Ian Matthias Bavitz (born June 5, 1976), better known by his stage name Aesop Rock, is an American hip hop recording artist and producer residing in San Francisco, California. He was at the forefront of the new wave of underground and alternative hip hop acts that emerged during the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was signed to El-P’s Definitive Jux label until it went on hiatus in 2010. betterPropaganda ranked him at number 19 at the Top 100 Artists of the Decade.
He is a member of the groups The Weathermen, Hail Mary Mallon (with Rob Sonic & DJ Big Wiz), The Uncluded (with Kimya Dawson) and Two of Every Animal (with Cage). Regarding his name, he said: “I acquired the name Aesop from a movie I had acted in with some friends. It was my character’s name and it sort of stuck. The rock part came later just from throwing it in rhymes.”
Bavitz was born at Syosset Hospital in Syosset, New York and raised in Northport, Long Island, New York to his father Paul and mother Jameija. Ian has two brothers: Chris (born 1975) and Graham (born 1977). Ian, along with his siblings, was raised Catholic but later on in his life became agnostic. Bavitz attended Northport High School in 1990 and graduated in 1994. He married Allyson Baker, guitarist and vocalist of rock band Dirty Ghosts in 2005. They resided in San Francisco but have since divorced. He has tattoos on each forearm. His left arm says the words “Must Not Sleep…”, and the right says “…Must Warn Others”, which are quotes inspired by the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Aesop Rock has used these quotes as lyrics in the chorus of his song “Commencement at the Obedience Academy”: “Must not sleep; must warn others / Trust blocks creep where the dust storm hovers.” He also used them in his song “Antisocial,” in the line “Must not sleep; must warn others / I’ll tourniquet your turbulence then trample on your stutters.”
After graduating from high school, Bavitz attended Boston University in Massachusetts. He acquired his bachelor’s in 1998. This is where he met his future producer, Blockhead where he too was aspiring to be an MC until he first met Ian in 1994, the one year he attended Boston University. After hearing him freestyle, he decided to put his dreams of rapping aside and focused on producing instead. Blockhead was involved with a crew in New York called The Overground that included Dub-L.
As a youth, Ian and his family would usually commute to New York City. This had a great impact on him and the way he viewed the hip hop culture. Bavitz began rapping in the early 1990s. He cites Public Enemy, BDP, KMD, and Run DMC as early influences. Bavitz also listened to rock acts such as Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, and Ministry; he was introduced to these groups by his older brother Chris. Bavitz started to play instruments such as the piano and bass at an early age. He then eventually acquired a sampler.
While attending college, Bavitz initially recorded and released two self-financed efforts, Music for Earthworms (1997), a full-length featuring underground artist Percee P on two tracks. Bavitz also released a music video to “Abandon All Hope”, which was one of the tracks on the CD. The album sold over 300 copies, largely from a grassroots internet-based promotion at his website AesopRock.com and then-popular web portal, MP3.Com. It was a success. With the money he made from his previous release, he then released his Appleseed EP in 1999 which received critical acclaim in the underground hip hop circuit. Both of his early records were produced by long-time friend Blockhead, and underground producer Dub-L. He completed these albums while also working as a waiter.
After his breakthrough success in the underground hip hop and indie rap community, he was eventually noticed by the Mush label and obtained his first record deal in 1999, just a year after he graduated from college. Aesop released his first major album, Float (2000), with guest appearances from Vast Aire, Slug, and Dose One. Production was split between Blockhead and Aesop himself, with one track by Omega One. During this time, Aesop worked at a photography gallery. In August 2001 tragedy struck when Bavitz had a nervous breakdown. The song “One of Four” on his Daylight EP documents his struggles.
Shortly after releasing Float, Aesop Rock signed to Manhattan-based label Definitive Jux (commonly shortened to Def Jux), where he released Labor Days (2001), an album dedicated to the discussion of labor in American society and the concept of “wage slaves”. This album was most well known for its single “Daylight”. Because of its popularity, Daylight was re-released in 2002 as a seven-track EP, including an “alternative” new version of the song “Night Light”, whose paraphrased lyrics simultaneously refer back to, and stand in stark opposition to, the original’s. The song “Labor” (from Labor Days) was featured in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4; it also was the first album in his catalog to break through the Billboard charts, peaking at number 15 at the United States Independent Charts.
