Q&As

Inside The Rhyme Sayer’s Brain

Hot on the heels of the international Hey Kirby tour, musician and producer Aesop Rock talks to Folks about his lyrics, latest album, and life-long battle with mental illness

At times impenetrable, at times hilarious, almost always infuriatingly impressive: Aesop Rock, the New York-born rapper is known for his dense and complex songs, A 2014 study named his the largest vocabulary in hop-hop, surpassing 85 other major artists, as well as historic writers including Shakespeare.

With seven studio albums under his belt, Aesop released his latest solo effort The Impossible Kid in April last year. The album confronts mental illness, aging, and includes the tour titled track Hey Kirby, an ode to the cat who helps him deal with depression. It’s considered his most ‘accessible’ work to date.

“I’m not trying to be the lyrical miracle anymore,” he says. “I just want to be a better writer.”

In 2002, the documentary Bazooka Tooth, which shares the name of Aesop’s fourth studio album, first gave a glimpse into the rapper’s life. It was also the first time that he opened up about his struggle with mental health to a wider audience. 

“Emotionally I’ve seen the bottom of the barrel, just based on some the things that have happened to me,” he said. “I set my standards really high and end up stressing myself out to the point where I can’t do anything… I’ve had problems just operating. I’ve had issues with depression.”

He’s more guarded these days, shying away from interviews that approach his personal life, though his music remains as unflinching as ever. 

Following mention of his therapeutic relationship with Kirby, his companion cat, in Folks, the artist agreed to answer a few questions. We caught him on the last night of tour.

 

Looking back through interviews and videos, I can see you’re not necessarily super open about your mental health, though you have a lot of allusions to it in your work. Why is this particular card one you keep close to your chest?

I guess I just try to walk the line.  It’s on my mind constantly, so obviously it works its way into the music in some form or fashion–where I can choose to be as cryptic or forthcoming as I want to be.  At the same time, I’ve had a life long struggle with a lot of this stuff, and it make me feel like less of a human to not have been able to get it sorted by now.  In short–it’s embarrassing.  At the same time, what is there to say? I’m not asked that often about it, and the reality of the answers about those kinds of questions can go on for years.  There’s no easy, quick answer, and it’s never fun to talk about.  Even having people approach and thank me for being somewhat open about some of it–I mean, it’s nice, but ultimately it doesn’t solve my own issues.  I wouldn’t even really know how to describe to people what goes on upstairs for me, so often times it’s easier to steer around it. 

‘Kirby’ was one of the earlier songs you wrote for The Impossible Kid, the track that helped “break the ice.” As an “MD recommended sense of purpose,” how does having this cat around affect your life and wellbeing?

I think she just gave me some sense of purpose day to day.  She needs me to survive, and it feels good to be needed, even though she doesn’t really have a choice. Taking care of something at least gives you a mission for the day, so if all else fails, I still kept this other living creature alive, and maybe that’s worth something. 

 

After ‘Kirby’ and ‘Rings’, ‘Shrunk’, which deals with therapy, is probably my favorite track on The Impossible Kid. I think because I feel like you’re really just trying to have fun with a topic that’s not fun at all. Is the way you feel at therapy akin to the way you feel when fans or critics pull apart your lyrics to look for the deeper meaning?

Not necessarily. I learned very early that nobody will ever interpret these songs in the way that they were intended, at least not 100%.  That’s something you just come to terms with. The relationship I have with my music is mine only. Therapy is it’s own monster.  Some love it, some hate it; I’ve been to more than I can count starting very early in my life. It’s such a crap shoot.  I guess you walk in expecting someone with wisdom and answers. Really it’s just a person who took some classes and read some books.  They can certainly hit you with a nugget of information here and there, but it’s basically a paid set of ears. The entire concept is odd, and it’s pretty easy to find the stuff off-putting.  Obviously it’s all about finding the right person, but that can take years.  Then you have to see if you can afford it, or how often your insurance will allow you to go, etc etc.  There’s so many roadblocks.  Not to mention, when it’s time find someone new, for whatever reason, you then have to go back in and start from square one… again.  The entire process is daunting and difficult and occasionally just humorous. 

I learned very early that nobody will ever interpret these songs in the way that they were intended, at least not 100%.

You’ve said that ‘the impossible kid’ is you, and that that’s something to do with beating yourself up for “struggling to be happy.” Do you think writing the album has helped you come to grips with that?

