FEW HAVE DONE BETTER THAN THE DEF JUX CREW in capturing the twitchy fractured neurotransmitters of the George Bush/Paris Hilton American schizophrenia of the ’00s. Carving out a subterranean fiefdom out of odd-ball eclecticism and non-conformity, the Jukies have less in common with other rap labels than they with another chain-smoking bohemian NYC-based collective, one who emerged in response to what writer Michael McLure called the “gray, chill, militaristic silence…the intellective void…the spiritual drabness” of Eisenhower America.
By now you’re probably rolling your eyes at another tired musician-writer analogy, perhaps the most tired trope in the shallow bag of music writing. Fair enough. But there are more than a few parallels between Def Jux and the Beats. El-P, the oldest of the crew, the one that brought all these divergent personalities together, plays the role of William Burroughs, dropping a traditional but still experimental leaning debut (Junkie, Funcrusher Plus), before evolving into a master of the cut-up, ginsu’ing voices and words into an avant-garde masterpiece that will probably be in the canon for the next half-century (Naked Lunch, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead).
Cannibal Ox play the role of Kerouac, dropping a solitary classic (Cold Vein, On the Road) and subsequently squandering any and all opportunities before fading into drunken/stoned anonymity (though to be fair, I’ll take Big Sur and Dharma Bums any day over Vordul and Vast Aire’s solo jaunts). Cage plays the role of Gregory Corso right down to the salad bowl haircut, sordid background, unfiltered honesty, and late arrival to the crew. Mr. Lif is Amiri Baraka right down to the last bit of sulfurous Marxism.
Then there’s Aesop Rock, recently re-located to San Francisco after a long stint in New York, and the toughest to pigeonhole. Many hip-hop heads wrongly dismiss him as too nerdy (read: white), but even the most staunch haters can’t deny his strong voice, a husky growl stained with the tar of a million Marlboros, or his skills, honed in the live chaos of New York City ciphers. Inevitably, the beef comes down to his lyrics, a Gordian knot of surrealist images that jag with the ordered chaos of an Allen Ginsberg poem, one transmitted through a filter of Wild Style, Run DMC, and Ghostface. In his eight years rapping, Rock has sketched everything from dystopian satires invoking “30-foot Bob Barker’s come to incinerate New York” to neighborhood snapshots of what Ginsberg called the “sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn.”
Bursting into the collective consciousness of the underground circa 2001, Rock’s ‘Howl’ was ‘Daylight’, a flawless mission statement, one that both men were wise enough to know could never be re-created. Similar in spirit, both works became de-facto anthems for a generation of alienated teenagers and young adults who really, really didn’t want to work. But just like you can’t blame Ginsberg for inadvertently spawning the beatniks, who spawned the hipsters, who continue to clog up coffeehouses with bad poetry to this very day; you can’t blame Aesop Rock for having a fan-base described by Evan McGarvey as “gobs of white kids…fans of Mastodon and the Rx Bandits…for whom Aesop is one of their only hip-hop-centered item of interest.”
But None Shall Pass is nothing like the song set that won him the heart of your local bong-toting metal-head. None Shall Pass isn’t a brilliantly composed complaint like Labor Days. It’s a more mature reflective work, one from an artist just north of 30 looking back on his past, penning 14 coherent cryptograms with a clear-eyed sobriety.
On ‘Catacomb Kids’, Aesop reflects on his Long Island childhood as a “dark dumb” student getting stressed by the cops for a couple of “spray cans and some litter“. ‘Fumes’ harrowingly details a relationship crumpling under the weight of a shared drug habit that spirals into suicide. ’39 Thieves’ manages to put a fresh spin on the capitalistic rat-race, by purposely staying obtuse and veering away from the simplistic “money = really really bad” or “money = really, really good” dichotomy that usually divides the underground and mainstream.
After handling most of Bazooka Tooth himself, Rock has wisely re-enlisted Blockhead, perhaps the most underrated producer in underground hip-hop, for seven beats, each of which is a stunner. In particular, two stand out as among the best of his career: ‘No City’, with its swooning strings, bursts of frazzled guitar, and jazzy keys sounds like a lost RZA beat from 1995; while ‘None Shall Pass’ is a dizzying blur of ping-pong video game beats that sound like what you’d expect nu-rave to sound like if it was actually good.
Producing five beats himself, Aesop’s production has improved from his earliest attempts behind the boards. He’s settled nicely into his own sound, somewhere between Blockhead’s neo-boom bap and El-P’s futuristic robot funk. Sonically, the record feels the loosest of Aesop’s career, as though San Francisco’s mellow West Coast vibe has seeped into his music and cadences. None Shall Pass may or may not be the best album in Aesop Rock’s discography, but it might be the most fun to listen to. Call it his San Francisco Renaissance.
© Jeff Weiss, Stylus, 5 September 2007