A few years ago I was employed as a bookseller in Toronto, working my least favourite day around this time of year, Inventory Day. We had to scan every book in the store with a red electronic pen. It made a beep whenever a book was scanned into the system, that I’d hear in my head for the next few days. We needed outside help to do the job. One of the people sitting on the dusty carpet with me, scanning the bottom shelves, was a soft-spoken guy who I’d known only as someone who occasionally popped by to deliver saliva-inducing, greasy sandwich bags to his girlfriend, my co-worker. He congratulated me on the publication of my first book at some point. We talked a little about feelings that arose with that first publication. Little did I know he was finishing up his own first book, a hip hop record called The Book, which would become one of my favourite albums. Little did I know this soft-spoken guy would go on to produce two more albums in a single year: Let the Children Die and Jonestown, get nominated for a Juno, long-listed for the Polaris Prize, win the Echo Songwriting prize over Can-rock mainstay Joel Plaskett, blow up the college radio charts and the 2009 blogosphere best-of lists, and personally give my own day-to-day back the beats it had been missing since I’d turned my musical life over to the sad-sack strumming of the Bonnie “Prince” Billies and Bill Calahans of the world (whose music I still love).
The Book was a nice gateway drug back into those beats. It is an intensely personal album, documenting the sudden death of the artist’s parents, his subsequent depression and artistic stalemate. D-Sisive, it turns out, was a pretty precocious teenage wordsmith in Toronto’s early rap-battle days. He was also, by his own reports, a cocky know-it-all; and while one would never wish tragic circumstances on anyone, we can be grateful when artistic maturation and focus emerge, even from such dark years. “Kneecaps” is as heartbreaking as any song I know: “They said he never was the same since Mom left./ The pain turned him into an alcoholic./ He drank ‘cuz he missed her./ Before I knew it he was with her./ Shit…” Tough stuff. But it’s also set against the backdrop of that head-nodding, feet-tapping beat. It doesn’t redeem the tragedy so much as keep the heart ticking, keep things moving forward: “I play drums on my kneecaps/ and freestyle till my feet taps./ ODB on TV I wanna be that./ Mind blown like ‘Man, did you just see that?’/ And I did.”
These days D-Sisive is back knocking out party jams and stuffing his songs full of pop culture skewing wordplay. On his latest full-length, Jonestown, what he’s able to do is open an upbeat track like “West Coast” by humourously referencing a Jim Carrey film character: “I stuffed my clothes in a Samsonite./ Lloyd Christmas underneath the Aspen Sky,” while at the same time sucking all of the dumb out of Dumb and Dumber. The album’s production is incredible. It still offers up some lower-key, diary-inspired moves like “1974,” but the range is wider. It feels like an artist coming into his own. Track after track he kills the mike, each in a different way than the last. You can have it for free.
Nick Thran is the author of one poetry collection, Every Inadequate Name (Insomniac Press, 2006). A second collection, Earworm, will appear in 2011 with Nightwood Editions. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.