Thursday, November 13, 2008

Righteous Bad Ass

Have I mentioned lately my boundless affection for our northern neighbors?

No? Then allow me the pleasure; I love Canada. I love Canadians. I love the Northwest Territories Human Rights Act. I love Second City Television. I love Rush and the Leafs and vinegar on french fries. (Though I do not love poutine. Sorry, Snake.)

With all that on the table, it's no surprise that some of my favorite artists are also Canadian: Baddd Spellah, Wordburglar, The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, and the aforementioned Snake Eyes just to name a few. But when one references the mystical land of Canadia in the same breath as nerdy music, it is likely that this wholly theoretical individual is talking about none other than Jesse Dangerously.

Never one to turn down the chance to drop a little knowledge, Jesse was kind enough to agree to a little virtual sit-down with yours truly. Therein we discussed his humble hip-hop beginnings, his love/hate relationship with the nerdcore community, and kidnapping Weird Al Yankovic.

Suffice it to say it's a good time.

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You've stated before that you became interested in rap in the late 1980's. Was there a lot of hip-hop coming out of Halifax at that time?

There was a little, but I wasn't exposed to it yet. Having been born in 1979 and introduced to rap through more or less the usual pop culture channels by the time I was ten, I was too young to have done much independent exploring of what was going on either downtown or on the ground in any neighborhoods other than my own. Halifax's storied North End, home to the tragically stigmatized Uniacke Square project created to house the displaced residents of Africville when the city decided to demolish our continent's oldest indigenous black community (smooth move), had all kinds of hip-hop culture popping off, due to kids importing nth-generation tapes of New York radio shows and even early hip-hop live events. So from that area there were local crews like Uniacke Square Posse, Care Crew, MCJ and Cool G, Universal Soul and anyone working with the mighty Witchdoc Jorun who would become the scene's most venerable DJ and producer through time. Also, people like Buck 65 or the members of Hip Club Groove who were from more rural, outlying areas of Nova Scotia made a point of seeking out the tiny, nascent rap scene in order to become a part of something real. But they were already teenagers, some just barely, by the time anyone told me rap existed, which for me was the summer after grade 5 if I recall correctly. So it was a while yet before I was able to experience any of what my own city had to offer, instead relying on pop radio to play Young MC or Maestro Fresh-Wes and my friends to dub me their older brothers' major label tapes.

The first inkling I got that there might be anyone doing it locally was a CBC (Canada's NPR, except nationalized) broadcast that my dad taped for me in maybe 1991 or so. I think the show was Basic Black, named for its host (Arthur Black) and not any particular cultural group, but I could be mistaken. They were talking to a few local MCs and even though I think I lost the tape shortly after hearing it and only ever heard it a few times, I remember clearly that they spoke to MC Fiz of Universal Soul and that he explained he got his name from when he was in an earlier crew where they all took their names from different kinds of candy and they played a song by him and another rapper that was called "Free At Last" - I should ask Jorun if he has the song anywhere, he archives everything he was ever involved with - and one of the MCs shouted out his address in a verse. I didn't know any neighborhood but what lay between my house and school, so the street name "Maynard" didn't mean anything to me at the time, but later when I became a frequent visitor to (and eventually, resident of) the north end, I started to realize what a statement of pride it was to represent for the area most disrespected and maltreated by the municipality at large.

People laugh about the idea of Canadian cities having ghettoes, and therefore rap (which is a troubling equation in itself), and with the overall non-white population of the country overall being so low, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people in this country whose principal interaction with any non-white culture is watching BET or harassing the one native kid in town. But urban areas are a different story, and Halifax is a different story yet again. Some of the larger urban areas are quite diverse, racially... Nova Scotia, on the other hand, was a haven for ex-slaves (escaped from the US, generally) and their descendants right up until the middle of the last century when we bulldozed their community to build a second bridge across the harbour, and instead of our increased population adding to the region's diversity, we have like three tiny, marginalized pockets of black community and the most deeply entrenched sense of mutual resentment I've encountered anywhere in the country. Not on an individual basis - person-to-person, most people respect one another and find it easy enough to get along. But white Nova Scotia as a culture is unsympathetic and exasperated with the things they don't understand about Black Nova Scotia, and Black Nova Scotia is sick and tired of being told to just get over it by (even the most liberal elements of) white Nova Scotia, and sorely-needed co-operation is rare because everyone has their hackles up whether for good reasons or bad. I never realized I was swimming in such a racist environment until I moved away and spent more time in parts of Canada where - although still far from perfect - more progress had been made in coming together. Nova Scotia's still stuck at maybe square one and a half.

