Aesop Rock has a long history in the hip-hop game. From operating as an independent rapper and producer, to commuting between Boston and New York between classes in the ’90s, to they heydays of Definitive Jux and Rhymesayers, the tongue-twisting wordsmith has been a poetic fixture in the game for almost 20 years.
These days, he’s splitting his time between projects with with Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz (Hail Mary Mallon), Kimya Dawson (The Uncluded), Cage (Two of Every Animal), and the supergroup The Weathermen (Cage, El-P, Tame One, Yak Ballz, and more).
Aesop Rock’s lyricism is as impressive as his output. In a 2014 study of hip-hop verses, data analyst Matt Daniels calculated the number of unique words used within artist’s first 35,000 lyrics. The bottom of the list was DMX, and the champion (by a long shot) was Aesop Rock, with 7,392 unique words used.
With six solo albums under his belt and a seventh on the way, Aesop Rock is the consummate journeyman and a fitting subject for this new column, where we talk to musicians about their very first experiences with music. The atmosphere of the studio, the viewpoint on the music industry, everything.
So without further ado, please step back in time with us to 1996, where a young Aesop Rock was mumbling wild lines to himself all day every day.
Where was your debut, Music for Earthworms, recorded?
For the most part, it was recorded at a studio called Graebar in Manhattan. Dub-L, who produced a lot of that stuff, also interned at this studio—it wasn’t really a recording studio, it was mostly used to make edits and mixes for fashion shows, things of that nature.
They also had a ton of vinyl. He would get his work done and then work on beats there in his spare time. We would set up a mic in there after hours and do our thing. We had been so used to doing four-track home recordings at that time that being in there seemed special. Plain Pat was the other intern, and at the time he and C-Rayz were working on music a bunch—a lot of which ended up being on Walz’s Prelude CD. The four of us were in there a lot in those days.
What was the environment like?
It was a lot of fun. Even though the studio wasn’t really designed for recording, it was cool to be in any studio at all at the time. I guess it was more of an editing room maybe—I’m not totally sure what you’d call it. There was a bunch of gear, ADAT machines, DAT machines, CD burners, which were pretty high-tech at the time, enough for us to get better sound quality than we were used to.
I’m pretty sure we just used a SM-58 for the vocals, I don’t think they had any crazy mics. But having ADATs at our disposal felt cool, even though in hindsight those things are a bit of a nightmare to work with. I also remember Pat having a little digital 8-track he’d use for some of the Walz stuff which was neat to see. People would come through sometimes. I remember seeing other Stronghold cats in there and various other NY rappers that we knew. Really we were all just young and dumb and enjoying ourselves.
Can you describe the early recording environment between yourself and Blockhead?
Blockhead and I were pretty much best friends in those days, but I think he only did one beat on Earthworms. He and Dub-L were close too, but I think Dubs sorta felt like Graebar was his zone, his place to make beats and record, whereas Block was mostly doing beats at his crib and working with the four-track. I recorded with both of them a lot but I think the sound quality on the Graebar stuff was probably better so we kept that project as only things that were recorded there. Towards the end we took a couple songs that Dubs didn’t do, one by Block (“Plastic Soldiers”) and one by me (“Antisocial”) that were previously just four-track songs done at Block’s house, and redid them at Graebar so the quality was at least in the same ballpark.
I should also say there were a few songs on Earthworms that weren’t even Aesop Rock songs. Dub-L had a group called The Controls where he made beats for a female vocalist. They had gotten a record deal and I was featured on two songs on their record, and we put them on Earthworms too.
I remember thinking that Earthworms wasn’t really an “album” to me, only because it felt like a weird collection of songs more than an actual project. It wasn’t even all the newest stuff at the time, because Block and I had all this other four-track material laying around that we didn’t get to bring to the “real” studio. I think there was a disclaimer on the back of the CDs that was like “this is not really an album…blah blah.” We were all close – but I think me and Block’s sensibilities lined up a little more. We really liked a lot of the same rap and similar kinds of beats. A lot of the low-fi stuff didn’t bother us at all, whereas Dub-L was working at a studio, learning to really mix. His stuff was way more crispy and his sound reflected some studio knowledge that Block and I were pretty clueless about in those days.
Music for Earthworms and Apple Seed were both self-released. Can you describe your mentality/perspective of the music industry at this point?
I just never really wanted to be “signed” or get that big deal. When The Controls got signed, Dub-L took me to see his lawyer to try to convince me to really go for it on a bigger level, but I just didn’t care. I loved the underground scene to death and all I cared about was taping radio shows, hearing dudes with crazy styles, and making this weird music with my friends. Puff Daddy was massive and underground rap was the opposite of that, and that was our shit. I was completely content to just make our own shit and sell it at shows in NY.
