A true original, Guelph-based hip-hop artist 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. 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.

Sorry, so when did you actually start rapping yourself?
I only did a few raps in like grade four or five. Then I got into darker, metal themes but with the rhyming structures of rap; I was hearing these orchestras of metal songs in my head. I probably didn’t start writing rap songs again until like grade nine or ten. About ‘92 or ‘93, I started making my first tapes, and there was always one rap song and then experimental noise, some folk, rock. I was into diverse things.

Was there ever a point where you weren’t so into rap and hip-hop?
The big change for me was the commercial, misogynistic period of hip-hop. I was in a punk rock aesthetic at the time and a more conscious vibe so, when Dre’s The Chronic came out, I wasn’t about that at all. I was into Digable Planets and other stuff but hip-hop, I didn’t jive with it in high school because it was for the jocks. I dropped out of high school in grade ten and that was a big thing for me. That’s when I really started to listen to Daniel Johnston, African Head Charge, and Wu-Tang Clan, all in the same acid trip with the Beatles and Slint and stuff. Digable Planets’ Blowout Comb was an epiphany for me. Just stylistically, lyrically, everything about it was big for me. It was right when I was dropping out of school and it really altered my subconscious and changed me to my core. I was jive talking and I was just hip, I was hip. (laughs)

My first exposure to you was with Fippad, which was cool because it seemed unusual to hear a kind of militant hippie rap collective in Canada at the time. Looking back at it, what was Fippad all about and how did it affect you?
That was the summer of ’97 and the cool thing was, we were so disorganised that nobody ever discussed what we were or who were or what was gonna happen. It just kind of happened. The MCs started out as a few friends, getting high smoking weed and back then I was on the Jay-Z tip where I was writing all my rhymes in my head while walking around. We were too young to smoke weed at our house, so we would walk around the parks and a lot of the real MC skills and freestyling came out of that.

Who was in Fippad?
Myself, Tao Bakker, Aaron Sniderman, Treevortex, Andrew Collins (Tacoma Hellfarm Tragedy, Sad Clowns), Evan Gordon (Sad Clowns, The Magic), James Ogilvie (engineer), Scotty Nightingale (Ragg Mopp), and Jamie Thompson (The Unicorns, Islands). Our last show was at the Hillside Festival and it was my first hip-hop band but we never practiced until the Hillside gig. The show went great but we weren’t really a band, just a moment in time.

When did hip-hop and the idea of being an MC yourself first occur to you?
It was really natural. I was listening to so much of it and I loved it so much that it was a part of me. I never, ever really dealt with the race thing. Never cared, never really thought about it at all or paid it much mind. I like performing and it was really intense to rap and fun and girls like it. I was really influenced by psychedelics and a lot of books apart from rap. I can specify songs by Wu-Tang and the RZA that, lyrically, really altered my mind and my consciousness, where I was addicted to the whole transmission of fast lyrics and stuff. But psychedelics were really a big thing for me in changing the way I thought and wanting to share it. It’s a good way to get across a lot of ideas and words. Basically, I’ve always been a poet. Even though I’m into music and instrumentation, being a hip-hop MC is a lot like being a Superman poet.

Where does this spiritual and political stuff in your music come from?
Guelph was a really cool hotbed for me growing up because there’s a real anarchist thing going on here and that kind of just combined with my hippie roots. For me, it’s a natural mix where some people are really political, some people are into mysticism, and other people are into entheogenic mind-altering substances and music. I’m kind of into an equal part of all those things.

As someone who was raised in Guelph, you grew up around a lot of gifted musicians and I know you try to collaborate with different people when you can. Do you think that the community of musicians here has had an affect on your own work?
Definitely, in the fact that I make music at all. Just experimenting with other people inspired me to make home recordings and play live shows. I even think there’s a Guelph sound. I remember hearing Eric’s Trip and thinking, "They sound like they’re from Guelph.” It’s like folk with a punk rock aesthetic. I’ve always clicked with lo-fi recordings even though I try to do different sound quality stuff now. To me, lo-fi and punk are the same thing, or jazz. Jazz music is when you do what the fuck you want to and that’s what hip-hop and punk are about too. Lots of world music too. The Hillside Festival was important for that and seeing the Rheostatics and Barenaked Ladies when they first started.

Who would you say have been the most vital collaborators for your music?
Definitely Fippad. Guelph is so incestuous in some ways… Jim Guthrie; I practiced at [his house] the Roc Sak. Barracuda, Livestock, and the Maccabee crew. A big collaborator and business partner was Orphan, (a guy named Kingston Maguire), who’s from Florida and Washington State. We started my label Plague Language together. He just happened to be in Guelph randomly and I bummed a menthol cigarette from him and we were hooked since then. He lived at my house and he didn’t believe I could rap but we collaborated on some beats and rhymes. We no longer work together but he’s now in a group called Blue Sky Black Death, who work with Wu-Tang members and Guru and people like that. He goes by his name Kingston and he has partner and they produce music together.

What about MadadaM? You seem to work with him a lot these days.
MaddaM filled Orphan’s shoes; Orphan used to make about one-third of my beats. I didn’t produce too much, just a little bit here and there. I use MadadaM as my primary producer now but I also have some long-time collaborators and I always work with new people too.

