"I got dumped by hip-hop."
It's hard to imagine a break-up as upsetting as this one. And for Buck 65 (born Rich Terfry), it couldn't have come at a stranger time.
Rich grew up in tiny Mt Uniacke, Nova Scotia, a former gold-mining town. As a kid, and through his late teens, he believed firmly that his mission in life was to play baseball. Rich put his whole heart into the game, and was dazzling enough on the field that he was once scouted by the New York Yankees. When his major league aspirations fell through, he took a long, hard look at his turntables and resolved to pursue music with the same gusto.
He first met hip-hop when it was fresh and untamed, and although he was already in a long-term relationship with baseball, he fell in love. He bought his first record when he was ten years old, and can still boast more 1979 hip-hop on vinyl and more knowledge of hip-hop history than almost anyone he knows. He started rocking the local roller-skating rinks as a b-boy in the early 80s, and worked hard on his rhyming skills. Rich eventually moved to Halifax, the nearest city, where he picked up a degree in biology, and pushed himself to become one of a very small handful of people to master all three arts of MCing, DJing, and music production. He also scored a weekly slot at Dalhousie University's campus radio station, a raised platform where, as "Jesus Murphy," he preached the hip-hop gospel to anyone who would listen. To many of the young Haligonians who tuned in during the show's twelve-year stretch, it was their first, and maybe only, exposure to underground hip-hop.
Roughly two years after Rich first took to the airwaves, he started distributing some of his own recordings. The release of his first EP, Chin Music, came in 1992 under the moniker Stinkin Rich. He followed up two years later with a seven-inch single, Stolen Bass, and the Game Tight cassette. A dedicated underground following sprouted and began growing steadily. In 1996 he and fellow Halifax MC/DJ/producer/artist Sixtoo (born Rob Squire, now a resident of Montreal) formed Sebutones, a vehicle for experimentation and testing the limits of hip-hop however they chose. Rich took on the name Buck 65 around this time, and began work on an on-going series of albums, the Language Arts series. Slowly, as he played with his approach to language and writing, his sound began to change.
It's been a good decade since Rich first burst into the music game, and he's got ten records under his belt. With each ensuing Language Arts album Parts One to Three, Language Arts, Vertex, Man Overboard, and a limited run of quickie Synesthesia, actually Part Five he's garnered more attention, greater critical acclaim, and a larger, more international fan base. He's had Part Four of Language Arts, Square, hidden up his sleeve for some time, and has been showing it off like a proud parent to the major record labels that have come knocking at his door. Finally, this summer, Rich inked a four-album deal with Warner. Square is set for an early September release, and his entire back catalogue is going to be re-issued, including a re-worked version of Synesthesia. He broke the news on his web site. "No more having to kill people to get your hands on stuff. Records up the ying-yang!" he proclaimed. But in the midst of all this excitement, there remains a problem: no one, not Rich nor his label, knows quite how to market him. "I don't even know what kind of music I'm making anymore," Rich sighs.
Music media often classifies him as a rapper, but Rich's music hasn't fit the typical rap mould in a long time. On his older releases, along with some of his signature rhymes about childhood or mundane passions, you'll find him grasping the mic aggressively, cutting up whack MCs, swearing, bragging shamelessly about his skills between the bed sheets, and breaking down a list of hip-hop crimes for kids who don't know. It's a far cry from the musician you encounter on Square. He's still gazing at the world with the wide eyes of a child these days, but his voice is much gruffer, almost old-man crotchety, and both his subject matter and his samples have shifted direction. His newer inspirations Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Portishead, Simon & Garfunkle, David Lynch, Robert Frank, Charles Bukowski, etc. have made a collective impact too huge to ignore.
"I think if you go back and look at all my records chronologically, they really reflect how my own personal musical tastes have changed a lot. I was still pretty into hip-hop when I did the first Language Arts, for example. And you can tell that I grew increasingly disenchanted with hip-hop as time has gone on." He pauses. "To the point where I don't listen to it at all anymore."
During an interview this past winter, smack in the middle of his courtship ritual with several major record labels, Rich outlined his genre dilemma and went over his theories of "where it all went wrong" with hip-hop.
