By Aaron Newell | 25 July 2005
CMG’s Aaron Newell (CMG): So, Biz Markie jacked one of your beats once.
Buck 65 (B65): Yes. The story there is that — parts of the story are mildly embarrassing. But, as was the case with so many of us from that particular era of the Halifax hip hop scene, a bunch of us got mixed up with Mark Costanzo and the whole Len project. I didn’t get in as deep as DJ Moves, but maybe deeper than Sixtoo ever had. So I was actually involved in the production of that album — Can’t Stop the Bumrush. I contributed production to that album. So I can remember the moment when the idea was presented to me of hooking up a piece of music that Biz Markie would be rapping on. And I knew he had a reputation of having a fairly vast knowledge of records. So if I’m going to produce something for another heavyweight I better do something good.
I told him “I have a beat for you, but before I play it I want you to tell me if you know it.” So, I played the record which was, I think, “A Girl Like You” by John Travolta. So I played the record and he was like “Whoa what’s that?” — he didn’t know what it was. You can still find this record. I don’t know if I got credit in the liner notes for finding the sample, but the sample is noted. So then, I mean, this is just really the old school tight-ass bastard in me talking, but then, years later, the Ego Trip Book of Lists comes out, which was kind of an important book for a lot of people in the hip hop world. One of the lists in the book was titled something like “Biz Markie’s favourite possessions” or something. So it was a list of toys and, you know, a variety of things. But one of them was my John Travolta record with the break. And if that book came out today, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash, you know? But then it just went against the whole old school code — if you dig up a break and stake your claim to it by putting something out with your name on it, it kind of becomes yours. It’s your find. So when he claimed it, at the time it bothered me. I was trying to establish myself then, as someone who could hang, someone with some knowledge of beats. And this was difficult to do at the time. But now it makes me laugh — like, who cares. But that’s the story.
CMG: Random curiosity again: something I’ve been wondering about since I heard Sleep No More — do your songs play backwards, is it like Memento?
B65: The story behind that Signify album basically goes back to one particular year during Scribble Jam, where both Signify and I were staying at Dibbs’ house. He had two couches, so there we were. I told Signify this long story, about something that actually happened in my life. He said “that’s incredible, you should write about it someday.” He never let me forget it. And when it came time to do the Sleep No More project he told me what he was looking for. He wanted the project to tell a story, but the most important thing was the idea of sleep, sleeplessness, dreaming. And most importantly that idea that dreaming is never altogether logical. You can be in the middle of a dream and the next thing you know peoples’ faces change and you’re in a completely different place. The laws of physics don’t always apply. He took it out of sequence on the record, which enhanced the dreamlike quality of it. It was my thought that it would appear on the record in order. We recorded it that way — in sequence — but he chopped it up for the record. Which added to the story, when it was all finished.
CMG: What about “Centaur” — there are many ways that it could be interpreted.
B65: “Centaur” had a very long gestation period before it was recorded. The seeds germinated for a while before I wrote it. It all started during a visit to San Francisco, years ago, around 1996 or something like that. I was staying with DJ Stef from Vinyl Exchange. We were walking down the street from her apartment. I saw a coin on the ground. It wasn’t legal tender — it was a coin from a casino. On the back it had the symbol for Sagittarius on it, which is a centaur. For some reason, something clicked in my mind where I kind of just thought about the idea of a centaur devoid of all the mythology — the idea of a half man, half horse, existing in contemporary culture. And it struck me as an unbelievably weird idea. I began to think about what it would be like if such a creature existed today; in today’s society with the way that it is, with its fixations — and the centaur trying to lead a normal life — and the psyche of such a person — what would the centaur’s moral dilemmas be? How would it be perceived by people?
I couldn’t get these ideas out of my head, I thought about it for a long time — I took on this centaur as a persona for while, sort of. I tried looking at the world through its eyes. I sat down and wrote the song from that perspective. That was my only intention to…it wasn’t personal, there was no metaphor present when I first set out. I was strictly thinking about the Centaur and how weird it would be today.
Then as I tried to write it, certain obvious metaphors began to emerge, such as being misunderstood. Having one aspect of who you are being the basis of how you’re judged as a person, on the whole. Everyone WOULD be fixated on the sexuality of such a being, just as people were fixated on how I was some kind of performer. This was around the time when I was starting to make a name for myself, just a little bit. I found it weird that people were interested in me for THIS reason, rather than for genuine interest in who I was. I was becoming “just a performer” to certain people. That messed with me a little bit, it bothered me. The central metaphor — the fame, a performer on stage, a person who holds a microphone and has some attention put on them – became a metaphor for the sexuality of the Centaur.
