Blockhead Reflects On How He & Aesop Rock ‘Complement Each Other’ On New Album ‘Garbology’

With styles like no other, Aesop Rock and Blockhead have carved their own niche in hip-hop, and after collaborating on their first album together, Blockhead shares why they work so well together.

Frank Zappa once likened performing music to making “a sculpture out of air,” that a steady hand and unflinching eye could move molecules around the same way a chisel bends marble into shapes and forms. If two artists embody that concept, it’s the loquacious rapper Aesop Rock and the instrumental hip-hop producer Blockhead. Blockhead’s well-crafted soundscapes mirror Aesop’s verbose style. Their similar aesthetical approach to hip-hop creates a rich experience that rewards replays. “I think that we just really complement each other,” Blockhead tells HollywoodLife while discussing Garbology, his first collaborative album with Aesop. “It doesn’t hurt that we’ve been friends for 25-plus years. We both know how each other works. I  think that the way I make beats, the way he raps, it goes well together naturally.”

The fable of Aesop and Blockhead – Ian Bavitz and Tony Simon, respectively –is a part of hip-hop lore. As an aspiring rapper, Blockhead encountered Aesop while they both were studying at Boston University. Blockhead shifted to production, Aesop stayed on the mic, and the two began to sculpt. Aesop’s early work was often set to Blockhead’s beats, most notably “Daylight,” “The Yes and the Y’all,” and “9-5ers Anthem” from 2001’s Labor Days.  

“Even though it’s not 2001 anymore,  my beats aren’t the same, his rhymes aren’t the same – it still works,” reflects Blockhead. “He’s the complicated rapper with a lot of ideas and a lot of words, and his flows are always different. And I’m a producer that’s not hard to listen to – it’s usually melodic. I try to make something classic to them. Those two things complement each other – something a little more complex with something that’s kind of more palatable in a melodic sense. I see why they blend together so well.”

It was a block that brought Aesop to his longtime musical ally with hat in hand. The lore states that at the start of 2020, amid grief over losing a close friend, Aesop was in a creative drought. After attempting different paths – drawing was a bust, beat-making felt too cumbersome – he hit up his friend for a spark of inspiration to get his nose back to the grindstone. The sparks soon began to fly and not before long, a whole new album did emerge.

“There’s a bunch of little things before that actual conversation,” says Blockhead, expanding on Garbology’s genesis, “I was on tour in Portland, and he lives in Portland. We were having dinner together. You know, we’ve stayed friends the whole time – there’s never been a lull in our friendship, but we hadn’t discussed working together, outside of like the usual one-off song. And he’s like, ‘Hey, if you ever have any beats, send them to me.’ I’m like, ‘okay,’ I didn’t think much of it. And then, like, two months later, he reminded me cause I was on tour – I kinda just forgot. And I sent him a bunch of beats. And then the pandemic hit two or three months after that.”

“He says, ‘I started writing to one of the [beats].’ And then he made a song and another one,” says Blockhead, who kept feeding Aesop beats. “We had no direction that we were going to do anything. Maybe there’d be a single, maybe we’d do an EP. But eventually, when we had six or seven songs, he’s just kind of like, ‘why don’t we do a whole album?’ It wasn’t like a one moment of like, ‘we’re gonna do this thing!’ It just slowly worked its way there organically, which is cool.”

Blockhead (Courtesy of Blockhead)

Inspiration kicked off a process that started right as the world began to stop. But, the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic actually “kind of worked in our favor,” says Blockhead. The shutdowns afforded himself and Aesop the time they needed to polish and smooth out the rough spots on the project. Technology was also in their favor. “It was all done over email and texting,” he adds. Much like many COVID albums that came out of 2020, Garbology was made without its creators sharing the same space. “He did the vocals. I did the beat. There was a lot of back and forth to make sure they were right. And he’s much more of a perfectionist than I am. So, he’s going to be more focused on the minutiae of that kind of stuff. Whereas I’m kind of a big picture guy. So it works out that we’re like that.”

The spontaneity may have been to Garbology’s benefit. The album sounds as natural and organic as the process Blockhead describes in its creation. Garbology is a flourishing ecosystem of sounds, vibrant with ideas and concepts. Had Aesop and Blockhead gone in more deliberate – with more pomp and circumstance on how these two celebrated collaborators were finally making an entire album together – it might not have resulted in a record that sounds so effortless.

