[Interview] Uncle Fester talks “Re:Fresh,” digging for records, and Backburner

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Even if you haven’t heard the name Uncle Fester before, chances are you’ve probably heard one of his records. As one half of The Extremities (along with Fresh Kils), he’s been responsible for some of the most impressive hip-hop coming out of Canada in the past five years – take a listen to The Mint Condition and see for yourself. In addition to his work with Kils, Uncle Fester has been putting in a ton of work with fellow Nova Scotian Ambition, as well as with his extensive Backburner crew. Most recently, he’s back behind the boards alongside Fresh Kils for The Extremities’ latest release, Re:Fresh, an 11-track album featuring official remixes of songs from the likes of Skyzoo, Rich Kidd, D-Sisive, and a whole bunch of other emcees. The Come Up Show caught up with Uncle Fester to discuss Re:Fresh, digging for records, Backburner, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: How did you first get into hip-hop?

Uncle Fester: Ohh man, I guess in the very beginning, it was the Rap Traxx tapes – [this was] like in ’88. I think it was Rap Traxx 2; my parents got it for me. Since then, it’s just always been what I’ve loved. I got into it heavy in the early nineties through video shows – through like Rap City, and out here in Halifax, we used to get BET for free up from the Boston area – so I used to get tons of rap content on my TV. In the early nineties, I used to watch like three hours of rap videos a day. I used to get stuff that they wouldn’t get on MuchMusic, or Rap City either. I was into it pretty deep.

TCUS: What was the first hip-hop album you ever bought?

Uncle Fester: Man, I don’t even know what the first one would have been that I bought. I can’t even remember, because I used to go and buy cassettes and CDs all the time. There [are] a couple early ones that stand out. I remember getting Paul’s Boutique from my parents, and I remember that being a big record. I also remember buying Return to the 36 Chambers – that and Nas, around the same time – [I remember] buying those records. Me and my boys used to buy tons of records, like, anything. We used to buy, like, Ant Banks from The Dangerous Crew in the San Francisco Bay Area, and then all the East Coast boom bap stuff; we were just buying everything that we could – literally.

TCUS: Aside from hip-hop, I understand you’re a basketball guy. What’s your team?

Uncle Fester: I gotta go with the Raptors, always, because they’re team Canada right now. Also, I’m in T.O. all the time. Of course, Kils – my partner in The Extremities – is there, a lot of my crew from Droppin’ Science and Backburner are there, and a lot of my friends live in Toronto. I’m in Toronto quite a bit during the year, so I get to see Raptors games live. The Raps are definitely my team, but beyond that, OKC. I’ve been a big fan of Seattle for a long time, so I kinda went with them to OKC. I’ve been loving what they’ve been doing the last couple years.

TCUS: This might have been two or three years ago, but I remember you and Kils coming to perform at Maxwell’s Music House in Waterloo, and you had a Bill Walton figurine right next to the turntables. What’s the story behind Bill Walton?

Uncle Fester: [Laughs, quotes Bill Walton:] “Unbelievable!” Man, I love Bill Walton. He’s kinda like a figure from the early days of The Extremities, [when Kils and I were] linking up and doing music together, and becoming really good friends. We both loved ball, and we both loved watching ball. At that time, Bill Walton was one of the main broadcasters doing the colour commentary during the games, and he’s just the most ridiculous person that I’ve ever heard call a sports game in my life.

He says the craziest hyperboles, and just the craziest things. I mean, he’s a smart guy, he’s got a lot of good things to say about basketball, but he’s just ridiculous. He’s so entertaining. Kils and I would just die every time he was on. He made the best calls ever, like, comparing Boris Diaw to a Beethoven symphony, and running on crazy comparisons like that, just saying insane stuff [laughs].

So, Bill Walton has just always been that guy. I remember, either the beginning of this season or last season – I’m a League Pass guy, I watch a ton of ball – and I was watching this Sacramento Kings game, and he was filling in to colour commentate. It was literally my favourite game of the regular season [laughs]. Some bullshit game with Sacramento and some other team, it was an awful game, but Bill Walton was calling it, so it was all good.