I'm sorry to write you a book on that tangent, I just wanted to address the themes that underlie the idea that it might be surprising to know that there was rap in Halifax before white media imported it as a commodity.

You've obviously been greatly influenced by the artists of hip-hop's "golden age" of the late 80's/early 90's, an era that saw the rise of acts as disparate as Public Enemy, 3rd Bass, N.W.A., and De La Soul. Do you feel that contemporary hip-hop is this diverse?

Absolutely and also not at all. Like, on a sheer artist-by-artist basis, ignoring any question of exposure or popularity, every kind of rap you can imagine is being made somewhere in the world right now, so diversity is greater than it ever has been. However, the early 90s was a time when even major labels were experimenting and taking risks - not because they were nobler then than now, but because they didn't know yet exactly what aspect of rap was going to resonate the strongest with the buying public. It's funny that you mention those four acts in particular, because not only with the hindsight of nearly two decades do those acts seem to have had more in common than separating them at the time, but the differences that do exist between them are more or less exemplary of four different ways the labels were courting a white audience - PE and NWA represent vicarious thrills, either by aligning yourself with the struggle or trying to live vicariously through cartoonishly debauched thug shit, and 3rd Bass and De La represent more comfortable familiarity for a stereotyped white audience, with all but the DJ in the former group being real live white people and the latter group having a decidedly non-threatening, erudite and educated demeanour about them. I hate to talk about some of my favourite groups that way (except NWA, I hate that shit) when I know that their artistic endeavours represent so much more than that - De La Soul weren't trying to act more WHITE, they were just being more or less themselves in an ocean of exaggerated stereotypes. Public Enemy wasn't a hollow pretense at revolution like Rage Against The Machine or that hackey-sacking dude we all know who has awful poems about freedom, they honestly bore the torch of black pride and black power for an in-between generation who were lacking revolutionary leadership. 3rd Bass was two white guys from different backgrounds in New York - one from the hood, one with an English degree - who were very serious about contributing to hip-hop culture in their own way. NWA was even the same way really, except they were from LA and Ice Cube's degree is in engineering. But the reason they seemed sooooo different at the time isn't because of what really made them different, it was the marketing. And now, nearly twenty years later, hip-hop marketing is no longer an experimental venture. A combination of an entrenched commercial rap establishment and the least adventurous music industry in history means that since they figured out cocaine and misogyny were the magic binary compound to alchemically turn black people into money, nothing else has been given a fighting chance in the mainstream. Even our "conscious" rappers are just describing the flipside of that same limited coin - if the dominant rap style is gangsters, it creates a niche in its shadow not so much for non-gangsters, but for specifically anti-gangsters, or a particularly soulful kind of gangster. Nobody is really interested in giving black America a platform to talk about something that ISN'T cocaine or misogyny, there's just a moment where you get to choose your angle - do you love selling crack or hate seeing what it's done to your community? Do you feel like women were put on earth to cater to your sexual whim or are you specifically opposed to that viewpoint, constituting the beginning and the end of feminism as far as the rap establishment is concerned?

But the irony with me talking about all that is that it doesn't really affect what I do, or what anyone does that I know. This is where a dichotomy rises up between my perspective as a cultural consumer and my perspective as a participant in creating things - since I'm an active listener to rap music from all eras and all regions and well most styles, I have an opinion on the mainstream stranglehold because it interferes with what new music ever gets exposed to me. But on an independent level, unless an artist makes a conscious decision to compete in that narrow field, it has no bearing on what we do. And that's why contemporarily, hip-hop is actually more diverse than ever - it just takes a lot more individual legwork to plumb the considerable depths of the various niches now than it did when they were shallower but better lit.

I guess the one other way in which the narrowing of what's accepted in mainstream rap does affect me is that it narrows the expectations of hip-hop's potential audience. Even though rap is ubiquitous now and almost everybody likes at least some of it, it's relatively rare for a person who doesn't intentionally immerse themselves in it to be cognizant of the fact that it has broad possibilities and doesn't actually have to be either a guilty pleasure or shameless vice. Like, misogynist rap is popular because western culture is extremely misogynistic and it's being produced to meet that demand, not because it's impossible to respect women at the same time you speak lyrics without singing. I hate it when rap is singled out for blame on that tip, and I also hate when ignorant motherfuckers celebrate it on that tip. Okay I'm definitely digressing at this point I just wish people - whether they think they hate rap or love it - were more open to the idea that it can be different than the fast food version they get rammed down their throats. If you like that cool and if you don't cool but it's only the merest tip of the iceberg, I just wish people were better informed about that.

