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Elevator 9: Oxmo Puccino

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Oxmo Puccino is a well-known rapper in France, but as we don’t listen to much French rap here in the UK, despite being neighbours, most of us haven’t heard of him. When did you come across him?

Oxmo aka Abdoulaye Diarra was born in Mali but grew up in the 19th district of Paris. Though he was surrounded by the burgeoning hip-hop culture of the late 80’s he himself first took up the pen and the pad in the mid-nineties as a part of the Timebomb crew. He explains: “I was surrounded by artistically visionary people like the graffiti artist Slice. The 19th district is somewhere a little special. We felt we were neither Paris nor suburbs. And I think that geography gave birth to a particular state of mind…where innovation was prized.”

Years ago Oxmo was given the audacious nickname ‘the black Jacques Brel’. Was it for his songwriting abilities, his poetry, his suave delivery? I don’t know yet. I’m sure one of you will tell me.

I spent some time listening to Oxmo’s back catalogue and there’s a lot of material, but it’s his recent work, which I’m most impressed with.

Here’s Oxmo’s ‘Artiste’ from his 2012 album ‘Roi Sans Carosse’ to help get you on his wavelength. Of course if you speak French you’ve a vast advantage, but I’ve enjoyed reading the translations of Oxmo’s work and this video oozes the confidence of a rap veteran and his cracking sense of humour.

Also from his new album: ‘Le Sucre Pimenté’ or ‘Spiced Sugar’

Here’s the satisfying ‘Equilibre’ a feel-good collaboration with Hocus Pocus about the struggle to find balance in life. Play it LOUD.

Oxmo’s manner and vocal tone give him this strong calming presence both sincere and melancholy. These qualities are reminiscent of MC Solaar’s delivery, for example on the superb ‘La concubine de l’hémoglobine’. Going back a few years we have the beautiful ‘Soleil du Nord’ or ‘Sun from the North’, which describes ‘cigarette-less men stuck in horrible jeans between their future and their origins’. Oxmo contemplates whether poverty might be less painful under a warmer sun.

Oxmo’s vocals are clearly compatible with more melodic hip-hop compositions, his sincerity and gravitas grounding the orchestral flourishes and flights of fancy. And the videos as you can see, unfurl in an often unhurried cinematic fashion. His style [both aurally and visually] allows for breathing space, thinking space maybe even grieving space. His music works in a way I haven’t quite witnessed in English language rap yet.

And don’t worry, there will be more French elevators to come. Vive La France!

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Elevator 5: Buck 65

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I could write a lot about Richard Terfry aka Buck 65 and what makes him an elevator of rap. He is one of the most imaginative rap lyricists I’ve ever met.

Honestly I could go on for ages about this songwriter/rapper/dj/producer/yarnspinner from Mount Uniake, Nova Scotia, but in an attempt to keep it brief, I’ll list seven of Buck’s contributions to the art of rap.

 

1. The Wildlife EP

This fantastical story spread over three songs changed the way I thought about rap. His tone and delivery was pitch-perfect [like he’s telling it as you both huddle over a tiny wood stove in a refugee camp]. Wildlife destroyed my perceived boundaries of narrative rap thus opening me up to be far more adventurous in my writing and recordings. I don’t think I’d be making this film without Buck 65’s Wildlife. Here’s all three songs:

 

2. The Live Experience and Live Ethics

I’ve seen Buck 65 perform on 9 occasions. The first time was in April 2001 in Chicago. He was opening up for Sage Francis, Slug and the Living Legends with a set that was sonically diverse and unabashedly silly. As he rapped his recently penned song ‘Food’ he exuded a sense of joy. He rapped and beat-juggled simultaneously. He performed The Centaur, which managed to be spine chilling then absurd then genuinely melancholic.

[A quick footnote: Reviewer Aaron Newell points out The Centaur is “probably one of the most coherent, semiotically-layered artistic statements I’d ever encountered in music…It illustrates through first-hand-listener-experience how easily context and preconception can lead to misunderstanding. And it does so on purpose, not so much self-defeating as mirroring the cynical listener.” The fact that the Centaur’s main sample comes from the ‘Carrie’ soundtrack is no coincidence.]

Afterwards I introduced myself to Buck and we talked about the use of bread in live shows. Yes, bread.

Buck 65 injects his gigs with a vulnerability, which is rare for performers, especially rappers. Before a performance in Leicester he explained to the audience how he was struggling to deal with a deeply hurtful situation and that it might affect his energy level onstage. He proceeded to deliver a flawless performance, full of sensitivity, latent anger and self-deprecating humour.

He’s content with quiet spectators. He doesn’t want the audience to throw their hands up. He claims he has to put in the work to deserve audience participation.

And yet he’s audacious enough to genuinely hope that both he and his audience can have their lives changed during the course of a performance.

 

3. The Story Magnet, The Stand-up and the Yarnspinner

I asked him once to tell me and my wife Danielle a bedtime story when he stayed over a few years back. He proceeded to beguile us for the next 30 minutes with an incredible and very funny story of a post-gig evening gone horribly wrong. It was as effortless as any stand-up routine you’d pay good money for. Danielle and me sat there snuggled up on our sofa mesmerized. ‘Did that really happen?’ He smiled, assured us that it did and went off to bed.

Buck 65 is a weird story magnet.

How about Riverbed pt.1-5?

But there’s a soaring imagination too: Secret Splendor and another one of my old favorites Hats On Beds

All the songs on his Situation album are set in 1957!

 

4. His deep-rooted morality and his ability to intertwine hope and melancholy

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The wonder of ‘Craftsmanship’

A solid live performance of ‘Bandits’

The fury of ‘Pants on Fire’

 

5. The nuanced, awkwardly intimate but thoroughly sexy Drawing Curtains

There’s not too many rap songs which are awkwardly intimate but thoroughly sexy. Play this one loud and the music will make your skin tingle!

 

6. Deeply affectionate songs about his parents

The exquisite song ‘Ice’ about his mum

The father-son dynamic of ‘Roses & Bluejays’

 

7. The Dirtbike Series

Buck calls this his woodshed demo project, but it’s way more than that. It’s a 3 hour scrapbook of compelling imagery, cracking rap and an encyclopedia of beats.

You can download here for the price of typing in your email address!

He is a troubadour, overflowing with big ideas and driven by the vision to write the perfect song – a song which sticks to you, stays with you, shapes your life. I love his open-heartedness, his wit and his friendliness. He’s a deeply soulful person.

 

Here’s his site

And finally Buck reflects on his 20 odd years as a rapper: