He doesn’t give a shit if you confuse him with A$AP Rocky, and by some metrics, he’s got a vocabulary more unique than Shakespeare’s. He formed an anti-folk rap group with singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson and wrote a children’s book (that wasn’t kid friendly) with bearded illustrator Jeremy Fish. He’s often collaborated with El-P of Run The Jewels and he produced the third album for Murs and Slug’s duo as Felt. He’s Aesop Rock, sometimes known as Ian Bavitz, and he’s one of the most original voices in hip-hop today.
The Portland rapper first got heads nodding to his beat in underground hip-hop circles in the ’90s, and became one of the first Def Jukies — a prominent member of Definitive Jux, the label founded by El-P, now on hiatus. Aesop’s first major release on the imprint in 2001, Labor Days, earned critical acclaim and cult status.
Twenty years into his rap career, and with his 40th birthday just around the corner, Bavitz says he’s been feeling fairly reflective these days. In fact, he says he’s surprised he’s still doing this rap thing at all.
“Rappers burn out young, and I always felt I didn’t have many role models beyond a certain age,” Bavitz says via e-mail. “Every year, I convince myself this is gonna be the last one, but I dunno — I wake up and think ‘not dead yet.’”
Aesop raps about a lot of unconventional topics, everything from “tongue-tied hungry enzymes” to “sugar skulls in the rain” to a “minotaur-fugly stepchild” — and that’s just one track (“Zero Dark Thirty”). But while some of his rhymes deal with authority, religion, or even just giving a middle finger to your boss, Rock shies away from being preachy.
“I don’t wanna use my position behind a microphone in a way that makes me come off like I have the right to be telling people what to do,” Rock says. “I do, however, use my position to kick around ideas and rap about what’s on my mind. I think it’s easy to get a bit of an authority complex when you’re the one doing the amplified talking.”
His seventh album, The Impossible Kid, is one of his most straightforward, personal albums yet. On “Rings,” Aesop laments quitting drawing, and on “Get Out Of The Car,” reflects on the death of his best friend, Camu Tao, who died from lung cancer in 2008. On “Blood Sandwich,” Aesop gives a shout out to his brothers, who he doesn’t see as often as he’d like.
“One of them loved [the song], the other didn’t quite know what to think,” Bavitz explains. “They knew it was all out of love, but having a song written about you is a strange feeling.”
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“Life doesn’t unfold into a perfect song,” Aesop adds. “You kinda gotta wrestle it into the shape of one.”
Yet Aesop has retained his offbeat sense of humor throughout Impossible, such as on “Kirby,” an ode to the cat his shrink suggested he get. There’s also the video stream for the album: Rob Shaw directed a shot-for-shot, miniaturized remake of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is like a Playmobil set from hell.
“We’ve been doing these streaming videos for a few years, but it usually involves the easiest-possible creative solution to filling up an hour of time with a low budget … [Shaw] says ‘How about we make a shot-for-shot remake of a famous movie with miniatures?’” Rock explains. “I put The Shining out there, mostly because of how iconic it is, and how recognizable the imagery is. I love that the story is a man locked away going mad over his writing.”