A while back, during my morning e-mail ritual, I opened an especially excited message from a publicist, imploring me to lend some attention to one of her new musicians. "Buck 65 is blowing up!" She assured me. Richard Terfry, as Buck is also known, was apparently a hip-hop artist who rapped over country and western music. I rolled my eyes, skimmed the rest of the note, deleted it, and forgot about it.
A few months passed, however, and much to my surprise, Buck 65 did seem to be blowing up. His troubadour visage -- 5 o'clock shadow, newsboy cap, steely gaze -- was appearing in trend-making magazines with considerable frequency. And his bio painted the sort of three-dimensional picture that no music journalist with a flair for the literary could resist: Terfry had nearly become a professional baseball player; he had appeared on Sesame Street; he had grown up in Nova Scotia and was tight with members of the underground hip-hop collective Anticon. His music -- or so it was reported -- encompassed the freewheeling ethos of a Jack Kerouac or a Bob Dylan, and his rhyming was deft and intellectually clever. Before ever hearing a song, I figured Buck 65 to be the hip-hop equivalent of Steinbeck's Travels With Charley: an amusing song of the open road, and easy to like, but hardly challenging.
This Right Here is Buck 65, a compilation of songs from previous albums, is almost exactly that. It takes a listen or two to get past the initial novelty of hearing a fingerpicked banjo instead of a turntable as the backbone of a hip-hop record. But Buck's gravelly voice is always mixed louder than his samples and instruments, and his skill for storytelling eventually overshadows the project's auditory weirdness.
More inspirational still is Buck's willingness to borrow bits and pieces from one genre and to cut it with the sounds of its archenemy. Aside from a handful of breakaway republics, such as Del tha Funkee Homosapien's Hieroglyphics crew, and the Native Tongues (De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers), the history of hip-hop hasn't seen an overabundance of alternative-minded artists willing to risk complete alienation from the genre's mainstream. Buck's songwriting even has a heavy-shouldered sense of darkness about it; much of This Right Here reminds me of the Seattle-based hip-hop collective Oldominion, who often rap about ghosts and nightmares.
But even with a Woodie Guthrie cover ("Talkin' Fishin' Blues), Terfry's album probably has a decent chance of gaining ground at least with the indie- and underground-rock crowds, who seem to be the main fan base for this generation's most experimental hip-hop. Buck 65 is no Aesop Rock, but is he blowing up? Undoubtedly, and with good reason. Maybe I should start hanging onto those e-mails ...