In pretty much everything you do as an MC, you’re utterly unique — from the lyrics to the flow to the beats and production. How would you describe your approach to writing songs and what influences it? What motivates you to do this shit?
To me, I’m normal but I know that I’m strange and stuff. I’m influenced by psychedelics, different religions, astrology, Egyptology, and lots of different schools of thought. To me, I’m where Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol left off. I’m not just a musician, I’m a memetician. I deal in memes and the idea of viruses. That’s the whole thing with Plague Language. I’m like William Burroughs; I think I kind of pick up where a lot of people left off and that’s why some people don’t catch on necessarily because it’s so post-modern or whatever the fuck, but then a lot of people do catch on. It’s not supposed to be tricky. I use a lot of humour and trying to streamline stuff so it’s still very abstract but very poppy and easily absorbed into your brain. More structure, hooks, and different voices so like I’m getting into character for the song but it comes out really naturally.

What about your flow and phrasing? When did you get into speed raps?
I’m an Aquarius and so a big thing with me is lightning and electricity — like an instant flash or brain charge. I was more into fast and dense rapping early on just to show what I had because I’d been holding so much in. That was Neophyte Phenotype, which was long and had a lot of stuff. I did a cassette before that one that was extraordinarily fast and dense. I still recycle a lot of lyrics from those times and you can expect to hear them in the years to come. A lot of the ideas were really good but I want them to be felt in a better way. Ever since I was a child, I was kind of psychedelic. I was really into strange things and "the other,” or intangible. Not dark or gothic stuff but kind of odd stuff.

Like what; can you give me an example?
Well, the reason I have the number 23 in my name is because 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.

Jesus Christ.
So, that was a pretty big deal. Now, I’m probably one of the foremost theorists on the number 23. People might not know that 23 relates to W, which is the same glyph as the sign of Aquarius and that 23 is always associated with that sign and the meanings are the same. Michael Jordan is an Aquarius and William Burroughs, who invented the 23 enigma, he’s an Aquarius and it’s just a strange thing.

So, you believe in… what is this beyond coincidence?
Synchronicity’s a big deal for me. I have a song where I say, "Down in the basement there’s a rap honeycomb.” About three months later, I moved into a new house and we went downstairs to set up the rap equipment and there was one honeycomb down on the floor. So, to me an element of the supernatural is always at hand and I’m a strong believer in it. Words have the power to create worlds or alter the world we live in literally. There was so much coming out at the beginning but I think I’ve learned to control it. I’m trying to make sense of the media climate we live in with all of these ideas and thoughts being jammed at us every day. I reassemble them they way I want to and kind of share that back.

How did you get into recording and production exactly and how do you do this stuff?
I’d have ten boomboxes playing different things — this was way before the Flaming Lips — and my early experience gave me an ear for recording and sounds. It helped me record songs with a lo-fi approach. Now I get beats from people who send me MP3s and they may be a fan who can share in my album with me. They could come from any place. I like to have a finished composition, then I record vocals and we mix it without changing the beat much. There’s not a lot of post-production after the vocals are done and it’s a pretty simple approach.

So, you mostly use your computer?
There’s some computer production with room for instrumentation. I use ACID and Frooty Loops and, I some times use studios but I like to record at home where I’m comfortable and in the moment. I’m notorious for using broken headphones and airplane headphones.

One of the things that I think people find admirable and frustrating about you is that you’re incredibly prolific but it’s damn hard to get your records. I know you’ve toured all over the world but where exactly?
I’ve toured everywhere in Europe except the English-speaking countries. England, you better smarten up! I played Athens, Greece in 2004 and was one of the first North American hip-hop artists invited there. I was filling in for Mr. Lif actually. I’m like a freelance dude and I do lots of one-offs. I’ve played in different states and Halifax and Calgary.

So people know you in underground hip-hop circles but why do you think you’re still kind of unknown in some ways, and not doing music full-time?
I’m just really slow to make things happen. I work hard and I’ve had a lot of breaks and some misfortunes. I’ve capitalised on some opportunities but not all of them. I’m a determined guy going in a musical direction and things are going good right now. In the past two years, I’ve recorded over 200 songs. I had a couple of years before then where I was kind of depressed and things weren’t going so well. I only did a bit of music but then, halfway through 2006 it got really good again musically. I made a lot of music to help me with that depression and joked that I came out of retirement, which kind of helped with the fans. A lot of people tell me not to do so many songs and take more time but I just have a lot of different stuff to express in moments in time.

And you’re still invited to play all over the world…
Oh, I’m fucking famous. 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 it does occur, I’ll be ready for it.

Finally, can you talk about your future plans in the next while and what you’re hoping to accomplish over the next year?
2008 is the Year of the Rat so I gotta get that cheese. I think it’s gonna be the year that I thought 2007 would be. I’m going to be an octopus punching you with music this year. I hope to have the Weird Apples full-length out properly. The Bourgeois Cybourgs (Noah and Barracuda) debut, a PL compilation, Crunk23 Part II, which features Moka Only and Kingpin Skinny Pimp, formerly of Three 6 Mafia, and my big solo record. 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. There’s a multitude of guest artists but I think it’s going to describe who I am better than anything I’ve ever done and I’m real happy with how it’s coming along. I’m hoping to release it in the fall. Basically, when the record’s done, I’m gonna add a lot of family and friends in choruses and interludes. It’ll have a Where’s Waldo? feel to it. I hope people understand how good it is. It’ll be very diverse, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m selling myself, it’s the cult of personality and Warholianism. I’m obsessed with it but in a healthy way. It’s creating a mythology and having fun with it.