story + interview/ LOGAN BRENDT
photos/ CHRISSY PIPER
Born in New York, now living in San Francisco, renowned rapper Aesop Rock has released his sixth studio album Skelethon on Rhymesayers. Known for his abundantly heavy and abstract lyrics, Aesop knows how to get people talking and thinking. Intelligently convoluted, his words like his album titles and songs are exceptionally interesting. It has also sometimes been the fuel that has sparked arguments over whether his unconventional style is genuine or gibberish. However, only the best artists know how to spark controversy and only the best artists are often misunderstood.
Now after five years since his last album, Aesop Rock returns with his poetic rhymes that will continue to perplex the inattentive listener. His current and entirely self-produced effort Skelethon also incorporates musicians like Hanni El Khatib, as well as Kimya Dawson who is the sole vocal collaborator on the album. During our interview, Aesop Rock remarks that Skelethon, the title of his new album symbolizes the nonstop occurrence of things dying around everyone at a rapid pace. It’s clear that his use of wordplay is that of a quick-witted and perceptive individual.
You’re a New Yorker residing in San Francisco and have been for a while. What is the musical climate right now in San Francisco including bands, producers, places to play live?
San Francisco has always been a musical hub in the U.S. There’s a ton of great venues here, from tiny to massive, and it seems like music and art in general are pretty rampant in this town. Admittedly I’m not on the forefront of any “scene” these days, but there is a healthy supply of both local and touring bands to keep things interesting. It’s pretty easy to find a show to go to should that be your desire.
Do you feel living in San Francisco has changed your style of hip-hop?
I think leaving my home changed a lot of things in my life, but I don’t know that there was a direct change in my style of hip-hop from New York to San Francisco. It’s just an entirely different environment. I live a completely different life out here than I did in New York, for better or for worse. I think being part of a change that big definitely affected what I write about and how I approach things, but I don’t think it was any regional sound differences that worked their way in.
In the past you’ve drawn from planets and astrology like in “Bring Back Pluto” and “Zodiaccupuncture”. Is astrology/astronomy something that interests you?
Ha. No. The Pluto song was a metaphor for just kind of rooting for the underdog, and if memory serves, I think “Zodiaccupuncture” was mostly saying “Hey no matter what sign you are, you’re gonna die!” I guess space is cool, though I prefer earth.
I know you’ve worked in a gallery before and probably have a good understanding of art history. Is there an art movement that you feel your style of lyrics/hip-hop parallels?
I have worked in several galleries and I did at one time graduate college with an art degree which required I know minimal art history. I don’t think I liken myself to any movement really. I just like looking at paintings. People who make pictures are my heroes in this world— it’s what I wanted to do but was never good enough. I usually am drawn to figure-based stuff with a fair amount of realism, as well as a lot of illustration. I tend to not want to look at 100% abstract art, but yeah, if you can draw and paint your ass off I want to see that shit.
What are some current artists (whether they be street or graffiti artists) that you’ve found interesting?
Obviously Aryz from Barcelona, who did the cover for Skelethon. Been revisiting Odd Nerdrum books at my friend Coro’s house lately. I like Nate Frizzell’s paintings a lot. Really just so many.
Joey Raia is credited with mixing Skelethon. How did you two meet and how was working with him different from other past experiences?
Joey’s mixed all of my records and outside projects since 2007. I believe we met through Cage many years ago in New York. He has a firm grip on what he’s doing and really brings out the best in what I give him to work with. Joey is the best. Super nice, super pro, knows his shit but has a personality that shows he is always eager to learn more. Takes his studio seriously. One of the few all around good people I have met through music.
On the new album, are you using a lot of sampling or a lot live instrumentation, or an equal amount of both?
I’d say an equal amount of both. Everything starts with a sample or a chopped up drum break, but by the end it’s just a combination of any sounds I can find that fit into my patchwork. I’m not a stickler for any specific sound source and I find a combo of both samples and live instruments offers a nice, textured mix of tones.
Has there been anything that’s irritated you in the development of rap music and the culture over the years?
Oh yes. But hey— onward and upward right?
Who were some standout hip-hop artists in the 80s that you grew up listening to?
Run DMC, Beastie Boys, EPMD, BDP, PE, all the usual suspects.
What are you looking forward to most about the tour this summer?
Just playing new songs. We been holding off on performing the new stuff for awhile, and it feels good having a bag of new jams to pull from. Also spending time with my buds Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz, performing unheard Rob Sonic songs, etc. I think my team is all pretty psyched and humbled that we even still get to do this, so while touring can be irritating for so many reasons, there are some really great aspects of it that you can’t find anywhere else in this life. I just am happy to be active and have new material out.
What’s the biggest misconception about you that you want to address?
I don’t want to address any of them, I’m comfortable being misunderstood.