By Vish KhannaA true original, Guelph-based hip-hop artist Noah23blends surreal, socio-cultural abstractions with a heart-stopping flow and eclectic production. He could be the fastest rapper alive but he’s just as keen to push his vocal range and sing a sweet hook. An array of influences seeps through his music but everything is accounted for; throwaway lines are eschewed for curious lyrical riddles that require at least a double take. Noah23 is a hyper-intelligent underground poet who studies and struggles to make his otherworldly art, confident that, at some point, the rest of the world will catch on. In this revealing Q&A, Noah23 essentially provides Exclaim! with an autobiographical account of his life up to now.
Even though you’re now known as a hip-hop artist, since I’ve known you I’ve seen you perform in other musical contexts, particularly folk and indie rock. Can you discuss when and how you first got into music as a fan? I remember the first songs I ever heard were "The Monkey and the Engineer” by the Grateful Dead, "I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Joan Jett was like my favouriite song when I was like two or three, and the next one I remember hearing was "Ebony and Ivory.” Those songs and Looney Toons were a big influence on me growing up.
Where were you born? I was born in Natchez, Mississippi but lived across the river in Ferriday, Louisiana, the same county where Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart are from. We were out in the country with no real neighbours. We moved to Canada when I was three and a half.
Did you have particular musical influences at that time? Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper — those were huge for me. Also Bruce Springsteen, just from hearing it from my parents My mom got me a Twisted Sister 45 when I was five years old and I’d play it on my Fisher-Price record player. And then Run-DMC in ’86, I had that for Christmas. I used to like a lot of music, heavy metal and stuff, and my mom actually told me when I was young that she’d rather me listen to hip-hop than heavy metal, which I always thought was kind of funny.
How did you end up in Guelph exactly? My mom was born in Ohio, and my dad in Pittsburgh. My mom grew up in Guelph and my one granddad was a Mennonite from Elmira, and my other one was Amish from Pennsylvania. So, I might be half Mennonite and half Amish. My dad died when I was 15. He was in prison for a while and he used to write me letters. I used to visit him in Corpus Christi, Texas quite a bit and he was a big musical influence as a far as reggae. My dad was into Rastafarianism before I was born. He used to love the Grateful Dead but when I visited him he’d play a lot of Steel Pulse and Bob Marley, so that was big for me. He used to play guitar a lot in prison and one of the letters he sent me said he was playing songs by the Cure. I thought that was kind of a funny for an old Deadhead hippie. All he wore was beer-splattered Dead shirts.
When did you first get into playing and performing music yourself? I started playing around 14 or 15 years old and was performing a few years later, and I started recording straight to boombox. I’d do a lot of boombox overdubbing with multiple boomboxes. I barely knew how to play guitar, no lessons, just really off the cuff but, right off the bat, I was doing a lot of speed changing — speeding things up and slowing things down — and other lo-fi trickery. This is before I even knew about Jim Guthrie. I was listening to Sebadoh and Pavement but I was really just messing around without a real framework. Maybe some Daniel Johnston but that might have come after. In ’87, ’88, I started rapping on the schoolyard a bit. I’d make them up in my head without writing them down. I started kind of writing heavy metal songs. I was really into metal-rap, funk stuff; I bought all of the early Living Colour, Fishbone, and Chili Peppers albums, which was before the grunge wave. Before that, Run-DMC and Fat Boys — those were the biggest for me — and then N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew, stuff with swearing. Each year from then on I’d be into different things. Even as a long time fan of rap, I remember being really behind the times when Vanilla Ice was popular because I was listening to so much Ozzy Osbourne. Maestro Fresh-Wes was big. I grew up listening to Metallica one second and then Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock the next. Salt-N-Pepa. I remember hearing "It Takes Two” for the first time to this day. Then I got into stuff that mixed all of that stuff together like Fishbone and Faith No More, who were like my favourite band in grade eight.