TCUS: [Laughs] What can you tell me about The AquaReds?

Uncle Fester: Oh my God. Man…. The AquaReds were probably the first band I was ever in. I played guitar and bass in the band; we formed in late junior high. We actually formed for a Battle of the Bands at my high school, just for a joke. I’ve always been into music, and into playing music, and me and my boys were all musicians. [A couple of us] decided to get together to play as a band [in the contest], and we won.

We [stuck together] for a couple years; we did instrumental surf music, but it was a little trippier, and there were some trip-hop influences and stuff like that, kinda groovy, instrumental stuff. We did that for a while, right until the end of high school, really. Actually, Dexter Doolittle, who was a Backburner producer for a long time, and he’s done some productions for some other Canadian emcees – he does like jungle, drum n bass productions – he was in [The AquaReds] as well. It was him and I and the boys for a very long time.

But yeah, we did instrumental surf music, for lack of a better description. We actually started to do well, and [then] we broke up. I mean, it was the end of high school, and everybody goes their own ways, and [that’s when] our real life begins.

TCUS: You mentioned earlier buying tons of records growing up. What’s your go-to place for digging?

Uncle Fester: If I was to break down my collection as to where I got things, I’ve [gotten records] in really unconventional ways. I really have crazy luck, Kils will attest to this. Kils has really good luck with gear; he’ll find samplers and preamps and just the craziest gear for really cheap. He’s got karma. It’s the same way for me with records.

There have been some scores that I’ve had over the years, because I’ve just been in the right place at the right time. I’ve come across a lot of big hauls at once – like, really rare library records, old utility records that don’t have copyright anymore, like KPM and De Wolfe. I’ve picked up lots of unplayed, Blue Note, mint condition, original release records. I don’t wanna give away too much of where I get stuff, but I’ve been really lucky; a lot of stuff has just fallen into my lap.

Right now when I dig, I really only dig at record fairs and stuff. I don’t dig in Halifax anymore; I find that I know what the records are, and anything that I really want, the stores here know what it is, and it’s really high-priced – although, there is a new little spot around the way from my spot called Black Buffalo [Records]. Gotta give a shout out to them, because they’re actually bringing in some decent stuff at good prices.

But nowadays, man, I’ll look for ads of people selling collections, or record fairs, or when I’m on the road with Ambition or other acts I deejay for, I definitely hit stores them. But yeah, it’s been really unconventional. I’ve been lucky; for the records I have, I haven’t had to really spend the money that I think people would have had to spend to get them.

TCUS: When you’re looking at what records to sample, what draws you to a particular record?

Uncle Fester: There’s a number of different things. I’ve been researching records and buying magazines, and looking at pictures of discographies and things like that for so long, and looking at liner notes from hip-hop albums, like names of artists and stuff like that. I don’t know why, but when I was a kid, that was something I thought was fun to do. Those albums that I was buying, I would just open up the liner notes and read them front to back – lyrics, name credits… I would know people’s last names and try to guess whose name was associated with which rapper name or deejay name. I was always into that stuff.

All of that information now comes together for me, but to be honest, it’s visual for me, more so than anything. I’m not great at remembering “oh, this record has this song, and this song has a break on it.” Kils is really good for that. One of my mentors here in Halifax, DJ Jorun Bombay – this guy’s a O.G. here – he’s amazing for that stuff.

But for me personally, I find that [I rely on] visual recognition – either I’ve seen the record before, or I just get this feeling that I know that the record has something on it. But also, the year it was put out, the producer of it, who recorded it, what record label, it’s all those things. I look at all of that stuff when I pick up a record. But if it’s instinct, if I’m looking at a record like “I’m getting this,” without checking any of that stuff, it’s visual. One hundred percent.

TCUS: What can you tell me about Ninja Tune?

