Sixtoo And Change
Published May 01, 2004The first time I visit Sixtoo's Montreal apartment it isn't the nicest of days. The sun is battling the clouds for weather supremacy, and the clouds seem to be winning. When I get to his place he invites me in for a quick cup of tea, and his typical high-ceilinged, hardwood floored walk-up feels like the clouds have invaded his space with their darkening presence, too.
It's more than just the weather that adds to the solitary feel of his apartment. As he leads me to the kitchen I note the walls are pale, with few pieces of art, and there seems to be less furniture in the common areas than there are pairs of shoes at the entrance. Although his roommate is at home busily working on an upcoming art exhibition, the apartment seems very still.
But my concern is not so much about how he decorates his apartment, but how he's established his work space. Cup of tea in hand, he takes me to the front of the apartment where his studio is.
Now, there's a different story.
Where the rest of the apartment is sparse, the studio spills into the hall. A huge door-sized mixing board rests on its back just outside the entrance, guarded by two wooden horses, which were likely used to support the beast when it was in action. Inside, the room is warmly lit, and even the slabs of dark grey foam sound absorbers hanging from the ceiling and walls can't deflect the cosiness. A computer, a set of turntables, a little keyboard, some amps, milk crates of records and other black boxes with faders, buttons and LED lights line the walls and crowd the centre of the room. Although well-organised and tidy, it's clearly too small for all the stuff he'd like to put in it.
"Have you heard this?" he asks, sitting in front of the computer. A swinging little ditty by late 60s / early 70s composer Marcos Valle plays on his computer, and before I know it, he's off and running about production values and vintage gear.
Sixtoo isn't shy about his addiction to musical equipment. The producer, MC, DJ, musician and graffiti artist has this quirky habit of hunting down equipment, snapping it up, recording with it and ditching it in search of some new piece of Holy Grail of knobs, keys and input jacks. He cops to being elbow deep in the seek-snag-and-sell process already, even though press copies of his new album, Chewing on Glass & Other Miracle Cures, have barely had time to be bootlegged on the internet.
"I think it's important not to stick with anything aside from your instrument, which for me is my sampler," he says. "It forces you to record in a new way."
That's it, right there: when Chewing on Glass comes out this month he's hoping the people who have been following his ten year-plus winding road through the bowels of underground hip-hop will be able to follow his "new way."
"This isn't a hip-hop record," he says.
Okay, a little perspective. Sixtoo has been baking his own hip-hop not-hip-hop beats and rhymes for years, producing at least one tape (usually more) a year since he dropped the first one more than a decade ago. So for him to make a statement like hey, I'm moving away from hip-hop,' is like your dad shaving off the moustache he's had for as long as you've known him. It might take a bit of getting used to.
"It's a pretty emotional feeling record I think," he says. "It references a huge amount of recording space in 45 minutes, and that's a pretty big roller-coaster ride for somebody to go on. If people don't immediately get it and are stuck going holy shit, what is this?' then that's great. I want there to be that elusive quality there, or the depth of character there that somebody would get if they know me. You can't just break down the complexities of a person in five minutes either."
Sixtoo's history is the stuff of musical myths, with strife, success, artistic endurance and friendships braided together, all the while bumping out albums and singles.
When Vaughn Rob Squire, aka Sixtoo, was 13 years old, life was about punk rock and skateboarding. He lived in Toronto with his mom in an area with a large Caribbean population, and by 14 and 15 he was frequenting reggae clubs like Inner Zone, Fokus and A-Club, where here he was first introduced to dance hall and roots reggae.
By the time he was 16 he was brandishing a heavy teenage attitude problem. He dropped out of school, but enrolled again the following year when he moved with his mom to Truro, Nova Scotia after her second marriage dissolved. He spent the next three years finishing school, working the night shift at a bakery and making the 45-minute drive to Halifax each weekend to party and integrate himself in the hip-hop community, which he considered the next best thing to the dancehall scene.
He started rhyming with the high-energy hip-hop group Hip Club Groove as C.L. S.C.A.R.R. (The C.L. stands for Criminal Lyricist; S.C.A.R.R., according to him, is "too embarrassing to say.") He recorded two full-length demos with them, but just when the group was at the beginning of recording their first LP he jumped ship.
"That was a sign of the darkness that lurked inside him that we all saw," says Buck 65, aka Rich Terfry, MC, DJ, producer and long-time friend and collaborator. "[It was] like Whoa. What's going on that this guy at this stage of the game, is feeling enough pressure or disaffection or whatever that he has to quit?' Just when it seemed like it was going so well."
Sixtoo spent the next six months soul searching and working with a doomed rap/metal group called One Inch Punch, all the while drinking and being rowdy. It was that year, 1994, that he put out his first tape, Superstar Props.
"I can remember the night clearly when he had put together his first solo record," says Buck. "It was me and him and the Hip Club Groove guys sitting in the car on Barrington Street in downtown Halifax. There were no hard feelings from anyone, despite all the ups and downs and erratic behaviour. [His music] blew us all out of the water. It was the first time that we saw the real sensitivity that we all grew accustomed to later, the real quiet soul that was in there. It was amazing to see that. We just didn't know what he was capable of because we hadn't really seen him involved in the production of the music on his own. He inspired all of us with it."
