“If you listen to enough rap, you kind of just of have to rap.” Jesse Dangerously sits across a glass table from me, a single cupcake untouched on his paper plate. He’s talking about his history, from his youth in Halifax when he first felt the tug of hip-hop to his current life in Ottawa.
He describes his early induction into rap as the discovery of a vibrant new world to explore. The sheer density of rap intrigued him, gave him something to pick apart. He became interested in the origins of samples, the backgrounds of various rappers, and the culture that bound it all together.
“There was a lot to nerd out about,” Dangerously says, “much in the way that one does about comic books or science fiction stories.”
It wasn’t long before he began to make his own. “It was really derivative at first,” he remembers. “I was just doing the practice of rapping and enjoying the feel of the rhythms.”
With the increasing power of computers in the mid-nineties came programs that made it possible to sample bits of records, opening up new possibilities for the aspiring rapper. He began to make beats out of everything he could find, sequencing pieces of his parents albums and tapes made of radio broadcasts. “Once I had beats, I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been writing raps, and I have beats, so I guess I make rap now?’”
So he did. Over the course of a decade and a half, Dangerously has released six albums, hosted Buck 65’s old radio show on CKDU, and was nominated for an East Coast Music Award, and these are only some of the stars under his name.
And his youthful love of rap has far from subsided. Recently back from his U.S. tour, Dangerously is poised to snatch the mic at the Avant Garde Bar this Friday. It’s been a while since the down-to-earth rapper played Ottawa, and he’s glad to be back. “I’m just excited to playing some material that I prepared for that tour in September but haven’t ever imposed on a Canadian audience,” he says.
But, while Dangerously is back, some parts of him haven’t survived the fall unscathed. “I’ve put my beard on hiatus for the month of November,” Dangerously tells me, “so I’m like 22% less bearlike right now.”
Beard or no, Jesse Dangerously’s sound is unique and infectious. His most recent album, 2011’s Humble and Brilliant is full of evidence of his wit, featuring brilliant lyrics that are at times spit so fast as to be almost indiscernible.
Luckily, each sale of Humble and Brilliant comes with a chapbook, a bit of an oddity in the hip hop world, which painstakingly reproduces the lyrics in prose form. The result is a stand-alone book, worthy to be read without the accompaniment of Dangerously’s banging drums and samples.
“I try to make my work a real bricolage of all the stuff that I absorb from the world,” says Dangerously. And this pairing of publishing with audio is part of that. “I’ve always wanted to do a book. I’ve wanted to do zines and small-press stuff because I’ve been writing my whole life, but I haven’t known what to populate the book with.”
It’s clear that Dangerously went to great lengths to make his chapbook as booklike as it could be. It’s complete with a preface from Buck 65 and illustrations from Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim) and Hope Larson. It even sports an index that serves as a source of commentary on the book and on Dangerously himself, featuring a list of “vices I don’t have” and a single reference to “Timbuktu.”
Dangerously plans to continue this love affair with print media with his zine/single/remix series, Charisma Prisms. The first of which, titled “Slept Through a Landslide,” features a remix of Krista Muir’s “Tired Angels” as well as plenty of textual artistry. “I got friends of mine to contribute short fiction, comics, personal essays, poems, visual art, different things that I could produce in a zine format that expand on the themes that are in the song.” Dangerously continues that he plans on releasing these offerings on a monthly basis.
As a youth, Jesse Dangerously was fascinated by the mythologies surrounding the larger-than-life rappers he saw idolized in the popular culture, but when I ask him about his own mythology, he humbly shrugs off any notion that he would have that kind of notoriety. Still, he knows he has a reputation: “The mythology that gets attached to me is that I’m a fairly uptight feminist, angry about oppression. And I am. I think I’ve done my part to cultivate that by getting mad when people are homophobic.”
His image is a direct result of himself—no hackneyed attempt to sell himself, but an extension of his own interests. “I want to make hip hop that’s not unsafe for traditionally alienated groups, that’s not aggressive towards women or queers. But it is aggressive to people who are aggressive to those groups.”
Jesse Dangerously plays Avant Garde Bar this Friday, November 23 at 9pm. Also on the bill are Lost Profits and Nolely Nole. Tickets are $5 at the door.