At some point Blockhead became boys with this dude StinkE, who had done the Hieroglyphics website, and I think he was able to convince us to sell things online in some capacity, but this was like way early in the internet days. Block had a dial-up connection on one computer in his mom’s basement and would trade underground tapes with other rap heads around the country.
StinkE made a quick Aesop site with a couple songs on it. We made a little mail order thing that Block kinda ran for us, and me and Dub-L would give him a cut of the sales to kinda run the shipping. Then I’d also just sell the CDs at shows. There was actually a tape too, pre-Earthworms. I think it had some of the four-track versions of songs that appeared on Earthworms. I’d sell those around NY.
I mean in some ways doing it ourselves, cutting covers out, burning our own CDs, it was out of necessity. But in other ways it was really all I wanted to do. I was content, and it didn’t need to be more than that. The bigger stuff seemed corny to me by default, and I was fine in my bubble.
How much time were you spending on your intricate verses?
It’s hard to say. I mean in those days, this little world of underground rap was all we cared about. I was writing at least a little bit every day. I wouldn’t say I ever had books of unused verses or nothing but I definitely was always ready to record when someone said the word. It was just every day.
Prior to recording music, had you been writing a lot?
Nah, never. Rap lyrics are really the only thing I’ve ever written.
Did it take time for you to find your voice?
Yes and no. On one hand, I can pretty easily defend the idea that I didn’t really find my voice until Skelethon, or that I’m still searching. But on the other hand, in those days, I had a pretty good idea of what I was going for, who my influences were, and who I wanted to be respected by.
I had written rap songs in the early ’90s and even did a couple homemade rap songs with my brother in like ’88 or ’89, but it was just like… I don’t even know how to say it. Just plain rap. I was just rapping about whatever, there was no real style or direction, it was just semi-braggadocious rhymes that probably imitated 100 other rappers. I was generally clueless.
I went to college in ’94 and started freestyling a lot more and hearing how others did it, hearing styles from other regions, all of it. Met Blockhead there. Once a lot of the indie shit started popping off and a scene developed, it seemed like dudes really started going in on the lyrics in a way I connected with, and I was able to see where I wanted to go a little more. But I mean there’s phases you know, you kinda develop a little rap style and learn what interests you in that sense, but then you also go through phases as a growing human, and trying to incorporate that stuff is where it really gets tricky. Ultimately, I think that’s where one’s “voice” comes from, and that shit can take a lifetime.
I read on Wikipedia that you were waiting tables during the time of your early releases. Were you also going to school?
I’ve never waited tables. I went to Boston University and worked back in NY most of the summers. I met Blockhead at school. He dropped out soon after and I’d head back to NY as much as I could to hang and record four-track stuff. I was in school for visual arts, painting specifically, so I tried to have jobs at galleries and around art, mostly packaging and shipping artwork. That way I could be around art but still dress like a bum in the back room. But I also had some terrible jobs, like one-hour photo, and answering phones for mail-order clothing catalogs. Just crap, you know. I worked at a factory that made pressure-sensorized rubber mats. Anything to make a little scratch and not have to wear a tie. Earthworms was recorded during summers and trips back to NY from school, and Apple Seed was done after I graduated in ’98 and had moved back to NY full time.
It’s been almost 20 years since these events. How do you look back on this time in your life?
This is the most I’ve thought about it in a while, but it was amazing. I mean we loved this shit, and it was before it was our job. We had no clue one day we could quit our jobs and do this shit, we were just having the time of our lives and bugging out.
Can you explain this line for me? Found on “Abandon All Hope,” the first track of your first release:
Ok, I lay me down to sleep, creepin’ a slumber under red skies
Heads splittin’, straight sippin’ a drip of dead vibes
I mean in general my rhymes were about being overwhelmed by everything, always. So the visual was just me laying down at night, city spinning around my head, trying to keep it all together. I feel like I’ve been white-knuckling it everyday, forever, so I always wanted what I wrote to seem desperate and intense and from the point-of-view of someone who had anxiety about everything. It’s like telling a kid “paint a picture of your family” and then the kid draws Satan next to a bleeding tree or something and you’re just like, “Ohhh… err… hmmmm.”
In regards to abandoning all hope, would you say your outlook on life has changed?
Nope. I wouldn’t rhyme ‘head’ with ‘dead’ anymore, but ultimately the mission is similar.