"I think my definition of hip-hop is now irrelevant or obsolete, and that's a really tough pill for me to swallow. I got all my teaching, all my wisdom, all my understanding of hip-hop from the founding fathers. If my teachers, if the creators of my art form are now doing something completely different that doesn't resemble what I'm doing anymore at all, what am I doing then?" Rich bemoans the conservative nature of hip-hop today and says that he couldn't, and doesn't want to, fit within the narrow parameters of subject matter, image, and sound that the culture has outlined for itself. "Hip-hop, when it really interested me, was really eclectic, and it was like folk in a lot of ways, and it was political, and it meant something, and it had this gritty, dirt-under-the-fingernails quality to it. When it stopped being that, I went looking for it in other places."
"I think Square represents a real significant step in my evolution, in terms of the sound I'm trying to define for myself. I don't think it was fully realised on Square, and I can say that because I've done a lot of work since that record," says Rich, hinting at his next two records. As Square and the other four Language Arts albums are hitting store shelves, Rich already has Language Arts Part Six, his first official Warner release, recorded and ready to rock, and is working on Part Seven.
"Maybe it would take a few repeated listens, but I think more than on Man Overboard and Vertex, I'm rappin' more on this record. There are some moments where I'm just out-and-out rappin'. There's a part of me that almost doesn't want to admit it, but, even though the reviews of Man Overboard were all really good, I know there were people out there talking, mostly on the internet, he can't rap!' and I thought, well, a lot of people who don't know and maybe never heard any of my old, old stuff going way back, maybe would figure I couldn't really kick it in that way if I wanted to." He laughs softly. "I thought I would drop small reminders here and there that, if need be, I can lay it down."
On the record, Rich talks about his love of food, the lame club scene and people from his home town, weaving his earnest, gruff voice overtop gorgeous piano strains, the heavenly breath of an organ, and a whole lot of crazy scratching. Conspicuously absent from Square are Rich's alter-egos (Johnny Rockwell, Uncle Climax, DJ Critical, etc.), indicating a shift from characters to a more sketch-based storyteller's approach to songwriting. Attentive listeners will notice how Rich is more sing-songy and melodic than in some of his previous releases as well, and how he doubles up his vocals on a few tracks.
On one of Square's first songs, where he employs a beautiful guitar sample based on a different time signature, Rich is forced to show off his math-based writing skills. Rich, who is used to writing lyrics for music in counts of four, wonders "if people will twist their ankle or something when they hear that song. [It] was a really hard song to write words to, a really big challenge. It's like being forced to use your left hand all of a sudden.
"Music has to make mathematical sense, otherwise it's an uncomfortable listen." His voice drops slightly, as if revealing a secret. "I have this thing in me where elements of my songs, like the way my songs and albums are constructed, things have to be divisible by eight all over my record. Kinda like how the Greeks got obsessed with that Fibonacci Sequence, and everything had to be that way. I kinda have things like that when I make my music, where it has to be that way, and if some thing wasn't this long or this way or these numbers didn't add up, I just couldn't do it." Rich laughs. "If someone said you have to' I'd probably lose my mind."
Rich's neurotic, sometimes anal tendencies have been a part of his personality from the time he was a kid. His younger sister would often play on his idiosyncrasies for her own amusement. "She would secretly go into my bedroom and rearrange the baseballs that I had on display, maybe not even necessarily changing the order that they sat on my shelf, but even just turning one a quarter of a turn. And then she laughed because she said I always noticed; the second I came into my room I noticed right away.
"For sure I'm a technical nerd kind of musician, and really into theory and studio tricks. And then I'm this simple, kinda terrified kinda guy who's trapped in my childhood, and nervous." He pauses. "Then there's all these secret, hidden areas all over the place.
"More so than most people I know, I have this really strong attachment to my childhood. I don't notice it cause that's the way it is. I'll describe my take on things from the eyes of a kid. My mind can still get blown every day, and that's good. I don't ever wanna get so jaded where I can't have that happen anymore. I like that I'm still filled with wonder." But at the same time, he explains, "there's a part of me that feels like some old man all the time." He laughs softly. "It's weird being somewhere trapped in the middle, being half eight and half 80.