Uncle Fester: They’re a sort of trip-hop record label in the UK. Kils and I [actually] bonded over some Ninja Tune stuff. When I met Kils, he wasn’t really into hip-hop that much. I don’t know how many people know that, but when I met Kils in ’97, ’98, I schooled him on hip-hop. I mean, he was a really knowledgeable cat, musically; it’s not like he never heard hip-hop or anything like that, but I kinda schooled him in that. One of the things that brought him over the quickest were things like Ninja Tune – those sort of bridging the gap [artists].

Ninja Tune was new, and it was different at the time, so it was exciting too. They were doing a lot of instrumental stuff, and I think they influenced a lot of [our music]. The reason that The Extremities try to do a lot of instrumental stuff, along with the productions we do for emcees, is based on the fact that we came up in an era where that stuff was new and fresh. It was saying to us, you can do this stuff instrumentally and you can make your tracks interesting; they can have arrangements, and they can move, and they can be dynamic, and they can be orchestrated. They were a big influence.

I actually haven’t listened to a lot of stuff on Ninja Tune in quite a while, other than Herbaliser. I still check for Herbaliser all the time, because we’re lucky enough that we’ve met [them], we’ve worked with them before, and they’re doing a ton of work with Timbuktu and Ghettosocks, who are our close homies on Backburner and Droppin’ Science. It’s funny, I actually had a conversation with Jake Wherry from The Herbaliser a couple months ago when they were in town, and I got to ask him about Ninja Tune and how it was created, and how Coldcut and DJ Food and all those guys met, and what the scene was over there.

Ninja Tune was something I hadn’t thought about in a long time, until I was actually with Ollie and Jake [of The Herbaliser] a couple months ago. They shot a video with Timbuktu and Ghettosocks, and we all played a show here in Halifax. But yeah, Ninja Tune was definitely a big influence on Kils and I, bonding over music early on.

TCUS: Speaking of the origins of different collectives, how did Backburner begin?

Uncle Fester: Backburner, in concept, is surprisingly exactly the same as it ever was. It’s just a hip-hop crew in the way that we understood hip-hop crews growing up. It started in Halifax. Kils had moved here from Ontario to go to [King’s College], and him and I met there, and [along with] some of the other cats that I was working with here, we all just kinda met each other at the same time.

It was like myself, Kils, my boy Process who’s not around anymore – he was in a group that I was in called The Dirt Roads – Dexter Doolittle, Thesis [Sahib], Jesse Dangerously, MC Frank Deluxe, and Wordburglar. When all of us came together, that was the very beginning. But it was really formed because Dexter, Kils and myself all lived together, and we made beats together for a couple years. Emcees started to show up and record with us – specifically with Kilgour in his studio – and his studio became a hub for emcees.

On the very first time we went on tour, we toured with Sixtoo from the Sebutones – who lives in Montreal now – but he was in a group with Buck 65 at the time. We toured with Sixtoo across Canada, and we actually met the Toolshed boys [Chokeules, Psybo and Timbuktu] in London, through Thesis. They became part of our crew right away. All of us hit it off, and then More Or Les came in through SJ Wordburglar, and other pieces of the crew were added along the way.

Eventually, Ghettosocks moved from Ottawa – where he started – to Halifax, and he started working with us a lot, and that’s when he became part of the crew. Some people took it more seriously than others, because we were young at the time, so the crew kinda thinned out and became a tighter-knit conglomerate.

TCUS: What’s your history with Droppin’ Science?

Uncle Fester: More recently, in the last couple years, Ghettosocks has started a label called Droppin’ Science with his business partner here in Halifax. Socks has been working with his homies and people of a like mind, putting more of a co-op feel, people coming together from more of a business perspective. Droppin’ Science is more of a label, but there’s definitely Backburner cats involved in that, as well as cats that Ghettosocks associates with, like Muneshine and D-Sisive.

