August 25, 2015
Buck 65 is a natural storyteller. With his signature down-and-out growl, the rapper from Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia scratches out songs that are at times cinematic and illusory, at times confessional and raw. Somewhat of a musical chameleon, he infuses his palette of alternative hip-hop with touches of blues, country, folk and experimentalism. It may be why he has been told that his music doesn’t always exactly sound like hip-hop.
Rich Terfry (aka Buck 65) originally had aspirations to be a major league baseball player. A hopeful for the big leagues, he was scouted by the New York Yankees when he was just 16, but his promising ball career was cut short by a shoulder injury. Baseball’s loss, it turns out, was music’s gain.
Always fascinated by radio, Terfry co-hosted a make-believe radio show with his cousin when they were youngsters. Although none of his friends were interested in hip-hop, he fell in love with it during late nights spent listening to CBC Stereo’s seminal show Brave New Waves. When CKDU campus radio at Dalhousie University began playing rap music, Terfry would climb the tallest tree in the neighbourhood with a portable radio to catch the station’s limited airwaves coming in from Halifax. Secretly, he began teaching himself to scratch, rap and make beats.
Terfry recorded his first song “The Rhyme Has To Be Good” in 1990, while still a teenager. The recording got some airplay on CKDU and the exposure led to meetings with others rappers and DJs. Soon Terfry began DJing locally, wherever he could.
As a DJ, Terfry took on the stage name DJ Critical, the first of many that he would assume over the years. Using different names to assume the personalities of different characters in his raps, he became Stinkin’ Rich, Jesus Murphy, Johnny Rockwell, Uncle Climax, Haslam and Dirk Thornton, before finally settling more or less permanently into Buck 65. That name, he claims, came about as a result of his hometown tradition of naming sons after their fathers and then referring to the son as “Buck”, making him the 65th Buck in town.
As DJ Critical, Terfry began hosting a hip-hop show, The Bassment, on CKDU radio. The show was eventually renamed The Treatment Program and ran for several years, with DJ Critical morphing into Jesus Murphy.
While performing as Stinkin’ Rich in 1993, Terfry recorded a five-song cassette entitled Chin Music, which caught the attention of fellow Haligonians Sloan. The members of that pivotal band signed the young rapper to their independent label Murderecords, where he released a full-length cassette Game Tight in 1994. Both Chin Music and Game Tight riffed substantially on Terfry’s love of baseball.
In 1996, by this point fully immersed in his Buck 65 persona, Terfry recorded Weirdo Magnet on the Four Ways To Rock/Metaforensics label, followed in 1997 by Language Arts and Vertex. These albums were part of a series of early Buck 65 albums that were re-released by Warner Music Canada in 2002.
Always a collaborator—a penchant that he has maintained throughout his career—Terfry teamed up with underground rapper and producer Sixtoo (aka Vaughan Robert Squire) to form Sebutones. Together they released a series of recordings—a 1996 EP Psoriasis and 1997’s 50/50 Where It Counts and Sebutone Def—which received nods of approval from the underground hip-hop community.
The release of Man Overboard on the Anticon label in 2001 marked the rise of a building wave of critical acclaim for the musician and brought increasing attention from mainstream music audiences. Touted for its subversive coolness, the album forged inroads into the inner sanctum of alternative hip-hop, with Buck 65 being scouted by the influential Cincinnati DJ Mr. Dibbs for induction into the avant-garde 1200 Hobos hip-hop collective.
2001’s Synesthesia, which was released on the Endemik label, was originally pressed as a single 38-minute track, the track markers having been left out by mistake. Only 1000 copies were ever made, and when Warner re-released Synesthesia the following year, the album was changed significantly, with new songs added, some songs re-recorded and others dropped.
After signing with Warner Music Canada in 2002 (which precipitated the re-release of much of his back catalogue), Terfry put out Square, which received JUNO Award nominations for Alternative Album of the Year and Album Design of the Year. The major record label signing dovetailed with a move to France, where Terfry lived for several years before returning to Halifax.
With 2003’s Talkin’ Honky Blues, Buck 65 shifted to a more accessible sound, incorporating elements of folk, bluegrass, electronica and country into his signature raps. The result was a widely appealing mix of story-songs that found a whole new audience amongst music lovers who may not have considered themselves to be hip-hop fans. Songs like “Wicked and Weird”, with its self-mocking swagger, lent a cinematic sensibility to the music. Suitably, Talkin’ Honky Blues won the 2004 Juno award for Alternative Album of the Year.
With increased recognition in Canada and his star steadily rising (including a 2005 JUNO Award nomination for Songwriter of the Year), Terfry signed a deal with V2 Records in the United States, releasing the compilation album This Right Here is Buck 65 as an introduction to American audiences. The record deal was short-lived, however, with V2 choosing not to release Secret House Against the World later that year. Instead, the darkly cinematic genre-bending album was released by Warner Music Canada. The film noir-inspired song “Devil’s Eyes” took home the 2006 JUNO Award for Video of the Year.
The following year, Terfry made a return to his first love, radio. Initially hosting a web radio program on CBC Radio 3, he made the shift to broadband radio, as host of CBC Radio 2’s daily afternoon program Radio 2 Drive in the fall of 2008. To this day, Rich Terfry continues to pick the jams and spin the heading-home-from-work soundtrack for Radio 2 listeners across the country.
2007’s Situation—a concept album based around the year 1957—was produced by Scratch Bastid, who was nominated for Producer of the Year at the 2007 JUNO Awards. Although still dark and evocative, Situation marked a retreat from the avant-garde and mixed genre experimentalism of Secret House Against the World and embraced a more pure hip-hop sound.
Bike for Three! was an entirely electronic long-distance collaboration between Buck 65 and Belgian producer Greetings from Tuskan. Together they released two albums: 2009’s More Heart Than Brains and 2014’s So Much Forever. The musical marriage was indicative of the collaborative sensibility that Terfry had established a few years earlier, when he invited a who’s who of pan-Canadian musicians to join in on three single-track Dirtbike albums, which were released as free downloads.
In 2011, Buck 65 celebrated twenty years in the music industry with a collection fittingly called 20 Odd Years. The critically acclaimed album marked a return to the storytelling style of Talkin’ Honky Blues and featured performances by guest collaborators like Jenn Grant, Gord Downie, Hannah Georgas and John Southworth. The release of the album proper was preceded by four EPs, 20 Odd Years: Vols 1-4. In 2011, 20 Odd Years was long-listed for a Polaris Music Prize.
In September 2014, following a wrenching divorce, Buck 65 released the album Neverlove. Intensely personal, the album lyrically documented the pain of the divorce, with songs titles like “Only War”, “That’s the Way Love Dies”, “Gates of Hell” and “Heart of Stone”. One day before the release of Neverlove, Terfry released a much more lighthearted (and previously unannounced) album Laundromat Boogie. Where Neverlove spoke directly of the intense pain of a marriage’s end, Laundromat Boogie slyly alluded to clothes-washing as a metaphor for the joys of love and sex.
Not afraid to switch back and forth between pure hip-hop and something a little more mainstream, even at the risk of alienating genre purists, Rich Terfry has carved a definite groove into the Canadian musical landscape. In an industry where hip-hop artists are not particularly known for their longevity, after nearly a quarter century of scratching and making beats, Buck 65 has clearly bucked the odds.