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Aesop Rock, like most musicians, would prefer not to have his most brilliant moment outshine the rest of his catalog. Nevertheless, that's what the 25-year-old rapper, born Ian Bavitz in Long Island, seems to be facing a mere two-and-a-half albums into his career. Said highlight is a verse from "Daylight," the standout track from last year's superb Labor Days (Definitive Jux). "Life is not a bitch," Aesop raps over producer Blockhead's comfortable, wood-flute-embellished groove. "Life is a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy/Maybe she just didn't feel y'all shared similar interests/Maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet-talk a princess."
"That's my one good thought I've ever had," muses Bavitz one early evening at lower Manhattan's Virgin Megastore. "People like it so much it's a little embarrassing." So he subverted it a little. Aesop's followup EP Daylight was supposed to include a remix of the song, but neither Blockhead nor the rapper could figure out how to rework the beat. Then inspiration struck.
"I'd been listening to [Jay-Z's] 'The Takeover,' and really liked the whole aggressive feeling the track had," he says. So instead of changing the beat, the rapper changed the lyrics, with Blockhead constructing a new track around them. Retitled "Night Life," the new song climaxes with "Life is not a bitch/Life is a bee-yotch/Who keeps the villagers out circling the marketplace/Out searching for the g-spot...Maybe you're just an asshole, and maybe I'm just an asshole."
An asshole is not the way he comes across, though, either on record or in person. Basketball-player tall and dressed in thrift-shop gear, Aesop Rock seems, more than anything, still buzzed about actually making a living doing something he loves. (He's just returned from a couple of hours of beatmaking with Blockhead.)
From the title on down, Labor Days demonstrates Aesop Rock's obsession with how to make ends meet. Its thematic climax is "9-5ers Anthem," where he breaks down his philosophy: "We may not hate our jobs/We hate jobs in general that don't have to do with fighting our own causes."
He can now fight as many causes as he wants to: Upon Labor Days' release, Aesop quit his assembly-line job (he applied heat glue to city bus signs) to rap full-time. "I've also packed trucks, done all kinds of manual labor. Anything I didn't have to dress up for," he says. "Now, if I think of two words that rhyme in a day, that's my job. Like, I'll call Def Jux and tell them that I just realized 'banana peel' rhymes with 'hamster wheel,' and they send me a check."
He's kidding, of course. But despite the everyman pathos of his lyrics and the proudly independent nature of his record company, Definitive Jux (run by former Company Flow-er El-P), some fans would seem to believe otherwise. "On tour, there was this kid who was like, 'I bet you guys get $1,000 per diem,'" he says of a recent stop in rural Galesburg, Illinois. "I'm like, 'Do you even know what that means? It's the money we get to eat every day. I couldn't eat that much food in a month.'"
That tour stop, which Aesop headlined along with El-P and Atmosphere, was notable in other ways as well. "Galesburg is definitely the weirdest town I've been in," Bavitz says. "The person who threw the show was basically not allowed to advertise it--I think the people in the town were afraid of having a hip-hop show there. There were more cops than at any show I've ever played, in any city, any country in the world.
"Then, on our way to the airport, the car ran out of gas, so the promoter started hitchhiking. Thirty seconds later, we were in a car with a born-again Christian family, a husband and wife and daughter. The women were both wearing habits on their heads, like nuns. They tried to convert us: They were telling us that the devil fights hard and had we ever considered Jesus? They were musicians, too--but the only subject of their songs was the Lord. It was weird, but at least it got us to the airport."
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