Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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He'll Eat Anything

Waggish, gravel-talking Nova Scotia rube Buck 65 quenches his hip-hop hunger pains

A sucker for a man who understands the important things, I became a Buck 65 fanatic six minutes into the fourth quadrant of 2002's Square: "Food/It puts me in a good mood/It keeps me goin'/When under strains/Ain't nothin' worse than hunger pains." So he has the economics under his belt--how about the aesthetics? "Fill my dishes with delicious fish and brown rice/Sounds nice but I can't argue with barbecue"--culturally ecumenical. "I'm droolin' for tabouli salad"--ethnic for a Maritimer. "I can manage to do damage to a sandwich/Marshmallows peanut butter and bananas/And a big plate of gnocchi/If I'm lucky with pita bread"--bingo. Note that Buck, amid the blizzard of internal rhymes that blankets his menu, not only pronounces "gnocchi" properly, "nyucky" to go with "lucky," but places the medium-obscure potato pasta directly after a dish fit for a King. The Nova Scotian rapper has no Elvis dreams. But he respects Elvis's reality.

"Food" so touched my heart that ever since I've wanted to stuff Richard Terfry's lanky frame into my Honda Civic and show him the cuisines of Queens--Broadway Jackson Heights, or that Peruvian chicken place in Elmhurst. He was easy, but scheduling wasn't, so in the end we settled for the Peruvian on First and 6th in late January, just before Terfry ended a six-month Manhattan residency and flew to Paris to lay down vocals for the album he swears will be out in May. At my wife's and my urging--we both craved fish--our guest ordered the chicken. But he ate everything with gusto--octopus and tamalitos, bites of our ceviche and tacu tacu. With water. At 32, Terfry has never had a drink--not alcohol, not even coffee. Nor smoked--anything. Nor taken aspirin or any other medication. Yet to call him straight-edge would be absurd. His appetite's too big.

I've designated Terfry a rapper because that's what he is. But though his delight in rhymes that surpass Madlib's or Eminem's in technical complexity continues, underground hip-hop is no longer his scene. A lower-middle-class (if that) country boy whose dad owned a filling station and whose deeply mourned mom did office work, he wrecked his knee before he could go pro as a shortstop, then moved to Halifax, an Underground Railroad terminus harboring Canada's largest indigenous black population. There he worked for a hotel and a magazine store and came this close to being the first Terfry to graduate college (in biology--one younger sister's now a dentist, another on her way). He also broadcast a long-running hip-hop show and created music as a triple threat--rapping-DJ'ing-producing a substantial catalog for a guy you've barely heard of. Suitably snotty early on, he was attracted to hip-hop because it said a rube unable to sing or play an instrument could be a musician anyway. Even in the '90s, when he'd speed up his voice in the mix to smooth it out, his flow was less than liquescent. But you should hear him make "Like pointless sexual deviance and joints this flexible" scan.

Buck 65 is so clearly a talent that over the years he's gotten not just Voice props but up-and-comer squibs in Spin and Stone, and in 2003 Talkin' Honky Blues won a Canadian Juno Award--half band-backed, it was accounted "alternative," not "rap." Sojourns in Paris and London have earned him a European audience, and a few weeks ago he finally made his U.S.-major debut on V2 with the oddly effective compilation This Right Here Is Buck 65. Yet his buzz has been sufficiently protracted and diffuse to make an admirer wonder just exactly when he'll be famous. For years he's criticized the insularity of hip-hop (often carelessly, I believe), and hip-hop is turf-proud enough to resent him for it. When he can, he raps with a customized Halifax alt-rock band featuring pedal steel, but the nine o'clock shows he played every Tuesday in December at the singer-songwriter haven Sin-é are standard: solo with turntables and CD-ROMs, featuring scratch interludes stretched to their limits.

Between his athletic body and his droll raconteuring--the stories vary markedly: at Sin-é in January he told a spanking new Serge Gainsbourg, while a Mick Jagger pantomine that got big laughs in September was reduced to a chorus--Terfry is special enough live to reach Italians and Spaniards. Still, how long he can just rap is a question he'll confront on his next album by doing some singing, and who knows how that will turn out? Recorded with Tortoise, legendary turntablist D-Styles, and other alt bigshots, that true U.S. debut could make or undo him here. Right now, he and his adored and beauteous French fiancée--the great-granddaughter of dada paterfamilias Francis Picabia, pretty classy for a guy whose own dad pumped gas--are touring the Southeast breaking ground for it.

Untreated, Buck 65's gravelly voice sounds ancient, and combined with his slices of life and his waggish stage business--I once saw him light himself holding an orange worklamp in one hand--elicits Tom Waits comparisons. But neither Waits nor another acknowledged influence, David Lynch, comes near his heart. Where Waits's Jersey girls are hyperromantic verging on grotesque, Buck 65's weirdest eccentrics come out as ordinary people, and he's capable of wrenching nakedness--"What am I supposed to do? I need another year/There comes times every day I need to have my mother here" is just a sample of what he spilled when his mom died in 1999. As he becomes a full-time artist, the life he looks around and writes about becomes more countercultural. Talkin' Honky Blues turns seven times to the Seine, where much of it was written. Scattered among the river's "stranded, branded, weathered, and abandoned" are a beautiful suicide, a deaf violinist, a one-eyed Communist on a bicycle, and a love poem. Then, as the album winds down, there are two haunting little pieces of electronica, a song that begins "When I cheated on Sara" and tells all, and a guide to shoeshine technique: "Craftsmanship is a quality that some lack/You got to give people a reason for them to come back." That's what he's counting on.

Village Voice, Feb. 22, 2005