That debate on whether your favorite little-known musician was selling out by striving to expand their reach toward mainstream popularity seems antiquated these days. Some would call it so 20th Century.
But there are still pockets in certain subcultures where authenticity and integrity are major reasons to support an artist. Friday night, part of that club had a meeting at Revolution Live. One member wore a T-shirt stating, "Jay Z Sold Out." It was there that the audience jumped and chanted to the beats and rhymes of Aesop Rock.
Aesop Rock is a New York-bred MC who came of age in the '90s, when keeping it real was the highest ethos a rapper could reach for. Throughout his nearly two-decade recording career, he has never dumbed down the expansive vocabulary of his lyrics or felt the need to rely on hooks or superstar producers. What is most important is that at his Friday-night show, there were no choreographed dance moves or flashy guest appearances or elaborate stage shows. The only thing that mattered was the music.
Aesop Rock took the stage at 9:30 with that no-nonsense mentality, joined by hypeman and collaborator Rob Sonic and turntablist DJ Big Wiz yelling "Do that shit!" as they ripped into "Jonathan," the first song in their 90-minute set. The only flair on the bare-bones stage was three posters with cover art from their new album, Bestiary. The only pandering done was making himself available to fans for conversation, autographs, and pictures after the show.
It has been proven by scientific study that Aesop Rock uses a more diverse vocabulary than any rapper in the game. Just as awe-inspiring as it is to witness a Shakespearean actor recite by memory all his arcane text, it is equally impressive to catch Aesop Rock effortlessly spit out so much dense lyricism especially when you consider his memory bank has to fight the forgetfulness caused by the second-hand marijuana smoke in full effect. But he never missed a beat.
There were times when his vocals seemed to slur, making it hard for the unfamiliar to fully follow what he was saying, but the diehards in the audience knew it all fully, singing along word for word. This was most notable on "Daylight," when he let the crowd do the work, yelling, "All I ever wanted was to pick apart the day/Put the pieces back together my way."
That was one of only three breaks Aesop Rock took during his set, the other two being the hip-hop equivalent of the drum solo where the DJ gets his chance to shine. DJ Big Wiz on his first solo scratched and manipulated to infinite effects a sample of some distraught chap saying, "Get the fuck out." Then he paid respect to an Aesop Rock ancestor, the Beastie Boys, when he mashed up "So What Cha Want" with "Sabotage" and "Paul Revere."
Opener Sandman earned cheers from the early-arriving crowd for his 45-minute set with his laid-back demeanor and gravelly voice. He maintained the theme for the night, no vocal modulations, no silly hooks, no distractions, keeping all the focus on the music and the artist.
It was so perfectly passé.