I think my single favorite moment from the history of hip hop is when Afrika Bambaataa rocked “Trans-Europe Express” by Kraftwerk. The idea of playing a weird German experimental electronic record for hip hop kids in the Bronx still blows my mind. KRAFTWERK, for Christ’s sake! Of course, that song became the foundation for the seminal “Planet Rock”, which still gets my heart pumping every time I hear it. What thrills me so much about this event is that it was so un-hip hop. Remember that in those days the hip hop sound was still firmly rooted in funk and disco.
Having said that, it also came as a big thrill for me years later when I started discovering the sources of many of the classic breaks. To learn that hip hop’s greatest minds were messing with records by The Steve Miller Band or Billy Squire or Aerosmith or Tom Jones (to name just a few) was very surprising to me.
I’ll never forget when I heard Run D.M.C.’s album King of Rock for the first time. Songs like “Jam Master Jammin'” and the title track sounded more like the Black Sabbath records my cousin listened to than all the electro stuff that dominated hip hop at that time. Compared to the rest of the records I knew up to that point, again, it seemed so un-hip hop.
Bold steps like these are what separated people like Bam and the kings from Queens. They stood out. They were radicals. There was something kinda punk about it. It was exciting to see someone come along and smash all expectations and rip a page or two out of the rule book.
Having gotten such a thrill from moments like those, I always looked forward to the next time one would come along. It happened when I heard “M.P.E.” by Public Enemy. I FREAKED when I heard that song! It was the least funky thing I’d ever heard – impossible to dance to! Totally punishing. Brutal. I felt it again when I heard records like Paul’s Boutique and 3 Feet High and Rising with the crazy things that were being sampled: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Johnny Cash!
I think I started making deliberately un-hip hop creative decisions of my own around 1995. I had already stopped “dressing hip hop” out of embarrassment. Then, when I was getting ideas together for Psoriasis, the first Sebutones’ record, I decided I wanted to make the slowest hip hop beats ever made. Hip hop music had always been dance music in one way or another. It was music for the b-boys, roller rinks and clubs. I thought it would be interesting and something new (though partly inspired by anomalies like “M.P.E.”) to make music that was utterly un-dance-able. I remember Sixtoo and I giggling like school girls in the studio because the beat to the track “Review” was 65 beats per minute.
Shortly after that, I made the album Language Arts. To me, today, that record sounds like if Throbbing Gristle made a hip hop record. The centerpiece of Language Arts is a track called “Seventeen”. In the lyrics of that song I basically come out swinging, saying, “this is who I am, I’m here to fuck shit up and if you don’t like it, I don’t give a flying shit.” It was like a declaration of intent to tear down any wall I could find and throw the rule book in the fire. I had no reason to believe that anyone was listening to any of my threats, but I felt like I had to say it or I would die.
I think a big part of my motivation at that time came from taking a long, hard look in the mirror. I asked myself, “who am I kidding?” I’m white. I grew up in a small, rural town. I’m Canadian, for crying out loud. I don’t drink or do drugs. Before I even open my mouth, I’m already totally un-hip hop. I was something else altogether and I figured my only choice was to accept that and run with it. I figured it for a gamble, but if I did something radically different – if I really stood out from the pack – maybe I’d catch a little recognition.
Now that’s not to say that I started doing things strictly for the sake of being weird, exactly. Before this turning point, I was already a fan of Roxy Music, for example, but I kept this interest and many others separate from my hip hop life. But by the time I started working on Vertex, I had begun to adopt my full-on everything-on-limits attitude and decided to include a cover of “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” when a year or two before, I wouldn’t have dared. I could have continued to enjoy Roxy Music on my own free time and not try to inflict my weird tastes on anyone else, but the thought of doing things that were wildly un-hip hop had become too exciting for me to resist. I liked the idea of being the guy who would do the things that no one else would dare.
On Vertex I also began to explore some themes that were pretty un-hip hop in my estimation at the time: sympathy, insecurity, sadness, vulnerability… Un-hip hop.
“…each master to his own technique.”
I started working on music with my friend Charles right before Man Overboard. The first song we worked on together was “Pack Animal”, I think (it might have been “Pen Thief”). Shortly after we came together, he made a mixtape for me. I still have it. Off the top of my head, three songs stand out that blew my mind and re-instilled a sense of excitement about music right when my excitement about hip hop was beginning to wane:
– “Two Rivers” by the Meat Puppets
– “Kandy Korn” by Captain Beefheart
– “New Dawn Fades” by Joy Division
Each of these songs opened up exciting new worlds for me. But most importantly, that Joy Division song sparked an interest in – nay, obsession with – the world of post punk. Not only did I start buying up records by Wire and Gang Of Four and Devo, I started reading everything I could find about the movement. Learning about the radical philosophies that went into the making of this music – making rock and roll devoid of blues influence, for example – inspired me further and steeled my resolve.
Man Overboard included songs like “Lil’ Taste Of Poland” and “Sunday Driver”, both of which were driven by a spirit of hip hop perversion.
My next album was called Square partly in reference to it being part four of the Language Arts series, but also because the word “square” means the opposite of “hip” (hop).
“463” from Talkin’ Honky Blues, by the way, was conceived as a tribute to those guitar heavy Run D.M.C. songs that excited me so much when I was a kid.
“We Three Kings” by The Sebutones on the 50/50 Where It Counts album is the most dance-impossible song ever. “Le 65isme” on Secret House Against The World was made with funk poison (you can hear the Beefheart influence on that one). And the re-recording of “The Centaur” on This Right Here Is Buck 65 is one of a very small handful of hip hop songs with no beat whatsoever. Hip hop was built on a foundation of drum breaks. At the time, I thought making a song with no drums at all was the most un-hip hop thing I could do. And there’s been a bit of fuss over the years about my affinity for the banjo.
In recent years I’ve written songs about long haul trucking, becoming an uncle, Fatty Arbuckle, Karl Wallenda, proposing marriage, the band Kiss, Vivienne Westwood’s Active Resistance manifesto… I wrote a whole album inspired by Situationism… Hell, if you want to insult someone, you tell ‘em to “go get your shinebox!” (I’ve had this insult thrown at me, actually). I’ve written a song about taking pride in shining shoes!! I think it’s safe to say that many people have ideas of what hip hop is “about” and I don’t think truckers and silent film stars usually come to mind.
It’s important to stress that I don’t consider any of these ideas as anti-hip hop. I love hip hop music and culture. I don’t think applying these concepts to what I’m doing would even be possible if it weren’t for a deep respect for hip hop history. “463” would never have happened if I wasn’t losing my mind to “Jam Master Jammin'” back in ’85. I would never have had the inspiration in the first place if it wasn’t for my worship of Bambaataa. Making a song without drums would never have occurred to me as an interesting idea if I wasn’t aware of the pioneering work of Kool Herc or Flash. And to this day, it’s vitally important to me to build songs on a foundation of breaks (99.9% of the time), to rock turntables and to pay tribute to the founding fathers in a variety of ways. I see the unique contributions of Bam, Run D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, De La Soul and Public Enemy as invaluable gifts to the hip hop legacy. The thought I’ve put into my work is fueled by my desire to make a contribution of my own. To be honest, I think I’ve been mostly misunderstood in my efforts, but that’s another discussion.
Through the years I’ve been asked countless times what I call my music and I’ve never known what to say. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I think there’s one clear answer: it’s un-hip hop.