Music News

Hip-Hop's Buck 65 Looks to the Great White North for Inspiration

Although he operates in a genre of music that tends toward innovative extremes — either lionizing the traditions of the past or rejecting them outright — Buck 65 is a particularly forward-thinking MC and turntablist. He's always been willing to play with convention and weave a healthy amount of folk, rock, and experimental music into his hip-hop compositions, and in a more substantial way than other artists who latch on to fading trends in desperate bids for relevance.

And now, with two decades of musical creativity under his belt, Buck 65 — born Richard Terfry, raised in Nova Scotia, and residing currently in Toronto — the 39-year-old performer is looking to his homeland for a little inspiration with his new release, 20 Odd Years.

Though Buck 65 always has had a higher profile across the northern border, 20 Odd Years aims to up his name recognition in the States. On the album, Buck collaborates with a handful of his favorite musicians — including Gordon Downie (The Tragically Hip), Nick Thorburn (Islands, The Unicorns), Jenn Grant, Hannah Georgas, Olivia Ruiz, and John Southworth — all French or Canadian musicians with whom he's performed and recorded over the past two decades.

20 Odd Years also includes a nod toward Canadian artistry that's surprising for what's ostensibly a hip-hop album: a stripped-down cover of Leonard Cohen's mournful classic "Who by Fire?" that sticks to the vocals-plus-acoustic-guitar outline first described by the Canadian poet but veers into some moody atmospherics as it wraps.

"Before I started recording this new material," says Buck 65, "I asked the audiences at shows what song I should cover, and that's the song they chose overwhelmingly."

The U.S. release of Buck 65's new album actually is a compilation of his "20 Odd Years" series of EPs that have been available in Canada for a while. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Buck 65 set out to commemorate his two decades of rapping and music-making. He released a number of four-song EPs over the past year and a half, and his new album collects most of their songs and adds two new tracks. Given the tracks' disparate origins, it's understandable if the disc is a little uneven, but, overall, 20 Odd Years is an attention-worthy disc — even more so, really, as there's been a relative dearth of creative hip-hop hitting the airwaves over the past year or two.

Buck 65 hasn't just been inspired by those he's worked with — he musically honors other Canadian idols. "'Joey Bats' is a song about Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista," he says. "He's a great hitter, but his real superpower is the ability to grow a full mountain-beard in a mere 24 hours."

And then there's "Dolores," inspired not by a famous Canadian but rather American actress Dolores Costello. Orson Welles' 1942 monumental film The Magnificent Ambersons was one of her last films, but she got her start in the silent era as a child actress, foreshadowing the career of her granddaughter Drew Barrymore.

"I was moved by her beautiful, sad face, and it's pretty much as simple as that," says Buck 65. And the song maintains Buck 65's desire to celebrate his fellow Canadian musicians — Marnie Herald provides backing vocals, and Ron Sexsmith co-wrote the tune. "I recorded it with Dean Nelson, who worked as Beck's right-hand man for a bunch of years until fairly recently. He's super-amazing, a real wizard. He even had a beard when we worked on this song."

And lest you think that all Canadians are polite (obsession with beards aside), Buck 65 does point out that one of 20 Odd Years' tracks gets a little more aggro. "'Legendary' is my new theme song," he says. "I'm addicted to this song. It makes me feel sleazy and tough when I listen to it. I hope it makes you feel the same way."