"I've come to recognise how I'm just like my grandfather," he admits proudly. "He was kooky and weird, and I loved that. I have these strange memories when I was a kid of going into his living room, which was always this dark room, and there was a window that had all those little tiny figurines that you would get in boxes of Red Rose tea lined up along the window sill. And had one of those funny lamps with the fibre optic cables that sort of poofed out, one of those lamps that changes colours and is sort of psychedelic, very 70s. So being in this dark room with the ornaments and that lamp, him sitting in his usual chair, me sitting across the room on the couch, and he would talk to me by whistling only. And not whistling tunes, whistling as if he were speaking sentences. I remember looking at him and thinking what is he trying to say?' and I know it's something important. I almost feel like it's him trying to tell me his grandfatherly lessons, but through these whistles. And I have to really concentrate and understand what he's saying."
Like his grandfather, Rich can be difficult to understand. He admits it himself: this fascinating, complex Buck 65 character is "this guy who's hard to know, but who I want to make easier to know." Re-releasing his back-catalogue is a smart move on his (and Warner's) part listeners are given a chance to get to know him all at once, a rare opportunity to explore the tangled network of connections and images that link all of his songs. When Rich writes his lyrics, he digs deep into his mind, his heart, and both pants pockets for subjects and themes. Many of these pop up throughout his records over the years, creating the impression that maybe, if you listen carefully and pick up all the puzzle pieces, you might be able to fit them together into a larger story.
Nestled in Rich's 30-year-old brain are passages, twisted and secret, like those of a crumbling medieval castle. Hidden compartments number in the thousands, and their contents are varied: some peach fuzz, an old pair of red rubber boots, Ted Williams' career statistics, reruns of Behind The Music, a craving for chocolate chip cookies ("there are times where I feel that if I don't have em I'm gonna go nuts"), jigsaw puzzles, scenes from a Gaudet film, the number 47516, a fear of water, groaningly awful jokes ("Why did the Siamese twins go to England? So the guy on the other side could drive for a while"), a Fats Waller song, math equations, and a huge stack of fragmented childhood memories.
"Once in a while one of my own lyrics will pop into my head and I'll think it's funny no one ever asked about that,' even if it's a little pretentious to think that. And if they're not asking, I can only assume they'll dismiss it as something esoteric, and that kinda bothers me. I'm not that kind of guy. In fact, I hate that sort of thing. Everything I write means something to me, and in some cases it means something really, really strong.
"I think what everyone secretly wants is to have the kid from Almost Famous, someone who's a rabid fan but is also a journalist and knows your stuff upside down and backwards, and asks you all the intricate, interesting questions, and picks up on all your studio techniques, and picks up on your reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne or something like that," he admits. "You really want the sense that someone was really paying attention.
"I'm just making music for myself, but since other people listen, and I do want them to, I want them to understand. Something I would love to do is take all my albums and do what they do on certain DVDs, where there's the director's commentary track. I'd love to be able to do that. There's a part of me that would love to sit down with everyone who buys my record, go through it line by line, pressing pause every few seconds."
He constructs his records like David Lynch assembles his movies, demanding a more active, attentive listening experience. The complexity of Rich's music, lost in a vast sea of easy-to-swallow pop junk, is part of what makes it so difficult to classify. And this strong resistance to categorisation, in turn, is part of what helped spawn Warner's suggestion to move him to Paris, and closer to his European market.
"I don't think I fit really neatly into any category that already exists. Some people feel the need to sum up something really quickly and easily, like in a few words. And maybe you could just say well, he's kinda like Beck,' and then that's all you need to say. But, Christ! It's unfair, that's taking the easy way, and that doesn't even really say anything.
"A lot of people have observed that there are certain markets in the world where and it's so hard to find a word without sounding lame "non-pop" music has more of a fighting chance," Rich says, his voice slow and clear. "It can be difficult to explain without sounding pretentious. I went there back in the spring, I toured Europe, and it went really, really well." His stay in Paris is open-ended; he's dropping anchor for the last few weeks of summer, jetting back to Canada for a quick cross-country tour, and then flying back to his chi-chi home to "work as hard as possible, tour a lot, make as many friends as possible" until Language Arts Part Six is released next summer or until he feels like moving back to Nova Scotia.
