Love is a funny thing. It can open your eyes to beauty, truth and all the joy the world has to offer, and it can shield you from the all the ugliness and negativity. When love is fresh, thoughts of your beloved can also take over your every waking thought. Such is the case for Rich Terfry, better known to the music world as award-winning rapper Buck 65.
"The love of my life comes from Boulder and lives in Denver," explains Terfry. "It's almost becoming a home for me. It's where I'll be spending the holidays this year." That means the high-profile underground MC will be very far from his home town in Nova Scotia, near Halifax, where it all started almost twenty years ago.
In 1989, the small-town boy moved to Halifax and began hosting a college-radio hip-hop show, accelerating his musical education with the station's deep stacks of all genres and eras. When Terfry began making his own rap records in the early '90s, however, he did his best to keep to the established hip-hop formulas.
"I was really insecure," Terfry admits. "I was in the middle of something of an identity crisis, which had to do with the fact that I was a rural white guy from Canada finding myself in the hip-hop world." Initially, rather than use his unique background to his advantage, the young rapper tried to hide it. "I was trying to fit in and not stick out too much," he explains.
In spite of his desires to conform to hip-hop conventions, Terfry's diverse personal and musical background quickly found its way into his recordings. "I was really inspired by that first De La Soul record," he confides. "It just blew my mind the way they'd combine samples from James Brown and Johnny Cash, and I thought, 'Why not?' I grew up with folk and country music, so that's part of the source for me."
By the time the first Buck 65 record, Language Arts, surfaced in 1997, Terfry had arrived at his own sound and style. "I really thought that I was making normal hip-hop that could stand side by side with these records coming out of New York," a bemused Terfry recalls. "But I got these responses that were like, 'What you're doing is really weird.'" The weirdness caused a lot of folks to sit up and take notice of one of Canada's first hip-hop exports, but it would still be a few years before Buck 65 truly came into his own.
"In the '90s, my stuff was interesting and had some good ideas, but there wasn't much to it," he points out. "I don't see it as really honest or being the kind of thing that has any real humanity. Emotionally, something was lacking." That all changed, however, while Terfry was working on Man Overboard in 1999. "In the middle of that process, my mother died, and it was a natural thing for me to pick up a pen to deal with this heavy thing," he recalls. "I had a very strong and complicated relationship with my mother, so I wrote this song that seemed so personal that it just didn't belong on any record. I debated it long and hard. It felt like a huge risk and it terrified me, but I made the decision to include it."
When the record was released in 2001, Terfry was astounded by the outpouring of support and heartfelt responses that Man Overboard generated, as people from many different backgrounds and walks of life were touched by the most honest and personal Buck 65 record yet. "It hit me as a real epiphany," Terfry confesses, still sounding shaken by the experience. "The first time I was honest on a record was also the first time I really touched another person. It was a huge eye-opener and has dictated the way I've worked ever since."
Man Overboard touched not only hip-hop fans, but also some rather well-known musicians. "It got the attention of the guys in Radiohead," Terfry recounts, "and they were telling me how much they liked the record and [were] saying so publicly. They were mentioning me in interviews.
"That's when the phone started ringing a whole lot," he marvels. "The basic lesson I learned wasn't just to open up my chest and let everyone poke me in the heart, but I had to find humanity and understand what people are looking for when they turn to art or music."
This human understanding and connection carried through the next few Buck 65 records and is a driving force behind Situation, the artist's most conceptual album yet. The new release is a collection of analyses, exegeses and character studies that center around the people, events and values of a time fifty years ago. The opening track, "1957," sets the stage in a headline-reading snapshot that sums up the year like a hip-hop version of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" or R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." It opens with a reference to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," one of the Beat poet's key works and a poem that led to a 1957 obscenity trial against publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Finding inspiration in a year that saw the unveiling of Mao Tse Tung's Great Leap Forward, pinup Bettie Page's conversion to Christianity and the birth of Sid Vicious, Terfry explores the darker truths of an era that has been mythologized as a golden age in American history. The musical settings include jazzy, Rhodes-piano filigree, scratch-heavy old-school beats and mysterious, harmonica-laced Morricone laments. Terfry's unflinching and non-judgmental observations give the album a cinematic quality that suggests a blending of cinéma verité and film noir.
"I get a lot of inspiration from film," he says. "I think I learn from it more than from other sorts of music. The idea of creating a strong sense of atmosphere is really important to me. That's where you get emotional complexity. I'm not interested in making one-dimensional art or music. I want people to be able to enjoy it without thinking about it, but if they choose to look deeper, I want that to be rewarded."
While the intellectual and seemingly objective content of Situation might make the record seem like Buck 65's least personal, Terfry maintains that humanity is still the focus. "I want to give these people a pulse," he insists, "so I had to find commonalities between them and myself, put myself into it. When I get any sort of idea, it has to have a piece of me in there somewhere. I don't bother to pick up the pen unless that's the case."
Those injections of his own thoughts and ideas also bring up parallels between 1957 and today, but Terfry manages to avoid drawing explicit, heavy-handed connections and instead plants ideas and asks questions. The moral flap over Bettie Page's photographs seems quaint and almost silly today, but what does that say about today's debates over video games, rap lyrics or TV's sexual content? The conservatism and Cold War fear of the '50s inspires chuckles now, but how far is it from the current rise of fundamentalism and fear of bogeyman terrorists? Most mainstream and underground hip-hop records focus myopically on an artist's own time, experience and opinions, but Buck 65 gains perspective from looking outside his own sphere of experience.
"Hopefully, if people look back into history, they'll also look forward," he muses. "For me, it's important to paint the picture as I see it and allow people to come to their own conclusions — give people the chance to think. I never want to underestimate anyone's intelligence, or their heart."
As Terfry integrates his Colorado-born loved one into his itinerant lifestyle, the voice of his heart becomes louder, in both his music and his life choices.
"It's more important than ever to strike a really healthy balance between my own personal life and my career," he says. "I can't let this career and the lifestyle that goes along with it make me insane and ruin other important things in my life."
That balance, for Terfry, can be found with his girlfriend and her family here in Colorado. In fact, he's arranged days off surrounding his Boulder appearance so that he can spend time with them and enjoy his newfound home. "Finding this little oasis of sanity in the middle of all this is an opportunity to fully recharge and have a time to be the strongest person that I can be," he says. "That's where my happiness is. Everything about this person that I'm sharing my life with and her family is really important. There are few things I look forward to more."
Love — of both a woman and our fair state — and thoughts of settling down and raising a family seem to have taken over Terfry's consciousness and unveiled new sources of inspiration for his music. "Finding the love of your life has a way of giving your life real meaning," he asserts. "It gives us pause. It's the one real miracle that you can have happen in your life."
As if to let that thought sink in, he falls silent for a moment before finishing his thought. "If you're lucky."
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Buck 65.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.