RR: I’m familiar with three projects of yours from this time period; The Sentinelz, this project, and a rather obscure tape that I’ve heard mentioned called T.I.T.S. Was that the extent of your output in the 90s?
Jesse Dangerously: Yes and no! “Timing Is The Secret” wasn’t actually a tape, it was a pre-MP3, pre-internet digital release in the Impulse Tracker music module format. A zip file of five or six instrumentals made with very short, lo-fi samples, programmed in the style of early Amiga video game music. Somewhere between MIDI and phrase sampling. That was how I started producing music, around age 13, pushing the limits of my extremely remedial grasp of music theory and software that was not quite meant to make the type of music I wanted to make, but technically COULD. I had a few releases like that, there was a small local scene based around sharing them. It was all kids in our local tracking scene, in junior high and high school. That’s where I met Troy (ginzu), on Halifax/Dartmouth BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems), how files and online forums were shared regionally and internationally before everyone had home internet. We’re about the same age, but went to very different schools and had very different immediate social circles. But because we were both making this type of computer music, we got to know one another a bit, and it became clear we both LOVED hip-hop. I think I was more intent on making it, and once I found out he kind of wrote rhymes a bit I pushed him SO HARD to rap with me, which he was reluctant to do. But the more I introduced him to the local hip-hop scene, I think the more accessible and real it felt, like it wouldn’t be so alien for him to do it. It wasn’t all just happening a world away.
So he and I were working on music together before I made the songs that appear on BREAK, and before we made the Sentinels tape, and before everything else. We were a package deal. We did radio shows together, we met Knowself together, Troy would rap and even do vinyl cuts for the jazz band I played drums in. We recorded a song with DJ Moves together (that ultimately, in retrospect, quite rightly didn’t make the cut for the compilation he was working on), I made some beats for Josh Martinez and he made beats for Knowself, that was all in the waning days of the 1990s.
RR: You were going by Jesse PHATS Dangerously on this tape. Basically making “PHATS” the focus on the cover. Was this a name you were identifying with? Was there other material that took the same alias?
Jesse Dangerously: Yeah, my nom-de-BBS from 1992 was “Phatboy,” which came from the most hip-hop themed piece of clothing I was able to find in Halifax back then – a Boy London t-shirt that said “PHATBOY” in bold black letters. Just the fact that it was PHAT with a P.H. had me so excited. It barely fit me, I’m pretty sure it came from a store in the mall I’d never been in before and never would be again. But I wore it all the time in grade 8 and 9, with my giant baggy jeans from Stitches that were the closest thing to what I saw them wearing in rap videos back then, and my boldly patterned boxers pulled WAY up to my fuckin chin, and my hat on tilt just like it always is today, and my long-ass braids, and kids who had bullied me by calling me “hey FAT KID” for years were now calling me “PHATBOY” and it was borderline reclaiming, even though it never really got completely comfortable. I carried that name very deliberately from 92 til 96 or 97, when the BBS scene started to kind of dissipate. I didn’t love having a name that was always refocusing people on one of the attributes that made me the most vulnerable, plus I remember starting to feel less lonely when the kids I met online switched from calling me “Phats” even at in-person meetups to calling me “Jesse,” so I wanted to put that name in my rap name. I liked that it was a little different, I liked that people were a bit perplexed that it seemed to them like a girl’s name (although I didn’t like them being shits about it). So I very impulsively plunked it into the title of a pretty good, but not amazing, Michael Keaton comedy from 1983 that had one of my favourite Weird Al songs on the soundtrack (“This Is The Life,” which briefly interpolates Buffalo Gals by The World Famous Supreme Team!), and since I had been using both names during the time I was working on the songs on the record, I used them both on the cover, as a sort of attempt to segue from one name to another, as though I had a public to hang onto haha.
RR: Who was GrymmFett? He appeared on the track Radioactive MC’s, yet I’ve never come across the name before.
Jesse Dangerously: That’s Troy! His BBS name was Boba Fett, then I think he added “Grymm” spelled like that more in a nod to Too Poetic (the Grym Reapa) from Gravediggaz than like, The Thing or Brothers Grimm or anything. Then all the ginzu stuff came in around Sentinels, which he explained in that interview, and he’s been playing around with that ever since.
Radioactive MCs was the first time I ever managed to drag him over to my place and cajoled him to rap in my parents’ garage, into the 4-track they bought me for my 16th birthday. We made dozens of songs together on that thing. I am so proud of us but I now think he’s right that they were terrible!
RR: The tape itself is split into two sides, the first being “Beats & Emotions” and the second being “Rhymes & Knowledge” do you remember the intent of this decision?
Jesse Dangerously: I mean, part of it is the first evidence of my compulsion to overthink everything I set out to create, and give it rules so it will have boundaries so it can be a box I understand how to fill instead of just leaking all over the ground? I don’t know if the titular acronym “Beats, Rhymes, Emotions, And Knowledge (BREAK)” came before my decision to pair up those concepts for the side titles, but that tape represented me getting to a place in my Impulse Tracker production where I’d developed (with Troy, and my even BESTER friend J Peters who is now a Vancouver trance DJ named Sunkid) techniques for sneaking in samples that were as long as one or two loopable bars, or chopped up hits I could reprogram, and even though I was sampling jazz from the radio and jacking breaks from hip-hop records and compilations as often as I was digging up anything good from my parents’ collection or the legendary Taz Records, so I had as many fully instrumental pieces that were very influenced by DJ Shadow, RZA, Portishead, and the great underground DJ crews like Skratch Piklz and Beat Junkies even if I couldn’t do what they did, as I did songs with vocals. So it was easier to conceive of a full-length album that was divided between the two.
