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Aeon Grey is one third of the Des Moines-based hip-hop group Maxilla Blue. Along with news of a forthcoming performance at the 80/35 music festival in Des Moines, earlier this year the trio announced plans of releasing an album of new material, which would be its first since 2012’s Maxilla Blue Vol. 3. This interview with Aeon Grey was recorded mid-June in advance of the show, touching on the reformed Maxilla Blue, fatherhood, and his changing relationship with music, among many other topics. In preparation for their new album to drop, you can listen to their past releases via Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, and follow the group via Instagram and Facebook.
villin: Hello and welcome to the villin podcast. The track which introduced this episode is a previously unreleased, untitled song from producer and MC Aeon Grey. You can now pick it up on Bandcamp–along with everything else from his catalog, on the homepage for his Central Standard label–and the track will play out in its entirety to close out the episode. To me, the song conjures post-apocalyptic imagery, using a nonlinear lyrical approach to collage concepts and frame them into a broader scene. To quote its closing line, he raps “Stand up and pledge allegiance to your bondage / While the anthem keeps us down on our knees, believing it’s progress.”
Looking back on our conversation, this line coincides with a question I was hoping to bring up, talking about what speaking truth to power through art even looks like, or means, today. Likewise, seeing as though his body of music covers nearly 20 years, I figured that he was as good of a person as anyone to ask what the term “conscious rapper” might mean, if it ever really meant anything to begin with, but we never really got there. Instead of sifting through a lot of the questions I had about trivial background information, and others about the changing face of hip-hop or some key musical milestones, we focused primarily on the here and now. And in doing so, it was an immediate reminder that you never ever ever ever really know what someone else might be going through.
The day we were originally going to link up, he lost his voice so we rescheduled our conversation. Then the day of our call, I had system issues and couldn’t record the call on my computer, which led to recording it on the fly. Maybe I’m drawing connections where they don’t exist, but later in our conversation Aeon Grey comments on how he’s shifted away from being hyper-focused on a pristine sound quality with his music, in lieu of capturing the moment and appreciating the magic found within imperfections. The sound quality here is regrettable, but in some ways it’s also perfect. At some points there’s a lawnmower and traffic noise in the background, but at others you can also hear birds chirping. Without getting too precious about my reflection on things, I still think this is worth bringing up to set the tone for what you’re about to hear, recognizing the substantial value to the message despite the recording’s raw aesthetics.
“Solidifying in 2006 and releasing its debut album less than 2 years later,” to quote the group’s label bio, “Maxilla Blue remains as a well preserved tribute to the classic raw hip hop combo of one producer, one Dj, and one emcee, bolstered by each component’s thirst for craft perfection.” When we started our conversation, I wanted to know how the sound of the new material might have shifted from that blueprint, and if there were challenges within that process, considering the group’s long hiatus. The answer, as I quickly found out, was far more complicated than I could have ever imagined.
Aeon Grey: TouchNice and I stayed really close [and] connected. Asphate, kind of–over the past 10 or 15 years he was kind of doing his own thing, right, heavy into the graffiti scene, curating walls, all of those things. And I think he was doing, kind of, his own music, right? And to be honest, I was raising a family, so I kind of bowed out, I guess. The 80/35 opportunity came up and he kind of pitched it to us, Asphate, as saying, I don’t even want to do it unless we’re all going to do it. And then we met and sat down and really started talking about Maxilla for the first time in, y’know, 10 years or so. And we said if we’re going to do this–this was probably December, at some point, maybe early January–but we said if we’re going to do this, we’ve got plenty of time, let’s record a new record, let’s go all out for this show, right? That was the intention.
So, we immediately started working on things. None of us have been idle over the past 10 years, just not really connecting. So, I sent him probably close to 200 tracks and just said take your pick, let’s start working on things. And he started the writing process. TouchNice was coming through and doing some layering, in terms of scratching, and turntablist pieces, and we were hitting momentum. We had our first recording session, just me and Asphate, and the goal there was he had nine songs that he wanted to record. We recorded seven that first day. But then–I don’t know what everyone knows, as of yet. But about a month ago his daughter passed away. So, she was 20 years old. She grew up with us, right? Like, I remember her when she was–like, in the early days of Maxilla she was three, four, five years old. So she was really close to us all, obviously really close to him. I mean, they were a pair, right? They were best friends. They were pretty much the same person.
So, obviously that–I mean, I won’t say it derailed anything because it doesn’t do justice to what happened, right? Like, that happened and everything else just became–none of this other stuff matters, right? It just became about making sure that he was okay. And knowing, as well, that he’s not going to be okay, right? So, the last month has been, I mean it put a halt on all that, right, to a point where we were talking that we don’t need to do 80/35 if you aren’t feeling it, I don’t care. We don’t need to do it. It was really whatever he needed to do to, kind of, try and help him get through this, we were willing to do. But, it kind of put a hold on everything for valid reasons, right? So to be totally honest, we’ve only really practiced a handful of times and most of those practices have been, you know, just sessions where we just talk because there’s a lot to talk about, a lot of emotions and such. And the recording kind of ceased.
