Why Aesop Rock’s “Daylight” is Worth Saving 15 Years Later
This past weekend saw the end of Daylight Savings Time 2016. Days are darker, nights are longer, and we all gained an hour of sleep. But that first word, “Daylight” is one that inspires a myriad of emotions within anyone who had followed underground hip-hop this side of the millenium. One of the biggest indie-rap singles ever released, Aesop Rock’s Daylight has become an iconic rite of passage for anyone interested in the counter-counter-culture that is non-mainstream hip-hop. With the song turning 15 this year, and the EP surrounding it turning 15 with the next Daylight Savings Time, now’s a good time to re-examine this particular track’s place in the rap canon.
Produced by Blockhead, when Daylight was completed at the start of The Aughts, it wasn’t originally intended to be released on Aesop’s breakthrough Definitive Jux debut Labor Days. As I was told by indie-rap label Rhymesayers' head Siddiq “Daylight” was initially supposed to be a single on Rhymesayers as Def Jux head-honcho El-P wasn’t particularly fond of it. At the time Labor Days was being completed, the record didn’t have anything quite like it, and with Siddiq’s blessing it found a home on the album and would go on to propel the release into an essential purchase of the era.
But before it hit store-shelves, it was the result of a perfect storm of “you like this?” reactions. As Blockhead mentioned on his blog Phat Friend, he didn’t think Aes or the other contemporary MCs at the time would be into the beat as they were into more darker material. The day after playing it for a group of artists, Aes hit him up the next day with an idea for the song. The last element to be added to the track once the vocals were recorded, was the track’s “Yes y’all…” beginning, a sample from Digital Underground’s “A Tribute to the Early Days,” a cassette only track from their Sex Packets album.
The lyrics exemplify the appeal of early Aesop Rock. Not a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along by any means, one’s first exposure to the tidal wave of vocabulary twisted in abstract metaphors might be to miss the allure of the emotional touchstones and turns-of-phrase inside it. Perhaps the reason people keep coming back to Aesop’s music, specifically “Daylight,” is the elusive covert usage of words that allow new meanings and interpretations to pop-up well over a decade of repeat listens. As Aes told HipHopDX in 2012 about the making of “Daylight” “I remember it being just a general life song. It speaks on a lot of things, there’s some childhood memories, mixed with some life experiences, mixed with a creativity-will-conquer-all vibe, mixed with a youth trying to interpret his day and figure out how to make it to the next one.” Not that that’s stopped thousands of fans from trying to decipher it. I recall several years ago a pages-long heated messageboard debate about what exactly was meant by “Stomach full of halo kibbles” that was swiftly ended by someone involved with Aes joining the conversation and swiftly ending it by stating “He means Cheerios.”
But these lyrics are some of Aesop’s most memorable. From “I did not invent the wheel, I was the crooked spoke adjacent” to “asking if I’ve seen his little lost passion / I told him ‘yeah, but only when I’ve peddled past him,’” you get these glimpses of clear, distinct poignant imagery a midst most complexly layered wordplay. Of course, there’s also the song’s centerpiece, the trademark “Life’s not a bitch…” moment, which seemingly became the most used “Favorite Quote” during Facebook’s initial college-only launch.
Any conversation about “Daylight” would be incomplete without revisiting the song’s sequel “Nightlight.” I use ‘sequel’ loosely, as it’s a lyric-wide complete flip of the original. Painstakingly aligned with the original to become a nightmare version of a track where hope is elusive enough as it is, listening to both back-to-back somehow makes both more understandable, as there’s the bizarro parallel to immediately compare it against. It’s quite the feat.
With the one-two haymaker-uppercut of “Daylight” and “Nightlight” opening the Daylight EP, it’s often overlooked just how solid the rest of the release holds up. Released at the height of the initial Def Jux movement in February 2002, it dropped the same day as the Definitive Jux Presents Volume 2, the EP is the first release from the label that feels self-aware of the movement it was building. With self-referential nods to the previous year’s Def Jux releases and the expanded in-house production slate to include El-P with Blockhead and Aes, the crew’s “Independent as Fuck” mission statement was never more defined. The El-produced “Nickle Plated Pockets” in particular, a dusty juxtaposition of the struggle of the homeless, the challenges of selling music at the start of the industry going into free fall, and some of the first lyrics about the uncertain dizzying disarray of post-9/11 New York City make it the type of track that could only have emerged from the Jux camp.
But the EP also gave birth to one of this early-indie-rap era’s greatest moments. Columbus rapper Blueprint had been active in the underground hip-hop scene for a few years by this point, but his opening verse on “Alchemy” (which he also produced) was one of those instant classic star-making verses. With a verse full of quotables that might even me more memorable than the hook itself, it’s a clinic in how to get yourself heard on a record and maximizing your minutes on a nationally distributed release.
Revisiting “Daylight” and Daylight EP today is such an interesting listen. On one hand, their impact at the time forever designate them as something of time capsules for their moments and movement. However, other than their own influence, Aes’ coded language and the production rooted in a strong foundation of hip-hop fundamentals basically allow them to exist in a vacuum. They could have very well been recorded today. While there’s as much time between now and “Daylight” as it and RUN-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way,” the only thing that feels ‘old’ about it is the comfort for a familiar listen. It’s been hovering on the cutting edge for a decade-and-a-half, a near-impossible feat in any genre. It’s also an inspiring flicker in an often dark corner, one that will presumably shine for as long as there are days.
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