Your distinctive style is characterized by rapid-fire delivery, acerbic wordplay, and dynamic intonation. How long did it take you to find your voice as an MC?

Leaving aside that it's still shifting and settling in a lot of ways, I guess it took me about six to eight years to go from a very stripped-down and derivative flow, through a phase of totally unintelligible and barely rhythmic speed raps, to the stuff I was doing in 2001 which pretty much forms the basis of my style such as it is today. I'm still not satisfied though, and I don't think I will be satisfied until I can't tell my own records from records by Akinyele, Lord Finesse or Casual. And that will never happen, and that's a good thing, but for that reason I don't think I'll ever stop trying on new hats and by hats I mean flows, inflections, tempos, harmonies, whatever. My friends influence me a lot, especially when I'm collaborating, I don't want to kick a rhyme that's too superscientifical or fey when I'm rapping with someone who only listens to M.O.P. so I let different influences and impulses come to the forefront. I hope to always have a very fluid style, and to continue to add tools to my belt for the rest of my life.

As someone who both raps and produces, what's the songwriting process like for Jesse Dangerously? Do you tend to build verses from beats, beats from verses, or is there more a delicate balance?

I don't think I've ever set out to make a beat to suit a set of lyrics, I think it's almost always vice versa unless I'm remixing someone else's song. Most commonly, especially in the last few years when I've had so many backed-up collaborations on the go, I write to the specific beat. I just play it over and over and sit there and work on the raps for hours or months or whatever it takes. Sometimes I'll put on the instrumental from another artist's 12" if it has a crazy vibe that's unlike anything I could do myself or anything I'm likely to get from a friend, and I'll write to that until I'm sick of it. I remember writing a lot of older material, probably stuff that wound up on Origami, over the instrumental to Company Flow's "End-To-End Burners." In 2005, I wrote two nearly complete songs over "Hola Hovito" which is a track Timbaland produced for Jay-Z - I didn't even have the 12", I just kept lifting the needle back on the LP and writing more and more until I had everything but the very end of "Outfox'd," plus a full set of lyrics for another song that subsequently found a home on a slammin' Baddd Spellah beat that happened to have almost the same bounce. The beat tends to dictate a lot of what goes into the rhyme as far as cadence, melodic parts and structure (if it's already tracked out). Occasionally I get such a fiery-hot lyric idea that I'll write part of a verse in my head (risky) or on paper with no beat when I'm out somewhere, but usually a beat is involved in tidying up that lyric and making it presentable.

Historically, your rhymes have often boasted a palpable socially conscious slant. Do you consider yourself a political rapper?

Yeah I think that's a mantle I've tried to wear, but I'm pretty staunch about not wanting to be a BORING or DISMAL political rapper, because I hate that shit even when I agree with the content. I'm drawing on my favourite era, back when every rapper was political in some sense whether intentionally or not, but still felt an obligation to be entertaining. Because what's the point of expressing what you consider to be important political content if the form that expression takes makes people want to not listen to what you're saying? That's why if I make a track that's a polemic on a given topic, I still want to be flexing rhyme acrobatics or even just giving people an emotional anchor point they can hold onto that makes it personal and relatable instead of a scathing stream of statistics and vitriol about all the things that I wish were going differently in the world. It's also why I do things like throw a thumbs-up to abortion in the third verse of "Aww Shucks," which is mainly a gimmicky and fun brag rap that just goes right off the rails into an indictment of racism at the end. By that time you're four minutes in, you've hopefully had fun during the first two and a half verses and there's still another set of scratches you want to hear so if I play my cards right, you're invested in sticking with me through the opinionated elements and maybe it'll stick with you next time you give that stuff some thought. Originally I had even rhymed "anti-abortion" with "Andrea Dworkin" on my sketchpad, which would have been a whole other political mess to get into, but fortunately my homegirl Andrea Dorfman made a movie called Parsley Days which was on the topic and provided a funny bridge from a line about "herb" (specifically not drinking booze or smoking it, so I guess that's lightly political as well) so I got to shout out a Nova Scotian indie film maker and also avoid trying to deal with analyzing the social impact of pornography in one or two lines of brag rap before wrapping it up.