The last session that we had last week, I was at Asphate’s house Friday and we were talking about getting back in. He has, probably, I think five or six more tracks that he wants to record that he’s really excited about. So, it’s just about making time now and balancing that out with what is going to happen at 80/35. So, we’re there. We’re doing the work, etcetera. But it’s kind of stalled because of that personal situation. So, we’re not as far along as we wanted to be but, you know, we’re going through that process and kind of trying to pick it up again at this point.
villin: What do you say when one of your brothers loses a child? What do you do when you lose someone close to you? And what do you say to any of that, as an onlooker, a stranger on the outside looking in on something like this. As he and I discussed, I wanted to make sure there was respect paid to him, to Asphate, to the complete family of people affected, agreeing we could cut all of this out of the interview, but the conversation continued by addressing the desire to shine light on it rather than stay resigned to the darkness of its reality.
Aeon Grey: In his personal life he’s a private guy. You know, a lot of people don’t know his real name, but I would be somewhat uncomfortable telling you his real name because he takes it that seriously. There’s a lot of people that are connected to him in the community [who] understood what happened. But I think outside of that, it’s a weird scenario and, you know, I have two small kids and I want to say I understand but I know I don’t understand and I don’t wanna understand. What he’s going through is so terrible that it’s it’s just really hard to see him in that state. He’s someone who–throughout the time I’ve known him–has been pretty invulnerable. Like, he’s impervious to everything, right? And he has a very strong mental attitude about things where: This isn’t going to bother me, this can’t stop me, I’ll run through this wall if I need to. And this is the first time we’ve seen him hurt, and like something got him. And it’s different and it’s something that we’re trying to navigate. And he doesn’t want it to be sappy ever, he appreciates us taking that stance but at the same time he’s like: Nah, I don’t care, let’s go, I need this to be moving, I can’t dwell on those things, I’ll feel those things when I want to feel them. So, it’s hard. It’s different. Not what we expect it to be, for sure.
villin: And different is where Aeon Grey sees the work heading, as the group continues forward with its plans despite this foundation-shattering obstacle.
Aeon Grey: I think it sets context for, I think, not only what has happened over the past couple of months but likely also for the new record. It’s interesting ‘cause we recorded these five songs and they were more typical of what we do. And he has this kind of melancholy approach to it. We’ve always had this alignment of–we’ve steered away from making music that is triumphant, right? And the way he’s always told it is like, we can’t do stuff like that ‘cause we’re not winning! Like, regardless of what situation in life we’re in, we’re not winning, right? We’re the little guy everywhere. When you take it out of this or that, as MCs, as producers, making music, we kill everybody. In the grand scheme of things, we’re fodder, right? So, it’s always had that kind of tone. But his wife was–her and I talked about it a lot and she was kind of like, she’s excited to hear the new record because she thinks he’s obviously changed, but it’s also different because I think it will have a very, I mean in my mind it will have a consistent tone of sadness. Yet to be determined, but I don’t know how it couldn’t, I guess. Which is fine. You know, you make music based on who you are and what your experience is, but that is likely where we’re headed.
villin: In a way, whatever Maxilla Blue releases will be affected by the context surrounding its creation. But in some ways, as Aeon Grey pointed out, the circumstances befallen on the group throughout this process serve to magnify a message that was already carried within the music they’d been working on.
Aeon Grey: There’s one of the new tracks that is, I would say it’s a standout for him in terms of how he is delivering and performing. You know, normally he’s got this more rapid fire type of delivery. This is very subdued, a lot of space in the verse, and it’s all repetitive in terms of the theme, the theme line for line the theme stays the same. And the whole thing is like, I don’t care about your problems, right? We all have problems and regardless of what those problems are, I’m going to do what I’m going to do. And I’m going to overcome everything. And that’s even been the tone of our practices since what’s happened. You know, we say, hey, wanna stop this show, do you not wanna do it? No, I wanna do it because I don’t want to be an MC that said I didn’t do a show for any reason. Even though he has the most valid reason in the world to not do it. He wants to get up there and be like, I rocked 80/35 regardless. And say something about it: ‘Cause my daughter just died and I’m here performing for you, right? I mean, he takes this craft, and pretty much everything he does, he takes it that seriously. He never would make excuses for anything. And that is oozing from songs that we’ve already recorded. So it will be interesting to see if that approach comes out or if it does become more reflective sadness on the stuff I actually haven’t heard yet.
villin: Aside from him and Asphate, I wanted to know where DJ TouchNice played into this.
Aeon Grey: You know, I would say of the three of us, he’s the most sentimental emotionally. Which is weird because he’s the least outspoken, right? There’s no voice of him outside of what he does with his hands. But I mean he’s hurting a lot, because like I said we all grew up–she was as much a part of our lives as his, especially the years that we were really active: She was at all the shows, she was breakdancing, she’d come to practices, she’d be in the studio when we were recording. I mean, she was always there. So it’s really hard ‘cause it is unfathomable. You know, we’ve all kind of lost a child. None to the degree of the loss that he’s obviously feeling, but it hurts. And I think, I know TouchNice has had, you know–him and I have talked about it a lot, and I know in the first few weeks, especially, I mean, he’s hurt, it’s just kind of devastating. And I don’t really know, he’s emotional, how he’s navigating through it is in his own ways, but it’s different. The vibe is different in terms of when we’re not performing or practicing at this point. Once we start practice it’s like hey we’re doing this, it does matter. But outside of that, I mean everything’s just kind of, you know, it’s hard, because a piece of us is missing. It’s just not there anymore and it’s bizarre.
