During the making of None Shall Pass, Aesop Rock's gentler, narrative-heavy new CD, the hip-hop MC moved from his beloved New York to San Francisco, got married, and turned 30. "So, those were the three punches in the face I took," he said with a chuckle in a recent phone interview.
Rock flung himself across the country to be with his wife, Allyson Baker, guitarist for erstwhile Bay Area band Parchman Farm. "It was kind of a blessing in disguise," he says. "I probably needed to get out of New York, and didn't really realize it until I got out. When you're from New York, you feel like you're not allowed to live anywhere else."
It was a New York-centric, street-poet sound that informed 2001's Labor Days, though, the disc that shot Rock to underground fame upon its release. The album showcased his dense, hyperarticulate lyricism. When you could penetrate Rock's meaning, you found him blending braggadocio with vivid imagery; on his masterpiece, "Daylight," Rock rapped, "While the triple sixers lassos keep angels roped in the basement, I walk the block with a halo and a stick poking your patience." His sonic innovation and fan base continued to grow with the 2003 full-length Bazooka Tooth, and a pair of EPs called Daylight and Fast Cars, Danger, Fire, and Knives.
None Shall Pass is a mixed bag, displaying the best and worst of what Rock has to offer. It blends gratifying, rollicking beats from longtime collaborator Blockhead with more experimental, often-grating tracks produced by Rock himself. Although his message is frequently lost amidst heaps of metaphors and half-formed ideas, the disc is still a lyrical leap forward for Rock. The songs showcase his storytelling abilities in the form of semi-autobiographical tales. On "Catacomb Kids," Rock raps, "I was a dark dumb student, no hokey rookie daytrippin' on visions of chickens that looked like R. Crumb drew 'em/ They grew 'em in the royal dirt of Suffolk County's flooring with the blood of an alcoholic clergyman in his forearms." On the album's most compelling songs — the title track, "Fumes," and "The Harbor Is Yours" — Rock's tales evoke fear, nostalgia, and the horrible ecstasy that is youth.
Since moving to San Francisco in 2005, the easily distractible MC has been extremely productive. "Once I got out West, I was like, 'Wow, I'm away from everything, I have less stuff pulling me away, and less reasons to exhaust myself,'" says Rock, whose real name is Ian Matthias Bavitz. "I spend way more hours working on music, being very low-profile and low-key."
His locally produced output includes 2006's short story about the creative process, The Next Best Thing, which paired illustrations by local artist Jeremy Fish with Rock's 7-inch picture disc. Fish calls his friend and collaborator a constant source of inspiration. "He is a cranky wizard of a dude who likes to make music, hang out with his wife, eat schnitzel, ride his skateboard to get coffee, draw pictures of funny shit in my studio, eat patty melts in the wee hours of the night, and watch his giant television," Fish explains.
Rock has also formed an alliance of sorts with the McSweeney's folks. He performed a benefit show for 826 Valencia last year in conjunction with The Next Best Thing, and scored a short film called "Walleyball" for a 2006 edition of the McSweeney's-affiliated Wholphin DVD magazine. "I just really like what they're doing over there. There's talk of me teaching a workshop for kids, but I'm just extremely frightened of doing that," Rock says with a laugh.
He and Baker live in a two-bedroom SOMA apartment, which permits the rapper a much larger workspace than he had in New York. The couple combined their instruments and vinyl collections in their home studio, where None Shall Pass was recorded, and their partnership spilled over onto the disc. Baker played guitar on a number of the album's tracks. (The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is another standout guest; he contributes slightly distorted vocals on the haunting sing-a-long "Coffee.")
None Shall Pass sold 13,200 copies in its first week — more than any previous Rock album — and debuted at number 50 on the Billboard 200. In its third week, it got a bump when Rock was picked as MTV's artist of the week. The exposure angered some of his indie-mentality fans, who peppered Rock's MySpace page comments section with quips like: "That sucks you had to sell out for MTV." Rock says the reaction mystified him; Blockhead responded to the mini-controversy with a post on his MySpace blog, which read, in part: "[Aesop] pretty much made the most personal album he's ever made. [P]retty much the opposite of selling out."
Whether it's stepping gently into the mainstream or moving across the country, a more apt phrase to describe Rock's behavior might be "growing up." This applies to the future of his songwriting, as well.
"I want to try to do rap songs about things that have never even been discussed in the world of hip hop," he says, mapping out plans for possible projects down the line. "I had this vision of songs that feel like they should be told around a campfire — ghost stories or tall tales kind of things."
There are subjects even scarier than turning 30 and getting married, it seems.