The man also known as rapper Buck 65 becomes the voice of CBC Radio 2’s endlessly controversial makeover
· Photograph by Derek Shapton
In the studio from which he broadcasts his afternoon CBC radio show, the eyes of Rich Terfry’s heroes follow his every move. On the desk in the corner, where a few years ago you might have found a bust of Beethoven or a photo of Peter Gzowski in a fisherman’s sweater, there’s now a framed portrait of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams; tacked on the wall behind it are postcards and magazine cut-outs of Sun Ra, Elvis Presley, and Spider-Man. Giving me the grand tour, Terfry weaves his heroes’ stories together with his own. Growing up in Mount Uniacke, a small Nova Scotia town about forty kilometres northwest of Halifax, he had two passions: baseball and music. He was good enough at the former to attract a scout for the New York Yankees, but when a knee injury derailed that dream he turned to the latter, starting down a winding road that finds him hosting Radio 2 Drive, the jewel in the crown of CBC’s “New Radio 2.”
A year after the once classically focused station’s controversial pop-friendly facelift, Terfry has survived underwhelming ratings and howls of rage from embittered ex-listeners. And while the story is a long way from over, neither he nor the architects of the Radio 2 makeover show any signs of giving up on the project.
When the brain trust at CBC Radio went looking for a face for their reinvented Radio 2, they needed someone with an established cheering section among the nation’s tastemakers. Terfry seemed an obvious choice. Although he wasn’t a CBC insider, he had years of radio experience hosting a popular hip hop show on the Dalhousie campus station CKDU (where he was known as DJ Critical). As Buck 65, a veteran Canadian hip hop artist whose gravelly voice and gritty, sometimes nostalgic lyrics attracted endless comparisons to Tom Waits, he had access to a young, hip audience CBC had frequently courted but rarely won.
In the late 1990s, Buck 65 became affiliated with anticon., a San Francisco hip hop collective that was to underground hip hop what New York’s legendary Wu-Tang Clan once was to the genre’s mainstream. In 2002, he signed a major-label deal with Warner and in 2003 released Square. Later that year came Talkin’ Honky Blues, a departure from his previous albums’ low-fidelity style, incorporating more guitars and, on the twangy but no less funky “Wicked and Weird,” banjos. He had risen to the challenge of addressing a broader audience. Rolling Stone called him a “hot indie rapper.” The influential Village Voice critic Robert Christgau hailed Talkin’ Honky Blues as “one of my favourite albums of the millennium.”
In Europe — France in particular — he was even more successful. “Les Inrockuptibles — basically the French Rolling Stone — picked Talkin’ Honky Blues as one of the best albums of 2003,” says Terfry. “The French just really picked up on that record, and it sold pretty well there. They came out and saw me in pretty big numbers — they still do. So he hit the road, playing a series of European festivals, including the UK’s legendary Glastonbury Festival. A highlight was the Les Eurockéennes de Belfort festival near Belfort, France; the day’s headliners included PJ Harvey and reunited indie rock icons the Pixies. Later that year, he returned for another, even bigger festival just outside Paris called Rock en Seine. “It was the most people I’ve ever seen. It seemed like they dropped off the horizon. It was definitely over 50,000 people. I was alone onstage; it was just me with a turntable and a CD player or a computer or something like that. It’s a tall order, one guy, so I did everything I could to make it as big as possible and try to make people forget about that fact, that it was one guy up there trying to hold it all together.”
It was an auspicious beginning, but not all strong starts lead to stardom. When Warner declined to release Talkin’ Honky Blues in the US, he fought his way out of his US contract. He then signed a deal with V2, which released a compilation of his previous material, This Right Here Is Buck 65, generating more critical acclaim. But V2 passed on his next CD, 2005’s Secret House Against the World, so his subsequent release, Situation, appeared in the US in 2007 on fellow anticon. alumnus Sage Francis’s Strange Famous Records. Situation was more musically conservative than Secret House, and far more focused and accessible, thanks in part to fellow Nova Scotia hip hop DJ Skratch Bastid’s bare-bones production. Still, Buck 65 had passed through the “buzz band” phase of his career. He had built an enviably loyal base and was still able to tour, but it was now a struggle.
On July 29, 2007, three months before the release of Situation, a journal entry appeared on his website, buck65.com:
“Lately I’ve been considering the idea of getting a regular job. I’m just considering it. Why? Well, I have given up on the idea of making money off records. It’s hopeless now. I hope soon to cut it out altogether — I’ll just give music away (that will likely mean not manufacturing a physical product anymore).
...For someone like me to actually make a living off touring, I have to do it almost constantly. And while touring and having adventures can be fun, you must give up on the idea of having a real life. That’s a hefty price. Not to mention the toll touring takes on one’s body.
...It’s just a thought. But if anyone wants to give me a job (I’ll consider just about anything), get in touch.