GIVEN HIP HOP'S STRANGLEHOLD on the charts and radio playlists, you might think it would be easy to be a fan of this music these days. There may not be jocks at high school lining up to kick a kid's ass for digging, say, Jay-Z, like there were for punks or "disco queers" in the Seventies. Nonetheless, there is a growing pocket of geekier hip hoppers disaffected, alienated, or just plain shut out by the macho, upper-class-imitating cliques of No Limit and Bad Bay devotees. Many of these discontented kids also happen to be white and from less than deprived backgrounds, so authenticity for them isn't so much tied up with movin' on up as it is with ducking the mainstream and romanticizing the return of some forgotten Golden Age when MCs were MCs, DJs were DJs, and skills--not Benjamins--divided the lambs from the sheep.
Halifax, Nova Scotia's Buck 65 is something of a contentious figure in such circles. On the one hand, he embodies the hard-nosed DIY ethic they laud: He personally handles all the production, rhyming, and scratching on his records, each of which has been released independently. But on the other, his material, both musically and lyrically, strays widely from the acceptable domain of purist, take-it-back-to-the-roots hip hop. Over two tracks of coffeehouse acoustic guitar on the third song (there are no titles), he confesses that's he's awkward around girls and "misses farming life." The ninth song is a heartrending eulogy to his mother, who died of breast cancer. Battle rhymes, the staple of underground torchbearers like Dilated Peoples and the Lootpack, are for the most part avoided in favor of highly introspective, almost introverted musings and mutterings.
Neo-traditionalists, usually so quick to stamp something as true hip hop or not, seem perplexed by Buck 65 and the rest of the lo-fi whiteboy Anticon enclave. What doesn't seem to compute with them or their puritanical counterparts in jazz is that the essence of either music is not an adherence to a stylistic mandate, but to an ethos of invention and playfulness. Buck 65, under this definition, is the real deal.