Ghettosocks is such a creative dude, and he’s the real power behind that. The Extremities are really stoked with our relationship with that entity. And Socks has been the graphic artist for everybody. You look at everybody’s record, so many Canadian hip-hop records [have been done by Ghettosocks]. If one of our names are attached to it, there’s a good chance Socks is doing the artwork for it as well – and even beyond that. Attikus on the West Coast, Fraction and MisterE from Kitchener, and a bunch of cats from London, and Toronto, and Montreal… it’s amazing how much artwork he’s actually done; he’s such a creative guy.

Our relationship with him extends in so many different ways: he was my neighbour here in Halifax; he’s our homie; he’s a talented beat maker, emcee, and graphic designer; and he’s got a smart business mind, too. He’s kind of a force, and his Droppin’ Science thing is something we’re really excited to be a part of.

TCUS: What can you tell me about Droppin’ Science Wednesdays?

Uncle Fester: [Here in Halifax], Ambition and I have started up a bi-weekly hip-hop night called Droppin’ Science. Halifax has a long history of Wednesday night hip-hop nights – it’s kind of like a community heads night – and it was always cheap or free. We’d go when I was young, and we’d see Jorun, Buck 65, Sixtoo, Gordski, and all these Halifax O.G.’s deejaying.

We’d learn about records and breaks, and get a chance to perform, and Skratch Bastid came up at the same time we did through that scene as well. It was a place where cats would come and dance and write, and come to listen to good records, and drink beer, and have a good time. There hasn’t been that in the city in a really long time. The last incarnation of it was called Droppin’ Science, and it was Ghettosocks who was heading that at the time, so we brought that back recently. We’re all a family at this point.

TCUS: Let’s talk about Re:Fresh. What was the creative process behind this album?

Uncle Fester: The creative process was really kind of in chunks, actually. This was something that we had the beginnings of when we finished The Mint Condition. We wanted to do this remix project, because we realized we had all these relationships with different artists that we worked with, and some bigger names in the States. Our network was expanding as we were working with people and gaining people’s trust.

You know, we don’t want to be the type of guys who are just paying for people to be on our beats. We want to develop real relationships with people, like we did with Ali Shaheed Muhammad from Tribe on The Mint Condition, and El Da Sensei, who we met through Ghettosocks and developed a relationship with, and Moka Only, and Ohmega Watts. So when this album came together, it was all these relationship [coming into play]. We were bartering things with these people, and getting the permission to do these remixes.

We realized that we had a lot to pick from, and we were gonna be able to do a project with it. We really wanted to get out as much material as we could, so we thought we’d just put this out as a free album for the fans. It was gonna be done quick and dirty and given away, but the more we started doing it, the more it became a labour of love. We started to put a lot of work into it. There’s eleven tracks on the record, but there’s something like sixteen beats on the record. There’s a lot of flip-ups, and a lot of special treats.

It’s a “pay what you can” [album], so we’re hoping that even if people don’t want to spend money on it, they’ll just go get it. We want people to have it; we want people to listen to it. We want people to know what we’re up to, and what we’re bringing to the table these days. We have another full-length LP, our official followup to The Mint Condition, in the chamber as well. But the creative process was drawn out, man. We did it over long periods of time.

Kils and I sort of work like this, where [whenever] he’s in Halifax or I’m in [Toronto], we sort of hide away for four or five days at a time and we just go to town. We bring our favourite records that we want to sample, and we do a little digging together. He gets on the MPC or the keyboard, and I get on my MPC, or my MPD hooked up to my computer, or the turntables, and we just start giving each other parts to riff off. We always sort of work in these “rap camp” sort of situations, where we get together and camp out for a couple days, and go nuts like that.

TCUS: Are you going on tour at all to promote the new album?

Uncle Fester: Yeah, we’re going on tour in June and July. Kils and I are on tour with Mad Dukez from Buffalo, and we’re bringing our saxophone player with us as well. We’re playing with different acts throughout different cities, of course, and I think we’re gonna bring someone else from Canada, as well. We’re still working that out at the moment.

