Hip-hop's squarest peg busts rhymes and non-sequiturs by the pound
Hip-hop has always cleared a little extra space in the attic for eccentrics—the rappers too weird for the mainstream but too in?uential to be ignored.
Whether taking the form of Kool Keith’s unhinged Dr. Octagonecologyst
, MF Doom’s Marvel Comics
-inspired alternative urban reality, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s slobbering telegrams from the edge of sanity or Biz Markie’s half-crazed, half-sung, half-assed attempts at incorporating humor into verse, the genre has somehow maintained a fairly cozy relationship with Crazy Uncle Whodat even as it devolved into a musical form primarily devoted to the glorification of bling, blunts and bedtime conquests (where d’ya think all those skits came from, anyway?). Think of it as the Redd Foxx wing of the House of Rapresentatives—the sun may’ve long since set on the prime-time days of Sanford and Son
, but we’ll always have all those dirty-assed Laff of the Party
records to fall back on. Turns out that this is where the real action always was anyway.
Long Island-born MC and producer Aesop Rock—better known to his mother as Ian Bavitz—has come to represent the modern manifestation of this hip-hop archetype. Like the Beastie Boys before him, Bavitz has remained something of a cultural outsider as an Anglo working squarely within hip-hop culture, quietly locating other non-conformists with whom he can collaborate (such as Company Flow’s El-P; producer Tony “Blockhead” Simon, son of NYC sculptor Sidney Simon; and wife Allyson Baker, guitarist for San Francisco-based rock group Parchman Farm).
Since the independent release of his ?rst album, 1997’s Music for Earthworms, Aesop’s commitment to keeping it real (in his case, weird) has been abundantly clear. His backing tracks have often been little more than mere wisps of melody dominated by discordant drum parts in odd rhythmic meters, while his distinctive vocals have typically sounded like nerdy sectarian harangues squeezed out of his throat in rapid spasms as if a shower of letters during a spelling bee. Then there are the lyrics—vast streams of altered consciousness and observational detail punctuated by Dada-esque absurdity, random pop culture references and, increasingly, a leftist labor sympathy that’s as far from the Cristal crowd as Prague is from Provo. Not exactly anthems for spending your Saturday night “all up in da club,” to be sure.
Nevertheless, on None Shall Pass, his ?rst full-length in four years and most uncompromising LP to date, Aesop Rock comes correct with a diamond-dense package of 15 tracks (including the scathing anti-corporate bonus cut, “Pigs”) that makes no concessions to current hip-hop culture or fan demands, failing to acknowledge any artist but himself. It’s as if Bavitz’s version of hip-hop has shut itself in the bunker post-9/11, developing a claustrophobic strain of beat/rhyme alchemy that’s almost completely divorced from hip-hop itself, reimagining what’s possible while casting a shadow on the formulaic tripe that currently dominates the Billboard charts.
That said, Aesop Rock’s album is all the better for his apparent hard-headedness, consisting as it does of occasional bouts of self-mythologizing meant to arouse curiosity while simultaneously knocking the cluetrain off its tracks (the Portishead-dark “Catacomb Kids”; his funk-striped collaboration with El-P, “39 Thieves”) and, of course, paeans to the ubiquitous Sucka MCs among us. The very ?rst cut, “Keep Off the Lawn,” creates an intentional distance between Aesop and his less-savvy brethren, even as the language he chooses throws up a veil of vagary: “When they aren’t telling stories they are multiplying grossly on the lawn—let ‘em loiter, never let ‘em spawn / The apparitions have been drinking his water for too long, so when they gathered by the bird bath in the morning he would tell 'em 'I mean no disrespect, but you've all outstayed your welcome.'" And that's only the first stanza. Whew.
Ultimately, what Bavitz is doing here amounts to nothing less than an offhanded attempt to save hip-hop from itself, criticizing the genre for its reliance on proven clichés (the title track improbably manages to rhyme “heart Huckabee” with “art fuckery”) while using it as a platform for change, to show what can be done if it’s approached creatively enough. Considering Bavitz’s undergrad art degree from Boston University, it’s not altogether surprising to ?nd him attempting to affect cultural revolution from inside the belly of the beast. Aesop Rock may very well be—in his stubbornly off-kilter way—the wittiest man in hip-hop today. But make no mistake: As Rakim once insisted, he ain’t no joke.