And then further, I can remember going back a little before that, during a time when I was hanging out with DJ Moves a lot — he had the idea just before this to put together a sex-themed album, which became the Cock Dynamics compilation. He wanted to do a full tour around that, and asked me to be involved. I wrote some really silly sex-themed songs. What I noticed was that those songs got such a stronger reaction than any other songs I had written at that point. I found that dismaying, that people were so taken by something so shallow and meaningless — love and sex aren’t shallow and meaningless by any stretch – but people just reacted to certain words. People would react to the “C-word” a certain a way. You’d hear that whole backwards baseball hat set say “YEAH” — it bothered me that if you chose the right/wrong words you’d get a certain reaction.
The song then became a criticism of audiences, certain kinds of audiences. It was an expression of anger. I…I sort of hated some sects of the audience that came out to my shows. But I don’t feel that same anger any more, because I have a new respect for my audience, and in many cases my audience has changed. So I don’t like to get in my audience’s face these days. I don’t think I would write silly, meaningless sex rhymes any more, either.
The one thing I thought was the strength of this song was that it operated on many levels. It was personal. But it went further — what it COULD be to anybody — what anyone else might get out of that song. And it was basically that. If you generally just take the theme of feeling like an outsider, or of being misunderstood, or a pariah, which I was feeling, for personal reasons, that was one way of looking at it — and it might have been the main one for me. It was around this time that I was feeling that way in hip hop circles for the first time.
Things were comfortable in Halifax, and all we had there was each other. No one was saying “you’re a weirdo man, you’re making really weird music” — we thought what we were doing was respectable, and just honest music.
But then we started to travel and get dissed in some cases. And things changed.
And it was around this same time that I saw Carrie. And there was absolutely a big part of me that was able to identify with that character. And the thing that resonated with me the most was the particularly cool scene where she — her name has been called as the prom queen, or whatever it was, and she’s feeling great inside: “I’m accepted, people like me on some level”. But she’s walking toward the stage between nice dreamy major key music, and then when the camera cuts to the bucket of blood in the rafters — a foreboding minor key — which is the piece of music I took for the “Centaur”. So the music was directly related to the bucket of blood, and really everything that that represented. So yeah, I was absolutely was conscious of the idea. In a lot of ways it was simple — that piece of music worked so well in that scene, and it was basically demonstrating the idea I was going for in the song’s lyrics. I took the match — without giving it too much thought. So there it was — and a few people began to pick up on the idea — I felt like I was caught red-handed. But it was nice to see people see that there was another level upon which the song was operating.
I’ve always deliberately had those layers in there with my work.
And I think that that’s the absolute most I’ve ever said about that song. Sorry about that.
CMG: The all-too-literal “come and go between your kidneys” translation on “Drawing Curtains,” fromSecret House — is Claire (Rich’s wife) Bridgett Bardot or Jane Birkin?
B65: There was something about the strength of a lot of work that Gainsbourg did with Jane Birkin. It was real. They were very, very in love with each other, and you got that sense when you were listening. That wasn’t the case with Bardot, before that. I don’t think so, at least. He had a crush on her, was attracted, but didn’t have the real love affair that he and Jane Birkin did. But just his whole approach to collaboration, working with women, was something I thought really worked, something I really liked. And I want people to be conscious of that. That song was absolutely 100% intended to be a tribute to Gainsbourg. In the past, if I picked up on a certain idea from someone else, or if I sampled them, it was from a certain degree of tribute. But this was that much more worn on the sleeve, and more of a real deliberate kind of rip-off. (laughs). But yeah, Jane Birkin.
CMG: Things are good with Ms. Berest, then. How are things with Sage Francis?
B65: Oh. Um. Ummmmmmmmmm. I guess the easiest answer to that would be “good” — I haven’t – I saw him recently at Coachella. We…we’ve gone through our ups and downs, we’ve even talked about those ups and downs recently — which is a good thing. And, um, you know — he’s someone who means a lot to me, we have a lot of history, but most importantly he’s someone I respect a lot. Whatever’s gone on between us on a personal level hasn’t ever affected my respect for him as an artist. But I’m nor sure how we’ll be in the future, but we’ve been talking.
