Aesop Rock’s been one of the biggest names in indie-ground hip-hop for over a decade and with good reason. A diverse but consistent catalog, inimitable style and growth as an artist has inspired legions of fans to remain loyal while constantly scooping up new listeners along the way. The first time I caught Aesop live happened to be my first live show after moving to New York, an August 2004 Who’s America? voter-drive hosted by Chuck D that was headlined by El-P, Camu Tao and a John Kerry mask-wearing Rock. The last time I saw his set was promoting his None Shall Pass album in early September 2007. After storage company Collegeboxes had lost everything I needed for college, Rock’s performance was a momentary moment of fun in a stressful, irritating time. Since that show, Rock’s only output has been stray tracks from his 900 Bats website, an album with his group Hail Mary Mallon and his latest release Skelethon. It had been a long time since I Aesop Rocked, but I was pumped.
But because this wasn’t a Morris Day and the Time show, there were opening acts. The quality of most openers at rap shows vary from forgettable friend of the promoter mediocrity to outright bad pay-to-play “talent show winners.” Luckily, not only were the artists for this show very enjoyable, but the usually fickle New York City crowd was moved enough to actually recognize the talent and react accordingly.
Fake Four’s own Dark Time Sunshine set things off and, hyperbole be darned, I haven’t seen a first act have the crowd in the palm of their hand like this in years. Especially considering a venue like Irving Plaza where the attendees paid good money to see the headliner and usually won’t settle for anything else. The crowd bobbed, nodded and raised hands right along whenever MC Onry Ozzborn insisted. For a city where the best you can hope for is for the audience to not heckle you, Irving Plaza echoed with the venue chanting “FOR-WARD” right along.
In-between sets, Atmosphere’s “Bass and the Movement” played over the house speakers, with some of the crowd audibly rapping along. I noticed some of the audience look like they were in single digits when that song dropped, which was a good indicator that the indie-rap circle of life continues. Over the monitors, Irving Plaza advertised a service where you could send them a text and, for a fee, the text would be displayed all over the venue. Along with someone paying to broadcast “Uhhhhhhh what?,” this feature was effective in wishing someone named Glen a “happy birthday.”
Next up was Edison, who introduced himself as “the instrumental part of the show.” As if watching him play his compositions live on a machine with 256 buttons and no looping wasn’t impressive enough, I can vouch that Edison’s on-stage banter is top 5 dead-or-alive. At one point he asked the crowd to name an untitled song they’d never heard right before he played it. When an on-the-spot audience member suggested “fucking awesome,” mild boos erupted. Again, this is a harsh New York crowd, and it’s a testament to the artists’ talents how much love they received. Along with some dope beats, the highlight of Edison’s set was introducing his song “The Poetry of Public Transit” as a song about how frustrating public transit it, then quickly adding “or, it’s about nothing because it’s fucking instrumental music.”
Then, the big moment came as Rock took the stage, joined by Rob Sonic and DJ Big Wiz, forming Hail Mary Mallon for his headlining set. The group played for over an hour, exclusively sticking to new material from Rock’s Skelethon, the group’s Are You Gonna Eat That? record, and Sonic’s forthcoming Alice in Thunderdome. It’s a testament to how devoted the fanbase is that each new song was greeted with the reception of a hit single. Adding to the coolness was a corresponding video in the background for each song. The group’s chemistry was off the chart, whipping the Plaza into a frenzy and leaving them screaming for more, inspiring one fan to break down what electrolytes were in a moment of between song banter.
The MVP fan of the night, however, would be Graham Wood who signed up to get a haircut on-stage by the members of Dark Time Sunshine. Another fun guest was DJ Boo of underground cornerstones The Juggaknots who cut up a live beat DJ Big Wiz made on stage. Finally, the set ended with Aesop promising to dust off two old friends. He performed “Big Bang” off of his first album Float, followed by a special version of “Daylight” that began with the “Nightlight” re-imagining and slowly transitioned to bring the “Daylight” out. The crowd was satisfied, applauded, and filed out into the streets, sharing stories with one another about how their friends think that they saw A$AP Rocky this evening. While it was surprising that Rock held off on any remotely older material for the very, very end, it’s telling how much his new music resonates that it keeps his audience just as enthralled. A top-to-bottom great show, worthy of Rock’s legacy.