But I’ll say this, the weirdest thing was that first recording session. It was probably a week, 10 days before she passed. And we had planned to do a follow-up one but it didn’t happen because she was going through some other issues, too. But during that session, we were talking about kids and expectations for children. And that was kind of, you know sharing like, for my kids I don’t have, I just want them to be there, more than anything else. Let them do what they do. Whatever they achieve, these achievements are whatever, I mean, if they’ve done something that satisfies them that will make me happy and feel like, you know, if they feel like they’ve succeeded they’ve succeeded. If they’re not doctors, you know, whatever, none of that really worries me too much. We were talking along those lines. And he said, this was the–this kind of set the tone for things–was he looked at me and he said I threw all that out. He goes, I did everything I could as a parent and now all I want is my daughter to be alive. And this is before she passed. He said I want to look at her in 10 years, I want to be playing pool with her in 10 years, just talking to her. I just want her to be there. I don’t care what happens. I don’t care what she’s been through. I don’t care anything about that. He’s like, I just want her to be alive. I want to know that I can speak to her. And then legitimately 10 days later that was no longer the reality, right?
That was a very weird moment of foresight from him and probably more insight for me into the situation. I know she was having mental health issues. Someone who, like him, had a lot of pressure on herself to be successful and do things. And also, you know I think she was an exceptional person. And when you’re exceptional sometimes it’s hard to find people that you relate to. And it can be very isolating and create a sense of being alone, when you think different than everybody. And I feel like he had that insight that, hey, this is not right. It’s tragic in all aspects. But that was the first time, when he said that, I just want my daughter to be alive, that’s the only expectation I have, that’s the only thing I could hope comes out of being a father is that my kid survives. And that just, it was the first vulnerability that I saw from him and the first inkling that hey, something’s not necessarily good here. But let’s work and let’s get through it. But then a week later, 10 days later, I got a text message that was just, you know, she’s gone. I don’t know what to do. And here we are today just trying to do whatever we can, I guess.
villin: While a million miles away from any conversation about the record, this continued into more thoughts about fatherhood and the unexpected impact that’s had on his own life.
Aeon Grey: Like I said, I wanna say I understand it because I have children. And I can’t fathom either of them being gone and what that would do to me, right? Like, I can’t even begin to comprehend the agony and the void that that creates. I don’t know if you have kids but it really is something, you know, they say it changes you, right? And it, it really does. I mean, it’s the strangest and most wonderful feeling in the world, right? Even when they’re, when they’re shitty, right? Like my son looked me dead in the eye once and said, I fucking hate you. Nine years old, right? So it was like, holy hell, what is going on here? But like even then, none of that matters, right? It’s just having him, it creates a totally different reality and perspective of the world. And I think, you know, historically–kind of, prior–I was very focused externally on things. I was very focused on how I related to a larger world, a larger society, you know, my city, people around me, whatever, and I definitely felt consistently on the outside of most things and probably stuff that I did to myself. But, like, when I have kids it’s like, I don’t really care. I didn’t care much about it then other than I felt like I maybe deserve something that I potentially didn’t. But having kids, I don’t care at all. None of that matters as long as I have them, right? If I have them, I mean, everything’s good. I can sit down after the worst day with them and feel great and if they weren’t there just all of a sudden, I don’t know, I don’t know what I, you know, I don’t know. I don’t wanna know what that feels like. But at the same time I pondered a lot because, you know, one of my brothers is going through that and it’s kind of maddening, you know. And it kind of, it’s just really awful. It’s just–everything about it is strange. And it’s a surreal situation.
villin: A surreal situation for certain, yet one I thought might overlay new meaning onto a the year’s preexisting creative plans. I asked if this has changed what coming together and making new music means to him, and the group, and whether his intentions with the project have shifted.
Aeon Grey: I mean, somewhat it does, I guess. Because we also know that that’s what she would do, right? If this happened to her, pshe’s looking down right now and if he didn’t keep doing the things that he was doing, she would be disappointed, right? She was kind of his balance. And one of those people who can tell him, you’re slipping here, you’re not doing right. You know, oh, you’re making excuses, get up and do it. And that’s why I was saying, in his mind this is just another mountain. This is just another thing that he can conquer and in the end he can be like, you got sick and you couldn’t do a show? You know, I lost a child and here I am, you know, you can’t beat me, right? Everything with him is kind of perceived as that challenge. And I think for us as a group, you know, we have a closeness.
So, I mean, Asphate and I–so, you know, little history here: 2009, I moved to San Francisco, in 2011 I moved back. The intention of moving to San Francisco was, I mean, more or less, I needed to get out of here. Two, I wanted to build something bigger. I felt like we’d done everything that we could in this kind of spectrum. When I moved back, there were some personal things that I was going through. These guys kind of tried to pick me up. I wanted to do things in a different way. You know, I wanted to change our process methodology of how we make music. I wanted it to be maybe more, kind of, collaborative from the start–all of us in the same room.
But it didn’t really materialize as I had hoped. And that kind of–it didn’t really put a rift, I would say relationship-wise, it wasn’t, at that point in time, it wasn’t anything that we were worried about. But I kind of distanced myself; one: because I was starting a family, and two: I wanted to figure some things out for me, so that when we went back to make another record or make more music there was something different that I was bringing to the table, something beyond what I was just normally doing. Not just the normal, hey it’s been a couple years, we did another record, it’s a little better than the last one.
