For over two decades, Aesop Rock has been a fixture of New York’s underground hip-hop scene. In addition to a storied solo career – his 2001 album Labor Days remains a classic of the genre – Aesop frequently collaborates with other musicians: most recently, he has teamed with Rob Sonic for the group Hail Mary Mallon. Their second album together, Bestiary, was released last year on Rhymesayers Entertainment.
Ahead of his March 10 show at Zydeco, Weld talked with Aesop about the direction of his career, his widely lauded vocabulary, and the status of hip-hop today.
Weld: You’ve spent the past few years collaborating, with Kimya Dawson for The Uncluded and with Rob Sonic for Hail Mary Mallon. How is this a different experience from working solo?
Aesop Rock: Well, I sort of work on all of this stuff simultaneously. Granted, at times I am more focused on one thing than another, but the collaboration albums help me get my head off my solo stuff – which tends to be where the stress lies.
The best way I can describe it is that it feels like a break, or a breath of fresh air. Lyrics come easier, songs come easier, I’m able to think on my feet more and really, my state of mind is just different. I’m not as much of a perfectionist with the collaborative stuff because a lot of the effort is on capturing the group vibe instead of painstakingly over-working things like I tend to do when alone. I think the group albums remind me that music is fun.
Weld: Since your most recent release is Hail Mary Mallon’s Bestiary, how much of the set, if any, will feature solo material?
AR: This tour is headlined by me. Rob, [DJ] Abilities and I do a long set together, including group stuff and solo stuff from everyone, and while we definitely get in a handful of new Mallon [songs], we go through a bunch of my [solo] catalog as well. Rob also does some jams from his newest solo album Alice In Thunderdome, and DJ Abilities is given ample time to show off. I feel like the set is pretty well-rounded, but technically it’s probably heaviest on Aesop solo stuff.
Weld: I’m sure you’ve heard about the study that found you, by some margin, to have the largest vocabulary in hip-hop. What importance does such a high level of wordiness play in your writing process?
AR: I don’t really know, it’s all just tools. I think other people refer to me as “word guy” way before I would ever think of myself that way. At the same time, obviously I love words. What I love more than words is putting words together – to me that’s the crux of all of this. The vocabulary can be helpful, but ultimately if you’re not putting [the words] together well, it doesn’t really matter.
If anything, that chart showed me that vocab isn’t as important as rap skill, as I like music by most, if not all of those people. That said, words are pretty awesome, so wanting some good words in your arsenal is a no-brainer for me.
Weld: Over the course of career, you’ve shifted toward producing almost all of your own music instead of working with outside producers. What is it about production that appeals to you?
AR: I guess just having a complete product that I 100 percent made has appeal to me. Having an album that I know I made every decision on makes it a more complete piece for me, and at some point I think that became the challenge. I’m not saying I wouldn’t do another solo album with outside production, but for me, where I am right now, it just means a lot to try to do it all. There is always a level of compromise when working with others – not that that’s inherently bad, but it is there. These days when I think ‘solo album,’ it just means what can I do in a room. I get help from outside musicians and such, and opinions from producer friends, but it’s still nice to be a total control freak about something.
Weld: Compared to when you started over two decades ago, would you say that underground rap is now reaching a wider audience? [Frequent collaborator] El-P’s success with Run the Jewels, for example, seems to indicate that the underground is offering something specific that more and more people are looking for.
AR: Well, I started before the Internet was really a thing, so that’s most of your answer. In general these days a lot of the lines are blurred between what’s ‘underground’ or not. Those terms mean less when we’re all using YouTube anyway. It feels like you used to either be mainstream or underground and that’s about it. Nowadays, the entire thing is gray area, and if you got the goods, or at least something people are into for one reason or another, it’s pretty conceivable that you could break the mold.
I don’t think it’s necessarily that the underground is offering something specific, as much as it’s easier to access everything, so you can eventually find what you’re looking for instead of what’s always being forced on you. People can do [their own thing], instead of having to fit the narrative of a label or magazine or trend.
Weld: On “Save Yourself,” you pretty handily dismissed those who declared hip-hop to be in need of a savior. In the almost fifteen years since that song was released, hip-hop has been declared dead and saved countless times. Why do you think this is such a prevalent trend, and has your opinion changed since “Save Yourself”?
AR: Rap will always be. You can argue that hip-hop is dead, as it was essentially a culture that thrived off what was happening in the inner-cities in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But people are gonna rap forever, and it’s dumb to think all music sucks because it’s no longer 1994, or whatever era you’re holding onto. People complaining about things not being like it was in their day is just a joke across the board — not just in music. We all wanna be twenty again.
Aesop Rock, along with Rob Sonic and DJ Abilities, will perform at Zydeco on Tuesday, March 10. Homeboy Sandman with DJ Sosa will open. Doors will open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit zydecobirmingham.com.