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Fabled Aesop 

The rhymes are strange and the beats are bleak, but Aesop Rock insists that his latest is anything but experimental

Wednesday, Sep 24 2003
Ian Bavitz, aka Aesop Rock, is sitting on a clothes-strewn couch in his Brooklyn apartment. His coffee table is littered with empty Parliament boxes and his labelmate, rapper Camu Tao, lurks next to him under a sheet, cursing at a TV screen as he wrestles with video-game demons. Bavitz is lanky and unkempt, with dark eyes and a mischievous smile. Amidst the mess of his bachelor pad, chain-smoking cigarettes in his sweat pants, the 27-year-old is not immediately striking as a hip hop pinup boy.

Nevertheless, "My publicist will call me and be like, 'Yeah, I got you this photo shoot, it's this fashion magazine and you have to get wet with no shirt on,'" Bavitz says. "And I'm like, 'What the fuck are you doing? I'm not going to do that shit. I'm a scumbag, I'm not a fucking sex symbol.'"

Of course, it's not exactly surprising that he's so in demand. As one of the pioneering acts signed to the critically lauded label Definitive Jux, the reclusive MC has found himself, for better or worse, in the middle of a very large spotlight. Next month he'll be featured on the cover of Urb magazine and in hipster bibles like Soma and Nylon. But why someone would want to get the so-called "scumbag" half-naked for a photo shoot is perplexing. According to Bavitz, however, it wouldn't be the first time someone slapped a label on him -- or his music -- that he didn't agree with.

"Sometimes I feel like I read something and I learn something about myself: 'Oh that's how I feel?'" he jokes, describing how journalists often come to conclusions about him that miss the mark. "'Good I read it, because I wouldn't have known it unless I read it in this fucking magazine.' And that happens a lot."

With his new record, Bazooka Tooth, it probably won't be any different. In addition to a little payback, i.e., paying lip service to conniving journalists ("Cameras or guns/ One of y'all is gonna shoot me to death"), Bavitz drops a lot of caustic rhymes; lyrically and musically it's not unlike the soundtrack to some fictionalized day of reckoning. Despite its challenging lyrics and darker themes, though, the record elicits a very traditional reaction for hip hop: It makes you want to turn it up, dance, and throw your hands in the air. This is why Bavitz hates another label that's often applied to him, that of an experimentalist. It's quite clear to him -- not to mention to his legions of fans -- that he's just making great, accessible hip hop.

"Motherfucker, I grew up listening to the same shit Nas grew up listening to," he complains. "What do you want me to do?"

After putting out two homemade demos in the late '90s (Music for Earthworms and Appleseed), Bavitz released his debut LP, Float, on Cincinnati/Los Angeles­based label Mush Records in 2000. With its roster of some of hip hop's most acclaimed outsider artists, like Boom Bip and cLOUDDEAD, Mush has a history of giving radically new sounds their outlet.

The combination of Bavitz's super-powered lexicon and remarkably succinct style earned him quite a following among fans of underground hip hop, where dynamic rhyme structure and polysyllabic couplets are preferred to stories about 20-inch rims and all things bling-bling. Tales of his skills and talent were told on Internet message boards and New York City street corners, prompting rapper and producer El-P, of NYC's original next-level crew Company Flow, to release Bavitz's follow-up, Labor Days, on his newly formed Definitive Jux label, home to such indie heavy hitters as producer/boy wonder RJD2, Harlem duo Cannibal Ox, and sociopolitical Berkeley-based rhyme-sayer Mr. Lif. By the time Labor Days came out in 2001, certain circles were already buzzing: Bavitz was being touted as the second coming of the New York underground.

On Labor Days, the absolute beauty of Bavitz's partner Blockhead's production forms the perfect backdrop for the MC's lyrical acrobatics. His growling baritone tells tales of love and work, simple stories related with the tongue of an expert orator. The singalong chorus of "Daylight" exemplifies both Bavitz's intelligence and his accessibility: "All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day/ And put the pieces back together my way," he raps on the crowd favorite.

In contrast to the melodic strains of Labor Days, Bazooka Tooth comes from a darker, more complex place. There are no singalong choruses (except for the tongue-in-cheek falsetto on "Cook It Up") and the instrumentals form a dense wall of sound; the record is haunted by layers of synthesized sounds, intergalactic echo effects, and ominous bass lines. In the provocative "We're Famous," El-P supports Bavitz in a scathing verbal attack against less talented rappers, while Mr. Lif joins in on "11:35" for a bizarre day-in-the-life tale of some truly strange characters.

Mostly, though, Bavitz stands alone, as both rapper and producer. Bazooka Tooth represents his first foray into manning the boards himself, a move that explains some of the differences in tone. But he says that the new songs are also a reflection of his current mind-set, one that compelled him to portray New York City as a war zone.

"It's been a funny year or two in my life and a funny year or two in the world," he says. "I don't know if you heard, but the World Trade Center fell. [It's been] a year of foreshadowing the apocalypse. ... There's definitely a lot a food for angry thought."

Still, underneath the mountain of madness lies your basic hip hop foundation: solid lyrics and a steady beat. "Rappin' is my radio and graffiti is my TV/ B-boys keep them windmills breezy," raps Bavitz on "No Jumper Cables," paying homage to the traditional pillars of hip hop.

Indeed, despite labels of "abstract" or "avant-garde," Bavitz asserts that he does nothing other than make good ol'-fashioned rap.

"Rap music started because they were bored of other music so they created something really new," he explains. "I always get, 'Aesop's so left field with his shit and this and that.' Well wasn't that the point? To do something that doesn't sound like everything else out there but still make it hard and b-boy and raw and be original with it?"

Oddly enough, Bavitz's success thrives on this confusion. It's why his music manages to appeal to fans of mainstream hip hop as well as jaded underground purists. His rhymes actually rhyme, his beats go boom-bap, and his cadence flows with the ease of a veteran wordsmith. Yet cryptic lyrics like "Alpha uno compute/ Motormouth askew at the root/ Brick house huff blew the roof/ Please don't feed the bazooka tooth/ Evolution super fluke" indicate that Bavitz is taking rap in a new direction, even if it's not clear which way that is.

Coinciding with the release of Bazooka Tooth, Bavitz is trading the squalor of his Brooklyn pad for the squalor of a tour bus. But despite the attention paid him, despite the likelihood that he'll sell out most of his shows, the MC demurs at the notion that he might actually be famous, let alone a sex symbol.

"I don't want to be the next face of America," he says, taking a drag of his Parliament. "Mark my words, even if I sell out a club of 15,000 with all girls, I'm not taking my shirt off. I'm sorry. I know y'all are waiting to see the pasty stomach and everything."

About The Author

Anna Klafter


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