Sixtoo had met Buck 65 through Buck's radio show, The Basement (the Treatment program came later) on CKDU, Dalhousie University's campus and community radio station.
"I don't remember if they called first or what, but the way I remember it, these four guys showed up and they were a bit of a tornado," recounts Buck 65. "You can just tell that they had designs on the big time right off the bat, even though they were unbelievably raw at this point. They were cocky as hell, but Rob was the cockiest. I disliked him right away."
"When me and Rich met each other, I don't think we really got along," Sixtoo says in a separate interview. "At that time Rich was pretty outspoken straight-edge and I was fucking full-blown alcoholic, so whenever I'd be at the radio station I'd be smoking weed out in the back lot or showin' up drinking 40s in the station just getting people in trouble. We didn't really hit it off right off the bat."
But it was an exciting time in Halifax in the early 90s with the Halifax Pop Explosion phenomenon and Sloan's extra-Maritimal success, and the hip-hop scene was included in the jubilee. Casual encounters at shows grew into a platform for a friendship. Ironically, the year that Sixtoo put out his first tape was the year he drank himself into the hospital with a ripped stomach lining. Buck brought him books to read.
"I remember that being the first outreach to me outside of shows and stuff like that," Sixtoo says.
By 1995, the two became the Sebutones, a project that was supposed to be a one-show, one-tape deal based on their mutual love of hip-hop and desire to twist it till it cried uncle. Surprisingly, the response to their abstract take on hip-hop with their stylish spinning, scratching and rapping was too legit to quit. So, they made a few more records, did a few more shows, and became one of Canada's most mythical hip-hop duos thanks in part to the success both men have enjoyed since.
At the time they thought they were the only ones making nerdy white guy rap, but in 1998 (just prior to the Scribble Jam where the Sebutones would be inducted into the 1200 Hobos by Mr. Dibbs) a CD arrived in Buck's radio station mailbox that proved them wrong. It was clearly in the same odd-beat vein as the Sebutones peripheral rap. It turned out to be the Live Poets, a group from Portland, Maine featuring Sole the guy who would go on to launch the mythical little label that could, Anticon Records.
Sixtoo went to visit the American rappers, one thing led to another, and in 2000 he moved to California with the rest of the gang to build the label's momentum. He stayed for only eight months; he was uncomfortable with their rapid ascent as the nu tower of hip-hop.
"When I moved back to Halifax from California I had a really hard time," he says. "I had a series of personal things happen that were all really heavy. Big and stupid, just not stuff that I need to talk about. But basically, I moved into a graffiti shack, like a seven by four room with all my gear a closet. I was just spray painting and smoking weed every day. I was painting trains like crazy, just being a graffiti bum, and I stopped making music for seven months."
It was a $3,500 kick in the pants, or "advance" as they say, from friend Waye Mason of No Records and Cease and Desist distribution that would jump start him into his next album. As the project grew into Duration, friends at the Khyber Centre for the Arts forced him at ball point to apply for some arts grants that would later keep Hydro happy as he finished the album.
"Luckily that record turned out to be a turning point for me," says Sixtoo. "It was the first record that I focused solely on production, not giving any thought to word play at all. I put some much needed time into honing my own production style."
He followed up the instrumental Duration with the lyricised Antagonist Survival Kit, but he considers the former to be the seed from which sprang Chewing on Glass. Regardless of discography, any artist's work springs from the grander scheme of his personal context and history. He's had his tribulations and they have given rise to a lot of music, but he hasn't been mired in them.
"A lot of the darkness is certainly real, and he's had his demons and he's fought them basically with his fingernails," says Buck. "But it hasn't always been just that. There's been a sense of humour that's been his salvation throughout it."
It's been two years since Sixtoo moved to Montreal, and although there's been strife here too he's not interested in dwelling on itor anything that happened in his past for that matter. Since his arrival he's focused on learning about music, instead of just dealing with dusty fingers after scrounging for records. Chewing On Glass wouldn't be the same without this city.
"[Before Montreal] I had been pretty much dead set against [learning about music]," he says. "I just wanted to sample records and was very concerned about the process of true school hip-hop records. And I think I clung to that for a lot longer than I should have, in terms of my growth as a musician."
Although the majority of the album features sophisticated rock and jazz blends, long-time listeners won't feel alienated. It takes less than 30 seconds for the first scratches and samples to be heard on the opening track, "Boxcutter Emporium Part 1," and "Old Days Architecture" has a distinctly break-beat lurch to it, combined with dark elegance. But tracks like the sneaky and slightly sinister "Snake Bite," with its graceful, dark cello, rattling percussion and back-grounded distortion clearly point in a more mature direction, and highlight his capability as a producer.
