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Aesop Rocks With ‘Bazooka Tooth’ Tour

By Andrew R. Iliff, Crimson Staff Writer

Aesop Rock doesn’t care what critics think of his music.

“People’s opinions outside of my direct group of friends means next to nothing,” he says. “When you’re younger, you really care who your fans are. I’m kind of surprised anyone likes my shit.”

Aesop, a.k.a. Ian Bavitz, has been developing both his flow and his fan base for several years now, beginning with a string of self-released discs. He is referred to by some as the exemplar of “backpack rap,” a strain of hip-hop supposedly characterized by intellectual rhymes and nerdy beats—what Aesop refers to as “the cliché of a white kid with a backpack.”

But Aesop doesn’t so much reject the term as ignore it.

“People can label me whatever they like. I don’t really care any more,” he says.

In 2000, he released his debut label release, Float, on Mush, before getting signed to independent New York label Definitive Jux.

Aesop’s latest opus, titled Bazooka Tooth, came out last month. The album, like its title, is weird, unsettling and about as far an emcee can get from conventional rap. Aesop’s rhymes are dense configurations so contorted and twisted as to be mostly incomprehensible, except for occasional moments of clarity that illuminate his free association references and bizarre stories.

Aesop insists that his obscure style is not a contrived effect.

“I’ve been writing for a long time. I always thought that as a b-boy you were supposed to do something original. Over 11 or 12 years I Aesop insists that his obscure style is not a contrived effect.

“I’ve been writing for a long time. I always thought that as a b-boy you were supposed to do something original. Over 11 or 12 years I just developed this style.”

He sounds sleepy and tired on the phone, but that might just be because 12:30 is early in the morning for rappers. It’s not surprising, given that he and touring partner Mr. Lif have played a different city every night with only an occasional day off.

The Bazooka Tooth tour came to the Middle East downstairs in Central Square on November 2. Not one to hog the spotlight, Aesop shared the stage with Boston icon Mr. Lif, who backed him on a selection of songs from Bazooka Tooth, including “Easy” and “No Jumper Cables.”

Cocky, offbeat choruses aside, Aesop’s style does not easily lend itself to performance. The congestion of syllables in his rhymes leaves little space for the declamatory style underpinning most rappers’ showmanship. At times, he seemed to struggle to keep up with the manic flow of words, his eyebrows leaping up while his lips worked furiously, though he never seemed to miss a beat. But he did run into trouble with the Yankees cap that he is seldom without, which he politely turned backwards in the face of the Boston crowd.

“I’m not even much of a baseball fan,” he says. “It’s just a New York thing that I do anyway, and it just happened to be ‘We win!’”

Interspersed with his songs, Aesop made way for Lif to drop several of his own, including “Home of the Brave,” a political screed written long before Bush-bashing became a popular pastime.

Despite their divergent performances, the two rappers complement each other well. “[Def Jux] is a tight-knit community,” Aesop concedes—though he rejects the idea that El-P’s brand of gloomy industrial beats set the tone. “All the artists [on Def Jux] have very different sounds. Possibly there’s a similar mentality; everyone wants to make their own music.”

At the Boston show, Aesop and Lif made much of the former’s decision to give up smoking, even dropping a skit in the middle of the show to dramatize Aesop’s rejection of the nicotine temptation. Just over a week later, Aesop caved. “I’m trying to cut down, but it’s just too much when you’re touring,” he said in an interview.

Touring seems to have taken its toll on Aesop in other ways too. “I used to really like the songs [on Bazooka Tooth]. Now I’m just sick of them because we’ve just been performing them over and over again,” he says.

Def Jux and its artists are starting to get higher profiles. Both Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif are featured on MTV, who Aesop says interviewed him to do a show on the tour. “It’s a little scary,” says Aesop, “but I can wait it out. If the kids want to see the video, that’s fine by me.”

Aesop’s obscurity may have a lot to do the mainstream attention he’s starting to get. In the oft-predictable world of mainstream hip-hop, Aesop is a definite wild card. And while he says he doesn’t force obscurity, he does try to avoid sounding like anyone else, of which he seems quite proud.

“I get told that I’m weird—but you forget that the whole reason you liked [Boogie Down Productions] in the first place was because you never heard anything like that before.”

—Staff writer Andrew R. Iliff can be reached at iliff@fas.harvard.edu.

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