Like, really was trying to do something amazing, in my own head right. And I think that sort of–like, I distanced, I focused on family, I focused on my own craft internally. And he, you know, Asphate went his way in terms of working more with Galapagos4 producers and things like that, and releasing a couple solo albums. And I mean, him and I didn’t–because our relationship was so keyed around the music, we didn’t really communicate over a span of probably 10 years. Maybe running into each other as shows or whatever, but not a whole lot of interaction. When the 80/35 thing came, you know, he messaged. We hadn’t done a show with me, with them, as Maxilla Blue since 2009, middle-2009. So, you know, he said, I just want to do it in the old way, all of us on stage. This might be the last time, let’s all go out together, right? So we met, but it wasn’t, there’s no time, that 10 years was nothing, right? So we met but it wasn’t, there’s no time–that 10 years was nothing. We met and everything just–we knew each other, we knew what we were, we knew what we were doing, and we were just moving.
So, you know it’s kind of a–we have an understanding and we have this thing where even the practices–we’ve only practiced a couple times, but it just works. Maxilla’s kind of always just worked. It’s never really been effort. It’s just, kind of, we get together, we make music, we go do shows and it just works between three people, which is rare. Because I’ve tried other groups, I’ve worked with a lot of other artists, and it’s a lot of work. And it never feels that way with these guys. I’m probably way off topic with where I was going with this, but we had this disconnect, kind of came back, everything was pretty natural, like no time passed in between.
And then this happened, and it kind of set a different weight to what we’re doing in terms of–not that we have a bigger reason or a higher purpose to do it, other than there’s an obstacle in our way–it’s more of just that, you know, this is what we do. And at any point in time, we can step up and do it. And it doesn’t matter, right? Ten years away, 15 years from a show, whatever, it’ll be, it just works. It just does. And it’s hard to explain. My relationship with these guys is somewhat magical. I have two pockets of friends. I have a couple friends that I know from high school who I consider family, who I grew up with, and I have TouchNice and Asphate who are, you know, who are brothers. And any time that passes between our interactions is no time, right? It’s just back in stride, everything’s normal. I mean, there’s never animosity, we didn’t break up, you know? There’s nothing like that. It just took a hiatus of its own. So, I mean, it’s a weird situation right now, but it still feels right, even though there’s so much going on.
villin: Bringing the focus back to the music, I was curious if there had been any discussion along the way about what shape the release of the fourth Maxilla Blue album would take, and whether it’d be put out via his Central Standard label.
Aeon Grey: You know, it’s always been somewhat of the home for Maxilla. We did the last record in partnership with Galapagos4. I know his record came out previously on Galapagos, but I think we just kind of looked at it and we just said, like, whatever this is it is, and it stands alone, right? I mean, let’s be honest, none of those labels really matter. It doesn’t bring anything to the table except another name that we’re putting on it, to try to classify it a little bit and tie things together. But you know, I think we’ve all come to be like, that just this what it is and we should go beyond that. I mean, there’s no reason to worry about it, right? We’re all grown now, we don’t need help financially, we don’t need any of those things. So we should manage on our own one way or the other.
villin: As a fan, I only started listening to Aeon Grey and Maxilla Blue last year, but when I did there became an apparent contrast between the two that I picked up on. Relaying this in our discussion, the touch points I used to ground the comparisons are potentially a little antiquated, but they make sense to me. Maxilla’s music sounds closer to the Midwestern backpack boom bap style I think of when I think of early Rhymesayers albums–maybe something closer to Atmosphere–while what I first heard from his solo work aligns more closely with the fragmented and, at times creatively rigid, darker soundscapes of early Def Jux albums like The Cold Vein from Cannibal Ox and El-P. I was curious what differences he was aware of when it came to his approach, stylistically, between his solo and group work.
Aeon Grey: The newer Maxilla stuff is definitely, it’s probably more in between. I mean, my personal stuff is, you know, it’s not very melodic, right? It’s very rhythm-based, kind of noisy. It has, you know, tonal qualities, but from a musicality perspective it’s mostly collage and kind of just [inaudible] things, right? And I think some of that is included more in the newer Maxilla stuff. I’ve been a little more free than, you know–he kind of opened up and was like, give me some of the weird things, give me some of the really slow things and let me see what I can do. Because I think he’s, you know, he’s more open to expanding.
When we started working on Maxilla it really was, we just wanted to make music and just good music. And I always had an approach to producing records that I always wanted to do something different for anybody I was working with, right? And I didn’t want to cram people into whatever my sound was. I wanted to be able to be a producer and kind of curate for them a sound and a sonic spectrum that suited what they wanted to do and was a little more curated towards them. And I think like early on he had a lot of input, kind of saying–beat selection and things like that. And I think he did through the first three records, realistically. But I was trying to curate for him, right? I wanted him to be comfortable to do whatever he wanted to do.
‘Cause I’ll be honest, from the moment that I met him and heard him rhyme: He’s the best rapper I knew. In my book I would put him above pretty much anybody. Like, he is that good in my mind right and I think we just had that kind of click of I just want to do whatever you want. And I have these ideas, and these kind of sketches in terms of beats, and it kind of went along that way–me just kind of feeding things I thought he would sound good on and him, kind of, eating it. And with this record, it’s like, he opened up a little more and said, give me some of the weird stuff. Give me some of the slow stuff. Some of the really syncopated, you know, off rhythm things. And let me see what I can do. [It] might not make the album, but maybe we’ll record something, laugh about it, whatever it is, you know? But he’s more open to those things.