Garbology shows both men’s charms and strengths. “All the Smartest People” allows Aesop’s natural storyteller to come out, with Blockhead painting the background with every twist and turn. Aesop dips out in “Difficult” at the right moment, allowing the beat to get the equivalent of a solo. “More Cycles” glows with conceptual continuity, the song a direct descendent of “None Shall Pass,” the title track to Aesop’s 2007 album, and “You Got Maelstrom,” from Blockhead’s 2004 album, Music By Cavelight. Though the album’s title and vivid cover art imply that Garbology was made out of the scraps and leftovers from other projects, the album is a cohesive listen from start to finish.

Aesop Rock (Courtesy of Aesop Rock)

After twenty-plus years in the game, Aesop and Blockhead have, at least musically, made peace with who they see in the mirror and who they hear on the playback. That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments that, as Aesop rapped on “9-5ers Anthem,” will make you smile because it sounds dope.

“With a song like ‘Jazz Hands,’ I got that feeling that you get,” says Blockhead. “As an old, decrepit music guy that’s been doing it for a long time, you don’t really get those feelings from songs very often, but like, you get that kind of like that like warmness in your stomach and heart. It just hits a certain way, you know? Yeah. And there are so many great lines on this album. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint one, to be honest.”

“But, you know, it’s, it’s more just like, there are these moments of like, of me being like, ‘Man, this f-cking guy.’ You know?” he says with a laugh. “That’s where it comes to me. I’m like, ‘wow, this guy.’ He finds a way to say things in a way that no one else can. Sometimes it’s in its own simplicity. Yeah, ‘how’d I not think of that? Or how has no one thought of that?’ You know?”

The men know who they are, and on this album, they’re not trying to be anyone else. It’s unlikey that anyone will come to Garbology expecting something other than an Aesop Rock x Blockhead collaboration, so satisfaction is guaranteed.

Collaboration is the key word here. “[Aesop] would record the lyrics and send them to me, and then I would construct a song around the lyrics,” says Blockhead. “And all of the songs have these different parts and elements that kind of weave in and out – all that kind of stuff. And there would be some times when he’d say, ‘I don’t think I should rap over this one part.’ Maybe there’s a horn that doesn’t make sense. But outside of that? Just framing his verses in what I think is the best way possible.”

“But it’s rare that there’d be something he says that would make me think, ‘oh, I need to put something completely different here for that,'” he continues. “But that’s more of a producer issue – ‘do I do drum drops here? do I put a different instrument here?’ And, he gives me a lot to work with. Say I want to drop the drums for the first four bars of a verse. I know it’s going to hit well because of just how commanding a lyricist he is. It’s kind of a cheat code.”

That cheat code gets implemented on the second song, “Jazz Hands.” The first single from Garbology opens up with symphonic production, not unlike what you’d find at the start of a classic Hollywood movie. Two minutes go by as Aesop delivers his opening remarks – “Get your whole roadmap Pac Man’d/Black mask snack on whatever’s in the dash cam / It’s not an ad, hashtag, or a tap dance / Patsy, the revolution will not have jazz hands” – before the drums kick in. The rest of the song puts the spotlight strictly on Blockhead’s production.

Garbology stands as a triumph – of two unique musical perspectives and of a friendship that has thrived for nearly three decades. It also shows how these two men have progressed since their start in Boston.

“I just think he’s gotten so much better as a writer. Like, he’s always been a great writer. But, he really zeroed in on things and kind of embraced his weirdness and his quirkiness. There are not many people who could write a whole song about his cat,” says Blockhead, referring to “Kirby” from 2016’s The Impossible Kid. “He’s been able to cultivate this whole style that no one else has, but on a more technical level, I think he’s gotten better at rapping. Listen to the old stuff – granted, it was of that era – but he’s honed in on who he is as an artist.”

And how would Aesop think Blockhead has improved or changed over the last twenty years? “I really don’t know,” he says with a slight laugh. “Maybe that my drums got better? That’s true.”


Garbology is out now.

 

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