By Vish KhannaWhen Boston-bred rapper Mr. Lif couldn’t make a 2004 performance in Athens Greece, organizers asked Noah23 instead, making him one of the first North American hip-hop artists to rock a mic there. Similar one-off invitations have enabled Noah Brickley to play Europe and select parts of Canada and the United States. All this despite the fact that the prolific, stunningly talented MC’s discography is barely available outside his hometown of Guelph, Ontario, where he works mundane day jobs to survive.
"Oh, I’m fucking famous,” he laughs. "I was born famous but I’m not rich. Although it’s frustrating, I think that could be a blessing artistically. I’ve had such a gradual build to being a professional musician, that when and if success does occur, I’ll be ready for it.”A true original, Noah23 blends 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.
Born in Natchez, Mississippi 30 years ago, Brickley lived in Ferriday, Louisiana (birthplace of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart) with his prison-bound, hippie father and music-loving mother before moving to Guelph as a child. "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. 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.”
Brickley was drawn to metal though and taught himself guitar, while the lyrics he imagined had a distinctive rhyme structure. "In ’87, ’88, I started rapping on the schoolyard a bit. I’d make them up in my head without writing them down. I was really into metal-rap, funk stuff; I bought all of the early Living Colour, Fishbone, and Chili Peppers albums. 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.”
When Brickley was 15 his father died and, not long after, life was different. "I dropped out of high school in grade 10 and that’s when I really started listening to Daniel Johnston, African Head Charge, and Wu-Tang Clan, all in the same acid trip with the Beatles and Slint. Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb was an epiphany for me. Stylistically, lyrically, it really altered my subconscious and changed me to my core.”
A unique cognitive awareness followed Brickley to his first rap group, the agit-hippie collective Fippad. Exploring drugs in an activist town fostered a thirst for knowledge and Brickley’s innovative, information-overload rhymes emerged on lo-fi recordings made on boom boxes. "I was really influenced by psychedelics and a lot of books apart from rap. I can specify songs by the RZA that, lyrically, altered my mind and my consciousness where I was addicted to the whole transmission of fast lyrics. But psychedelics were really a big thing for me, changing the way I thought and wanting to share it. It’s a good way to get across a lot of ideas and words.”
Among pop culture references and conspiracy theories, Brickley’s lyrics delve into astrological and supernatural elements, capturing things the rest of us might miss. Take his Noah23 moniker, for example. "I got it from The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson, which I read 23 years after the publishing date wearing a shirt with a 23 on it at the time I read the passage about 23,” he explains, nonchalantly adding, "That was a pretty big deal.”
With little mainstream attention, Noah23 has recorded hundreds of songs at home on Acid software, started his own Plague Language rap imprint, and composed 12 solo albums in this decade alone. Within months, he’ll release at least five new records, including those by his groups, Weird Apples and Bourgeois Cyborgs. "2008 is the Year of the Rat so I gotta get that cheese,” he says. "I’m going to be an octopus punching you with music this year.”Most notably, Noah23 is working on a new solo record that puts him front and centre. "I think it’s the biggest album made in history by anyone ever. It’s called Rock Paper Scissors — the sacred trinity of life — and the theme is childhood nostalgia. I think it’s going to describe who I am better than anything I’ve ever done. I hope people understand how good it is.”
Click here to read the full interview with Noah23.