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Rap sessions
Aesop Rock stays underground with Bazooka Tooth

Back in Public Enemyís heyday, the underground was just a place where rappers started their bum rush of the stage, the government, all that Heaven would allow, before they went on to mainstream success. But after too many bloody deaths and a new hip-hop generationís birth, after rampant commercialization and the cultureís amazing global dispersion, after corporate crises and the invention of digital cottage industries, now the underground has become an honorable destination in itself. Which means that the complacent anti-populism so prevalent in indie rock has come to infest the hip-hop vanguard too. At their best, indie-rappers have ways of making their insularity work for them, burying their meanings in complex beats, or cheap production, or a flow so fast it spilleth over, all the while seducing you into pumping their shit louder than a bomb.

But in Aesop Rockís case, that doesnít mean he wants to turn you on. In interview after interview, this underground-rap icon offers the same rationale. "I never really expected to have one fan, you know what I mean?" is the way he explains it to me. "So any fans that I have now, Iím just kind of appreciative of. But the listener is not my main concern, to be honest. My main concern is doing something that I think is dope. I think thatís why I have fans: because people recognize that I just kind of section myself off and do my thing. People appreciate what I do because itís very internal."

On the new Bazooka Tooth (Def Jux), Aesop Rock bum-rushes his mind the way Public Enemy bum-rushed that stage, the government, et al., utilizing indie rapís dank bag of tricks with as much mad energy as they burned up trying to conquer Amerikkka. Like P.E.ís It Takes a Nation of Millions, the album demands close attention; put it on and you have to turn it up, see how low that bass will go.

The first few bars are barely there, a warm riff ringing gently on chimes or vibes. But then Aesop Rock arrives muttering, "A jackhammer is so real," and the whirlwind starts. Suddenly, deep grungy chords are booming around whooshing sound effects and the rapper is spitting the image of his new alter ego, Bazooka Tooth: "Okay, diamond curved spine/Armadillo armor that bends around the blades/Bugs in the beard/Ebony in the lung piece/Bricks in the Tims/Bazooka in the tooth that heís flashing at your friends/Itís a lifestyle, baby!" Yet even as he builds this anti-superhero fantasy, heís glancing over his shoulder, "And, oh my God, journalists around the globe are officially critiquing my first eight bars." Then the track breaks down entirely, digital detritus crumbling on top of the rapper as he notes, "My tongue is bleeding me." Just as the white noise is about to take over, the track cranks up again, with an entirely new ugly backing beat and a denser, more impenetrable lyrical flow. And thatís just the first minute of a 70-minute CD.

The only way to untangle yourself from these jarring cheap beats, every-which-way samples, and torrents of consonant-cluttered raps is to steel yourself for study, to learn it as if you were decoding the enervating babble of a new language. Not that there arenít enticements to undertake the hard work ó the sarcastic broken funk of "Cook It Up," the burbling electrobeats of "Easy," the beguiling snatches of twisted jazz and classical and Middle Eastern music everywhere. But the biggest enticement is Aesop Rockís previous track record. For most fans, that means his 2001 full-length Def Jux debut, Labor Days, and its 2002 follow-up EP, Daylight, both of which countered his dark, chunky logorrhea with smooth, haunting music as fresh and clean as any beats in the underground.

"I donít know," he says on his cell phone as the Def Jux tour caravan pulls into its latest overnight stop in Chicago. "It was kind of not that conscious a decision. I think a lot of the difference in sound is just due to a difference in production sound. Most people are used to hearing me over Blockhead, whoís a producer I work with, and this time around I just kind of wanted to do most of it myself."

Aesop Rock indeed did produce all but four of the 15 cuts on Bazooka Tooth, whereas he handles fewer than a third of the numbers on Labor Days and only one on Daylight. Yet that just begs the question of why go so dense and dark. He continues to sidestep as I prod. "B-boy rule number one is to not bite anything. So Iím not interested in making a record that sounds like anything else Iíve heard. Take the few rules that your pioneers set up for you and do your own shit, without compromising your personality or trying to be different on purpose or lying or anything ó thereís a way to strive for a bit of an original sound without coming off as pretentious."

