When Nike approached Aesop Rock to create an instrumental track for its Nike+ Original Run project, few were as surprised as Aesop himself. Though the Def Jux MC/producer has been a stalwart of the indie-rap scene for a decade, he did not expect to get a call from the biggest name in sportswear.
“To be honest I thought the gig was so weird, so unexpected, and such an odd choice for them to make [that] I only could have done one thing, which is make the odd choice to accept the offer,” he told BallerStatus.com. “I like things that are different from what I’ve done, and this was just weird enough to do.”
Aesop’s “All Day” track joins mixes that Nike has commissioned from The Crystal Method and LCD Soundsystems for the Nike+ Original Run series available exclusively in the Nike Sport Music area of iTunes. The Nike-Apple partnership is anchored by the new Nike+ iPod Sports Kit, which wirelessly connects Nike+ enabled footwear with an iPod Nano to track running statistics and create “the ultimate synthesis of music and sport.”
All exciting news for committed runners, trendy technophiles, and gym rats, but how does a self-proclaimed “crawler” with a well-documented affinity for cigarettes and videogames produce a track engineered specifically for a 45-minute run?
“My girl runs a lot everyday, so she was testing this out during the process, and Nike had their ‘testers’ running and emailing me feedback, so I think the end result should be something that works for what it was meant to,” said Aesop in defense of his work. And, as always, the proof is in the product: Aesop’s “All Day” mix is one of the more interesting, inspiring, and eclectic pieces of hip-hop instrumentation you’ll come across. The cosmic, almost disjointed opening introduces a marching momentum that builds into a constantly shifting soundscape, punctuated throughout by short, slogan-like lyrics. There are no breaks in the music to off-set the rhythm, allowing the different movements to overlap seamlessly.
“The theme I had invented for the project was that of someone running through a bunch of consecutive landscapes or scenes, so each change in the music — whether happy, dark, eerie — would be like the runner is looking around at this odd world he or she is in. Each of the vocal parts relates to the particular part of the music they are on. So if the vibe was sort of darker at one point, I was writing stuff that I felt would accent that as a ‘scene.’ Then if it changes to an ‘uplifting’ portion, the lyrics went in that direction.”
The track receives further texture from the guitar riffs of Allyson Baker (formerly of Parchman Farm) and the scratches of DJ Big Wiz. It is an interesting conceptual project made all the more impressive by the fact that it actually fits its function. As a soundtrack for running, the “All Day” mix — with its pacing, energy, and atmospheric use of sound — effectively creates a feeling of always moving forward while still remaining unpredictable.
As part of the independent-minded Def Jux camp, Aesop is used to working in an “unintrusive environment,” where he can do what he wants and does not “have to answer to anyone creatively.” So was working under the patronage of a multi-billion dollar mega-brand a startling transition from the “artists collective” vibe at Def Jux? Aside from a tight 40-day deadline, Aesop insists he did not feel stifled by Nike’s presence and actually enjoyed the guidance that the company provided in shaping the functionality of the project. “I actually found the guidelines pretty fun to have. It really was a great set up for where the thing should go,” he said. “It was only a couple things, like a small timeline of how long the ‘warm up’ section should be, how long the ‘body’ of the run should be, and how long the ‘cool down’ should be. But the actual tempo, vibe, and music was all up to me.”
This hands-off, artist-friendly approach — as well as the promise of big bucks and wide exposure — helps to explain Nike’s recent success in courting a wide range of graphic and recording artists. Indeed, the Nike+ Original Run series fits firmly within a larger marketing ploy that has seen the brand making big noise in the music world recently, particularly in hip-hop. In January, the launch of the anniversary Air Force 25 was ushered in with the epic strings and rousing braggadocio of “Second Coming,” a collaboration between Just Blaze and Juelz Santana. The song accompanied the “Second Coming” Nike commercial (featuring the likes of Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Steve Nash) and was made available exclusively on iTunes by Nike. Though the track will appear on Juelz’s third EP, Born To Lose, Built To Win (The Reagan Era), it is now firmly implanted in pop culture memory as a “Nike song.” A month later, the “Classic (Nike Remix)” song and music video sent shockwaves through the hip-hop community by uniting three legendary MCs (Rakim, KRS-One, and Nas) with Kanye West and DJ Premier. The video, which quickly made the rounds on YouTube and music blogs, featured all of the artists spitting in the booth while graffiti artists bomb their visages and quotables onto walls and trains. With only a few explicit references to Nike (including Rakim’s memorable suggestion that Kanye wore AF1s when he “walked with Jesus”), the video’s “true school” spirit attempts to subconsciously tie Nike to hip-hop’s roots.
And, in spite of its image as a global mega-brand, Nike has a legitimate claim to this “originator” status. From the early days of hip-hop, the company has had a place in the culture as omnipresent trendsetter—or at least its product has.
“Nike has always been part of hip-hop culture to a degree, or sneakers in general. The idea of having fresh kicks, or working so you can get a clean pair, it’s been part of the dress code for decades,” explains Aesop. “Of course you don’t need Nikes or Adidas to make hip-hop music, but this is a culture that grew into a braggadocios art very quickly. There is, and always was, this element of ‘your sh– looks broke, my sh– looks fly’ to go right along with ‘your beats are wack, mine are the jump’.”
But when did being name-checked, sought-after, and fetishized by hip-hop cultures turn into a direct, creative relationship — no longer in the form of passive sponsorship, but actual artistic collaboration? While more overtly product-oriented tracks like Nelly’s “Air Force Ones” and the general obsession with referencing the latest models have long provided the brand with free advertising, this recent series of “commissions” represents a new phases in Nike’s branding. More so than any other major brand, it might be said, Nike has shown the most resourcefulness in adapting to the advertising dilemma brought on by new media and new technology. In the age of TiVo and viral video, the brand does not just want to sponsor popular artists for commercials and magazine ads. Instead, it wants to be perceived as an actual creator of culture — an organic piece of the creative process. Aesop succinctly sums up his outlook on this approach: “Nike has done some very interesting collabos in recent years, from Madlib, the Melvins, Pushead, De La [Soul], Jeremy Fish… the list goes on and on. It seems odd that such a massive corporation is extending its feelers out beyond what is easily accessible to them, [but] I think that’s admirable.”
It is indeed an “odd” — but, it must be said, astutely resourceful — tactic by Nike, at once innovative and potentially subversive. The notion of “selling out” remains anathema within must sub-genres, yet time-and-again Nike has managed to court highly respected artists from across the musical gamut. Aesop, whose socially conscious lyricism has always been a touchstone of his musical output, reflects positively on his experience with Nike.
“I’ve never claimed to be anti-corporation [or] anti-major label. I am anti-major label for myself, but not as an overall concept,” he said. “Every corporation can be researched and loads of good and bad will inevitably come up throughout their past, but to be honest my work and the conversations with [Nike] were about the music I was asked to make, and the experience was great.”
By exploiting the love affair between rap music and sneaker culture once again, Nike seems to have struck musical gold and reaffirmed the respect of the hip-hop community. But what about the runners for whom track is intended? Thus, far the response to the product has been overwhelming positive, because if there’s anyone who loves Nike more than rappers, it’s probably runners (except for the purists who think Nike running shoes are terrible and prefer Saucony, Mizuno, and Brooks). Ultimately, when it comes to Aesop’s “Nike+ Original Run” mix, all parties—rap fans, runners, and music enthusiasts in general—have something to celebrate. All day, every day.
Aesop new LP, “None Shall Pass,” is set for release in late summer. “All Day: Nike+ Original Run is available on iTunes for $9.99.