Halifax, Nova Scotia, is not commonly associated with urban music culture; in a city better known for hosting the earliest hockey game with rules back in 1850, it's hard to imagine the denizens re-writing the hip-hop rulebook. Yet somehow, it happened. Vaughn Robert Squire, a.k.a. Sixtoo, was one of the founders of Nova Scotia's new music community. Somber, edgy hip-hop productions propelled his early career, rocketing him across North America.
Rap music was his launch pad, but Sixtoo is no longer fueled by rhymes and beats alone. Now in his early thirties, he's entered a much wider playing field. His largely instrumental music still sounds urban, but instead of rap, Sixtoo utilizes film noir moods and terse polyrhythms to underscore his worldview.
Currently a Montreal resident, Sixtoo's work reflects a deep understanding of texture and space that puts his albums on an entirely different level than those of his contemporaries. His tunes might not make you want to dance, but they're rooted enough to the rhythms of hip-hop that your head will still nod.
Still, his most recent release, Chewing on Glass and Other Miracle Cures, is more Miles Davis than 50-Cent. With a huge nod to '70s "krautrock" pioneers Can, his music weaves experimental avant-garde into propulsive, street-smart frameworks. Jazzy drum breaks and hazy electric piano lead the listener through labyrinths of sound, where alleyway grime meets the sheen of polished chrome. It's a jazzy, psych-rock record created by a hip-hop producer. His show at Club Metronome this Thursday promises an evening of musical crossbreeding, featuring live instrumentation alongside Sixtoo's trusty sampler.
Skateboarding and punk rock were Sixtoo's first obsessions, but when he fell in with Nova Scotian hip-hoppers DJ Moves and Buck 65, his musical path began to emerge. "These guys taught me about beats, looking for records and sampling," he says in a phone interview from the road. Moving to Nova Scotia from Toronto at age 16 was a culture shock at first, but Sixtoo soon found his bearings. He believes Halifax's relative isolation contributed to his unique take on hip-hop. "It was definitely a renegade scene up there," he recalls of his mid-'90s stomping ground.
Starting out, Sixtoo found the "few decent record shops" in Halifax provided ample wares during his rabid hunts for "dope wax." But that changed as more kids caught on to spinning and sampling -- soon everyone wanted a piece. What was once fresh became stale, and claustrophobia drove Nova Scotia's hip-hop talent west to California. In 1999, Sixtoo joined the exodus. Canada's transplanted MCs and beat-makers became the cornerstones of Anticon Records, a San Francisco collective that still defines neo-hop in the eyes of many fans.
But the good times and community vibe didn't last; in eight months Sixtoo burned out on Cali. The Anticon collective centers around a handful of MCs -- almost exclusively white -- whose pointedly confessional rhymes are hardly gangsta. Allen Ginsburg and his Beat-poet pals provide a much better analogy. Rapid-fire, free-form lyrics are a staple of the style, as well as a do-it-yourself, anything-goes recording ethos. "When we started we were tired of doing the same shit," Sixtoo says of the crew's stream-of-consciousness rhymes and unconventional beats. "But anything that I wanted to contribute to that scene is done."
According to Sixtoo, the genre's increasing popularity stymied musical progress. "A lot of people that listen to that genre of music are closed-minded," he explains. Even with pretenses to revolution, the Anticon style has become yet another cultural identity badge sported by a new breed of cliquish suburban kids. The audience is fiercely loyal but resistant to change. "There's a lot of elitism and things that I don't agree with in the movement, and that's why I've chosen to disassociate myself from it," says Sixtoo. Dropping further away from the collective, his palette expanded while his music grew more personal. Once again it was time to move on.
Heading back to Halifax did little to calm his restlessness -- he found nearly the same musical landscape he'd left behind. Financial hard times and a growing sense of isolation kept Sixtoo from recording for half a year. Arts grants and a donation from a music biz philanthropist finally allowed him to complete Duration, released in 2000. Although he was still creating much of his music from vinyl samples, he began to experiment with manipulating sounds recorded with musician friends.
Filled with a sense of foreboding and paranoia, the album's radical new direction attracted the attention of revered Montreal electronic label Ninja Tune. Sixtoo has found renewed inspiration since moving there in 2002. "I feel that there's really exciting musical stuff going on up there right now," he says of his adopted metropolis. "There's a lot of exciting rock stuff going on, as well as movements in minimal techno and electronic."
The free-form exchange of ideas that he initially experienced in Halifax is even more prominent in Montreal. Home to ever-evolving post-rock collectives such as Godspeed! You Black Emperor, the city seems to foster musical collaboration. Since his samples are increasingly culled from live performances, Sixtoo now has plenty of fresh sounds to re-configure. Godspeed! Cellist Norsola Johnson and Canadian multi-instrumentalist Matt Kelly have provided grist for his mill. And the stimulation isn't just aural. "There's a really vibrant arts community and a strong independent film community here as well. There's a lot of visual arts stuff I find exciting," Sixtoo describes. "Montreal really has a European flavor."
Flavor abounds on his new disc as well: It's a reflective and sometimes harrowing travelogue through shifting urban soundscapes. Moody drum shuffles smash headlong into kaleidoscopic psychedelia, yet this modern collage doesn't sound hacked-up or digitally sterile. "I prefer analog recording first and foremost," Sixtoo explains. "I use computers only for editing, not for recording. I don't like the sound of them -- it's like putting gauze over your food or something. To me there is a difference, if you have a feel."
Collaborating with Can frontman Damo Suzuki on the new album brought Sixtoo face to face with his idol. "For me it starts and ends with Can," he says. What was it like in the presence of an avant-garde authority? "It was really humbling," Sixtoo admits, "just seeing how professional he was -- it's amazing." The Toronto session was completely improvised, with Suzuki doing multiple vocal takes until he felt he had gotten his musical point across. The legend then treated the young producer to frog legs.
Hip-hop is a potent form of protest music, with the role of raconteur generally going to the MC. With instrumental music, a producer's political motivations are harder to discern. That doesn't mean that the spirit isn't there -- just listen to any number of post-Holocaust classical composers.
Sixtoo believes his attitude can be felt in his music even without lyrics. "I think general moods and sentiments [in music] are always going to reflect the environment you live in," Sixtoo says. "People always say that my music's dark... But we're living in really, really fucked-up times, whether people acknowledge it or just keep driving around in their SUVs and talking on their cell phones."
Targeting an entertainment culture that provides only escapism while lining the pockets of the obscenely wealthy, Sixtoo continues: "Most of the music I see on TV or hear on radio, unfortunately, is not politically driven... There's a strong movement towards a popular ignorance."
A passion for progression has guided Sixtoo through many creative seasons in his 30-odd years, and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. Just don't expect him to churn out the same old sounds. "If I can turn some kids on to other things, that'd be fucking awesome," says Sixtoo. "But music for me is a very selfish thing -- first and foremost it's for myself."