Ian Bavitz, a.k.a. Aesop Rock, is sitting on a clothes-strewn couch in his Brooklyn apartment. His coffee table is littered with empty Parliament cigarette 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. Amid the mess of his bachelor pad, chain-smoking in his sweatpants, 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. This month he's featured on the cover of URB magazine with fellow indie superstar Slug 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?'" Bavitz jokes, describing how journalists often come to conclusions about him that miss the mark. 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"), he 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 he hates another label that's often applied to him: experimentalist.
"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 Nineties (Music for Earthworms and Appleseed), Bavitz released his debut LP, Float, on Cincinnati/Los Angelesbased label Mush Records in 2000. 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 twenty-inch rims and all things bling-bling.
Tales of Bavitz's 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 2001 followup, 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 Berkeley-based sociopolitical rhymesayer Mr. Lif. On Labor Days the absolute beauty of the production, by Bavitz's partner Blockhead, forms the perfect backdrop for the MC's lyrical acrobatics. His growling baritone speaks simple stories with the tongue of an expert orator. The chorus of "Daylight" exemplifies his intelligence and 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 sing-along 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 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 mindset, 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 of food for angry thought."
Still underneath the mountain of madness lie 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 pillars of the culture. Indeed despite labels of "abstract" or "avant-garde," he asserts that he does nothing other than make good ol'-fashioned rap. "I always get, 'Aesop's so left field with his shit and this and that,'" he says. "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 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 he's taking his art 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."
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