One imagines MC Aesop Rock spending his evenings hobnobbing with the underground hip-hop elite at parties scattered throughout New York City, surrounded by interesting women. Until recently, that wasn't far from the truth. It was also true that his albums — such as his beloved 2001 Definitive Jux debut Labor Days — tended to feature disorderly fragments of thought, bookended by sweeping braggadocio.
You can throw all that out the window now.
During the making of None Shall Pass, his most recent CD, Rock gave up much of what defined his persona. He left New York for San Francisco, got married, quit smoking, and not too long ago, turned 30. His hipster lifestyle pretty much evaporated overnight, and he has no problem with that.
"I'm kind of enjoying the quiet," he says in a recent phone interview, adding that he moved to California to be with his wife, Allyson Baker, who was the guitarist for former Bay Area band Parchman Farm. "There's less going on, less distractions for me to get into, and so I have more time for music."
He used his newfound peace and quiet to develop his musical style on None Shall Pass, a narrative-focused CD that showcases Rock's personal growth. It is chock-full of personal anecdotes from his past, as well as fictional tales of growing up. Songs such as "Catacomb Kids" reminisce about his schoolboy days on Long Island, while "Fumes" tells of a young couple's unraveling by way of substance abuse. Tipsy little princess wasn't listening, just yes-ing him, he raps on the latter. The more she fed him 'yes,' the more he fed her fresh barbiturates.
"I was interested in doing more stories. Not necessarily making it 100 percent autobiographical, but stories which should make you think of kindergarten, or that put you back in the time of high school or other times growing up," says Rock, who was born Ian Matthias Bavitz.
The album features more live instrumentation than his other albums, and much of the guitar and bass was supplied by Rock and Baker themselves. The CD also has an out-of-left-field collaboration with the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, called "Coffee."
"Coffee" works, although some critics have complained that Rock's often harsh-sounding production on the album doesn't. In fact, for years folks have opined that longtime collaborator Blockhead's beats are superior to his own. Nonetheless, Rock says producing is an integral part of his artisanship.
"It's really good for me to do both [writing and beat making]," he says. "I don't know what I would do if I only had one. To some extent, I would kind of self-destruct. Some days I wake up and I'll get frustrated when I'm trying to make a beat, so I'll try and start writing instead. They're definitely completely different parts of the brain."
Rock has said he has no interest in signing to a major label, maintaining his longtime loyalty to acclaimed New York outfit Definitive Jux. Nonetheless, his indie cred was called into question last year when he composed a 45-minute track for the Nike + iPod Sports Kit. (The gizmo is designed to get you pumped up while jogging.) He added fuel to the flames after agreeing to be MTV's artist of the week in September. Hecklers on his MySpace page accused him of selling out.
Rock denies the allegation, and adds that the outcry mystified him. He was nonetheless pleased when None Shall Pass opened to bigger sales than any of his previous albums, however, debuting at No. 50 on the Billboard 200.
"It's already exceeded my expectations," he says. "With a new album, you're kind of throwing it out to the sharks, and you don't know what's going to happen. I tried to make the best record I could."
Rock's evolution as a person and an artist is apparent. It's too bad some of his most loyal fans have a hard time appreciating it.
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