I think, especially in an artform as verbose as rap but also always, it's almost intrinsically political to make art. Whatever perspective you bring with you becomes part of the cultural discourse, so that a song with a particular idea doesn't represent only one person thinking it but anywhere between a few dozen to a few million people being confronted with it and taking it under consideration to some extent themselves, whether consciously or just as any one of the zillions of flecks of intellectual detritus that we absorb or deflect every minute we're awake. So I want to make people deal with the things I think are right or wrong on that level at least, so I make a point of being honest in my lyrics. I think that's political, and if certain people would undertake it (not me, I'm too establishment) it could be radically so. And I wish they would, and I'm glad when they do.

In contrast, the bulk of the cuts from your recent release Verba Volant, or, at the very least, the tone of these tracks, tend to give it a more good-time, party album feel. Was this by design? Was there a concerted effort to "lighten up?"

There definitely wasn't a concerted effort, and for my part I had the feeling that Verba Volant was maybe a little darker or more sober than Inter Alia, but I guess nothing involving Timbuktu (the producer, not the African city) can be completely sober. "So! Much! Fun! (UNH!)" is about some fairly heavy personal ish, but I guess it's kind of disguised by being pretty and at least superficially optimistic... "The Day's Arc" was supposed to be kind of ominous, or at least grumpy, as well, but I guess it's also too fast to make sense without reading along in one's booklet. So I can confidently say I wasn't trying to lighten up, per se, but I will admit to this - when I work with others, as on VV and IA and the record I was working on for three years before that and didn't finish, I feel an obligation to please my collaborator. And it would feel completely weird to take a beat that someone else gave me, particularly for an album that's intended to be almost as much theirs as it is mine (but not quite), and force them to tacitly endorse every breakneck, winding turn of my personal philosophies. So I did make more of an effort to rap in styles and on topics that I hoped would be most agreeable and interesting to the homies, and for that matter I was trying to match the tenor of the beats they gave me to work with. I feel like overall the vibe to Verba Volant is kinda spooky-carnival-but-not-in-a-Insane-Clown-Posse-way, and being like "okay I'm about to take you to the outer limits of the horror and rage I feel with regard to violence against women!" over a beat like the title track would have undermined both the topic and the fun potential of that beat.

That said, this is why the album I'm finishing up this summer is 100% self-produced, because there have been things I've been bottling up and feel a need to confront in rap form, and I figured only my own beats were the exact right place to take care of some of them.

Which brings us to an interesting topic. Despite the fact that you're known for your production acumen as well as your skills on the mic, both Verba Volant and its predecessor Inter Alia feature outside producers. Was there a clear reason behind your decision not to self-produce those albums?

Aw yer makin' me blush. Am I really known for it? Go on! But yeah there was a clear reason by the time Inter Alia came around, which was that I had been out of the habit of making beats for over two years by that point. It was combination of technology marching on and inertia on my part - once I bit the bullet and started using Windows instead of DOS, it got harder and harder to have Impulse Tracker 2.14 as my axe for beats. Eventually I just couldn't run it at all anymore. If I were a different kind of person, that would have been my great catalyst to save up some dough (I even had a job in those days) and buy some real gear or at least pirate some up-to-date software, but instead I was like you know what? I'm TIRED from making all these beats, it's 2003 and I'm down with Backburner and half my friends are making insanely dope beats that I'm drooling over every weekend anyway and I want some of that magic to come MY way for once. I'm going on sabbatical!

I started soliciting beats for a record I called The So-Called Solo Album (making fun of rappers who break away to make a "solo" record with over a dozen other people involved) and the plan was to have sixteen tracks, with each producer represented one time only. I got at homies I knew online from different scenes so that we could all be cross-promoted to one another's audience... not just me but so that fans of one producer could discover other ones they never would have heard of otherwise. Plus ha ha I would get all the dopest beats. And I did! I got a couple dozen truly fantastic beats and I wrote the best rhymes - to this day - of my whole career over them, and then I got stalled on recording and have yet to finish the album. I do a lot of those songs live though, and I have been ever since before Inter Alia, because they're some of my best songs. I just get too easily distracted I guess. Inter Alia was supposed to be a little side project while I took a short breather from that album, and now I've done two and a half other albums since then. It's rough being my own A&R; I have no discipline!

Seriously, Jesse, what's up with all the goddamn Latin?

