Nova Scotia might seem the least likely locale for an abstract hip-hop renaissance, but for the past decade or so, Buck 65 (aka Rich Terfry) has been the area's resident mad genius. Along with fellow Halifax natives Skratch Bastid and Sixtoo, the 35-year-old rhyme schemer and producer has overseen the creation of a whole new mind-bending style, and his latest album, Situation (Strange Famous, 2007), is, quite simply, his most engaging slab yet.
“I usually don't try to wrestle a record into any given direction,” Buck insists, “but in this particular case, there were a few things that I was thinking about very consciously, which is actually a rare thing for me. I was looking for some inspiration, and somehow I just ended up in 1957. It occurred to me that so many things I'm interested in came from around that time, and as I zeroed in on that year — exactly 50 years ago — I realized there was this enormous shift that has changed the way we think forever.”
Aptly enough, the track “1957” jumps off with a line lifted from Allen Ginsburg's classic poem “Howl,” but let's be clear: Situation ain't no beatnik tribute. Recalling the old-school muscular sonics (thanks in part to the ever-versatile E-mu SP-1200) of BDP's Scott La Rock or Ultramag's Ced Gee, this is an expertly crafted mix of raw vocals, rambunctious beats, snap-crackle samples and live performances — all of it folded into a sweet-and-scuzzy whole using a combination of Ableton Live 6, Digidesign Pro Tools|HD and, with longtime cohort Skratch Bastid and mix engineer Roger Swan at the controls, Apple Logic Pro 7.
“I wanted this to be a stripped-down record,” Buck explains, “so even when we were using live instruments, we wanted to dirty things up. You can't really be afraid to destroy a sound if you need to, and I know it's hard to do that when you get a nice recording. It takes courage to just rip the guts right out of it by running it through bitcrushers and filters. You're sacrificing some fidelity, but it's for the sake of trying to make something that's gonna sound like a hip-hop record.”
But it's not all about old-school scratchy beats. Take, for instance, the haunting upright piano lines of “Ho-Boys” (aided by Jason “Gonzales” Beck, who hipped Buck to miking the piano's mechanical parts instead of the sound cavity to get a vintage patina) or the biting electric guitars (by Charles Austin) on the Funkadelic-inspired “Heatwave.” Situation is a nuanced and thematically rich hip-hopera that recalls the halcyon days when cats like Premier and Pete Rock ruled the roost.
“There are even some horn breaks on this record,” Buck quips, citing the menacing rant “Spread 'Em” — one of the few cuts that stayed true to the original sample-based demo and a lucky outcome of the legal morass that dogged the album from the beginning. And while there are plenty of tracks that showcase the talent of Buck's ever-widening circle of friends (check out, for example, Cadence Weapon ripping the mic on “Benz” and Skratch Bastid going crazy with Serato Scratch Live on “Cop Shades”), it's Buck's signature gravely, gas station attendant-like voice that anchors the whole party.
“For years,” he says, “me and the guys I've been working with went through this long, laborious and sometimes very boring process of trying to find just the right mic preamp combination for my voice.” They finally settled on a Røde NTK tube condenser mic and an HHB Radius 50 tube mic preamp — a reliable combination, but there was one instance in particular when some decidedly low-tech processing was the answer.
“That happened on ‘Shutter Buggin,’” Buck says, citing the low-end, cantankerous growl he gets on what is arguably Situation's centerpiece track. “After a couple of tries, we weren't getting it so I had an idea. We broke for lunch, and I just gorged myself at this crappy fast-food place around the corner. I probably ate 20 bucks' worth of the worst food that mankind has to offer, and then right when I thought I was gonna croak, I said, ‘Okay, let's get back to the studio fast.’ So that voice comes from having a gutful of grease — that was our trick for that one.”