And I think that that’s definitely shifted my mentality a little bit. And I’m giving him things that I normally would have just kept him sat on for myself. And just trying to see if he even chooses them. And he has chose a few of them. So I’ll be interested in a new record/spectrum–when we get everything recorded and laid out and start figuring out where the pieces sit–what of that maybe makes it into the mix. But it definitely has a broader spectrum of sounds and qualities to it from a production standpoint. More of it just that kind of–most people would say it’s like retro ‘90s boom bap-type hip-hop with maybe some DJ Shadow elements, with longer loops and instrumental pieces and things like that. But I think we’ve added in some other things, again, that come out of my kind of tool-kit that we haven’t before in a Maxilla record.
villin: Given how much time has passed between now and when the group first came together, I was curious how Aeon Grey’s relationship with creating music has changed, and whether it’s morphed and shifted as he’s aged.
Aeon Grey: [It’s] drastically changed. And I would say a lot of that is shifting my focus to, okay, I have this–music’s not going to necessarily be my career right? I love music, I love making music, but I have this other, you know, human job thing that I do that pays for things, right? So that takes time. And then on top of that, I have a family. I have children. So I’ve had to very much–at the time that I really started producing heavily again after moving back from San Francisco, I was traveling a lot for work. For probably a few years, I spent a few months every year in India for my job. I was traveling around the US, the West Coast, Texas, East Coast, again, for my work. And that changed the way I had to produce.
Because normally, I would sit down and I’d just listen to records. That was the start of everything, right? Trying to find a sample. So I’d listen to records, find a sample, and can see–and then I’m gonna really flesh this thing out over the span of days, right? Where I’m spending hours and hours in my little area working on music. The need to travel for work, the family aspect, I don’t have that kind of time anymore.
So I shifted to more, kind of, mobile aspects of making music. A couple of apps on my phone–record as many samples into it as I can to have this stockpile with things to utilize. And then as well, one of the things that I did a little bit of on the third Maxilla record, I was doing somewhat in my stuff, but it’s even heavier now, is utilizing synthesizers and kind of actual instrumentation or just small keyboard riffs, re-played bass lines, things like that. I’ve done more of that. And that’s a skill I think that I’ve developed over the past 10 years that realistically prior to that I didn’t have much of. I was a heavy sample producer, that’s what I did.
So with this, kind of, where we’re at now, I would say I’m doing more of those things and trying to find ways to mesh them in so the sound is consistent, but it still kind of has more kind of movement to it, right? And it has elements that are not just from this record. And again, that almost comes out of the necessity to change my process. I have to be mobile. You know, I’m sitting on a plane, headphones on, making music on my laptop, my phone, my iPad, whatever it is. I mean, one of the songs on one of my own personal albums throughout the last five years, I recorded on EarPods in a hotel room, right? And I said, I did it as a draft, but I felt like it was the best take and I kept it. And it’s the worst sound quality ever. So I just kind of like, I used to have this idea of like this way that I’m creating and these things, you know, I wanted to sound this very specific way. But at the same time, limiting myself by what I’m using. Because I have these samples, I have this, I have that. I’ve kind of just opened that up. And I’ve also let go of some of–I’m not chasing a pristine sound quality anymore. And I’m not going as far as Madlib where, you know, I’m gonna record something on the worst four-track ever to say it is what it is. But like I’m not, sometimes it just works like, hey, we caught something in the moment. There’s noises in the background, whatever it is. That’s fine. That was the moment. That was the magic, right? I don’t want to have to try to recreate any of that.
So I loosened up some of the things that I had that were probably restricting me. And then I’ve just been much more open minded towards growing and even trying new styles. I mean, I experiment in other–you can say, like, trap beats or whatever else. I can’t do them in the way that other producers do them, obviously, because it’s still–my brain doesn’t work that way. It still works the way it does. But, I’m trying different things that I wouldn’t have tried before. Maybe even, you know, in the past, it would have been like, that’s so easy I don’t want to do it. Now, it’s like I want to do it but in a way that’s different and odd and, you know, kind of is a part of my voice if I was using that voice.
villin: There was a song I heard last year which he produced for Smoov G, and I mentioned it within this part of our conversation, in part asking where collaborating with others falls into this ongoing creative shift he’s experienced.
Aeon Grey: I’m not focused on this: I need a release an album every year; I need to do this; what’s next for the label? None of that stuff has mattered to me over the last 10 years. I legitimately just made music. And when I put out records, when I’ve given beats to people, it legitimately has just kind of happened. So, you know, the last few solo records that I put out, I mean, it just kind of happened. And some of those songs span over five or six years worth of time. And I just ended up, and I’d be like, okay, what do I have? I’m like, oh, this all kind of works. Everything comes together kind of much more naturally. Or when I’m giving beats out to [Smoov G] and some of these other guys, I have this urge at that point in time, like, I have all these beats that I’m not gonna be able to rap on because I have a tonal quality, and a way that I approach it, and I just, I can’t even write to those style of beats very well. It just doesn’t work for me.