Aside from just being very pretentious, I used to work in a law office and later I entered the family business of title searching which also involves reading a lot of legal documents, and a few of the cliché phrases really stuck out to me and seemed cool. "Inter alia" just means "among others", say if you're selling a bunch of land lots in the same deed, and at the time I felt really connected to the Halifax hip-hop scene, like being among others and playing shows with them and writing songs with them was the best thing, and also it was a really active time for me socially even outside or auxiliary to the hip-hop scene so I felt very warmly toward the people around me. Most of the songs have to do with those relationships too - not the remixes so much but "Outfox'd" is about conflict and is mainly set in that community, "The Altogether" is a posse cut with friends I was playing live with a lot, "The Prestidigitator" is about the new confidence I had with women and "The Force" is about growing up in Halifax and loving rap, eventually culminating in the familial situation I was feeling at the time. Even having the scratches split between my regular DJ, Uncle Fester, and Halifax scene legend Jorun was a reflection of that sense of belonging that was so new to me after a decade of being chumped for liking rap.

Once I had that name in place, I decided to make it the first in a series - I liked the split-producer formula, I liked the brevity of an EP plus two remixes and I liked having covers that would look cool all lined up together. So I made the Latin phrase part of the blueprint, and when Verba Volant was nearly finished I made a list of ones that I thought would suit it and showed them to the producers and DJ, and got feedback. Verba Volant seemed especially apt once we noticed how fast I was rapping on most tracks, even though I'm always trying to slow down on Backburner beats. The next one (not the self-produced record I was talking about) is called Ipso Facto, and I've got a nice stash saved up for future installments. I mean it's a whole language so the possibilities are actually fairly vast.

You're very often associated with the nerdcore hip-hop movement - to a degree, I've noticed, that it tends to dominate most of your recent interviews and other press. Do you find this at all stifling to the musical message you seek to impart through such dialogue?

Well only a little bit. I think with some interviews I've had, if not for having the nerdcore angle to hang it on I might not have got the call in the first place. Certainly it was my foot in the door at MTV Canada, which hopefully will still prove fruitful. But yeah if you only get so many words and whoever edits the interview chooses to place emphasis on that part of the conversation, all the other stuff I'm more interested in gets reduced to a blip. And that's their prerogative, but it can be frustrating. It still gets my name out, but I'm still ambivalent as to whether having been associated with Nerdcore as a fixed idea has been beneficial or harmful to me.

In the Nerdcore For Life documentary, you state that you're fine with the nerdcore association providing it's used more as an umbrella term as opposed to relating to a specific niche or sub-genre. In your opinion, which is it?

Dude, until you asked me that I didn't know if any of my footage made it into the movie! I kind of assumed I probably got cut out after another year of shooting and editing, I'm happy to hear that I didn't. Unless I came off stupid - how was my hair?? But yeah that was a three hour interview from just over two years ago, so I can't remember what exactly I was talking about then or even if it's something I still think is accurate, but since you're asking me that right now I'll just answer based on what I think now, which is that Nerdcore is a scene. It's a weirdly aggregated scene, since its venue is certain websites and very little in-person contact (Nerdapalooza notwithstanding, I'm still waiting for Wordburglar to fully debrief me on that event but it sounds like it was a lot of fun), and I think the things which make it different from how other scenes work are the things which make it mostly suck and be a chore to deal with. Basically, it's all the cliquishness and ego clashes that make traditional scenes so turbulent, multiplied by the collective mentality of the YouTube comment page. I think if all those exact same people had to deal with one another face-to-face with any regularity, the "beefs" would arise and play out very differently. Some people would be way more polite, and some people would be way more scarce, and some people just wouldn't bother. But it would cut down on how much any discourse in that community, such as it is, is dominated by completely infantile bullshit.

One of the major things that really trips up nerdcore as a scene, socially, is the total rearrangement of power dynamics that occurs on the web. Nerds may still be geeks on message boards, but they aren't necessarily DWEEBS anymore. Who gets to pick on whom gets totally reset to the norm of mainstream culture, without a lot of niggling subsets - white males rule the roost and behave almost predatorily toward anyone else. The internet is basically inside every nerd's head, so instead of being cowed by women the dweeby little shy dude gets to act out his resentment toward them for all the ways they make him feel. The power flip ruins people, all of a sudden it's non-stop racist invective, gay-bashing and rape jokes because the internet is where no-one can kick your ass, ever. It's not that I want people to get their asses kicked, but being completely removed from accountability vis-a-vis the presence of other people can really turn some people into useless creeps.

When mc chris once again split with the nerdcore community in late 2007, he explicitly referred to you as "the only (nerdy rapper) I like." Did you have any sort of response to that declaration?