I was aware of it before writing the album, it’s really been stuff I’ve been aware of for so long I can’t even tell you.  The album just kinda came out how it did.  It wasn’t supposed to be some foray into mental health or anything, but a couple things of that nature were swirling around at the time and made it into the narrative.  I wouldn’t say there’s anything on there that I wasn’t already aware of, and I don’t know it’s the type of stuff I’ll ever come-to-grips with. It’s everyday.  

You’ve said you “avoid social experiences at all costs,” and even the more pointed “fuck the conversation.” How does that marry up with being a public figure, going on tour and using social media? 

Social media is pretty difficult at times. I use it to promote my music and occasionally just let people know I’m out here and alive, working, etc.  I guess it’s essentially part of my job.  I’ve never done Facebook and would probably hop off Twitter and Instagram if I thought I could maintain my work without it. I already don’t follow anyone on Twitter because I just find it all depressing. I use Instagram to look at artwork and skateboarding, nothing really music related. Tour life is something that took me years to get used to, or put a system in place that allows it to happen. I quit my last day job in 2001 and had my first-ever national tour set to rollout about a week after.  I ended up sorta being overwhelmed in the 11th hour, and I skipped out on the whole thing.  That’s my starting point.  Nowadays I can make it work, I keep my tour party small, and I can power through it. I like to shake hands and say thank you to everyone after the show, because I’m truly grateful that I am allowed this job and that people follow my music, but even with that stuff, I sorta have to psyche myself up to go and do it. Maybe since it’s a couple hundred very quick interactions with almost no depth, I can just close my eyes and walk forward.  I don’t have to get close to anyone in those circumstances.  It just a big explosion of surface-level interaction.  

 

I watched the Bazooka Tooth documentary, which is 15 years old now. Do you relate much to it, to the person you were then? You’ve talked a bit about what turning 40 has meant for you. Do you think your work has the same identity and purpose?

I haven’t watched that in a long time. I’m sure I’d relate on some level.  I’ve actually always found it extremely difficult to see what my work even looks like from the outside looking in. I don’t know how it comes off, or where people place it in the musical landscape.  My life is very different than it was 15 years ago, and there are elements of my purpose that evolve and adapt, but some of the foundation is there.  I like to put words together.  I like to piece sounds together. I’ve gone through periods where the music was all about the crew experience, being around people, collaborating and rapping with others.  These days it’s a much more introverted endeavor. I guess maybe that’s how it was too in the very beginning, when you’re just writing alone in your bedroom with no expectations that anyone will even hear the stuff.  Then it turned into a social endeavor, a way to meet others into the same craft. Now I’m back at square one, just seeing what I can do, and attempting to block out the idea that one day these songs may actually get heard.

Do you think there’s much truth or value in the concept of the tortured artist: that people who face tragedy or mental illness make better art or tell better stories?

I think that’s probably true on some level and bullshit on some level.  That’s actually a tough one to answer.  Perhaps feeling pain on any level breeds the kinda introversion that leads to spending a lot of time alone making shit.  But you’d also think that there’s gotta be a way to just be creative without the baggage.  Yeah. I really don’t know.  Most of the musicians I like are insane, so there’s that. 


For me, one of my favorite lines of yours ever is in ‘Homemade Mummy’; “Take the brain out/leave the heart in.” Do you have favorite lines you carry round with you, that you’re particularly proud of or feel meaningful? What are they? 

Sure I guess, it’s hard to kinda think of them off the cuff, and I really only have the most recent stuff logged in my memory.  I like “even his prize horse rides a wolf into battle”, from ‘Tuff.  I kinda like some of the 3rd verse of Shrunk that you mentioned. I always liked “armchair hater, I wouldn’t piss on your coffin, but when I see your picture I draw dicks on it.”  I guess I like the ones that summon up some real imagery, lines that make a picture in your head.  I’d have to listen to the songs to really pull more. 

The Hey Kirby tour’s over now. What’s next for you?

I have a few collaborative projects in the works, but it’s probably a bit early to announce any of them.  Beyond that I’ll be finishing up original music for the feature Infinity Baby right when I get home.  Other than that I just stay working. I never really know what project my days work will go towards, I just chip away and see if I can come up with something cool, a line, a beat, whatever.  Just stay busy.