That’s not to say Aesop hasn’t been busy — he’s been a part of three collaborative albums, including 2013’s crafty Hokey Fright with Kimya Dawson, since 2011. But there’s no denying he’s evolved since his productive period as a wordy, intriguingly slanted rapper for the adventurous Hip Hop label Definitive Jux beginning in the late 1990s. That evolution is on display throughout The Impossible Kid, another lyrically dense effort that also finds Aesop handling all production duties and revealing a seemingly more accessible personal angle.
CityBeat recently connected with Aesop to discuss everything from his thoughts on turning 40 as a rapper — a development he calls “terrifying” — to his admission that music is a “disease” he can’t help but fall prey to.
CityBeat: The Impossible Kid seems more overtly personal than your other records — or at least more accessibly personal. Was that intentional? Or did that arise organically?
Aesop Rock: Not really intentional, and not something I realized until I started playing it for folks after I had the music. They’re all personal, though; I just think the writing evolves as I get older. You make discoveries and the things that interest you change and adapt and grow and die. With that, the sound of the music kinda does the same.
Each record just reflects the phase I was in — sometimes I get really into the more cryptic side of things, while other times I want to be as direct as possible. I’m just walking down these avenues as they come to me and trying to do what feels right at the time. But I also never even consider that people are going to hear this music — it’s always an “Oh yeah” moment when all is said and done.
CB: How did relocating to Oregon influence The Impossible Kid?
AR: It’s kinda hard to say. It’s just where my life has led me for the time being. My old environment had grown stale and I was ready for a change. Now I’m here — who knows how long? I don’t really feel settled anywhere these days, so it’s all just scenery changes and keeping it moving. When this stops being a place I feel motivated in, I’ll move on. I think I liked the idea of just being away from what I knew, so I dipped. Now I’m in a strange land, for better or worse.
Someday I’ll be in a different strange land. Even when I know 100 percent that where I am may not be “me,” I still find this all fascinating — people, cities, sticks, geography. I have a certain mindset from growing up on the East Coast for 30 years. I like seeing how others live even if it makes me uncomfortable sometimes. Many days I wake up like, “Where the fuck am I?” Who knows? But I have the ability to pick up and go, which is a luxury not many have, so I figured fuck it, let’s see how that affects my work. Sometimes comfort zones are the best. Sometimes discomfort is just what the doctor ordered.
CB: The song ‘Blood Sandwich’ name-checks your brothers. Do you consider how family, friends or even public figures will react when you mention them in a song?
AR: That one was funny because I set out to make an ode to them without really fully considering if they wanted that. They both had very different reactions, and I think I’d approach it differently next time. They both appreciated the sentiment, but having a song be so specifically about something in your life can be a bit heavy — even when the intentions are all love. I’m not really ever out there talking shit and name-dropping people — that’s not really my thing — but there is a weight there, and I think I learned a lot writing that one. Live and learn.
CB: That song also mentions the band Ministry. How do you think your exposure to underground ’80s music influenced what you do as a rapper?
AR: I was honestly exposed to everything. My brother was into a wide variety of music, and beyond that I grew up skateboarding, which brings all types of people together from different backgrounds, neighborhoods (and) interests… I heard it all and I will always be thankful for that. More so than Ministry, specifically I think what I learned — and what I tried to get across in that part of the song — is the power of music. If a song or group hits you at the right time in your life, it’s everything. It’s bigger than school or family or anything else. Seeing the absolute power of all these forms of music was awe-inspiring and vital to me, and I disappeared down that rabbit hole and have yet to emerge.
CB: You’ve been making music for 20 years now. How do you keep things fresh and interesting for yourself and your listeners?
AR: For myself, at this point this is basically a disease. I don’t have a choice here. It’s a compulsion, a passion, it’s a million things wrapped up in one. It’s just what I do without thinking because that’s all I know. Even if I’m trying something I’m not totally comfortable with, I’m still most comfortable within that zone, and those particular risks become comforting. I don’t have anything else, so I keep exploring and just try to keep myself entertained. Finding something new that I know I’ve never done before is the best feeling I know, and when I get there it’s all worth it.
As for the listeners, I don’t know. I kinda can’t believe anyone is still here listening. It’s flattering and abstract and awesome and uncomfortable. But I also don’t really think about them much. I just make things and one day they hear it. I think if I considered the listener too much during my creative process, I’d be doing a disservice to me and them.
AESOP ROCK performs Friday at 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info: the20thcenturytheatre.com.