Yeah, I was very very sympathetic to it! Not just his excellent taste, but his frustration at watching what by all rights SHOULD have been a scene full of artists he would love and identify with turn out to be a scene full of people who think rap is stupid and it's funny to make bad rap. I think it was probably carelessly phrased because I know for a fact that he's down with other nerdy rappers, and I think it really speaks to the collective maturity and sensibility of the nerdcore scene that almost every single person who identifies as involved with it took that statement as a personal slight. I mean, I have the luxury of being the only person in the world excluded from the criticism in question, but I think if he had said Frontalot was the only nerdy rapper he liked, I would have been able to look at the statement as being about nerdcore at large instead of being about ME, as one of dozens of people who wasn't mentioned. As it is, it's just a nice compliment from a cool dude as far as I'm concerned. I tried to link up with Chris when I played with Front in Brooklyn but my cell phone stopped working once I was on the US network... and by "stopped working" I mean "started costing a million dollars a second just to be turned on, plus text messages didn't arrive until the next weekend". So that's a pleasure I still have to look forward to.

What nerdy rappers does Jesse Dangerously like?

Well rap is essentially an intellectual pursuit, so I could bust that category pretty wide if I wanted to talk your ear off about all the rappers throughout history who I ever thought were geniuses... but if we pare down the idea of "nerdy" to some flexible combination of not only intellectual but non-macho and at least mildly obsessed with esoterica (not Esoteric the rapper), then hmm... yeah mc chris is probably right, it's just me and him.

Only joking! I like Frontalot of course and lately I've been getting along real nice with MC Lars (wait'll you hear our song together! it's political!) and obviously Wordburglar is my baby mother so I gotta ride for him. Thesis Sahib is the real thing. Other Canadian big timers include More or Les, Epic and Noah 23. It's hard to decide exactly who's nerdy - Ghettosocks has punchlines about sitcoms and zoology and raps over the warp whistle music from Mario 3 on his last record, but he also wears allover print hoodies and probably bones every chick plus doesn't care about the internet, does that still count? Buck 65 probably hasn't played a video game since VIC-20 but he's really into film and literature and did a whole concept album around the year 1957, is that nerdy? The whole Wu-Tang Clan went from kung-fu movie names to Marvel Comics alter-egos. KRS-ONE does lecture tours, Rhymefest and J-Live and Defari are all teachers... I'm getting off the point, I don't even like Defari. I just can't decide to put more emphasis on whether I like a rapper or whether they're nerdy enough. Birdapres is a font of classic hip-hop knowledge and I think he's one of the best rappers in Canada ever but he'll bust your melon. Sage Francis is intellectual but played football in high school and I think he has a black belt in something. Having a black belt is pretty nerdy, though. Which brings me back to the fact that anything which takes discipline and perseverance is a nerdy pursuit, which definitely includes rap, which means that my answer is Big Daddy Kane.

Sorry to all my friends whose raps I like and whose names I didn't say. It probably just means I think you've kissed too many people to qualify as all that nerdy.

Has your connection with nerdcore, and, in turn, the media's recent minor fascination with burgeoning nerd culture, served to further your career in any way? Has it opened up any doors?

Like I said, I'm ambivalent! For example, it's been great being homies with Frontalot and other dudes who are serious (if hilarious) artists and serious (if gregarious) people and it certainly helped U.S. and international sales of Inter Alia when I was on Front's first record because he's so in touch with the devoted on-line fanbase he's courted and cultivated... but I wonder sometimes if just as many people don't decide I'm not worth it when they see the way I look, which is already not super compelling to the hip-hop aficionado, and take it in context with the vast majority of attention-getters within what calls itself Nerdcore, which is basically all the same people who made me start to feel like an idiot for going to anime conventions. Just... you know, goofy and whiny and self-absorbed assholes. It's disappointing that those dudes basically get to set the tone for the whole scene, because there are lots of kids involved who would otherwise be really interesting. I wind up having to make an effort to distance myself from these dudes who've enshrined themselves in a concentrated microcosm of all the things that made me feel like a misfit in REAL high school.. and then *I'm* the one who's picking on the poor nerds! Maybe I'm just negative, but it seems to me at this point that I have more to lose than to gain from the association. But... it exists.

Before I fall into the aforementioned trap myself, just let me ask one more nerdcore-related question: Is there a place for the genuine nerd in hip-hop?

Yeah, but only one. His name is Lupe Fiasco and when he dies or retires at a ripe old age, a successor will be crowned.

