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Buck Hunting

The plastic action figure I'm staring at several hours before the show is about eight inches tall, with a weather-beaten wrinkled face, probably in his mid-40's, a club in his left hand, right hand outstretched in a 'hey now,' sort of gesticulation. He's a centaur, found at a local thrift shop -- a bearded man from the waist up, horse from the waist down. It's to be a gift, a little lagniappe to help grease the conversation I'll later be having with the gravel-voiced Nova Scotian rapper who penned "The Centaur," Buck 65.

If you haven't heard of Buck 65, you're not alone, though he put out his first record 14 years ago. The relative anonymity will soon change, as Buck 65 releases his first major label U.S. album, This Right Here Is Buck 65, next January. Over the years, Buck has dropped a slew of underground albums, all of which cemented his status as a hip-hop anomaly, a slight white guy with a voice like Tom Waits who's as comfortable rapping over a country song as he is behind the turntables scratching.

When I saw that he would be playing at the P.I. in Tempe I pounced on the chance to try to unravel the mystery that is Buck 65 -- the guy doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, rarely curses, and drops lines like, "I'd rather read the Bible than use its pages to roll joints with."

I brought my friend Rob with me to the rendezvous, since Rob had spent part of his summer European vacation following Buck to shows in England and Germany. Plus, Rob and his girlfriend were the ones who found the thrift store centaur. I'd asked the publicist for an hour to hang out and get weird, but that wasn't to be. When we met up with Buck and his fiance Claire at the P.I., he was already in a rush to get back to the hotel and find a restaurant, which meant we stood around in the parking lot with a tape recorder running for 15 minutes, hardly the best way to get inside an artist's head.

I needed to know, first of all, why he had censored himself on the new album's version of "The Centaur." The original, written almost ten years ago and released on the Vertex album, was a none-too-subtle assertion of his genital endowment, with lines like, "I have plenty to say, but nobody listens, because my cock is so big, and the end of it glistens." The version on This Right Here, which is set to an acoustic country track, switches it up to "My clock is so clean, and the hour hand's missing."

"Because I'm 32 years old, and I would not write that song today," he told me. "There was a purpose of why the song was so blunt in the first case; that song represented hostility towards my audience that I found was disappointingly easily titillated. Basically waving a cock in everyone's face ten years ago was my way of showing my disappointment in my audience, which I just don't feel anymore."

At this point I pulled the plastic centaur out of my backpack and handed it over. "Get this," he told Rob and me, grinning. "Of this exact same model this is now my second one. But the original one is still in the box with its panoramic display case and the little scroll with the legend of the centaur, so I never opened it. I was afraid to handle it. Now I have one I can actually play with."

He loosened up a bit after that, and we chatted about his switch to a major label and pursuing music as a serious career. Nothing out of the ordinary really; he's musically ambitious and wants to be heard outside of the confines of the hip-hop world, hence his recent propensity to record country-flavored tracks with a live band. "Hip-hop people don't get the respect of musicians at large; they're not regarded as real songwriters. They're seen as something else that exists outside of music, and I've never been satisfied with that."

And then he split.

Buck 65 came onstage at the P.I. at five minutes to midnight, wearing a brown leather jacket over a T-shirt and a couple days of stubble on his face for his first-ever Phoenix performance. He hit the turntables scratching before launching into "Bachelor of Science," one of the tracks on This Right Here. Immediately after, he busted out the censored country version of "The Centaur."

It was the between-song banter that really gave me a glimpse of who Buck 65 is, though. Besides announcing his engagement -- "Two nights ago, I asked this woman to marry me, and she said yes" -- he told the crowd that though he'd released his first album fourteen years ago, "My days of paying dues begin now." Then he busted out an a cappella super-fast version of his classic, "Wicked and Weird," and we all saw an artist evolving before our eyes.

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Brendan Joel Kelley