Labor Days was followed by Bazooka Tooth in 2003. For the first time, production was mostly handled by Rock himself, with three tracks from longtime collaborator Blockhead and one from close friend and Definitive Jux label CEO El-P. Guest appearances include Party Fun Action Committee, El-P, and Mr. Lif (all Definitive Jux labelmates) and Camp Lo. With this release Aesop hit a higher level of recognition, releasing “No Jumper Cables” as a single and music video, then another single, “Freeze”, shortly after. A remix of “No Jumper Cables” was featured on Tony Hawk’s Underground 2, furthering Aesop’s recognition. In 2004, He released Build Your Own Bazooka Tooth and created a contest in which you had to create a remix of an Aesop Rock song using the a cappellas and instrumentals.
In February 2005, Aesop Rock released a new EP, Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives. The first pressing of the EP included an 88-page booklet with lyrics from every release from Float until this EP (the lyric booklet is titled The Living Human Curiosity Sideshow); later pressings of the album come without the booklet, but with an additional bonus track, “Facemelter”. In addition, a limited number of albums were available direct from Def Jux with Aesop Rock’s graffiti tag on them. In response to demands from his fans, Rock did less production on the EP: three songs are produced by Blockhead, three produced by Aesop, and one by Rob Sonic. During this time he was asked to join The Weathermen to replace Vast Aire.
Aesop Rock was commissioned to create a 45-minute instrumental track for the Nike+iPod running system, entitled All Day. It was released in February 2007. Distributed via the iTunes Music Store and featuring his wife Allyson Baker on guitar and scratches from DJ Big Wiz, Aesop has described the release as “something that evolved enough that the sound was constantly fresh and attractive, as though the runner were moving through a set of differing cities or landscapes.”
All Day was followed in August of the same year by Bavitz’s fifth full-length album, None Shall Pass released in 2007. The album also contained original artwork by Jeremy Fish. About Jeremy Fish, Aesop Rock said: “Man that guy is my hero. We have a friend in common who hit me up a while back saying that this guy Jeremy Fish had an opportunity to pitch a cartoon to Disney and wanted me to be involved in the music side. I flipped out cuz I was also a fan of his, and owned some of his work.” Aesop Rock also teamed up with Jeremy Fish again in a project called Ghosts of the Barbary Coast. Aesop Rock made a song called “Tomorrow Morning”, to go along with a slideshow of drawings that Jeremy Fish drew. This was displayed in San Francisco, but was also made available for download online. None Shall Pass had positive reviews from critics and fans, applauding Aesop for his change in sound.
Bavitz’s lyrics are generally seen as being both complex and abstract while others dismiss them as verbose. His frequent use of homonyms exacerbates this. Critics state that the use of words can be so detailed that it becomes difficult to determine their originally intended meaning. The lyrics are sometimes inspired by events which have occurred in Bavitz’s personal life and are thus naturally prone to subjective interpretation by outsiders.
Questioned about his lyrical style in an interview, Bavitz responded: “It’s probably because it’s not the most accessible music in the world. It may pose a slight challenge to the listener beyond your average pop song. I’m no genius by a long shot, but these songs are not nonsensical, that’s pretty preposterous. I’d have to be a genius to pull this many nonsensical records over people’s eyes. It’s not exactly fast food but when people pretend I’m just spewing non-sequiturs and gibberish I can’t help but think they simply haven’t listened and are regurgitating some rumor they’ve heard about me. Even if it’s not laid out in perfect sentences—is any rap?—you’d have to be an idiot to not at least grasp a few things from these songs. Or have had no interest in pulling anything from them in the first place. But I can tell you that I only write shit down when I believe it so take this how you want but know I mean it.”
In May 2014, a study by Matt Daniels found that Aesop Rock’s vocabulary in his music surpassed 85 other major hip-hop and rap artists, as well as Shakespeare’s works and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, being named the largest vocabulary in Hip Hop.