During a recent interview, rising-star rapper A$AP Rocky fielded a question about whether he was tight with Aesop Rock. “I didn’t even know who he was until people started asking me that,” he shrugged, lending credence to the perceived insularity of certain scenes in hip-hop: most notably, the so-called backpacker underground with which Aesop was associated.
As a prime mover with the now-on-hiatus Definitive Jux label, Aesop tested the boundaries of that scene with Bazooka Tooth (2003) and None Shall Pass (2007), which flirted with mainstream popularity even as they further defined his outlier stance: dense wordplay delivered in a storytelling nerd-nasal cascade, grappling with such diverse topics as depression, urban decay and “the art of selling out,” over a synaptic jungle of experimental breaks. The music was exhausting but rewarding to listen to, and no doubt equally exhausting to make; by 2008, after the death of friend and labelmate Camu Tao, Aesop dialed back his solo output.
On Skelethon, released last July on Rhymesayers, he sounds rejuvenated, revved up and more than a little upset. “Moral compass all bat-shit spinning in the shadows of immoral magnets / Are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict?” he spits on the single “Zero Dark Thirty,” a rapid-fire screed aimed at “A-alike androids” and “choke-lore writers.” His currently stripped-down touring unit, with fellow rhyme ace Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz, seems built to hammer the point home: In this age of unsigned hype, all you really need is a beat and a microphone.—Bill Murphy
Aesop Rock plays Coachella Friday April 12 and Friday April 19.