Look at you. You’re a joke.
Those words changed the trajectory of Richard Terfry’s life and music career.
As a young wannabe rapper growing up in Nova Scotia, Terfry – who performs under the moniker Buck 65 – knew he was fronting: drawn to hip hop, he thought the only way to play the game was to look the look, walk the walk, talk the talk.
One night, a guy who saw right through his façade took the boots to him and, as Terfry lay bleeding in a ditch, looked down on him and said, “Look at you. You’re a joke.”
It was a bloody epiphany.
“Before that … I really didn’t know who I was,” says Terfry. “We all spend those years searching for our own identity, so I was just kind of imitating things around me and things that I thought were cool, and it kind of took a wake up call like that for me to realize that it was sort of a sham.
“The result was me taking a long hard look at myself … and coming to the realization that this guy was totally right about everything he had accused me of.
“So what happened was a real shift in my music from that point on, where, I guess you could say I just started to take a more honest approach: this is who I am, this is where I come from and I’m not going to let my insecurities mask that and I’m just going to tell the truth about myself.”
Truth is a lot’s changed in hip hop in the two decades since Terfry recorded The Rhyme Has to be Good, the first track he cobbled together in Mt. Uniacke, N.S. in 1990. And Terfry hasn’t been shy about criticizing what he calls the “watering down” of the genre.
“The hip hop that I grew up with, it was the total antithesis of pop music,” he says. “Through the mid-80s, which were prime years for me, it was strictly independent music, was completely uncompromising and wasn’t the kind of stuff that you ever heard on the radio.
“At some point along the line, this big shift happened and now, not only is it not unusual for there to be hip hop songs on the pop chart, but there’s been times through the years where pop has been dominated by hip hop.
“On a certain level I suppose there’s something about pop music that I can appreciate, from some sort of safe distance, but for whatever reason it’s never been my cup of tea.
“I think throughout my life I’ve just wanted to be challenged a little bit more.
In fact, Terfry credits Public Enemy and other politically charged hip-hop acts of the late-80s with getting him interested in politics.
“When you start looking at that you really get to the heart of a strange and at times troubling double standard that you get in hip hop. People are really quick to say how wonderful something is if a cultural phenomenon has a positive effect on young people. So I can remember at the height of political hip hop everyone was saying how great it was that it had young people politically engaged, and it’s got people thinking and it’s really affecting people’s lives in this great positive way.
“But then it gets completely turned around when it’s negative and everyone says it doesn’t really have an effect on people, violent behavior comes from some predisposition you may have and you can’t point the finger at the music.
“I’ve always had a problem with that double standard.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve got my eyes open and it really does have an effect on people’s behavior. The power of what’s perceived as cool – especially for young people – just can’t be underestimated. Sure it affects the way people dress, but there’s a whole attitude and behavior that goes along with that … it all just reeks of wild insecurity to me.”
To celebrate two decades in music as Buck 65, Terfry has released the first of a five-volume EP set – each one featuring four songs that will be released throughout 2010 – called Buck 65 – 20 Odd Years: Volume 1 – Avant. The first EP features a slick one-hour film called The Lost Tapes, directed by the talented Christopher Mills. It features live performances shot during the 2007 Situation tour, interviews and skits.
The 20 songs also feature multiple guest performances by the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie, Meaghan Smith and Gentleman Reg, among others.
Terfry, who’s performing at this year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival, says that he’s interested in the challenge of tailoring his set to fit within the context of a jazz festival.
“I like that idea,” he says. “For example, with these shows [he’s also playing Winnipeg and Toronto Jazz Fests], I’m taking with me on the road a friend of mine – Valerie Gore – who has extensive formal jazz training, who will be backing me up and helping me out on the shows.
“I love having the opportunity to play for people who may have no idea who I am,” he adds. “But the thing that I find – in this country in particular – when it comes to both jazz fests and folk fests, is that it just seem to attract an open-minded music crowd.”
Speaking of open minds, does Terfry anticipate a 30th anniversary release in 2020?
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised…”
That’s no joke.
Story by Graeme McRanor originally published in the Vancouver Sun in July 2010.