RR: This was recorded from 1996 to the summer of 97’. Why wait the 2 years to release it?
Jesse Dangerously: I can think of two very influential factors in that delay. One is that I was literally a child – I had no income besides my paper route, and I was spending all that money on records, renting Super NES games, and used rap cassettes. But the other is more related to the reason I didn’t release a full length album between 2011 and this year – I have (then undiagnosed & untreated) ADHD, and I have a lot of trouble concentrating on long term goals. It just kept slipping out of my grasp. I joined a band in 97 and I was really excited about that, I got in my first romantic relationships, Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time came out and I had to not only beat them myself but cheer on my mom as she powered through them… writing and recording the songs was super absorbing, and I couldn’t put them down while that was in progress. But once they were done, I didn’t know quite what to do with them. I looked to local indie bands and mentors like Buck 65 and Sixtoo for examples – rent a DAT machine from MusicStop, practice mixing the 4-track tape on the fly until it’s perfect, and then bounce it live to the DAT. Take the DAT to Put It On CD in Dartmouth, so the MacMichael family can duplicate it on cassette. All of those steps came slowly, and while I was learning about them, I was also working on both the Resurrection Brothers and Sentinels records with Troy, which felt more like my main thing.
So I didn’t exactly wait two years, I just feel like it took me two years.
RR: I understand with The Sentinelz the decision would not be entirely in your hands to re-release it, even digitally, however I’m sure this release would be. Why not upload this to a format like Bandcamp for the world to hear? Are tracks like Faggot Flambe (No offense!) really that bad? Haha.
Jesse Dangerously: Yeah this is 100% my baby, and it’s going to make its way back in some form. I’d like to re-bounce the 4-track tapes, which I still have, and get a better mix from one of the talented engineers I know now – of which I knew NONE back then!! – and put it up for my patreon subscribers at least. Maybe a very very limited edition tape. I don’t really want to spread it, because it’s so basic and I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I like the idea of people who already care about what I do tracing it back to its earliest versions, seeing my development laid bare, as shaky as it may have been in places. There’s also stuff I was really proud of!
I will say this about “Faggot Flambe” – that’s me. The hook in that messy song includes the line “phatboy, yeah, he talks like faggot” and it was because I got called that ALL the time. I got called that and jumped, I got called that and ridiculed, I got called that and laughed at. And the line came right after a moment I remember now that happened literally on the Halifax Memorial Library steps, same place I would freestyle later (and get called that again in my twenties, haha), when I was walking in the bright sun downtown maybe to dig at the record store or try to see new graffiti, and I overheard someone point me out to whoever they were with, and I knew it was me, because the phrase that lodged in my ear was “yeah right there, the faggot in the braids and glasses.”
So I didn’t have a strong sense of my sexuality then (see: all my songs in the last 5 years, haha) but it was a word I hated, and refused to use against anyone, so I do remember just being like YOU KNOW WHAT, FINE. THAT’S WHO I AM. So I sampled the line that always bothered me in one of my FAVOURITE songs in this days, in Come Clean by Jeru the Damaja when he says “I snatch fake gangster MCs and make them faggot flambe” and I made it a calling card.
The original beat had a loop from my sister’s No Doubt CD, because I liked the phasing guitar on I’m Just A Girl and thought it was transgressive to sample current pop, but I think that version also was made with drums I jacked from the Cut Chemist remix of DJ Shadow’s The Number Song, and by the time the tape was close to being ready I was embarrassed by that and made a new beat from a Santana organ sample, one bass note, and a weirdly chopped drum fill off a rock record.
RR: Do you have any stories regarding the recording of the release?
Jesse Dangerously: Almost all of it was made while skipping school. I was depressed and frustrated and lonely and reclusive in high school, I couldn’t understand why I was supposed to be so smart but couldn’t do anything I set my mind to, so I avoided going to the place that made me feel bad constantly by working on music until it was time to go, then making myself late, then having a mild panic attack about the humiliation of being late for no reason again, and straight up locked myself in a room like Bastian in The Never Ending Story to escape into my fantasy world of records, chopping loops, and making words rhyme to the rhythm of the boogie the beat. That displacement of my #1 stress fueled all of the focus that allowed me to make enough material to consider it an album worthy of release.
Almost every time I finished a song, I would dub it down to a cassette and walk around with it in my walkman – walk to school, walk past school, do my paper route (late), head downtown, rewinding and replaying my one song over and over. Those were the days when Buck 65 had his Monday afternoon post-basement open format show on CKDU, and I would head down there to see if he would play the song for me (he was very encouraging), or I would take the tape to Strange Adventures comic shop to see if Sean Jordan (the Wordburglar) was working, and hope he would have a minute to chat and listen to my song behind the counter.
I just wanted to connect with people so bad! I was having a pretty rough time with my mental and emotional health, and I was looking for ways to feel better about myself. And getting better at the thing that I thought was the coolest thing in the world, and seeking feedback from people that it maybe was pretty ok, was my ticket through. And that’s what made BREAK happen.