We’re starting in Erie on June 20th, I believe, and playing Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Huntington, New York… a bunch of places along the Eastern Seabord. We’re gonna end up in Portland, Maine, then zip over to Halifax and do the Jazz Festival here. We’re playing with Oddisee and A Tribe Called Red, then we’re gonna do an Extremities after-party for the Dr. John show as well.

[After that], we’re touring back to Toronto through Canada. [We’re hitting] the Maritimes, we’ve got a show in Montreal, Kingston, T.O., and we’re gonna hopefully hit our favourite summer spot to play up in Bayfield, in cottage country. [Hopefully] finish off with a relaxing show up in the country, like we usually try to do on our summer tours [laughs].

TCUS: I know Re:Fresh JUST dropped, but what can you tell us about the upcoming Extremities album?

Uncle Fester: We’re really excited about it. [Unlike with Re:Fresh], when we started making The Mint Condition, we were making it as an album from the very beginning. There’s a lot of intentional stuff on that record, and the new one’s a lot like that; there’s gonna be instrumental tracks on it as well. We’re trying to step it up to the next level again, and we’ve got some guests in the chamber – I don’t know what I’m allowed to give away [laughs] – but we have some tasty things on board, and we’re pursuing some things as well.

It’s the official followup to The Mint Condition, and it’s gonna be heavy. We’ll be throwing our best stuff at it, as it gets put together. I guess I’ll give away one feature, so I can tell you something about it. We have Fashawn on the record, which we’re really excited about. We’re gonna hopefully have some other tasty treats, as well as pairing emcees people might know a little more than some of the Canadian guys we work with [alongside] some of our homies, like we did on the Re:Fresh record.

Yeah, even though Re:Fresh just came out, like you said, the new record is definitely more than fifty percent done already. Droppin’ Science has a really big release schedule this year, so you’re not gonna see it for a little bit yet, but it’s there and it’s pretty much ready to go. But you’ll see Extremities production on other people’s projects before you see the new Extremities record.

TCUS: I’m definitely excited to hear that Fashawn record. Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

Uncle Fester: Oh yeah. [Ambition and I] are working together all the time. We have a new K.R.E.A.M mixtape that we just started production on recently, it’ll be K.R.E.A.M 3. For cats that don’t know, they should go check out the K.R.E.A.M bancamp; we’ve got two mixtapes there, K.R.E.A.M 1 and 2, Kicks Rule Everything Around Me. That’s [our] little mixtape series that we’re doing.

Also, he just released his new [Man of the Year] EP on Droppin’ Science a couple weeks ago. I was heavily involved in that; I recorded most of that album. I had some beats on there, and did all the cuts and stuff like that. He’s got another full-length, which is even more done than the Extremities record actually [laughs], sitting at Relic’s [studio] being mixed right now, actually.

Also, another album I’m in the studio this weekend working on heavily is called My Giants, which is myself, Timbuktu and Ambition. If anybody knows us, I’m not very tall, and both of those guys are extremely tall, hence My Giants. That’s gonna be an album entirely produced by myself. We’re eight tracks deep. I did all the work on samplers, [the E-mu] SP-12, Kils’ MPC1000 and my MPC2000.

It’s been a bucket list thing for me for a while, to do an album entirely on samplers – and especially to get to work on an SP-12. So we’re really excited about that record, that’s what we’re doing right now. And that will actually be out on Droppin’ Science at the end of July. My Giants. Look for that one.

TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Uncle Fester: Just wanted to give a shout out to The Come Up Show; we love everything you guys are doing. Also, just give a shout out to the group, Droppin’ Science, Backburner, The Extremities, family, Canadian hip-hop… We hope everybody comes out and checks us when they see us in their area this summer! Teenburger and Herbaliser are gonna be on the road going across Canada. Also, Abstract Artform, Relic and Ambition are gonna be touring together across Canada, so look for that one as well. And then The Extremities are gonna be going across the country as well, so a lot of family hitting the road this summer. Everybody keep their eyes open and come out to the shows, because you’re guaranteed to have yourself a good time.