Continuing Adventures of the Centaur
Buck 65 Talks Productivity, Attention Spans and Record Contracts
If you think Buck 65 has been taking it easy for the last couple years, you just haven’t been looking close enough. In fact, he’s never been busier.
The genre-bending hip-hop cipher has several pots on the fire and a new LP in the can. And he’s in the midst of writing a novel—mashing his love of music, baseball and the history of his hometown of Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia.
While it’s been a couple years since his last major release, he’s been working away at his home in Toronto, adding to his already huge catalogue.
“It’s the one feather in my cap,” says Buck 65, real name Richard Terfry. “I never sold tons of records, I never became super famous, I can’t claim all the usual measures of success that a successful musicians would have.
“The one thing I do have is a fairly large body of work coupled with longevity.”
Over the last 20 years Buck 65 has rapped over tracks ranging from scratch-heavy hip-hop to banjo-driven country, to dark ambience and simmering drum & bass. And while he maintains a sound that’s distinctively Buck 65, what that means exactly depends on which record you’re listening to.
“It drives some people crazy, but it’s the only way I can work. It’s almost ironic that comes across as schizophrenic. I just can’t make every song I make be a disco jam, or any other kind of jam,” he says.
It’s a testament to his restless work ethic, that he lives and breathes his music. Writing about any and every feeling and experience that inspires him, he doesn’t want his palette to be limited—and staying loyal to one sound is dangerous to his work.
“I try to express myself as fully and as richly as I can, as a human being going through their day. And that’s complicated, as it is for everybody alive,” he says. “Nobody is a one-dimensional thing, I would even dare say gangster rappers, even though we get only one side of them on most cases, have their moments of tenderness.
“When their sister has a baby and they smell its forehead. Nobody is immune to that.”
Buck 65 has had a major label deal for over 10 years, releasing a number of LPs under Warner Music, as well as re-releasing earlier work such as 2001’s dark, experimental Man Overboard.
But far from keeping to the simple model of a new full-length release every couple years, he’s been building up his catalogue with unofficial records and side projects. His last Warner release, 20 Odd Years, first came out as a series of EPs, and since 2008 he’s released three free hour-long mixtapes titled Dirtbike —holding some of his best work to date.
“I, along with everybody else, am trying to make sense of how this business is moving,” he says. “I’m always thinking about how my approach to this career needs to evolve.”
His most recent endeavour to alternate releases is SASS, an acronym for Short Attention Spans. It’s a 14-song record that clocks in at under five minutes —each song no longer than 30 seconds.
“If I’m listening to music in my travels, I’ll often listen to it on shuffle. I’ve noticed even if I really love a song that comes on, no song is as good as the excitement of hitting that button to the next thing, knowing you have something new coming next,” he says.
“I’m skipping through songs at this unbelievable rate of speed, and I thought how can you make an album that is going to withstand that test?”
It’s that idea, that we expect everything to be digestible in smaller and smaller bites, that inspired SASS. He’s been kicking around the concept for a while, and has already posted a second track on Soundcloud produced by longtime collaborator Jorun Bombay.
“If you mention a song to somebody, like ‘Hungry like the Wolf’ by Duran Duran, you would sing the one part you remember,” he says. “When a song gets in your head, it’s never the three-and-a-half minutes of the song, it’s one part that will cycle through your head over and over again.
“So I thought, why not make a song just that? Is everything else just filler anyway?”
The Major Label Game
Despite regularly posting music online, it’s all been fairly low-profile since his most recent Warner record 20 Odd Years came out in 2011. But the next Warner LP has been done for months. The finished product, complete with name and album artwork, was sent to the label in November.
“It’s the one feather in my cap. I never sold tons of records, I never became super famous, I can’t claim all the usual measures of success that a successful musicians would have. The one thing I do have is a fairly large body of work coupled with longevity.”
Despite it being done since last year, it may not see the light of day until early 2014.
“I don’t know and I’ll admit that’s utterly agonizing,” he says of the album’s mystery release date. “I was dying for people to hear that stuff the day those songs were mixed in November. They’re waiting until the best time, strategically, to put it out.”
His records are released internationally, meaning the pushers and movers at labels in 18 different countries need to sign off on the release date. And if the stars don’t align—if domestic releases clash with his prospective release date—then it sits at Warner.
One of the tracks, the hot, hook-heavy contemporary hip-hop of “Fairy Tales,” has been hosted on Buck 65’s Soundcloud. But in the meantime, the rest of the record, and its title, wait for the label’s official announcement.
“Labels like to announce it themselves, it seems that’s a thing now,” he says.
In the meantime he continues to work. He’s halfway through the next Bike for Three! album, his collaboration with Belgian producer Joëlle Phuong Minh Lê. The fourth Dirtbike is in the works, too.
The upcoming Bike For Three! record has been negotiated with Warner to be released outside the label, but some of Buck 65’s other work, like SASS and the Dirtbike series, is in a legal grey area.
“Technically it would be seen as a violation of my contract. It’s basically illegal what I’m doing, and if my label was a little more iron-fisted they could probably kick my ass for this sort of thing,” he says.
He works in parallel universes simultaneously—signed to a major label while putting out free music on the side. It’s a pretty rare scenario in the business these days, but Buck 65 isn’t like most major label artists.
“I had a way of doing things that was pretty grassroots, or underground or whatever you want to call it,” he says. His deal with Warner was struck after being independent for 10 years.
“The label doesn’t meddle in the recording process at all.”
And as such there’s something of a paradox in Buck 65’s catalogue. His success has allowed him to have his records distributed around the world—but on Warner’s time. So he balances that waiting game with what he puts on Soundcloud, what his fans can hear five minutes after he finishes the track.
He went outside the label for a recent vinyl reissue of Vertex, a “lo-fi left field artifact” from 1997, home to one of his earliest hits, “The Centaur.”
But word inevitably gets out, and demand came from all over—even though it was a Canada-only release.
“I’m selling it in Canada for $15, and then trying to get it in Japan would cost $50 without distribution—and I don’t want to charge $50 for anything,” he says.
“When the worldwide release does come out, a kid in Japan can go to their local record store and pay $15.”
Buck 65 (with Shad) / May 17 / Corona Theatre (2490 Notre Dame St. W.) / $5 advance