So, it’s like I have this urge to like, I want these, I think these are good tracks. I want other people on them. And then I started reaching out to people who I normally wouldn’t have reached out to in the past, right? Like, just, hey, what do you think about this? Would you be willing to do this? Can I send you some tracks? And, you know, and I sent ‘em a bunch of stuff and whatever they use gets used, I guess. I mean, and I’m doing that in a way that kids do it; [which is different than] I’m not sending you a beat unless you’re recording. Right? I don’t want to hear your bad studio set up or how you’re mixing things. Like, I would want to control that end to end. And I really just let that go. Because, you know, I have kids, I don’t want people in my house, I’m just, you know–it became this thing of like, but I want to hear this. So here, give it a shot and let’s see what happens. And that was definitely a change for me. Drastically different.
villin: As Aeon Grey’s continued creating music for himself I was curious how his perspective on new music, or young artists, has changed with time. One of the trends that came to mind was that of young rappers jumping on beats they rip from YouTube. This isn’t entirely unlike mixtape culture from days gone by, but I was curious about any feedback he had on modern trends and how they’re seen through the lens of his own creative past.
Aeon Grey: If you’re young and you’re trying to make it today, like, we made albums, right? In the 2000s, we made records. That’s what we wanted to do. And that’s what people wanted. And now it’s shifted to: Did I make a song that somebody’s going to use on TikTok, right? Did I make something that I can shoot a one and a half minute video for that’s going to go viral on one of these social media platforms? I think the intention of what a lot of these young artists are doing is just drastically different in this space and time than what it was when we were making records. And, you know, we were making songs.
So I think like they have this motto of like, I’m gonna record a million songs and I’m gonna just put them out over time, the best ones, you know, and whittle my way down. I’ve always been focused on–I really want to always make whole pieces of music. And especially when I was really active with it. I don’t want to work with MCs unless they want to do a whole album. I mean, I don’t want–I always had a problem giving someone a beat that I knew was just going to be one beat on an album of 20 songs with 19 other producers. I always wanted, like, let’s really craft something, let’s do something end to end. Let’s create an experience, and if you know, when working with Gadema in the past, like he would always bring in beats, but he was mindful, he knew what I was going to tolerate if I was producing that record because you know he would bring some stuff and then it just doesn’t fit. You know, this is what we set out to do, it doesn’t fit.
I have a producer mind, more than just a beat maker, as well. And I want to make something complete. And I think that for younger guys, it’s very hard for them to hear some of those things, and to have somebody externally being like, no, this is what we should do, and let’s try this. The mindset is different and I would have been the same way when I was young. Nobody can tell younger MCs, especially, anything. You’re the best. You’re gonna do what you do. Nobody can compete with you. Your stuff’s the greatest. And if you don’t believe that you’re probably not cut out to be in this field anyway, right? You’re not a real MC if you don’t have that mentality. So I understand where it comes from. I understand what they’re doing.
For me personally, it’s always been more about: I want to curate whole projects. And dripping out some of these tracks to people I was, kind of, hoping it would lead to a full project. Some of them would record one song and put it up, you know, and that’s fine. I mean, I gave it to them, they can do what they want to do. And I let it go, but like in my mind I was throwing hooks in the water trying to catch, like, hey let’s do a whole record together. And in terms of working with younger guys, for me, like there’s been a handful of guys that I have actively pursued locally or even regionally of–I want to do a record with you. And it just, I think I’m in a different place in life, so for me to get in their mindset of, like, hey I want to record at midnight till four in the morning. Some of that’s hard. To be honest, I don’t, I probably want to do it, but I also don’t want to do it because there’s life outside of it. Maxilla, we’ll do it, and that is what it is. But for people that I’m trying to build something with, I guess, like it, it needs to also fit within the confines of my general living structure.
And there’s definitely some guys in Des Moines that I really want to work with. I want to kind of help them develop and curate. But again, I think the mindset is just different. They’re not, you know, in their mind, I’m going to release 10 albums year, mixtapes, whatever it is. And I’m just going to keep running. And I don’t really care where the beats come from because I’m the rapper and those beats are just there to be behind me, right? I just, I don’t see it that way. And that’s where Maxilla comes in. It’s a whole unit and we all work together towards this one thing. There aren’t groups anymore in the span of hip-hop, right? It’s a very rare thing. And I actually appreciate that. I appreciate being collaborative. I appreciate input. I have a handful of producers that I know who–anything that I do personally, my own records, like, I’m bouncing ideas off them. I’m getting their input. That’s always been a part of my process. I feel like a lot of people, it’s not, you know. It’s an ego thing, it’s a strength thing, and it’s not what they want. So I get it.
villin: I had to sort of laugh as we were talking about this idea of groups and collaboration because of the Def Jux comment from earlier; it was only after the label went bankrupt that its founder and face, El-P, found his greatest commercial success by teaming up Killer Mike for Run the Jewels. This continued the discussion about the idea of groups in modern hip-hop.
