You don’t know his name. You’ve probably never heard of him before, but you know the music. You’ve listened to the Sage Francis songs, the B. Dolan mixes, Buck 65, Sole, and the Strange Famous catalogue. If you’re a hip-hop head, you know the work of Buddy Peace, and at some point, he’ll be as recognizable as DJ Premier. He’s the white guy who can mix a Howlin’ Wolf set like he was born to scratch and sample the blues, and then lay down the smoothest landscape for some of the best lyrical poets in the underground game. Enjoy The Poetry Questions’ unedited interview with Buddy Peace.
TPQ: What are your earliest music memories? Who introduced you to that music? What was that defining song you heard where the light bulb turned on, and you knew you wanted to make music your full time career?
Buddy Peace: I have one very vivid memory which has been coming back to me with increasing frequency over the past few years or so, of me in my toddler years sitting in a kitchen with ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by The Supremes playing on the radio. That was one of the first jams that really caught my ear and I will never forget it. I love it! Then we have the introduction of Dire Straits and Buddy Holly into the family car stereo rotation, which REALLY set things off. Even though I was like 5 or 6 years old, these tapes seemed to tie in perfectly with my young mind and what was going on. I can’t explain it but there it is – cemented in there forever! I’d probably get all teary if you played me ‘Alchemy’, the live Dire Straits album. It was my brother who really gave me the business though- he bought ‘The Show’ by Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick on 7″ and it was my favourite right away. The drums, the Inspector Gadget reference, the telephone ring mouth sound effect. Perfection. Incidentally my first 7″ was ‘Live Is Life’ by Opus. It has some importance somewhere I guess, maybe? Anyway, then came De La, NWA, Public Enemy and so on, and I was all set. All of this together, along with whatever metal I was bumping at the time, combined to give me a feeling that I had to throw my hat in the ring in all this at some point down the line…
TPQ: Do you remember your first beats? How old were you when you started writing? When did you begin to develop the style upon which you’d build your career?
Buddy Peace: Oh yeah. Definitely. I used to keep all kinds of tapes and later minidiscs of things I did, as I know tons of us analogue hounds back then used to do. I started off DJing back around 1993 so I built up a nice little catalogue of mixes and scratch sessions, but the beats started happening around 1995. I got this mini sampler which had an amazingly precise loop facility but it was all numbers, so I’d sample bits off record, then get the next thing I was going to sample in time manually, then sample it and fiddle with the numbers til the tempos matched. It took way too long but kept you in the process, and the end result after a bit of work was so satisfying back then. I’d strengthened my rap radio tape edit-finger too so my timings were sharp. I bought an MPC2000 from my friend in 1997 and pretty much taught myself step programming on that, and I was really into heavy, rugged drums and tech edity programming styles and that found its way into the MPC beats I was making then. Lots of hours hunched over a little screen and a clunky, chugging and unstable zip drive whirring away.
TPQ: Who were the DJs and lyricists that most influenced you when you were starting out? What was it about their work that made them an influence?
Buddy Peace: I’ll list off a few and give some notes, if that’s cool. There are so many but I’ll give you some of the key names or the more pivotal people for me…
Prince Paul (De La, Stetstasonic and so on- huge for me, diverse and imaginative with such a broad range of influences, which it’s hard not to absorb)
Gangstarr (the perfect hip hop duo- Guru was just on point all the time, and Primo had such sick, funky production with a scratch style that definitely inspired me so much)
Public Enemy, Ice T & NWA (absolutely essential- a huge chunk of my formative listening)
Wu Tang (obviously)
Bomb Squad (severely heavy and innovative, such a huge influence)
DJ Cash Money, Pete Rock, Funkmaster Flex, DJ Riz, DJ Scratch and tons more (I was really into that loose, rhythmic scratch style which was razor sharp but not flashy for the sake of it. There are SO many more but I’ll use these as shorthand for that kind of sound for sake of not making a 20 foot long list…)
More (sort of) recent influences that I’ve spent a good while absorbing and enjoying include the Beat Junkies, QBert & the old ISP lineup, all the 1200 Hobos crew (Dibbs, Buck 65 and the rest- they opened another door later on to the more freakier side with a whole new world of influences), Sage and all the Strange Famous fellowship (had a HUGE impact on my listening back around 1999, which has only grown and amplified over the years), Atmosphere, the Low End Theory/Brainfeeder platoon (too much greatness) – this is super tricky as there are literally hundreds of names I can pull out and explain why they had an impact on me but I think that’s a sensible amount. I feel like I’ve connected more with that late 80’s/early 90’s style of hip hop, and most of what I listen to these days (in terms of hip hop, at least) feels like it has a lot of that flowing through its veins. I’m not locked down to older stuff, but because that’s when I really got going with DJing and record buying, it’s stronger within me. Throw on ‘Breaking Atoms’ by Main Source and I’ll be happy forever.