CMG: That seems to be tied in to another PR speed bump you hit. I have to ask: Is any publicity good publicity?
B65: Ummmmmmm. I’m tempted to say no. But, when this whole shit storm started up last year, I have to admit I was kind of surprised that anyone even cared about anything I ever had to say. Or any idea that may have been attached to me. I was really surprised. It just said something — you know, maybe I’m actually “somebody”, if people care about what I have to say. It was sort of flattering in that weird way. But, actually, I think the fall-out of the Kerrang! article did me some harm. It’s hard to think of a positive angle. In that whole nerdy world of hip hop politics, it doesn’t resonate with the casual reader — the person who’s not a “hip hop head” – they’re not going to care. They’ll say “it’s good just to have your name out there”.
But for anyone that would have taken an interested in that whole thing it was strictly negative, a big backlash, I probably lost part of my audience because of it. Due to the other crap with other people in the hip hop world, it compounded. I wish that didn’t happen. But that was the first time I was really attacked by a journalist and pushed into a corner, and it took me off guard because it had never happened before. I’ve learned to hold my tongue now, but the damage is done. When the wrong words get out there you’re not given a chance to…to defend or explain or set the record straight. And that’s been a weird, fascinating, and depressing thing to watch unfold.
CMG: Why do you think people were so quick to jump on you? I mean, Chuck D has criticized hip hop music…
B65: Andre 3000 said negative things. Saul Williams, too. I think maybe just…I don’t know. It’s still hard for me to figure out. I ask myself, does it have to do with my own past, what I built for myself? My own history with hip hop music? Or peoples’ own insecurities with “hip hop”, the concept.
CMG: Could it be because you became a symbol for a lot of people, for a certain demographic? You do represent an amount of “validation” to some of the more "insecure" hip hop listeners.
B65: Maybe. So those people might react in a confused, upset way. But there’s another side of it that I saw, a side that came from people who weren’t even interested in what I was doing in the first place. The strongest backlash was from people that never liked me. But the reason for that — I don’t know. It’s difficult for me to have legitimacy in the hip hop world. Chuck D — people will heed what he has to say — he’s a king of that world. If you have an outsider coming in saying “this is all _______” or whatever they figure I said – that’s even more threatening somehow. Maybe that has something to do with it, the reaction was “HOW DARE YOU — WHO ARE YOU TO SAY….”
CMG: There are some “circles” in contemporary, indie hip hop that are becoming more and more protectionist, especially since they know that their audience — any audience, for that matter — can be fickle, and once rumblings start about “falling off," or any other cred-busters, they have to assert themselves somehow, they have to try to re-solidify their place. I remember hearing about Slug riling on an audience when he was sharing the stage with a Def Jux set. He screamed out “Fuck Dose One!” Even in the “independent” hip hop circuit, where things are by nature a little more experimental, there’s still politics, there’s still division.
B65: But now, though. It’s been interesting to see what happened when Dax had his accident. It’s given people perspective — not to make anything out of it, but you saw Def Jux put together a fundraising event for that. Which was a good thing to see — we can be bigger people. You know? Who cares about the politics. There’s much bigger fish to fry in this world.
CMG: Sometimes it seems like that “authenticity” aspect is built up just so folks can have something to argue about. With you, however, you’ve stepped wide around that whole arena. You got your 30,000 records and DMC victories, your records made entirely of unheard-of breaks. But then you kept going, on into different things.
B65: I’ve always tried to maintain that attitude, but it’s strangely threatening to people. When you say “I’m not after the same prize as you.” When you say that, and people see it, they feel threatened and insecure — but I’m not here to threaten anyone. I don’t have any expectations whatsoever. The success I’ve had so far shocks me. But someday I’ll be back to making records on a four-track, records that no one buys. And when that happens I still won’t stop doing it. Because it’s a need inside of me. But I just want to do my thing. I have my hip hop ideals and passions and all that, but what I’m learning is that, largely, sometimes they don’t matter. And, sometimes, it’s even best to keep those things to yourself. But the biggest statement I can possibly make about music is made on my records. It should be clear on my records what I’m getting at with my music, and what I respect, and where I come from, and it’s the same thing that these “hip hop” people respect. It’s just expressed differently. But I communicate better that way, way better than I do like this, so I’ll be the first to say that I’ll be the first to put my foot in my mouth when I step out of the safety of the studio.