Aeon Grey: Bands are regularly highly more successful than rappers, right? And, I mean, if you look at hip-hop in general at a mainstream level, the majority of the guys that people would say are the best still make music and have been for the past 20 years, right? Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z, whatever. And it’s very strange to me that you see, especially when you’re coming up, it’s much easier as a group. It’s much easier as a collective. But at the same time, with a band everybody knows their role: I’m the bass player, I’m the guitar player, I’m the drummer, I sing, I play keyboard. When you’re making hip-hop music you have people who are the producers and you have people who are the MCs. And it’s very rare for MCs to come together and see each other. And especially as we’ve shifted away from modern song making, I guess you could say. Like, hip-hop was all bravado braggadocio, right? It was even when you were making the songs specifically about something or content that was, you know, emotional, you’re always trying to still up somebody. It has this natural competitiveness on the back of it and it’s not really a team sport.
So, you know, even like the BumRap records that we made in between the couple Maxilla records, that was more of like an exercise, right? And it was me trying to keep up with Asphate and be like, yo, I can rap too, I can do this in a different way as good this guy. And that was me as the MC side of me wanting to be that, but that’s not sustainable, right? In a group setting you have to have people who are very comfortable with themselves, know who they are, know what they want to be able to achieve those things. And especially when you’re dealing with younger 20-somethings it’s rough to be like, hey, I got you on this. Like, nobody wants to acknowledge that, right? You always want to go and it’s easier to just do it yourself. And if you have somebody on a song, it’s because you know they’re better, or they have a better following or whatever, and you’re trying to up yourselves. It’s weird. It’s all weird. But I understand why it doesn’t work. I wish it worked more, because when I’ve been a part of groups who have done things in that direct collaboration, like, that spirit really does excel everything. The end result when you can bring a bunch of people together is always better.
villin: There have been a lot of opportunities for reflection in the decade-long span between albums and in that time I was curious what stands out to Aeon Grey as the milestones for which he’s most grateful.
Aeon Grey: The whole thing to be honest. Like I said, with Maxilla especially, everything is perfect. When a show doesn’t go right, it’s still perfect. When there’s 10 people there, when there’s five people there, we’re rapping in some dude’s garage in Colorado, it’s perfect. And that’s just the mindset that we’ve always taken. This is what we do, whether we’re open for Ghostface or in Europe or whatever, 80/35, it doesn’t matter because this is what we do. And if we weren’t here, it’s likely what we’d be doing anyway. Whether we’re at home, just rapping to ourselves, freestyling, making music, writing. So like, just really grateful, I mean, for the whole thing.
The experience of being able to meet Asphate and to be like, this is amazing. And for him to be like, this is amazing. And for us to share that and be like, alright, let’s make something. And then be like, bring TouchNice in. And be like, hey, you’re great. And everything just works, like I said, so like, I don’t know, there’s not a–I’m really grateful for the whole thing. I’m grateful for being able to take 10 years apart from it and not do anything. I mean, we haven’t released an album since 2010, so almost 15 years, 13 years. I’m just grateful that time doesn’t pass. You know, it’s not like we got together and we’re like, “Oh, we gotta learn how to do this again.” We just knew what it was and we started, it just fell in, just very naturally.
And, and I think like that is the thing that I’m most grateful for is those two guys. Because there’s no time that, you know, I know that I couldn’t call them, needing them and get something from them and vice-versa, right? And just that whenever we’re together like that is the deepest core of who we are. Knowing they would look out for my children in the same way I do, I mean, that is truly what I’m most grateful for. It’s just them. And everything that we’ve done along the way is awesome. But it would not have been the same without them. None of this would have been as rewarding or as enjoyable without those guys there.
I’ve done tours by myself and it’s awful. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but like, you know, getting in a van with six guys who I barely know, building those relationships is fun, but I would have always much rather been doing it with them. That it just would have been, that would have been what it is. And to be honest, I didn’t go on the European tour because at that point in my head, it was like I don’t want to do live shows. And that has been my only regret is that I didn’t do that with them just to experience it with them. But otherwise, man, just those guys and being able to share the moments that we’ve shared, the family moments that we shared, the things that we’ve done together, that makes it all worthwhile.
villin: This comment came from a mistake I’d made, thinking the group went over to play some European shows as a complete unit. The decision to sit out that opportunity is one that sticks with him.
Aeon Grey: Yeah, so when I moved to California, this is where the ego got me in Maxilla. Because I was starting to be seen as only a hype man, and not that I was actually an MC. In places that–we were broader with Maxilla than I ever was as an individual. So people were just being like, oh, there’s Asphate and there’s his hype man, and I was like, you know, in my mind, I’m like, you know, I’ll bust your ass on a microphone, like, I don’t care. Like, I rap, I MC, let’s do that. And so like I had kind of this chip from that, that kind of aspect of it. And I just felt like I want, like I said, I wanted to focus on different things. I wanted to focus on creating the music and doing those things. And I kind of walked away from doing live shows. And then that opportunity came up and they were like, do you want to go? And of course I wanted to go, but I wasn’t maybe through it in my head yet. And I didn’t go. And then that’s the one thing that I missed is missing the chance to do that with them. You know, their wives went on it with them, too. So it really was, like, everybody together. It would have been–that would have been, that’s the one point that I’m like, I should have done that. Everything else has happened, as it should. But I should have done that. That’s the one thing that I missed.
villin: But to me this is one of those things that, sure, you can look at, framing it as something of a regret, but it can also be used to enrich future experiences. Like, had he to do it all over again that seems to be a decision that would have been made differently in the past, but now he knows what it’s like to miss out on something like that, which can help shift the interpretation of opportunities like the one he’s got now, to get back together with friends and continue to create music with each other.
