Photo by Shane Ward
BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, Canadian producer/MC Sixtoo (Vaughn Robert Squire) used to be an angry young man, and he used his anger well. A big fish in the Halifax scene, Sixtoo single-mindedly defined himself by his dark sci-fi tracks, his merciless hi-IQ battle rhymes and the indie-hip-hop borders he patrolled. Founding member of the legendary Sebutones alongside Buck 65, sometime partner to Sage Francis and DJ Signify, and deliberate exile from the grad-skool verbalist universe that is Anticon, Sixtoo was — and remains — a star to the multinational legion of rabid underground-rap fans who make dissertation mountains of commercial molehills.
But artists content with staying contained, even in playpens of their own device, tend to meet dead ends. And if the freedom to grow old as yourself, not as some caricature drawn up in your happy-go-lucky 20s, lies elsewhere — well, you’ve got to move.
On Sixtoo’s new Chewing on Glass & Other Miracle Cures, his first for the futuristic hip-hop-tronic Ninja Tune Records, the 30-year-old goes about prying open a new case for who he is. And deep inside its almost completely rap-free 56 minutes rests a pop rarity: a self-conscious redrawing of artistic territory that’s also a headbanging freedom ride through the unconscious.
Track 16, “Storm Clouds & Silver Linings,” is a nine-minute psych-rock drama about transition, bursting with drums and guitar drones and augmented (most improbably) with an improvisational telling of the tale by legendary Can yelper Damo Suzuki. Suzuki’s strained pipes spastically jump in and out of the mix, stirring up a fire from inside the belly, where logic has no place, giving voice to the producer’s musical jailbreak. Sixtoo outfits these primordial howls with echoes of Matt Kelly’s spare guitar and a frenetic rhythm that doubles as a rolling groove, making “Storm Clouds” sound like the best damn Tortoise track since “Gamera.” Halfway in, Damo and Sixtoo pause, reload and jump back in. Call it Chapter 2, an outlining of the title’s emotional poles. Rarely if ever have psychology and art-rock come together in such a grand post-hip-hop moment of gravitas — one that backpackers, chin-scratchers and the great unwashed can all admire together.
“Storm Clouds” is actually Sixtoo’s second attempt at epic makeover, but the three-part, 19-minute fantasia “Mile-End Artbike/Suicide Manual,” which he recorded for 2003’s U.K.-only Antagonist Survival Kit, was too much Shadow, no light. Even though its scope hinted at a break with the past, the sampler-built track bogged down in self-defeatism, its only vocal repeating the phrase “dead on arrival.” This was an odd emphasis for the hero of a style that once offered itself as a living alternative to mainstream hip-hop’s nihilism. But such a need to escape the art-rap massive’s aesthetic constraints — echoed in recent records by Anticonners Dosh and Alias, and the live shows by Scott Herren (in both his Prefuse 73 and Savath + Savalas guises) — says much about the backlash to the movement’s purist nature.
Sixtoo’s own break coincided with his move to the cultural hothouse of Montreal in 2001. He put down the microphone, took up drums and electric keyboard, began looking to non-hip-hop musicians such as micro-house producer Akufen, and got into jams with members of the doom-laden post-rockers of Godspeed You Black Emperor. And the lifelong beathead stopped sampling records and began dicing genres, with krautrock and late-’60s psych-jazz his initial targets.
Though Chewing on Glass reflects this evolution, mixing sampler-driven sounds and live instruments in a spare, drone-centric environment informed by programming and chopping, it’s hardly a typical instrumental hip-hop record. The groove’s still there, but it’s gone left-field. In fact, if there’s one sound that typifies the album’s many vignettes (nine tracks run at under 2:30), it is Sixtoo’s Rhodes piano, modulating with the moods. In this, its unlikely precedent is the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, where, with keyboard repairman Money Mark’s help, the trio picked up their punk-fuzz roots again, started fucking around with analog-heavy instrumentals and began leaving their angry young egos behind. Sixtoo hasn’t done that yet, but he’s getting there.
SIXTOO | Chewing on Glass & Other Miracle Cures (Ninja Tune)