"I've always lived in or near Halifax, so the fact that I'm going to a whole other part of the world, to this romantic and kind of exotic place, to me is just so terribly exciting I can hardly stand it." Rich drops his voice to an intense whisper. "When I think about how fun it's going to be to be alive for the next little while, just because it's going to be so new and exciting, that's really great to me now."
Until recently, Rich had to rely on a part-time job at Paper Chase, a Halifax magazine store, to help him cover rent and groceries. As he struggles to keep up with overwhelming praise, rock star treatment on the road, and the dizzying potential of his deal with Warner, Rich maintains a tight grip on his roots and his humility.
"Just this past weekend I was talking a walk on the waterfront, and we saw this puppet show. There was some guy from France who had marionettes and there was a crowd of maybe 20 or 30 people, from all walks of life. And someone from my family was like you should do that sort of thing!'" Rich begins to laugh heartily. "And there's a part of me that believes that's a great idea, but that's really funny. It just shows that a lot of people in my family just really can't comprehend what goes on. If they think it would be beneficial for me to busk on the boardwalk and get a crowd of 20 or 30 people, I don't know what they think happens when I go on tour.
Looking ahead to the next few years, when the follow-up to Square is released and he has the full force of Warner backing him, Rich's crystal ball turns a little fuzzy. He has no idea how things are going to turn out, but facing that unknown, with all its musical, creative, and geographical possibilities, is wildly exciting to him. And if his romance with hip-hop never returns to the fire in the belly that fuelled his earlier attraction, that's okay. Deep down, Rich Terfry and hip-hop will always be friends.
"Recently I recorded a little batch of songs for this CBC studio session. There's a line in one of the songs I wrote where I say I go slow and give the maniacs the right of way.' And I think that kind of says a lot about a change; in a way I've grown in the last few years." Rich pauses a moment. "I go a whole lot slower now, in a lot of ways."
Behind the Music
"What do I do? I make garbage can music. It's an old pair of shoes. It's early 60s Paris. If the music I make is hip-hop at all, it's hip-hop for runaways and subscribers to Reader's Digest." Rich Terfry is the "one man circus side-show," a man of many talents, known for rhymin' and cuttin' at the same time. He's been making good music under several guises for over a decade, so if you haven't heard of him yet, here's your chance to get closely acquainted.
Weirdo Magnet (Metaforensics, 1997)
Twenty-three tracks of hearty goodness, this double album includes songs from old Stinkin' Rich and Buck 65 singles, and is an excellent introduction. "This is a shoebox filled with old photos," he says. "It's a collection of material that fell through the cracks from between '88 and '95."
Language Arts (Metaforensics, 1997)
"This record is the first of the continuous, mix-tape style albums. The idea to make a record in this way came in part from the format of my radio show at the time: very dense and turntable driven. It was also a showcase for all the recurring characters I used to play." Buck 65 rocks the mic hard with the help of Achilles, DJ Critical, X-rated Uncle Climax, and his other selves. His voice is younger and more aggressive, the cuts are a little louder and fast-paced, and the scratching is crazy.
Vertex (Metaforensics, 2000)
"I have no memory of making this record whatsoever. It's possibly my best work, but it makes me feel strange to listen to it." Rich slows down on this record, and the music seems thicker, almost dream-like in some places. This is where we're introduced to the most misunderstood creature on four legs, "The Centaur."
Man Overboard (Anticon, 2001)
"This record was made during the lowest point of my life. My Mom passed away, I was really poor, was mugged, lost my job, got dumped, etc... It's a pretty little mess." Dubbed "music to slit your wrists to," this emotional, highly personal album is much slower, darker, and more experimental and abstract than any of his previous work.
Synesthesia (Endemik, 2001)
Here's where things get complicated: Synesthesia was made after Square was completed, making it Language Arts Part Five, but it was released in limited numbers after Part Three, Man Overboard. The original version was made, top to bottom, in two days, but for the re-issue Rich took it back into the studio to touch it up. "This is the record with the simplest ideas. I was also thinking about how the songs would translate live more than before. It's mostly fun stuff with a few scary moments thrown in."
Square (Warner, 2002)
Language Arts Part Four, the latest instalment in the on-going adventures of Buck 65. He exploring some different territory, taking a lot more risks, and experimenting with subtlety. "Lots of attention to detail here. I took more time with this record than any previous. It's the most musical of my records so far, I think."