Aeon Grey: It definitely, you know, definitely changes my perspective on things. I mean, like, you know, everything that’s coming, like I said, as long as it’s us, we’re good. And I don’t want to have to miss anything again. You know, I don’t, I’m grown to a point where I don’t need to be worried about those things, right? I let something get to me that I shouldn’t have. And I definitely moved past to where I know what I’m doing here in this group. And I know that this group isn’t this group without, right? And regardless of what happens on stage or how people look at it, I mean, none of that really has ever mattered. But at some point I got in my head about how I was being perceived, right? And that was the wrong thing for me. So I’m definitely grateful that it’s back. And it’s weird because there’s definitely people who are like, Oh, you guys got back together. But we never did break up. We never had a falling out. We didn’t have a big argument and I stormed away, or anything like that. We just moved [in] different directions for a while. And now it’s back. And that’s, you know, that’s just natural to me. Like this is all happening as it’s kind of supposed to happen.
villin: While the conversation most definitely took on a direction of its own, there was one thing I didn’t want to let slip by before we wrapped up. When going back through older stuff online I came across an interview clip from the period of time where he was out in San Francisco. In the interview, Aeon Grey was talking a little about the shelf life of hip-hop. At the time he mentioned Rakim as someone who didn’t need to keep on making music, yet was doing just that, and now a decade removed from that thought he himself is performing at a festival in a capacity which an uninformed fan could confuse for a nostalgia act. I was wondering how his position might have changed as he himself has aged, and what he now thinks about his past comments now a decade removed from them.
Aeon Grey: It’s actually hilarious that you bring this up because somebody posted that clip recently and I just–I saw that exact segment. You know, I definitely had that mentality of, like, I don’t want to be this old guy on stage rapping to a bunch of young kids, right? Or trying to compete with young kids for–as these times changed, like, they especially like they do with hip-hop music. Which it’s a young art form, right? It doesn’t–still only like 40 [or] 50 years old so it’s not, you know, it’s still evolving. And I definitely had that mentality.
I don’t–I felt like I was going to run out of things to rhyme about, right? I was going to run out of stories to tell that would be intriguing. And I kind of attribute that to–I wasn’t living a life at that point in time. I mean, I was, but everything around that life was music. So the output of what I wanted to do vocally and how I was looking at things, I mean, it was just, it felt redundant. It felt like there’s no experiences. There’s nothing that’s forcing me to change the way I’m doing things. So why would I keep doing this? Right? And even for somebody like Rakim or somebody who had notoriety at some point and continues to go, it kind of comes down to, are you, are you evolving as an artist? Are you still capable of doing what you’re doing? Are you getting better? And what experiences do you have that you are sharing?
And the other kind of interesting point of this is, there was an interview that I read that Lauryn Hill had done at some point. And you know, after The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill came out, everybody was pressuring her to do another record. She was on top of the world, listed as one of the greatest ever. And then she disappeared. And the way she explained it was, she couldn’t deal with the pressure of people wanting her to make music when she had nothing to make music about. Because she just laid her whole life out on a record. She hadn’t done anything since that record except support that record. So if she was going to go in the studio and make another record, it would either be these fabricated concepts and ideas, or it would just be about the record, right? And then it becomes this cycle of just, hey, I make music about making music.
And I think when I said that, I think at that point in time I was scared, like, I’ve just run out of things, and I’m going to run out of things. So, I think that kind of lull that I had, where I continued to make music, but with no intention of putting it out, and I was more focused on family and kids and developing myself as a person and experiencing things. Like, it led me to be open about just, hey, I’m just making art. And as long as I have something to write about, as long as I’m living life, I have the capability of making music, writing, doing those things. But once I stop living, that’s when I’m going to run into that struggle. And pursue–ceasing the pursuit of being like, I have this record, here’s the promotion cycle, this is what we’re gonna do, I need to contact these blogs. Once I just threw all that out, it was so much more relieving. ‘Cause there was no kind of echo chamber, there was nothing that I was worried about in terms of is this good enough for anybody? It didn’t matter, right? Am I gonna get attention? If I press this vinyl, is it gonna sell? None of that even crossed my mind. It was I’m just making music and it is what it is.
Now I look at it as like why wouldn’t I do this forever as long as I have something to write about. As long as I have experiences to share, as long as I have a perspective that is mine that I think could resonate with someone else. I should share that because from the start of it, for me, making the music I made and being so, kind of like, stubborn and hard-headed about stylistically what I wanted to do, how I want to speak, a lot of that was because I wanted to find people like me. It’s not for everybody. You do a show for a hundred people, there’s maybe five people who really understand me, maybe one, who really understands what I’m saying and I’m okay with that, ‘cause that’s the person that I want to get to know and relate to and they’re sharing those experiences. And that’s kind of how I see it. As long as I have that perspective, as long as I have something new, as long as, you know, there’s–I’m still kind of searching and kind of growing as a person, there’s no reason stop. And that was a stupid ass statement that I made 12 years ago, right? I was just in that cycle.
This episode features a previously unreleased, untitled track by Aeon Grey, which is now available via Central Standard’s Bandcamp page.
Maxilla Blue will be performing Friday, July 7 at 80/35 in Des Moines, Iowa. In preparation for their new album, you can listen to their past releases via Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, and follow the group via Instagram and Facebook.