TPQ: How has the culture of hip-hop changed over the years you’ve been in the game? Is it a good change, or a bad change?
Buddy Peace: When I was really starting out as a young teenager around 1993, and with hindsight and benefit of seeing how things panned out over a couple of decades, it feels like those early years for me were very kind of hands on, earthy and dusty. I have the sense of being actually physically dirty for some of it, looking through old grimy record stores and going into places looking for music where my rational side was blatantly asking me “Are you out of your mind? What are you DOING??”. It was exciting and I could feel my mind opening up on every expedition, and it was just something you had to do to find the obscure or slightly weirder stuff. Or to find hip hop in shops that were essentially trying to hide it out of view. With no internet or any idea of internet you would have to pass a headphone to record store clerk and wait for a facial expression of recognition to find out the name of something (I did this a lot). Also from all the radio tapes I was accumulating (just taping stuff off the radio), if I was really into something I’d try and piece together clues in the lyrics as to who it was, what the name of the track was (If it wasn’t obvious) or any kind of nugget I could use to find it in a record store. It was all very hands on and physical. I think that’s my major observation, it feels kind of obvious to say it but it really is a tangible change. Now things feel very clean, and in some cases laboratorial. Things are done in numbers and algorithms and you really don’t even have to move a whole lot to immerse yourself in the culture. I’m not necessarily against the change though, and it’s hard not to come off as Old Man Buddy in saying how different it was “back in my day”, I just find it very interesting being caught on either side of it all, that pivotal change in how music and culture is consumed, and seeing how it is still being dealt with and experienced. I’m very glad I did have that time to put in the effort to find out all that stuff, and it definitely aided other aspects of my life (Even down to communicating in a record shop! I eventually went on to work in a few), but now I suppose that time can be used for actually making stuff rather than trawling so much. There are benefits to the trawling but there are also benefits to actually having time to do real life human things too. I won’t go into the whole download thing or how stuff is dying, I really hate all that. I’ve been working in a record shop and people have come up and started talking about how record shops are dying and the internet’s killed everything, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re standing in a functioning record shop surrounded by music lovers who are buying music. Crazy. A tangent, I know, but that’s why I won’t perpetuate all that music industry observation stuff. There are too many good, positive power moves being made out there to focus on the negative.
TPQ: You’ve worked with some of my personal favorite emcees: B. Dolan, Sole, Sage Francis, Buck 65. Who has been your personal favorite to work with, and why? Who was most inspiring?
Buddy Peace: No way! I couldn’t pick like that. That’s brutal! I’ll be perfectly honest, I genuinely feel very honoured and actually very lucky to have been and be able to work with all of these people. I’ve been listening to all of them for a very long time, and put a good few people onto them too who have more often than not become voracious listeners, so it can be kind of a trip being a fan at the same time as enjoying a working relationship, but I’m much more comfortable these days and know people I work with on a more personal and friendly level. It means a lot for me and to be frank, I work best in that situation. I know it doesn’t automatically happen that way and so I’m all the more appreciative, and everybody has different approaches and processes which I fully understand. I know my place in every project and I get so much from every one, and it’s always different, so I just look forward to seeing what we can do and how we can work together to make something raw. I spent enough time working alone to know what that’s like, and while I’m mostly all about that I do love getting the hell away from it all and working with another human being that ISN’T ME! I can safely say that Strange Famous as a whole has proven to be one of the most inspiring and supportive groups of great people I have had the fortune to be a part of, and I’m constantly grateful for my place at the table.
TPQ: Would you consider rap lyrics to be the new Poetry? Why or why not?
Buddy Peace: I think lyrics in music in general can be beautifully poetic. Maybe hip hop is more easily quantifiable as poetry because it can have a very measured and controlled form, but of course like poetry as well, it can stray outside of all form and still remain poetic. Some lyrics in general can be absolutely nothing, or maybe a word repeated, or even spoken word, so perhaps context plays a big part in deciding what’s what. With hip hop specifically though, in the same way it can make you a music expert from tracing the samples and references down to the source, you might become more in tune with lyricism and poetry from the emcee and want to discover references, look up a name, all of that stuff and it feels like that would inevitably lead you to a poetic source of some kind. Of course you could tie in the sample sources as well as the lyrical side and find groups like The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron, people like that which will open up even more for you… I don’t consider hip hop lyrics ‘the new poetry’ as such, but I’d probably class it as a newer kind of poetry under a larger poetic umbrella.
