Jun 9 • 3M

Vertex

The older I get, the more life starts to make sense

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Insights into the Buck 65 catalogue

Where do I begin?

Two main factors shaped Vertex:

  1. Life circumstance. Times were even tougher than they were when I made Language Arts. I was broke-broke-broke and was scratching and clawing just to keep the rotting roof over my head. Here’s a small example of how bad it got: I couldn’t afford to buy new disks for the SP-1200. So most of the beats on the album were never saved. I’d make a beat, record it to tape, delete that beat from the SP and then start building the next beat. Everything was desperate measures back then and I felt like I was failing at life. It wasn’t great for my mental health.

  2. I never used drugs but I explored the outer reaches of my mind in a different way when I made this album. When I decided to jump into action and begin recording, I burned straight through until it was done - no breaks, no sleep, no food, nothing. I recorded the whole thing, beginning to end, in two or three days, working non-stop. As the hours wore on, things got pretty psychedelic.

For these two reasons, Vertex has a strong atmosphere that pervades the whole album and I think that’s its strength. Vertex is a mood, for sure. A weird mood, but a mood nonetheless. No other record I ever made creates a world as distinctly and vividly as Vertex does and I think it could be argued that achieving that is a mark of effective art in any form. You want to transport your audience and I think Vertex does that. I have to believe that’s why most people who have taken any interest in my creative output site Vertex as my best work. I can dig it. 

That said…

You know that thing where you’re riding the subway… You’re doing your thing. You’re in your zone. You’re going about your day and your routine. And then you hear a voice from behind you - loud enough for the whole car to hear: “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. I have a medical condition. I am unable to work. I have two children at home I am trying to feed…” It’s not that you don’t have sympathy for the guy. You do. But maybe you’re thinking, “I can’t deal with this right now. I’m just trying to get to the dentist…” You know what I mean? You’ve been there. Vertex is kinda like that.

Side note: give to the needy.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been re-connecting with my roots in a strong way in the last several years. I have renewed my vows with hip hop. I’m deeper into the tapes of early hip hop shows from the late 70s than ever. I’m deeper into the music of my high school years - 1986 to 1989 - than ever. I’ve been filling holes in my record collection and chasing “random rap” 12”s from the golden era. When I was making the King Of Drums album, I was taking inspiration from The Fantastic 5 and the L Brothers and Tuff Crew and Steady B and Ultramagnetic MCs, etc. Locked back into that old school/purist mindset when I went back and listened to Vertex again recently, my reaction was somewhat in line with that of a lot of hip hop heads in 1997 who heard Vertex and said, “what the hell is this?!”

Back when it came out, for every person who said they liked Vertex, there were nine who said, “that shit ain’t hip hop”. It really bothered me at the time but I understand why they said it. It’s a very experimental record. The beats sound very foreign. There are elements of musique concrète, for chrissakes. I’d argue that the album features some of the strangest and most abstract turntable work ever recorded. But the rapping…

On most of Vertex, I used a very loose flow. Most people refused to call it rapping and called it spoken-word instead. Understandable. That’s one thing. The other thing is the writing. Most of the verses on Vertex are the musings and ramblings of a person whose grip is loosening. The infectious confidence I was showing just a year before on albums like Weirdo Magnet, Psoriasis and Language Arts is gone. I remember that I had just gone through a painful breakup. I was feeling estranged from my family and I was lonely. I was living in squalor. My apartment smelled like cat pee. I had a lot on my mind and I aired it all out. Some people liked the personal, confessional nature of the lyrics. Many hated it or were confused by it and dismissed it as “emo”. Remember that whole “emo” backlash?

It’s hard for me to express how I feel about Vertex now but I can say this: 

I was alway a huge fan of Tuff Crew from Philly. Hardcore hip hop. They put out their last album in 1991. If I had heard in 1997 that they were putting out a new record, I would have been amped up. But then if the album was a bunch of songs with Ice Dog and L.A. Kid taking about being lonely and depressed, I surely would have been disappointed. That’s not what I’m expecting from Tuff Crew. If I want to contemplate the meaning of it all, I look at Edward Hopper paintings.

Emo.

The “emo” backlash was very deflating. The criticism was so succinct. One word: “emo”. It was a total dismissal. The implication was that talking about one’s feelings on a hip hop record was utterly beyond the pale. Laughable. Embarrassing. In the defense of myself and my peers, I might argue that we were just blazing a trail. Were we not ahead of our time? Without naming names, have you listened to any of today’s hip hop? Whether it’s the mainstream stuff made by the kings of the game or the underground stuff, it’s all pretty… “emo”, wouldn’t you say?

“That shit ain’t hip hop.” I heard it 10,000 times. 

Here’s another way to look at it. Two of my favorite movies of all time are Mad Max 2 and Sátántangó. I’ve probably watched Mad Max 2 250 times. I sat through Sátántangó once. I’ll probably watch Mad Max 2 100 more times before I die. I keep telling myself I should watch Sátántangó again. Follow me?

I defend Vertex. I stand by it. I think it’s good when art challenges the norm. But on a purely personal level, I have my regrets over writing songs like “The Bachelor Of Science”, for example. I like “The Bachelor Of Science”. It cuts a path directly to a song like “Pants On Fire”, which I also like. But I think those songs and the reactions to them ultimately led to entire albums like 20 Odd Years and Neverlove, both of which I now find to be unlistenable. The whole backend of my career is lonely songs and love songs and sad songs and 99% of it misses the mark wildly. It’s just not good. And the further I went in that direction, the further I got away from my hip hop roots. Some of that was label pressure. But there’s no excuse. I’m as confused by those records as anyone. 

So there’s that. Vertex is an interesting record. It’s just hard for me to evaluate it in a vacuum. I can’t help but hear it in the context of what came before it and what came after it. In many ways, Vertex is a response to Language Arts. Language Arts was basically intended as a hardcore underground hip hop record. People who hated it said, “it’s weird”. The few who liked it said, “It’s weird”. To the enthusiasts I said, “oh, you like it weird, do you?” And then I made Vertex. I kinda wish instead I had focused on improving upon Language Arts. Like I said in the previous post, King Of Drums is the record that should have been the follow-up to Language Arts, just 25+ years later. So to everyone who liked Language Arts (if any of you are still out there), sorry to make you wait so long. 

Vertex came out in 1997. Man Overboard came out in 1999. The Sebutones album, 50/50 Where It Counts came out in between. We should probably talk about that one a bit in the next post. 

Quick note on the photos in this post:

Back in 2013, Vertex was pressed on vinyl for the first (and in all likelihood last) time. It was a small run. 500 copies. I sold them on tour and they went fast. According to Discogs, copies have sold for as much as $250 (CAD) since then.

For whatever reason, there were ten extra copies of the vinyl without sleeves. So a few years ago - for fun - I put together handmade sleeves for each of the ten (pictured above). I used old tour photos and pages from old rhyme books and stuffed other bits into the sleeves with the record.

Those ten copies of Vertex have been in a box in my basement ever since and I expect they will remain there until I croak. The weird thing is, I know they have value. I’ve seen my stuff (especially the rare stuff) sell online for a lot of money. I’m thinking that if someone is going to make big money off one of my records, it should be me. So I’ll throw this out there for the heck of it: if someone can find a way to get in touch and is crazy enough to spend… I’m going to say $500 (USD)… I’ll personally put one of the 10 in the mail for you. 

Long live Vertex!

Did you know that the guy who did the original Vertex art is big-time famous now?

Until next time…