Q + A with Aesop Rock

Aesop Rock, born Ian Bavitz, knows a thing or two about the hip-hop industry. With a music career dating to the early 90’s, the artist has recorded and produced seven studio albums and has a list of collaborations, and special projects with the likes of Nike, an arm long. Currently on tour, Aesop Rock, played The Vogue last night while celebrating his 40 birthday! We had a chance to chat with him about his career development, new living quarters, and creative process.
Aubrey Smith: How have your lyrical/writing goals developed over the decades of your artistry?
Ian Bavitz: My very generalized answer would be that if I split my rap career in half, the first half would be about learning how to rap, and the 2nd half would be about learning how to insert my personality into what I’m writing.  For a long time there was this weight put on ones “skills,” which for me just meant learning cool patterns, how to rhyme words, using wordplay and trickery to make what you’re saying sound cooler than it is, working on my voice, and basically building a toolbox. Later it shifted into trying to be more true to my actual sensibilities – which involved using more of my day-to-day language, humor, embracing my idiosyncrasies, and letting it all be a part of it.

AS: What is the indie hip-hop scene in Portland like? How have you been fitting in or standing out?

IB: To be honest – I have no idea.  I don’t really insert myself into the scene there.  It’s a lovely city, but in my mind it’s been a way to “get away” rather than a place I really get too involved in. I have a studio and can work as much as I want, and most of the people I hang out with are not musicians. My music has really become more about what I can do, more than feeding off a scene. I’ve never been a very social person, so that’s just where I’m at these days.  I tend to stay in my little bubble, and when I’m out and about it’s usually to get on my skateboard or eat something scrumptious.

AS: What is the earliest pivotal moment in your rap career that you can recall?
IB: Getting a deal was cool, as it allowed me to have full color artwork and vinyl and such. But maybe my second deal with Def Jux as it was coming to fruition was bigger for me in terms of my career. It was a handful of dudes all really psyched to be doing work, creating a scene for ourselves, and embracing whatever came our way. I had been working a day job up until Labor Days came out, so I was also free of that for the first time, and trying to learn how to be a full time rapper.
AS: Congrats on turning the big 4-0. A lot of self-reflection has been showcased in your latest release. What’s the biggest takeaway you want your listeners to have from it?
IB: Hm. I don’t really know – I never think about that stuff.  I think rap is generally thought of as a place where some over-confident alphas gather to brag and boast.  My music is not really about that, so perhaps part of the takeaway is just like – hey, I’m 40, still spinning, still having ups and downs, still as unsure of myself as I was when I was a child. So for those who can’t identify with the constant “I’m the man” stuff, I got the self-loathing on lock.
AS: Do you find a longing to tap into the art (as opposed to music) side of your skill set? Is there an opportunity still waiting for you in the field of drawing, painting, etc.?
IB: I mess around. I doubt there’s any opportunity for me monetarily speaking, and I don’t really think having an art show is anywhere in my future. But I like to keep a pencil moving, I try to keep a sketchbook going, and I always wish to dive back into it for more hours a week than I am now.  My skills in that department are pretty lacking these days – so it’s more just something I like to do, rather than something I see much of a future for myself in. I’ve been learning Adobe Illustrator lately and messing with that a lot – which has been a new kind of picture-making I enjoy. Still love sketching but I don’t think I ever really had what it takes to make it in that world.
AS: How do you continue to stay creative and different after producing seven solo albums?
IB: Well, thanks.  I don’t really know – I just genuinely like making shit. In my experience, if you really actually like doing the shit, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to continue progressing. I love rapping, I love listening to rap. I take it seriously and I always wanna find those little “a-ha!” moments where you realize you’re doing something you’ve never done before – even if nobody else would ever notice. Those moments where you’re 100% positive you came up with something fresh that you believe in – regardless of what the world thinks. Those moments don’t really happen unless you’re really going for it. I just like making shit. Drawing, music, I’ll paint a fucking birdhouse from Joann Fabric. I just wanna make shit, and that’s the single thing in my life that has stayed consistent – that specific desire.
AS: What advice would you live to give to young artists taking a leap of faith to pursue a music career?
IB: I don’t have much advice.  For me – while it was somewhat of a leap of faith, I had already released four projects by the time I quit a day job. I quit the week before I was supposed to leave for my first ever tour, and I had enough money saved to try music out for a year and see if it was working for me. So while there is always a risk, I was never the guy that just decided he was a musician one day regardless of whether or not it was working.  I also came up before he Internet was really what it is now. That said – I think the only thing to do is make the flyest shit you can. Nothing happens overnight, but if you’re working hard and making fly shit, eventually it’s gonna get noticed.
Photos taken by Christopher Wilson.