If you're not prepared to pay heed to rapper Aesop Rock's gravelly baritone, his complex lyrics can easily overwhelm. Reflexively branded one of hip-hop's most abstract wordsmiths, the Definitive Jux mainstay appears to operate on a different wavelength, his dense rhyme schemes relying on seemingly inscrutable verbal algorithms. But a close listen reveals a dedicated artist continually honing his craft, someone trying to convey strikingly detailed stories by way of eclectic and novel language. Before the release of his latest album, None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock spoke to XLR8R about his inspirations and the root of his creative process.
"I went to church every week growing up in Long Island. I was raised Catholic: confirmation name, first communion, the whole nine. As much as I would kick and squirm, I always liked the language, the way people spoke during the readings and the Gospel and the wording of the Bible. I still enjoy hearing people speak like that, in a tongue that's different from your everyday year-2000 conversation."
"I've always had my ear open for new words and phrasings. So many descriptive words aren't being used now–dated, almost dead ways of wording sentences that are so perfect for describing an actual scene. It's a crime vocabularies are so small, especially in lyric writing. I love adopting older wording and applying it to modern-day New York City scenarios. That odd lexicon gives it an edge."
"I tend to get into movies or television shows that have odd dialogue. Deadwood is a recent favorite–it showcased such a cryptic, mad way of talking. I went through a Western phase, watching stuff like The Proposition. I will literally watch any TV show or movie of any quality that deals with another time period, anything that's fantasy or sci-fi in any way, whether it's old, or awful, or for children. If I can hear one interesting sentence over the course of two hours, it's worth it. I just watched Bridge to Terabithia–I'm probably the only guy in the world who saw that movie. Some of my favorites are Rushmore and Brazil. I really liked Children of Men. Maybe I'm just trying to run away or something. I'm up until 6 a.m. pretty much every night. At the end of the day' try to watch a movie or a couple hours of a television show. On Demand is the greatest thing that's happened to my life. It's beaten into your head that you should read and not watch TV. I always get asked what books I've read and I don't have any answer because I'm never reading any books. I pull creative things from television and I've managed to make a lot of albums with these influences."
On The Creative Process
"Every day', I'm writing down words and phrases. Music influences me, obviously. But as far as visuals, when I watch a movie or TV, I sit with a pen and pad taking notes, writing down lines of dialogue that interest me. My cell phone is full of notes and phrases and things I hear when I'm out. At the end of the day, I have a shitload of notes, little fragments. When it sounds cool and kind of flips off your tongue, that's the kind of hook I want. You don't have to have a car chase to have an awesome story, as long as you can find a cool way to describe things. It's as deep as you want to make it."
"The song 'Greatest Pac-Man Victory of All Time' (which contained a series of phrases constructed from words starting with L, S, or D) is a pretty specific song about a specific summer where I did a specific amount of acid [laughs]. I reference pot, but I don't even smoke that often. I talk a lot about pills because that's what this generation can relate to, and I've had my ups and downs dealing with pills. I've been on them over the last six or seven years to treat anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. I hated it the entire time. I've ended up running the gamut of prescription medication, which I'm not proud of, but it's a reality. I've gotten sick from pills that failed, that didn't react well to my body, and none of this is recreational. It's a struggle. I don't ever rhyme about it being cool to take pills. I should be happy and I am happy, in general. I have a pretty good life, I have a wife, I'm an adult, I made it to my 30s without dying, and I have a lot of stuff to be happy about, but still there are these weird struggles. For every guy that doesn't go to a shrink and finds this topic confusing, I assure you it's more confusing actually being involved in it. You start to feel like a slave to the medication. You get the feeling you're in a coma, kind of a zombie. I think it's directly related to my love for movies and TV shows that are fantastical. You feel like you're doing the same thing–at the end of every day you swallow your pills and go about your shit. Anything that's remotely fantastical is a separate thing, a departure. Maybe it's related somehow to my lyrics, trying to be a little bugged out, being super-embellished and exaggerated, telling every story like it's a tall tale whether it is or not."
On Lyrics and Imagery
"When you decide to be a rapper and you're young, you carry around this competition and braggadocio, and it's dope. But I don't care at this point. I don't think I have anything to prove. I don't like music when I feel like someone is talking at you. Inherently with rap, you're being talked at. That definitely has a place, and I've done that for so long. I'd rather engage and paint this picture and involve the listener. When I was 20, I was doing this real machine-gun delivery. Now, it's all an effort to deliver the words in the greatest way they can be delivered. My favorite people paint a picture in few words, guys like Tom Waits, John Darnielle, and Cage. I don't want any preachiness or my opinions on politics or religion. I want to subtract me from the equation. I don't want to talk at people anymore."
"I used paint and draw eight or 10 hours a day. That was my shit. That's what I went to college for, against my mother's best wishes. I majored in oil painting. Everyday, I was told I wasn't going to get a job painting. Turns out, Mom was right. When I was painting, I did large-scale, realistic portraits and figures. It's odd. I never wanted to paint abstractly. I always wanted to be incredibly accurate, harness my skills and train myself. That's what I feel I'm doing with my lyrics. The world wants to stamp me as this abstract lyricist and I feel like I'm doing the opposite. I'm trying to pay such close attention to detail and verbiage in an attempt to be even more realistic."
On Teaching Children
"I've been going back and forth about teaching a class at 826 Valencia, an organization that teaches creative writing to children. I'm nervous. I'm trying to get over the fear of standing in front of children and trying to act like I know something. I've officially hit this point where I'm trying to live off of music and art. I have this inner desire to reach out to this younger generation and tell them, 'It's okay to be confused; here's how some of it works, if you're interested. You don't have to be a banker your whole life if you don't want to be.'"