word: “weird.” But it’s not dissuaded him from his chosen craft. As high on the pedestal as we may place Aesop Rock, he’s still not seen the zenith.

“I love rap. I love figuring it out, and I still enjoy the high I get from doing something within my writing that I know for a fact is new for me—even if nobody else will ever notice it,” he wrote. “I think if I can hold onto that admiration for the craft, then hopefully the creativity and excitement will fall into place. I do worry constantly that I’ll kinda fall off and not notice, but you know—if that happens then so be it. For now I’m just gonna rap until it feels wrong.”

Nothing feels wrong about The Impossible Kid. In fact, it’s almost unanimously praised as his finest work to date. What once was cryptic and dense, now finds Aesop larking in the format with familial tales of halcyon days, the psychoanalysis of felines, and matching his poignancy with obliging context. If you’re still making the case for Aesop Rock being incomprehensible in 2016, then you’re reading at a fifth grade level.

Aesop Rock on the other hand is elusive to falling off. Through a series of emails we discussed his moves from New York, San Francisco, and his current habitat of Portland, growing as a producer, and the indelible impression made on his music from being in the company of El-P, Blockhead, and his departed friend Camu Tao. We discussed Camu’s legacy and his lingering influence in Aesop Rock’s music even eight years after his death.

Moving to Portland it seems as though you keep seeking a more pastoral environment. What were some of the factors that led to moving to the Pacific Northwest? What did you learn with time that you realized you wanted, but perhaps didn’t know until you’d actually lived there for a stint?

I moved to SF because I got married. At the same time I had been in NY for 30 years and was not totally against some exploration. After a divorce I hung around SF for another couple years, but felt like I was just spinning my tires and wasting money on a city I wasn’t takin’ advantage of. All I wanted to do was live cheap and work. Portland was a way I could do that. It feels temporary but like a decent place to just be and work away from a lot of what I know. All I’ve realized is that I don’t know what I want. I dream of heading back east soon, but admittedly don’t know if that’s the right move. I feel pretty displaced these days, so I just try to turn my music into being about that and make the most of it.

You’ve talked about being too close to your work to understand the direction it’s headed, but that outside perspectives from confidants have helped you realize see it. How much does sharing your music with close friends and gathering feedback play into the direction of a record?

I always play stuff for Rob Sonic and Blockhead. Those two pretty much hear everything. Yea I think I’m always too close to really hear what I’m making. I do so much tinkering and moving pieces and ideas around, it’s often hard to see the bigger picture until someone else points it out. That’s kinda how it always is though. I make a pile of songs and worry if they all connect in some relevant way—and then someone else points out why they do—and I’m like “oh yeaaaaa.”

I feel pretty displaced these days, so I just try to turn my music into being about that and make the most of it.

I feel like in the past your music offered snapshots of your perspective, but on The Impossible Kid those snapshots are now prolonged exposure. Can you talk about this shift in writing style and do you have any thoughts as to why you might feel more comfortable or more inclined to hold on a moment and explore the depth of it?

Hm. Not totally sure I agree with the premise of the question, but admittedly any evolution in what I do is occurring at a rate which I don’t notice at the time. I just kinda write what feels right at the time. People get to hear the final product of 15 songs created over a couple years, but for me—since my very first recording ever, it has been one, non stop push forward. It’s only broken into albums because that’s how music is released, but on my end this has just been continuous work. Any shifts I’ve had in my writing style are just momentary explorations and ideas that come into my head—”maybe I’ll try this…” No real plan, it’s all just trying to keep it exciting for me.

I think unsung in the press and praise for this record is the production growth. The musicality of it, how tracks bleed and sequence, as well as evolve plays a significant role in the enjoyment of this record. What was that process like? How did a song like “TUFF” develop into its final state? Is there any person who has offered guidance in your production?

Yea most of the people I’ve mentioned really lent a helpful ear. I’ve been around a lot of talented producers over the years, Blockhead, El-P, Camu Tao, all people who I learned tricks from. But it also took me a lot longer to really find myself in that world—really discover my sounds and goals. With rapping, it was always more clear to me what I wanted to do. Beat making started as a bed for me to rap on, but over the years I started zooming in on what I liked to rap on most and how to make that stuff. “TUFF” was started with that opening dopey arpeggio, and the other pieces slowly fell into place. I knew I wanted a beatbox for the final part, and sought out a few option. Carnage came through and killed it and really made for a powerful switch-up late in the song. All these songs, in regards to production, are just pieced together over weeks and months and sometimes years. If I come across a sound that could work for a file that’s a year old, I’ll try it out. I work on a bunch of songs at once and just try to make some cool.

As a polar to the intricacy of production on “TUFF”, on “Get Out of the Car” you strip it down to guitar, piano, and synthesizer for an ode to your departed friend Camu. How did that track develop and arrive at its final state?

The main part of that was a loop I had sitting around for a while. At some point I just loaded it up and started writing to it. Added a couple little layers to keep it moving, but wanted to maintain the nakedness of the whole thing. Those kinda pieces can be real breaths of fresh-air among an album as wordy as the ones I tend to make. I enjoy a good stripped down idea as much as an overdone one. It’s nice to go way too deep in on a live of production, but it’s equally nice to not forget the power for a great loop.

“Blood Sandwich” brings your family into your music through two stories about your brothers. Had you tried to write about family in the past? How do you see “Blood Sandwich” fitting into the scope of The Impossible Kid?

I hadn’t ever really written about that stuff. Maybe a small mention here or there, but it’s really been fairly untapped. I think it was all part of the reflective nature of the record. A lot of the songs deal with looking back, considering where I am, where I’ve been, etc. My brothers shaped me probably more than anyone on earth, so at some point I just felt a pull to comment on that stuff. It was just a way to shout them out and say thanks.

Recently it was the eight year anniversary of Camu Tao’s death. Writing to that loop did you immediately begin to think about your departed friend? Have you tried to write about him before?

I wrote about him on Skelethon but probably kept it a little more cryptic. I’ve never been good at the “ode” type of songs, so writing a very obvious memorial jam was never in the cards for me. I just have tried to keep his name and spirit in my rhymes for a long time, as he is in my heart often. As for “Get Out Of the Car”—again it was just more reflecting. It’s still not even really about Camu in any kinda memorial-type way, but it uses his death as a reference point for some thoughts. I think for me, that’s how it gets processed. I don’t have one big statement to make about losing this person – but I think about him everyday, and include little things here and there. I think that’s just how my brain has processed all of it.

As much as you and El-P have tried to share his genius in death, why do you think Camu’s music remains largely misunderstood and obscure?

I don’t know. I mean I was around him all the time, so his music is more than music to me. He was really able to embody his personality in everything he did, and when I hear the songs, I hear him, the person, the friend. I can’t even imagine what other people hear and it kinda doesn’t matter to me. He is underrated because he was one of my favorite people ever. But we don’t control who listens to what—so it’s not really an aspect I worry too much about. His music is out there to be discovered and felt by those whose sensibilities align with what he was doing. Of course I hope people continue to recognize his talent—but I know about it, and I know him, and I know what he was capable of and what he did for me—and that’s really the start and end of it for me.

Aesop Rock’s The Impossible Kid is out now on Rhymesayers.

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