What's the bigger threat to rap as a whole: The classic sucker MC, the modern player hater, or the return of the Roland TR-808?

Well first of all, I think the player tends to BE the classic sucker MC, and the modern player hater can only improve hip-hop by discouraging that scourge. Players are wack! The whole point of being a player is running some kind of a hustle, whether it gets him boned or paid or whatever. They don't give a shit about art. Their continued presence in rap can only hurt it. The 808 on the other hand has potential for great good - those big, beefy sine wave kicks are essential to fattening up a reedy break, and the analog imitation cowbell and claps have a hypnotic effect on well... me. I love the 808, I think it's sucker producers who use it wrong that are the problem.

So the closest answer is (A), the sucker MC. Except he's not always an MC, there's suckers in every walk of life. They must be eliminated through examples of freshness!

Better Alpha Flight: The hip-hop clique or the comic book (the classic John Byrne line-up, not the shitty remakes)?

This question is carefully crafted to demolish my nerd cred! Not only did I never read that title, and not only do I think the rap crew kicks ass, but they're my FRIENDS and NERDS DON'T HAVE FRIENDS. Seriously though they boast two of the tightest DJs east of Montreal, they all make amazing beats and Ghettosocks and Bix can rap their asses off. Socks is the most recent Backburner inductee, and I'm really looking forward to kickin' it with Bix when I move back to Ottawa later this month. Oh and also there's Apt, the boy wonder, who I guess retired from rhyming but collected an amazing stash of old samplers and drum machines and was already killing it with FruityLoops and who I've always been afraid would take over rap one day since I met him five years ago.

Who's even in Alpha Flight the comic group? Puck? I have like one issue of Wolverine with him in it, that's my whole experience with them. I'm saying the rap crew.

In the greater overall scope of the community, do you feel Canadian hip-hop artists get the respect they deserve?

I'm not sure what you mean by "the greater overall scope of the community". Some Canadian rappers get all kinds of love from our mainstream media or industry institutions, although it's rarely the ones I would have picked. I run in Canadian rap circles, so a lot of people I know love Canadian rap disproportionately and pay way more attention to what we have going on up here than anything else. I have no idea how we're perceived outside of Canada by hip-hop heads, except that I'm pretty sure it's pretty much not at all? Except Kardinal Offishal and maybe Saukrates if anyone reads liner notes? As far as I know, even though Swollen Members were as big as Nickelback up here for a few years, in the states people just knew about their underground shit because it had Del, Son Doobie, Everlast and Aceyalone on it and then thought they disappeared? I genuinely don't know. I do know that the particular artists I think are the most respectable aren't always the ones who appear to get the most respect, but that's probably true for everyone who has strong opinions about art, right? I mean, I think MC Shan served KRS-ONE in the Bridge exchange and that Snoop Dogg is almost as bad of a rapper as he is a person, so I'm in the minority on a lot of things when it comes to art.

I don't think *MY* Canadian friends get all the respect we deserve though, because if we did there wouldn't be enough left for anyone else! We'd take it ALL!!!

You go out of your way to rep Backburner in verse, but you seldom get to talk about them in interviews. What do fans, new and old, need to know about the crew?

Just that it's the best crew. Or maybe the worst crew made up of all the best people, I guess we're pretty poorly organized overall. But there isn't anyone involved in the posse who I think isn't exceptional in their field. I feel so fortunate to be associated with these dudes, you have no idea. Every time I hear what one of my people is working on, I get a surge of pride and I'm certain the whole world is juuuuuust about to realize that they're as dope as I think they are. But like I said, our organization is from hunger so it hasn't exactly happened yet. All that I can really tell people about Backburner is that it's a mark of quality and they really mustn't sleep. I mean we had humble beginnings and missteps in the early days sure but as of the last few years and for the rest of the future... if you get a chance to hear music by Toolshed, Wordburglar, Thesis Sahib, ginzuintriplicate, More or Les, Ghettosocks, Timbuktu, Johnny Hardcore, Rez Villain, Jay Bizzy, or anything with beats by Fresh Kils or Dexter Doolittle or Beat Mason or Uncle Fester or for that matter ME, you are only prolonging your own suffering if you pass it up. You won't love every song and you won't love every one of us, but if you like any rap at all and there isn't a member of Backburner that impresses you, then I'll eat my hat. And yours, so watch it.

What's on the horizon for Jesse Dangerously?