If thatís the full measure of an albumís success, then Bazooka Tooth gets a jillion stars. True to his mission, he never sounds precious, like fellow rap nerd Beans, or grandiose, like indie-rock gurus Mars Volta, but his earthiness is like that of early Ornette Coleman, or Sly Stone on Thereís a Riot Goiní On. As I play and replay the disc in my car, I find myself trying to get untangled by turning the volume so loud that the street scenes in my rear-view mirror go fuzzy as the woofers rattle my back window. And seeing the world jostle out of focus gives me pause ó at its worst, when the rhymes become impenetrable and the fragments unparsable and the beats merely oppressive, as happens on maybe three of these 15 tracks, the discís gazillion stars go fuzzy as well. But maybe thatís the point.

"These past two years have been pretty strange," Aesop says. "So I wanted to make an overall soundscape ó lyrics and production included ó that reflect the grittiness of New York by itself, and on top of that the grittiness of New York in terms of whatís been happening in the world for the last couple years. And itís not exactly pretty."

The latest in a long artistic line, Aesop Rock has as his great verbal talent the creative act of naming, of making descriptive lists. It can be an astounding and even transcendent trait, even if it takes time for people to appreciate it, as was the case with some of his most ambitious predecessors. "Itís a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel," wrote Edith Wharton about James Joyceís Ulysses. "And until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & thought can make a work of art without the cookís intervening."

Born Ian Bavitz 27 years ago on Long Island, Aesop Rock has always been as steeped in New Yorkís quotidian life as Joyce was in Dublinís. On Labor Days, the passing mentions of subway cars and double-dutch games flow as easy as the old-school rap quotes through which he claims his heritage. The city comes out even stronger in "Nickel Plated Pockets," a cut off the Daylight EP. That one was supposed to be a quickie capitalizing on the success of Labor Daysí most transcendent cut, "Daylight," but "Nickel Plated Pockets" dropped the first hint that the EP was also a testimonial to more pressing matters in the rapperís life. The songís portrait of a trip to the store with "a pocket full of nickels for cigarettes, gum, and milk" was also a portrait of mental and social bonds cracking in a city where "thereís crack in the basement" and "where every crack in the sidewalk is a symbol." At the tail end of the disc came a hidden track testifying to what those cracks added up to ó a crack-up. "In August of 2001, my seemingly splinter-proof brain bone scaffolding exploded. . . . Iíd be lying if I said all of this made even the slightest fragment of sense to me. . . . I donít know what happened or whatís still happening." As a result, Aesop cancelled his first big tour, holed up in his apartment, underwent professional treatment, and poured himself into writing and producing Bazooka Tooth.

"It was a combination of a lot of things, none of which Iím all that comfortable talking about," he says now. "But a lot of things in my life, and obviously in the globe, and in my family ó just a lot of shit went down at the time. Itís not something I like to go into detail about past that song, which I sort of regret releasing anyway."

I donít think heíll ever say the same about Bazooka Tooth ó the disc is a landmark, one of the few avant-garde hip-hop discs that deserves more than a subcultural pedestal. But as Aesop Rock also stresses, it doesnít mean he wonít continue patching the cracks where he can. A few Sundays ago, I went to see him perform to a sold-out club in my home town, Cleveland, where he shared the stage with his good friend Mr. Lif. In my estimation, Lifís own Def Jux masterpiece, I, Phantom, surpasses Aesop Rockís almost-masterpieces, but, hey, itís still light out in Aesopís life, and the show proved it. Both men were in top form, joshing, opening up their raps even as they spewed them with a dizzying dexterity. One of the loveliest rhymes was his a cappella rendition of "No Jumper Cables," a number I just canít get my ears around on Bazooka Tooth. Its list of 1980s New York City totems was prodigious, a reminder of what George Orwell called Ulyssesís author: "an elephantine pendant." But first, he said, "Joyce is a poet."

Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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