Buck 65: Situation
Buck 65 is a rapper well past 30 from semi-rural Nova Scotia, Canada. His earlier Talkin' Honky Blues (Warner Music Canada, 2003) was a masterpiece. Indisputably a hip hop record, its banjos and pedal steel guitars, overlaid by Buck's gravelly voice, had listeners reaching for Hank Snow, Tom Waits and Jimmy Stewart as possible antecedents. These references are helpful to a point, but even more so are the people he's rapping about on "Ho-Boys," a number from his brand new record. Ho-boys, apparently, celebrate the experience of living on the margins of work and mainstream society common to "homeboys" and "hobos": "We're not lookin' for handouts/We do beg to differ." That's Buck.
Not so much pedal steel and flat-picking guitar on Situation. The new album wants to be a mainstream hip hop record in many formal respects: the beats, for example, or the excellent old-school turntablism provided in part by Montreal DJ Skratch Bastid. The samples draw from more conventionally R & B sources, though "The Outskirts" is based on the wistful theme music from René Clément's 1952 film Jeux Interdits. Buck's is still the same wizened back-woods voice, however, and his stories are about as far from the mainstream as one can get. Buck's rapping itself is surer than ever before, the rhymes ("sang froid" and "chain saw"; "rock star" and "box car") as improbable as ever.
Whereas the thematic coherence of Talkin' Honky Blues was guaranteed by an intermittent suite of numbers about riverboat dwellers on the Seine, Situation is tied together by the fiftieth anniversary of 1957. The track "1957" is a dizzying summary of apparently everything and every trend that emerged during that year, and most other numbers have implicit or explicit references to the period. "Benz," a paean to benzedrine, namechecks Judy Garland; "White Bread," Johnny Mathis amidst letter sweaters and coonskin caps: there are dozens more (the Korean War, Che Guevara, "beat poets and jazz musicians").
An obsession with the pastrueful if not exactly nostalgicis as much a theme of Buck's music as the fascination with morally ambiguous drifters. Here, the past is repeatedly evoked by a cast of characters who speak to us directly. What if a tough-talking cop from an old TV crime drama could compose poetry with extraordinary lyrical flow: what would he say? This is the question posed (and answered) by "Spread 'Em." Similarly, we hear from a pin up girl ("Lipstick"), a pornographer in "Shutter Buggin'" ("Leaves a bad taste in some people's mouth/Maybe bitter/ I don't want your manure/I'm an entrepreneur/Not a baby sitter"), and some kind of border guard ("Heatwave"). These testimonials are not ironic or satirical but neither are they sentimental, stopping just short of sympathy. It's a multilayered conceit, of course: a bunch of people from the past, waxing about an even more distant past.
Why a portrait of 1957 today? Perhaps the same reason that U.S. News & World Report recently dedicated a special issue to the topic: 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of a time when progress was self-evidently a good thing, life was simpler, America was stronger, and everyone knew who the enemy was.
Maybe; but many listeners are likely to argue that we've put the social phenomenon of the 1950s behind us. Since then, tumultuous social movements (in a word: the 1960s) have provided opportunities for people shut out in 1957. A dispassionate look at the benighted 50s seems an easy target.
Indeed, I think a parallel can be drawn to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Like Buck 65 today, Twain was apparently preaching to the choir: comfortably ensconced in progressive Connecticut, twenty years after the end of the Civil War, Twain wrote a blistering critique of slavery for readers who shared his political sympathies. Another easy target. But perhaps Twain meant to suggest that the life apart created by Huck and Jim on the raft was a simulacrum of slavery, not so much better for Jim than the condition he had escaped. Perhaps, Twain was saying, postbellum America continued to suffer from more of the ills of antebellum America than it cared to admitnot an easy target.
I think that is clearly what Buck 65 is up to on Situation: bearing witness that the goals of the social movements that wracked the country and the world since 1957 may have only scratched the surface. Certainly, listeners (in the U.S., at least) will recognize in these tales of 1957 the same hypocrisies regarding sex, the same tendencies toward social exclusion, and in particular the same compulsive obsession with a hysterical brand of law enforcement that beset us today.
The social critique goes even deeper than merely suggesting that the progressives didn't necessarily win the day. The ensemble of voices heard on Situation paints a portrait a society in which individuals are completely isolated from one another, fundamentally unable to communicate and express solidarity. "Mr. Nobody," depicting a bitter divorced man, is probably the clearest example. (Mr. Nobody, like everyone else, is allowed beautiful poetic moments: "Steel doesn't decide to rust/It just does/Words written out with your finger/Where the dust was.") The principal feeling people have about others is fear: "What you gonna do when the bad man comes back?" Buck repeats at the close of the final track, this one about an adolescent boy.
Is this a record for jazz fans? Whether jazz and hip hop are cousins or should be enemies is a sterile, though lively, debate. The delight of listening to the best hip hop is that of thrilling improvisation"Cop Shades" here offers what sounds like freestyle (instantaneously improvised) rapping in the second stanza that will take your breath awayas well as the distinctive grain of individual voices. Of course, these are all features of the delight of listening to jazz soloists. In this way, Situation recalls the late poet Robert Creeley's recent collaboration with bassist Steve Swallow, So There (Xtra Watt/ECM, 2006). And how can you resist a record that rhymes "loneliest trunk," "Thelonious Monk," and "felonious punks"?
Tracks: Intro; 1957; Ho-Boys; Lipstick; Shutter Buggin'; Spread 'Em; The Rebel; Way Back When; Cop Shades; The Beatific; Mr. Nobody; Benz; Heatwave; The Outskirts; White Bread.
Personnel: Buck 65: raps, composition, turntables; Skratch Bastid: turntables, production; DJ Signify: production (11,12); Cadence Weapon: raps (12).