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Few rappers give better interviews than Black Moon/Boot Camp Clik alum Buckshot. Naturally, the pioneering underground MC sometimes refers to himself in the third person, makes bogus political predictions ("We are going to have a female president [this year]. That's just something that my energy tells me.") and takes full credit for the term backpacker rap: "I started it in hip-hop. There was no Talib Kweli, there was no Mos Def, there was no Common. Everybody around my area wore backpacks, ski goggles, ski stuff. It was a fashion thing. So when I first got a record deal, Chuck Chillout only knew me by the name 'Backpack' 'cause he didn't know our names."
But he's also a well of trivia, spouting tidbits such as this one about Chappelle's Show star Charlie Murphy, who also stars in his new video, "Go All Out." "Charlie has been in this hip-hop shit for a long time," Buckshot explains. "He was a rapper in a group called the K-9 Posse, and he was the gangster nigga with the curls in the first Snoop Dogg video, 'Murder Was the Case.' "
Beyond all that, Buckshot, born Kenyatta Blake, has had a tremendous hip-hop career. He's been a staple in the underground rap scene since his initial group, Black Moon, burst onto the national sphere when its single "Who Got da Props?" dropped in 1992. The name may have been fashioned on a horrible acronym (Brothers who Lyrically Act and Combine Kickin Music Out On Nations — WTF?), but its jazzy, verbose first album, Enta da Stage, became a golden-era classic. Seeing as it came out a few weeks before Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the scruffy work is considered by some to be the template for true backpack hip-hop.
The crew briefly disbanded after the album, and Buckshot joined the Boot Camp Clik, a supergroup of sorts, alongside members of Smif-n-Wessun, O.G.C., and Heltah Skeltah. That group's debut, For the People, did not live up to critical expectations, but its 2002 follow-up, The Chosen Few, contains more than its share of first-rate sing-a-longs and grimy anthems.
In recent years, Buckshot has largely focused on his solo album, slowing and refining his style and moving to combine his consciousness and his gangsta subject matter. That, he explains, is the essence of The Formula, his second collaboration with superproducer 9th Wonder.
"The formula is basically me giving you an understanding of how to formulate the shit that I've dealt with," the diminutive MC explains in typically convoluted fashion. "Whether it's worldwide hip-hop, street, backpackers, underground, whites, blacks, Chinese, Germans, Jamaicans, Italians, females, males, everyone that fucks with Buckshot — I learned how to combine them all in the sense of just being natural to the music."
It's not always exactly clear what he's talking about, but what's important is that Buckshot is back. Though his influence seemed to wane earlier in the decade, the record label he cofounded, Duck Down Records, reemerged in 2005 with a new distribution deal and recently released hipster rappers Kidz in the Hall's new album, The In Crowd. Its single, "Drivin' Down the Block," has been getting spins on TRL, which should equate to at least temporary success for the imprint. Meanwhile, The Formula — also released on Duck Down — is an early favorite for album of the year. Featuring 9th Wonder at the tippy-top of his beat-making game, highlights include the Talib Kweli-assisted "Hold It Down," the slow (weed) burner "Here We Go," and the seamless ode to self-reinvention, "Brand New Day."
The album was crafted on the campus of North Carolina Central University, where 9th teaches a class in hip-hop history. Buck got the chance to sit in. "He was educating them on my era, the '90s," he remembers. "Some call it the golden era. MCs had to have their own flow, and everybody had to be an individual. If you sounded like anybody else, you was going to get fired, as opposed to today, where if you sound like anybody else, you get hired." (He adds that rappers like Play from Kid 'n Play and Lords of the Underground also drop by the class occasionally. One hopes these pupils realize how spoiled they are.)
During the week Buck spent there, he and 9th worked closely in the latter's studio, which was built for him by the school. "As 9th was doing a song, he would play me a beat, and it would be dope," Buck says of his collaborator, a former member of Little Brother who has also worked with Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige. "And then he would go teach class, and when he got back from class, I would have the song done, and that was when we would start recording. It felt very natural. He's a really, really, really, really good producer. As an artist, I felt privileged and was happy to work with him."
He rightly believes the album succeeds on its originality. "What defines the times is the individuals who have their own styles for that time. They usually outlast other people because they keep creating new eras." He posits that members of this trailblazing pantheon include Snoop, Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, and, of course, Buckshot. Call him cocky, but if he keeps releasing albums as cohesive and uplifting as The Formula, it will be hard to argue.