CMG: Which we already covered. Second last question: on all the songs with trucks, hotels, dogs, and loneliness — you basically assume the persona of a guy that does the same thing, and complains about the same shit, over and over again. That’s all the same character, right?
B65: Yeah. I think I made a reputation for myself for creating characters.
When you think about “characters” — the ones that work best in the films you see and the books you read are those that are really well fleshed-out. And the most-fleshed-out and “complete” characters work best because they’re the most “human”. So, then, the consideration becomes “What’s the human experience like?” It’s not one-dimensional. We all have days where we’re in love with life, and days where we’re suicidal. That’s the way this one character is developing. There’s the main sketch components of this character, but once in a while there’s another mood or motivation that gets that person going.
I feel like it’s always the same person talking. That’s the thread that runs through this stuff — at some points it might be harder to recognize. For better or for worse, if there’s one thing that pushes me (or gets in my way) — I’ve made it a job for myself to present a whole bunch of ideas whenever I make a record. It’s boring to me – so I know it must be boring to other people – when I do the same record over and over again. I felt like I made the same record three times with Vertex, Man Overboard, and Square — but with hip hop music I think the possibilities are vast and not tapped into at all. So that’s a waste, to do the same record over and over again.
CMG: So now, sometimes, you experiment for experimentation’s sake.
B65: I guess that’s where the “split personality” comes in. There’s always another guy who comes in once in a while and says “let’s try this idea, just an idea, just to keep things interesting”. And there’s usually this one reaction — it could be for any reason, and it could be detrimental, but I like it — it’s the “this isn’t what I was expecting” reaction. I mean, even if some people hate the music, that reaction still excites me. I don’t see myself as talented, just as someone with ideas. I’m not expecting every idea to be a million dollar idea. And I’ve read enough reviews where people say “there’s nothing new here, we’ve heard this all before”, so if I don’t get that then it’s mission accomplished. The one thing I can say for sure is that that character won’t die, but he’ll pop up in different situations as things go on.
CMG: Sounds like another metaphor. The Goldfish song. It reminded of the song on Man Overboard where you lament your mother’s passing. And the song on Honky where you introduce your father — “Roses and Bluejays.” What’s it mean?
B65: It’s a handful of things…it had been my intention for a while to return to the “theme” of my mother. It’s just a huge factor in my life, and something I spend a lot of time thinking about. But I wanted to talk about the strength of my mother, the stuff she went through, and so on, to tell some more of the story, you know, it’s a pretty complex thing for me. To tell one side of the story will always be just that, so I wanted to expand it a little more.
I can tell you this: the song came, in part, from direct personal experience. There is some metaphor at work there, and also some things that aren’t directly personal. One particular friend of mine — I was drawing on them for a few elements. None of it was really attached to one moment in time. I always find that if you want to make a point in a really effective way, then a good way is to tell a story, to keep it attached to one time or place, to keep it concise. But if you fill in a few key details, the rest gets filled in for you, maybe differently for anyone listening. That’s something I’m trying to learn how to do. You could look at the goldfish — it’s not entirely important to the story, and you could replace it with a lot of different things, but it wouldn’t be the same without it. So I use things like that to fill in the human details, to put other people in that place, it brings it to life a little bit. So it’s, I dunno. That’s, at least, part of the thinking in putting that song together.
One thing I learned early on is that there’s a real art to embellishment — for example, when I was kid for a while I had a cat, and I also had goldfish. But I never had a goldfish and a cat at the same time. But you take from your life certain elements, and you string them together to flesh out your story. I don’t have a great imagination, but at the same time I have a job to do, to tell stories, write songs. You strike the best balance you can. Lately I’ve been interested in a writer called JT Leroy — he’s writing what always seems to be “his” story. But then you wonder — did it really happen? There are people asking those questions. But I don’t, or I try not to, because if you find out the answer is “no” — that would really ruin the “something” that you want to believe in even if it’s disturbing. I really like allowing the stories to exist, to be real. When it comes down to it, I do believe the stuff happened to him, I guess, that he did prostitute himself at gas stations.
CMG: He’s a young guy, right?
B65: Yeah, but you can never tell if he’s gone through everything that he writes about. He’s just so technically good that you can’t separate his character from his persona to make sense of them both.