I'm moving with my girlfriend to Ottawa in two weeks, and going to college for Professional Writing in September. Between the move and commencing studies, I'm taking part in a last minute mini-tour with Toolshed that should carry me from Ontario to Halifax, where I'll be recording all the vocals for the new record at the exciting new official Backburner studio, The Vault, which is totally pro and not in anyone's bedroom closet or anything. Then my best friend is getting married but that's not really rap news. Then hopefully I'll get the record all polished up with scratches and artwork and everything in time to release the vinyl-only first run around... Christmas? You know how it is, though, maybe it'll take way longer, especially since I'll be in school. I think the new record is going to blow everything else I've ever done away. That's how I feel about it right now, anyway. Maybe it'll just get me sued and beat up!

And lastly, you once suggested that Weird Al do a stripped down, accordion-centered album helmed by Rick Rubin. What can we do to make that happen?

I think the first order of business is to either subvert the fundraising model of the people who have raised nearly $25,000 to cover the fee required to submit Al's name for immortalization in a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame or to mug them for their stash outright. Those people are crazy - who cares about some hokey tourist trap? You could feed thousands with that money! Or... you could use it to buy a second-hand van and some ski masks, and kidnap Messrs Yankovic and Rubin, and take them to a cabin somewhere remote and make sure they have a good range of accordions, a decent home studio rig, plenty of non-perishable food and no way to escape until they've earned their freedom by laying down enough tracks for at least three volumes of American Polka, to be released over the next five or six years. I can't imagine anyone raising any sensible complaints over a plan like that, it's only natural. Oh you know what else they'd need to be supplied with in their captivity? An FM receiver, so Al could keep up with the latest hits for parody-fodder. I think also maybe some kind of electric shock device to dissuade him in case he starts writing another song about how inane daytime TV is, or anything about farts. Plus maybe Rick Rubin should be in shackles, just in case he gets any ideas.

This is the best idea ever.

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This interview was a lot of fun for me for a few reasons.

Obviously, I am a long-time fan of Jesse D, and I've always found his socio-political musings fascinating. But mostly, it's just nice to have my own observations and theories about the very nerdy nature of traditional hip-hop corroborated by someone in the know. (I am, after all, merely a fake Internet journalist.)

Hip-hop is both a passion and a lifestyle, but it is also a discipline. It is a field of study, a peculiar shade of academia all it's own. And there's nothing fundamentally geekier than school.

Jesse Dangerously is known as a bit of a ball-buster around nerdcore haunts, and with good reason. Jesse is a life-long student of hip-hop, and he expects a level of respect for the spirit and history of the artform of which some nerdy MCs are wholly bereft.

Jesse holds hip-hop in high regard, and thus it is only fitting that he demands a fairly robust level of musical perfection from any track (or artist) that attaches itself to that proud mantle. This is observable in Jesse's own work, as well as that of his companions and frequent collaborators. In short, Jesse gives it his all and expects no less from others. And while you may question his attitudes, his braggadocio, or even his motives, one thing that can not be called into question is his talent.

Jesse Dangerously is a nerd. Jesse Dangerously is a dedicated head. But most importantly Jesse Dangerously is an artist.

6 comments:

Church said...

So many pullable quotes. I think Imma going to go with "the internet is where no-one can kick your ass, ever."

Anonymous said...

This is was definitely the right way to start my evening after work. Great interview Z. And on a side note, I live in the mentioned 'North end' of Halifax.

-Patient28

antisoc said...

Dang, that was a long interview. I'll have to read it sometime when I have a good hour or two to spare. What I skimmed over was amazing though.

Matt said...

What I've read so far is like a fucking doctorate course in hip hop! I'm going to spend hours tracking this shit down. JD, if/when you read this, put your money where your mouth is re nerdcore not understanding hip hop, I demand a series where you break it all down. Just what I've read so far, you have the knowledge. Now DO IT! Teach us motherfucker!

And yeah, I'm a little drunk right now, I may regret this in the morning, but I doubt it.

:)

Jesse Dangerously said...

Z you are such a gentleman and a kind soul. Thanks for publishing my novel.

Z. said...

Glad you mined it for quotes, Church. There are a lot of 'em!

Thanks for reading, Patient28. Glad you dug it.

Yeah, Soc, it's a little on the long side, but I think you'll find it an epistle worth exploring.

Good point, Matt. I too would enroll in Jesse's course Hip-Hop for the Discriminating Nerd.

Thanks for the opportunity, Jesse. I quite enjoyed it. And you're welcome back anytime.