Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock on surviving indie hip hop

A revealing feature interview with the seasoned Portland rapper.

Aesop Rock
Aesop Rock will be in Montreal this weekend. Photo by Ben Colen

In light of the fact his newest album is called The Impossible Kid, I tagged a kind of fun, random question to the end of a recent email interview with indie hip hop mainstay Aesop Rock, asking, “When you were a kid, what did you find impossible? And was it?”

“Just about everything,” says the 40-year-old MC, whose career spans over two decades across the underground of hip hop. “And yes, it was and is. It’s mostly just communicating and being close with people. I fail at that consistently.”

Fans may beg to differ, the rapper/producer having cultivated and maintained an enviable following. But the following of Aesop Rock remains largely cult, the kind that hangs off of every word bent and beat broken under his pens and pads.

In Montreal this weekend with Rob Sonic and Homeboy Sandman on their Hey Kirby Tour, Aesop Rock took the time to talk about his perceptions on longevity, hip hop, friends old, newer and departed, and how he keeps it all possible.

Darcy MacDonald:  First, congrats on last year’s staggeringly cool The Impossible Kid album. A lot of critics have called this your best work yet, taking care to qualify the comment as no mean feat, considering your catalogue.

How do you feel about that kind of praise — what does it say to you about your evolution, or where are critics exaggerating, if that applies?

Aesop Rock: I mean it’s really impossible to tell what to believe. Positive reinforcement is nice, but it’s never consistent, even within the same media outlet. I like praise, but it’s not secure. I also don’t have youth on my side, so I can’t ride in on the heels of some trend like I once could. It’s just all hard to trust, and it’s subjective anyway. I’m happy to still be able to do this, but there’s never been a second of security in any of this, how critics feel (and) how fans feel.

DM: Who discovers Aesop Rock the most these days, do you think? Younger rap fans, generalist music fans, a mix?

Aes: It seems like a mix. There’s a shocking number of young people at the shows. There’s also a lot of parents that grew up on us now bringing their kids. It’s really all over the map.

DM: Hip hop is not a genre where longevity has always been a quality that artists have achieved, specifically on later albums and projects. But it seems that maybe we’re entering the era of the MC with staying power on wax and on tour.

Twenty years ago, did you think you’d still be doing hip hop? Did you ever feel like you were done, or that you had fallen off in any way that concerned you?

Aes: I never felt my skills depleting, but I don’t imagine that’s necessarily something I’d be aware of as it happens — which is horrifying.

I also have never expected a single project of mine to “work,” so to speak. I’ve had some longevity I guess, but I’m never on the top or the bottom, so it’s been hard to put my finger on where I stand, or even feel good about it. I’m constantly in a state of wondering if anyone will care about the next one.

Additionally, having very few role models over 40 in rap who are really out there pushing themselves creatively is a bit disheartening. I think about being done literally everyday. I may have already outstayed my welcome.

At the same time, I genuinely love the craft and some stubborn part of me still feels like I have something unique to contribute, whether or not the people choose to accept it, or whether or not I’m even right in my own assessment of myself.

DM: Do you think that largest vocabulary thing drew in new listeners? And I know it’s been a while now, but we haven’t spoken — what did you make of it?

Aes: Not sure. I mean, I thought it was interesting, but in a lot of ways it puts me in this box of being “word-guy” instead of just being someone who enjoys writing.

If I like words it’s because I’m trying to write the best I can, not just know the most words.

DM: You’re on tour with Homeboy Sandman and you’ve recorded the two Lice EP projects together. How did you connect and how is it on the road together — like, are you already close or is bonding season in high gear?

Aes: We initially connected through music. I love what he does and invited him to tour a couple years ago. Since then we’ve become pretty close and I consider him a friend and brother as well as a collaborator and someone I look up to in the rhyme world.

Really, one day we just said “we should make a project” and we just started cranking. They’ve been low pressure and fun as hell. He’s a force with the pen.

DM: Rob Sonic is also on this tour with you and you guys have built together for years — together as Hail Mary Mallon recently, and well before that as friends and contemporaries. What does Rob bring out in you as a producer, MC and working partner?

Aes: I’m a huge fan of his rapping. He’s also been a very close friend for a long time. He’s been with me through a lot of ups and downs in both music and life, and he knows me well. The Mallon stuff is such a nice break from the solo stuff, and really captures the feeling of just two old friends bugging out — whereas the solo stuff can often be a little stressful. His lyrics are huge for me, and I consistently find myself thinking “how did you even think of that?” with him. Just a great friend and inspiration.

DM: By the way, lice are disgusting. You’re a tour veteran. What are some tried and tested tour bus hygiene measures artists can take to avoid odors and itches? And what are some common faux-pas rookies on the road commit that should be avoided at all costs, whether for themselves or the good of the entire crew?

Aes: We take van, not a bus. It mostly smells okay, but occasionally you’ll find an old banana under someone’s seat. Really, just keep a garbage bag going and toss it at least once a day. And shower daily. And be aware that you’re all sharing a common space, so you should apply some common sense and etiquette.

DM: Between the new record and the Uncluded (a collaboration with Kimya Dawson), you’ve really explored the topic of death.

I was/am a huge Camu Tao fan and of course feel like he never got his due. I know it’s a tough question but based on where your career has taken you since his passing, not to mention several other of his contemporaries (El-P and RTJ come to mind), what do you think or hope would have been in store for Camu if he’d stayed with us? Maybe you can relate that to what you knew of him as a friend that fans may not know about him.

Aes: Camu was just a force to be around in every sense, from his boisterous personality to the way he made beats and wrote. It was constant and inspiring and he is single-handedly responsible for more of me than I could ever explain to you or my fans. Creatively he was always 2 steps ahead of all of us, and I agree he never got his due.

People who knew him knew what he could do, and how much creativity oozed out of him every moment. It’s hard to say what would’ve been in store. As he was getting sick, he was also really starting to aim higher than some of the underground circles we were comfortable in. His sound was expanding and advancing daily, and it felt like he was certainly hitting a stride as far as finding who he was and what he had for the music world.

Who knows if it would’ve ever popped off for him? But it was certainly amazing to be around. His energy was infectious, and when he was in the zone, it was unreal.

DM: I will ask this question to both you and (former Def Jux label-and-stage-mate) Mr. Lif till the day we all stop doing interviews: when is the last time you spoke or saw each other? Have you under any circumstances shared a stage in the past few years? And what do you miss most about the old days when you were pretty much a tag-team headliner no matter what the marquee said?

Aes: We text on and off, but pretty often these days. He came and rocked a few songs with me a few months ago. In the wake of Jux, a lot of us needed to just go be and breathe and get some footing. I love Lif and always will. Catching up with him is always something I treasure, and sharing the stage over the summer was amazing. He really taught me everything I know about performing live, and I am forever indebted to him for that. Great dude and hard worker. We good.

DM: Of course, I need to ask what’s next. But what I really want to know is, what are the odds of another Uncluded album? Because we need one. Hard. Still one of my favourites of the decade so far.

Aes: Ha. I hope so. Kimya is working on a solo record that’s sounding fantastic and I have my hands in a couple other projects at the moment. The first Uncluded project fell together really  naturally, and she remains one of my closest friends. I am hopeful that when the time is right, it will just happen. I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to make that record with her. ■

Aesop Rock performs with Rob Sonic and DJ Zone, with opener Homeboy Sandman, at l’Astral (305 Ste-Catherine W.) on Saturday, Jan 28, 9 p.m., $25 (advance)

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