"What I've got from hip-hop records is about production," he says about the LP, which is the first of a three-album deal with Ninja Tune. "I'm sampling genres as opposed to sampling records, and that's what I've learned from hip-hop. I learned how to listen to records because of digging for samples. And so to try and make a record that sounds like somewhere between break-beat-oriented stuff, psych rock records with drums, Miles Davis jazz playing, electronic and musique concrete stuff, and then to tie it together with a tangible recording value that cites all of these genres? That's what I've learned from hip-hop. But it's not a hip-hop record."
He recorded most of the music live, funnelled it into his sampler the one piece of equipment that always stays and arranged it. Where he once made sure his compositions were as dense as possible, the new album incorporates space because, like Sun Ra another influence said, space is the place. The album hinges on subtle recording and production techniques to cross-reference the sounds he's presenting, so the inter-song spaciousness is necessary for listeners to reach the album's less obvious levels.
It's also necessary for getting a sense of the person he is. Throughout his history he has repeatedly returned to a shadowy restlessness bedding the beats, and just as the hip-hop is discernable amongst the Krautrock and Miles Davis, the album operates within the framework of the complex inward emotional space he's known for.
"Maybe I'm a sombre person," he says. "Maybe I'm depressed a lot of the time and music is my outlet. I don't need to vent when I feel good about myself, that's just stuff that I keep. But when I'm feeling bad, that's the stuff that you want to get rid of. I think social pressures are what push people to be creative in a lot of ways. A lot of people, not everybody. I mean, maybe you can be one of those shiny people who have a great day of shopping and then go out and make a movie afterwards. I don't know, that's not my reality, that's all."
Currently his reality includes a great deal of pride in his latest work, which is significant for a musician who is rumoured to have attempted to wipe out the existence of his own albums he no longer liked by destroying the master tapes.
"For a long time, one of Rob's demons was just getting some kind of recognition or validation for what he was doing and felt like he never got it, never got it, never got it," says Buck 65. "I thought it made sense for a long time with Ninja Tune coming along. I can tell you that the difference is night and day. Rob has been validated and he's a completely changed man. He's basically worn a smile on his face and a rosier disposition."
Sixtoo agrees that he's in a good place. "Right now I'm finally starting to feel, okay, this is worth it because I'm hitting a stride now that's uniquely my own," he says. "It's something that cites a lot of other things, but it exists on its own, and it's something that I can take a lot of pride in and that's exciting for me. This has been my hustle for a long time, and there's been a lot of work that's gone into building enough momentum to get to this moment where coincidentally I feel like I'm onto something new, and it's like, aww fuck yeah! Finally!"
By the time I leave Sixtoo's place the weather has changed. A few clouds lag behind, but the sky has turned into shades of deep pink, purple and blue. To say his recent advancements are just like the day's weather would be too flippant, but there seems to be some cosmic conspiracy to reflect the balance of strife and satisfaction he seems to have achieved. He still has his rainy days, but Sixtoo's invention, intention and emotion translate into a watertight and highly accomplished and detailed musical ethic that you can't gage by genre. Just by ear.
Superstar Props (Ant Records, 1995)
"Making that record I was still living in Truro, NS and I was working a shitty night shift job and living out some suburban rap fantasy. Back then I was still really hungry. I wanted to make good battle raps. It was cool, it was just making tapes. I guess I was sort of proud of it at the time, that's what it was about back then and just trying to get some work out."
The Psyche Intangible (Metaforensics, 1998)
"That was the first record that I really considered to be a Sixtoo record. It's the first record that has very signature writing in it, and it's the first record that really starts to show off the production type that I think I've grown into. Dark sparse beats, hard drums, and all those things that I tend to gravitate towards."
Duration (Cease and Desist, 2002)
"This is the record that's pretty much put me on the path that I'm on now. It's my first instrumental record, and the reception of that is what ultimately pushed me to pursue what I'm doing now. I hooked up beats and I did a visual installation pieces in outdoor environments, and wherever I left those markers I broadcast the sound and re-recorded it. I went back to Halifax six months later and most of them had been stolen or replaced by city workers, but I think a lot of people who might've never heard my record might've gotten something out of those installations."
Antagonist Survival Kit (Vertical Form, 2003)
"That's my last vocal record. I think the writing on it's really good it's the matured version of Sixtoo. I think it really hints at where my production has headed. Lots of effects processing, dirty drums, effects based the whole aesthetic. Plus it was slept on."
50/50 Where it Counts Sebutones (Metaforensics, 1998)
"That record was made really quickly. It was literally banged out in two weekends. It wasn't a project with a whole lot of focus, and the amount of popularity that the record gained was really quite a surprise to Rich and myself. If you use really good drums and samples then that stuff should stand up for some time, I think."
Maid of Gold Villain Accelerate (Sixtoo and Stigg of the Dump) (Mush, 2003)
"I was just sort of trying to put more of a musical slant on what I was doing. That's the first record I played Rhodes on, there's quite a bit of live bass on it. It's a really slow record, so I think a lot of people group it in with chill-out records, but I think it's pretty heady. We traded samples back and forth and then Stigg of the Dump spent a weekend in Montreal and we finished the record."