TPQ: As the media visibility of rappers continues to grow, how do you feel that has changed the approach to writing? Do rappers need to write more mainstream lyrics because they are in the spotlight, or are they still able to write conscious hip-hop, and gain notice?
Buddy Peace: I think it would probably only affect certain kinds of artists, probably the ones who are more into the idea of blowing up quicker or riding some kind of wave. If there’s a trend happening and a course that mainstream rap is taking, some artists will take that as a draft call to come out with something equalling that, where some will actively try and buck it or just steer clear of it. The more broad lyrics will appeal to broader audiences, but that’s not to say that a conscious tone can’t be baked into that. The mainstream arena is probably only really at the front of artists minds who are seeking that though, it’s not what everyone wants and not everyone’s styles or content is suited to that. There is a place for everyone and all styles, and some will generate broader material suited for broader palates, while others will create the material that fits with their process and their particular audience. You can probably write your way into mainstream channels but then you’d need that personality to sustain it in the end.
TPQ: How do you see the hip-hop culture evolving over the next decade?
Buddy Peace: With hip hop specifically, I think there will always be that back to basics approach which for me is just rapping over drums. Drum machine, live drums, sampler, lunch table, whatever. That will stay forever I think. But outside of that, I think hip hop will continue to mingle with other genres and blend into all kinds of other areas. Where one generation might be wary of stepping, the next will just go on in and get it done. So I think there will be more guest spots and collaborations, and probably a fair bit more splintering off at the same time. On the whole though, some huge things will happen very quickly, while some changes will be glacial, but I hope to see a more open minded and evolved hip hop take form. I have a lot of hope for that. There’s no room for intolerance in this music and no excuse for it. I remain positive…
TPQ: What is your process for beat making? And then how do you and a lyricist work to put your music to their lyrics – or vice versa?
Buddy Peace: It depends on what I’m working on and who for, or what for really. If it was for an album or a beat-tape, something like that, there might be a point where I have accumulated a lot of ideas and sketches and realise that I really should be doing something with all this… Then I’ll go in and shape it, massage it, get dirty a little bit and form it into something. I’ll also have bits and pieces I’ve stashed away that I want to look at later, and if they’re right for the project I’ll unlock those and introduce them to the others, see how they fit in. Troublemakers get escorted out, I won’t force it. I also love working to specific projects, that’s what makes me crazy excited. Stuff like that Muddy Waters / Howlin’ Wolf mix I did, I can’t get enough of that. Some ideas I have start rattling in my brain and I can’t work on anything else until they’re finished, I get proper tunnel vision on things like that.
If I’m working with an emcee, some have ideas and specific themes for certain tracks, so I may be adapting some beats to suit a demo recording, or working with lyrics first (Looking for sounds that I can program into a suitable beat for those), or I might have a batch of sketches with an emcee in mind that I’ve been holding onto. On the Prolyphic album (‘Working Man’), we would do a bit of both, so I’d send him some beats, or he’d send over a rough vocal over a loop and I’d make something specific to that. We’d hammer out the arrangement over time with some email pingpong and keep it moving like that. I know that I can always go back to my own personal beatmaking so I won’t ever crowbar in my own style at the sake of an emcee- if someone wants a track to have a certain style or with a certain reference in it, I’m always open to it as I have my own platforms to interfere with things as much I want. Say with the House Of Bees mixes with B. Dolan, some beats I had already which we would sort out later, but a lot of them were done with a very clear outline and path laid out by B from the start. It was very cool because we’d often meet in the middle without even realising sometimes, or be working on stuff remotely that was on similar paths (He’d have lyrics written which tied in perfectly with a beat I’d been making, that sort of thing). Occasionally though I will pass on a track I’ve been working on that I think, hmm, Sage would murder this, or B would destroy this one, and see what happens.
TPQ: We’re The Poetry Question, so I have to ask: What is Poetry?
Buddy Peace: I wish I had a more eloquent way of putting it but for me, it’s something you don’t have to understand the mechanics of for it to have a powerful effect. You may appreciate what’s happening more if you understand what’s going on, but I feel that if you let it wash over you and see where it takes you, poetry can change more than it could ever know. I wish I knew more about it and had that understanding, but I’ve felt some of the greatness it can offer and I’m excited about finding more.
TPQ: And finally, if you could drink a glass of scotch with any emcee, DJ, author, or artist, dead or alive, who would it be, and why?
Buddy Peace: I’d save the scotch for afterwards, but Jason Molina. He died this year which knocked me sideways as I really fell for his music from the first listen, and it was so sad to realise that it was the end of the beautiful music he had been making all of these years. His music, whether solo or with his bands, has brought me (And so many people) so much and I think taking a stroll out in the wilderness with him would be perfect. Just talking. I’d like that.