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MUST NOT SLEEP... ...MUST WARN OTHERS.
The words are tattooed in big block letters on Aesop Rock's (born Ian Bavitz in 1976) forearms, dripping down past his shirt sleeves. The ink was lifted from Aesop's song "Commencement at the Obedience Academy" off his second full-length album, 2000's Float. "[It's] somewhat of a mission statement," says Aesop. "And the warning others part [too]. There's always this kind of paranoid edge to whatever I'm writing. It just seemed like a reminder [that] there'll be some point when I have to go get a regular day job again, I would assume. But, for as long as I can, you know, try to avoid being a banker or getting a desk job, just kind of trying to force myself to be creative. And nothing forces that more than getting some tattoos where no one will hire you to work anymore."
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Paranoid and creative. If you had to pick two words to sum up Aesop Rock, these would fit. Aesop's distinctly dense lyrical style, evil view and tweaked-out baritone-drawl have revolutionized underground/indie hip-hop. As his creativity has grown, so has his fan base, and with that his paranoia. When Aesop began to break in 2001 with Labor Days he started shutting down. Legend has it that he suffered from serious depression and would stay in his Brooklyn apartment for days on end, smoking cigarettes and playing video games, afraid to leave the crib. His internal battle led to songs like "Cook It Up" off 2003's Bazooka Tooth where Aesop raps, "If you love television and manic depression/ Get a carton of cigarettes/ And we can make it happen."
That was four years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Aesop got married (to Allyson Baker, guitarist of Bay Area rock band Parchman Farm), moved to San Francisco, quit smoking and climbed out from inside his own head. "I'm kind of happier these days," he admits. "People get scared of being happy when they're artists because they think it's going to be the beginning of the end, but I don't know; it's sort of grounded me in this way where I could finally write music that's not all about me complaining. And when I started doing it I was almost opened up to this whole other world of writing where I don't always have to be so boxy and kind of preachy about my take on things or my opinion."
Aesop's new sense of peace hasn't detracted from his creativity - it's opened up a new channel. Instead of harping on his own dementia, we find him looking outward on his new release None Shall Pass (released August 28 on Def Jux). "I think turning 30 had a lot to do with it," he says. "At some point I was just like I don't want to write about myself and I don't care that much about it when other people do it." Aesop has always steered clear of the self-obsessed braggadocio that permeates hip-hop, and while there may be a slight stylistic change that finds him digging deeper into a third-person story world with None Shall Pass, his rhymes are still bizarre clusters of words, clouded in hazy metaphors that cling to the beats like fog to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. His new record is almost like an avant audio Aesop Rock movie, where tales of judgment, youth's end, drugs, pirates, society and relationships paint vague pictures that we may or may not relate to.
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"The first song on the record is a little abstract," explains Aesop, "but it's supposed to be about, I wake up in the morning and there's all these ghosts that are sort of hanging out on my front lawn and I'm just kind of like, 'Hey guys, don't hang out here. This isn't really your spot to loiter.' They're basically just telling me, 'Look, we are all these untold stories and we're not going anywhere till you tell us.'"