The thinking-man's white emcee takes on Eminem and the mass consumption of hip-hop
| Buck 65: a native Nova Scotian currently living in France|
It's a sunny St. Patrick's Day afternoon in Austin. Inside a dank club the underground emcee formerly known as Zev Love X, aka MF Doom, is bouncing on stage and serving up intoxicating rhymes to a throng of pasty observers, a swarm of which are practically on top of Doom with beers hoisted in the air.
The brother next to me, a fledgling house DJ from San Francisco, dejectedly spits out "You see that right there," as he points to the green-clad white kids at the lip of the stage, some of whom have replaced their beers with cocked fingers. "That shit right there is Austin through-and-through." A quick scan of the crowd from our balcony perch reveals few folk of color, a prevalent scenario at SXSW showcases.
The inextricable issues of race and hip-hop come to mind when considering the case of Buck 65, another SXSW performer, and an artist who's established himself as the thinking-man's white emcee. A former Major League Baseball prospect with the given name Rich Terfry, Buck is a native Nova Scotian currently residing in France.
His prolific recent output includes notable releases such as Vertex in 1998, Man Overboard in 2001, Square in 2002, and the much heralded Talkin' Honky Blues, which dropped in 2003. Buck's SXSW appearance is in support of his major-label debut, This Right Here Is Buck 65, a deft fusion of gruff vocals, steel guitars, and rural soundscapes. On the final night of Austin's annual music-biz blowout, Buck sat down to talk about his place in that business.
Current: Anytime you have a white emcee, whether it's The Streets in the UK or Slug from Atmosphere, it seems that they are extended a certain privilege by the media. Is this something you acknowledge?
Buck 65: I think that you could argue that's the case, and that it's a reflection of the times. Music really, to put it in real simple terms, kind of became black again in the later '90s and in the early part of the '00s, where hip-hop and R&B really began to dominate the pop charts again. It was beginning to look how rock 'n' roll was looking in the early days, when it was just straight coming out of the blues and it was like a black thing.
The time was right for another Elvis to come along, a white person who could do it and that was Eminem. As soon as the world saw that on a big scale and as soon as the record companies saw that, then it just threw the doors open and people were looking for more of that. Standards began to change, but there was a little bit of a difference, and arguably you could say that it was the same thing with Elvis and a lot of people that came along. But the one way that we, just speaking generally as a people, the only way that we were going to accept someone like Eminem is if he was basically a minstrel act, like a white guy very much doing a black thing. So what we've been able to accept and I guess what culture has given us a hunger for is a white/black person basically, which is what Eminem is. If you just listen to the guy's speech and look how he dresses and everything, to me it kind of really looks like almost minstrelsy. I'm surprised that more people don't get offended, and I know some people do, but I'm surprised that more don't.
I was always keenly aware of that even if it was just me who was kind of paranoid about the idea and I thought, I can't risk that sort of offense. So if I ever stand a chance for survival, if even in my own tormented mind, I just can't offend. I just gotta be myself. I can't try to hide the fact, even for a second, that I'm white.
Current: Where does RichTerfry fit into all of this?
Buck 65: You could argue that there's a lot of hip-hop music, and Eminem included, if you compared that to what was going on with hip-hop in the '80s, you can see that obviously it's been molded for mass-consumption and it's been 'popularized;' it's pop music. And that used to be a really dirty word, but I don't that think that anyone would really deny that now. Yes, there's the hip-hop side of it but 50 Cent, Eminem, Ludacris, these radio people, this is pop music. I was reading a magazine the other day, and 50 had three songs in the Top 5 of the pop charts. We're talking about pop music.
I will probably never have a Top 100 on the pop charts and that suits me just fine. I don't even know if I would want that. I just don't make pop music. You listen to a song like "Centaur" and that will never be a pop song. Ever. But what gives me hope and what makes me think that maybe stranger things have happened is when you have the White Stripes get huge or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, people making arguably weird music and it becomes popular. Well, gee whiz, who knows? Maybe. Maybe. •
By M. Solis