This is for us
There are no memorable songs on the Language Arts album. There are no songs that became staples of my live set in the years that followed its release.
But so what?
Language Arts is probably the best and most important thing I ever recorded. It is the work of someone who was 100% committed to hip hop and it is completely uncompromising in its execution. No compromise! There is no play for popular or commercial acceptance with that album. None. And it is utterly original. What else sounds like Language Arts? What influences can you point to? I hear none. It’s me. All me.
The first thing that jumps out about Language Arts is how the ‘songs’ or parts all flow into one another. When I made this record (it came out at the same time as Weirdo Magnet, so ’96, I guess), my preferred way to listen to the hip hop music of the day was on mixtapes. Some of the best and most popular back then were distributed by Tape Kingz. You could buy them by mail order. Big Daddy Kane’s DJ Mister Cee made a bunch. DJ Enuff. Doo Wop. Evil Dee from Black Moon. The X-Men. DJ Cash Money made some amazing ones. I couldn’t get enough. It was dynamic listening. Frenetic. The more the DJ got in there and cut shit up, the more I loved it. I also loved listening to dubs of hip hop radio shows for the same reasons. So I came up with the simple idea of fusing the album concept with the mixtape concept - to compile my own material like a mixtape or a radio show. Non-stop. Ever-evolving. Short parts. Lots of turntable action.
Another thing that stands out to me when I go back and listen to the album now is that my spirit was pure and untainted. I was living in a squalid apartment in Halifax and was just barely scraping by. I struggled to pay the rent. For many of my meals, I would go to art openings at galleries and eat the free snacks. And I hadn’t seen the world yet. I didn’t know people. I didn’t know anything. As far as art and culture went, it was hip hop. That’s all I knew. I weep for the simple kid who made Language Arts. I wish he could have been trapped in amber.
I remember being quite proud of my work when Language Arts was finished. The shitty apartment I lived in was situated above one of the busiest intersections in Halifax (Pizza Corner, for those in the know). Lots of pedestrian traffic. One evening, shortly after I finished the album, I wedged the speakers of my recording/DJ setup into the windows which overlooked the busy street below. And then I performed the album live - in its entirety - from the comfort of my living room for the amusement and annoyance of the passers by. It was the closest thing to blasting it from the mountain tops that I could manage.
I harbored no dream that Language Arts would land me on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. But I probably was hoping that it would turn some heads in the hip hop world beyond the frontiers of my little home city. It didn’t. The album didn’t make waves at all. Largely, it was ignored. And the response of most outside of my circle who did hear it was something along the lines of: “that shit is fucking weird”. It was deflating for me that Language Arts didn’t gain much traction. And I still feel the pain in a way because I believe in the work. I think I made something good. I think it’s a pretty great piece of underground hip hop. And I don’t think it’s all that weird either.
But you know what bothers me even more now? That I gave a shit what anyone thought back then. I went into making that record with a clear vision and executed it pretty much perfectly. Having done so, NOTHING should have made me feel as though that album was a failure. NOTHING! But I caved in a little bit. I felt rejected by a world that meant everything to me. Hip hop was my life. I loved it and I started to feel like it didn’t love me back.
Looking back, I don’t think I reacted well to the criticism and indifference with which Language Arts was met. Same can be said for other subsequent albums. I should have dug in my heels and worked on honing my craft. Instead, I changed it. It’s something I did over and over again in my career and to be honest, I hate that I did that. Where would I be now if I had the strength of character to stick with the vision I had back in 1996? It’s something I often ponder.
When I was making Language Arts, I was almost militant in my hip hop code. I actually wrote a personal hip hop manifesto once. I really believed in the rule that you don’t bite another artist’s ideas. Originality was of utmost importance. So all the beats were made with samples no one had used before, to the best of my knowledge at the time. That’s probably part of the reason most people couldn’t hang with the album. There’s nothing familiar to latch onto. Too bad for them. Shit’s dope.
So Language Arts isn’t a tribute to hip hop, per se. But it was made with absolute reverence for the tenets of the art form as I understood them. It’s also something of a lament. Going into the back half of the 90s, hip hop was changing a lot and in ways I didn’t like so much as an old school guy. It comes up several times in the lyrics in this album.
I think my turntable work on this album is pretty good. Not great but a big improvement over the stuff that came before it. I wasn’t swinging for the fences as much. More musical. A little more restrained. I was improving, technically. Still a bit long-winded though.
As far as the vocals go, I like how my voice sounds. There are some interesting flows that I never used again but should have. There’s some decent technical rapping going on. Complex rhymes. And the writing is good. Not too much makes me cringe when I listen to Language Arts now. I know a lot of people like Vertex but I think Language Arts might be the best Buck 65 album. If I had to submit one album at the final judgement, LA might be the one.
Most importantly, Language Arts set a template that I have been using ever since - the mixtape style. That’s how I put Vertex together. And Man Overboard. Square. Talkin’ Honky has a bit of that continuous flow happening. All four Dirtbike albums. And King Of Drums is built the same way.
Among my albums, Language Arts is probably the closest thing to which I can compare King Of Drums. And while there’s still a heavy emphasis on originality with King Of Drums, it’s more of a tribute to hip hop than Language Arts is. It’s not a lament at all. In many ways, it’s probably the course correction I should have taken right after Language Arts. Before I started working on King Of Drums, I definitely thought to myself, “I just want to put myself back in that shitty apartment above Pizza Corner in Halifax”. King Of Drums is my way of trying to make up for lost time.
Of course, the actual follow-up to Language Arts was Vertex (or Language Arts, Part 2, as it is sometimes referred to). Maybe some of what I’ve had to say lately makes it sound like I’m trashing Vertex a little bit but I’m not. I still love it. It’s an important one to me. We’ll dig into it in the next post.
Quick note: I want to say thanks to everyone who has been reading these posts. We have a dope little tribe gathering here. The likes are nice and appreciated. And extra thanks to those of you who have been visiting the Bandcamp page and making purchases. The support means so much. I see the comments you’re leaving. I was expecting tumbleweeds when I set all of this up. King Of Drums will be posted on Bandcamp on Friday. Cassettes and CDs available soon. And there’s more in the pipeline. I’ve been gathering demos and unreleased songs. I found an instrumental version of the Square album the other day. I have found alternate versions of two or three other albums (including Synesthesia - I see you, Dino G. Good to hear from you, man). Lots of stuff. It will all be posted eventually, so keep checking back if you feel so inclined.
Until next time…