Hip hop tragedy strikes Ottawa’s Flight Distance

Bender (Alex Buchanan) and Joshua Sherman were two of the people responsible for the hip hop album Bad Information by the Ottawa group Flight Distance.

How did the greatest hip hop album to rise out of Ottawa become a tragic story?

It is, admittedly, subjective to state that Bad Information, the second record from Flight Distance, is the city’s greatest, but few would deny the tragedy of the past six months. Two of the album’s key creators have died, too young and too soon.

Bad Information was written and rapped by Bender and Patience, whose interplay was searing and seamless. Calkuta was DJ, and the record was produced, and all those beats written by, Crack Moses.

On March 1, 2018 Bender — real name Alex Buchanan — died in his sleep in Montreal, possibly of sleep apnea. He was known beyond Ottawa as a champion battle rapper (there are many clips on Youtube of him in rap battles). In Ottawa he formed Flight Distance with his friend and fellow rapper Patience — real name Patrick Jodoin — and released three albums, Run For Your Lives! in 2005, Bad Information in 2011, and High Priests of Low Life in 2014. On the day Bender died, he was 37 years old.

Bad Information was produced by Joshua Sherman under the name Crack Moses, which was one his musical aliases. After an illness, Josh died on June 28, at age 34.

“Because the future is grim, brothers and sisters, I’m here to make music . . .” Patrick raps on Info-Pop Outbreak, the second track on Bad Information. Granted, it’s easy to comb through lyrics and find something prophetic — especially in hip hop, where the lyrical flow can be thick and unsparing — but surely no one anticipated a future as grim as the recent past. The careers that have been cut down were still rich and full of promise.

Bender’s output was prodigious. Battle rapping is not for the faint of heart, as two rappers stand toe to toe and take turns smacking each other down with barbed rhymes. It looks exhausting, yet Bender travelled the world to compete. He was also a prolific visual artist, often hawking his celebrity portraits on social media. When he died he was working on a new record from Flight Distance and, reportedly, on a novel.

Josh released a lot of his own solo music and produced for others. He also produced a track on Flight Distance’s third record, High Priests of Low Life, and Bender and Patrick appeared on two of his solo albums.

Bender and Josh made a lot of music over their careers, sometimes together. For many fans the pinnacle for both artists was Bad Information, with its circular, psychedelic beats and its scathing lyrics (e.g, “with my friends getting drunk in a city that fucking hates itself…”). I cited it as my favourite album of 2012 in my year-end list in the Ottawa Citizen, and used descriptives such as “musical, assertive and collaborative,” and “all tightly wound around a hypnotic spool.” Six years later it remains one of my favourite hip hop records, from Ottawa or anywhere else.

Bad Information is also testament to the depth and strength of the hip hop scene in Ottawa at the time. In 2011-12 there was standout music from Missing Linx (including PrufRock, Hyfidelik, Just Jamaal and Cannon 2X), from Philly Moves, Atherton, Zoo Legacy, Sound of Lions and the fleeting, incandescent mashup that was Daughters of the Revolution.

None of Flight Distance’s music was made in isolation, and all members were parts of larger local crews, with rappers and producers such as Vektrx, Escrol, DJ Illo, STAY, Osa, Derek Period and others. Escrol was a prominent guest on Bad Information, including on the track When the Satellites Fail — which Patrick cites as his favourite beat by Crack Moses. (His favourite Bender rhyme is “his whole verse from Tree of Smoke,” a track on High Priests of Low Life.)

“Bender, Josh and Patrick met in the early 2000s at Bumpers, the now long-gone punk and pool bar in the Glebe. “Bender and I hit it off right away. He was new to Ottawa and we became immediate best friends,” he says. “We both knew Josh for several years before we really started working seriously together. Josh was rapping under various different wild-ass aliases over the years, solo and in a group, and was well-known partly because he was quite short, yet had the deepest voice you’d ever heard. He was unique, and really dope. . . His music was dark, clever, energetic and funky.”

Bender was “an absolute genius,” Patrick says, from “the way he pieced words together and unleashed them, to his emotional intelligence, his ability to articulate true, meaningful existential thoughts and then his knack for gripping storytelling.

“We were like brothers,” he says. “We spent a lot of time together over the past 18 years or so, so the loss is hard to describe.”

He cites Bender as the “nucleus” of his relationship with Josh, and adds, “I hadn’t seen much of Josh in the last few years, and I regret that.”

Flight Distance is down to two members, just Patrick and DJ Calkuta (or Cool Cal, real name Callum Browne), but there may be more music to come. Patrick is going through beats left behind by his old friend and “navigating what Bender would and wouldn’t want shared with the world. He was very particular, and it’s important that I don’t share any music that wouldn’t be up to his standards.” He’s also working on a solo record that will “feature a lot of Bender’s beats.”

Patrick recently organized “The First Annual Bender Day” at Oz Kafe in the ByWard Market, and he hopes to release a special edition of Bad Information on vinyl, to celebrate Bender and Josh and to raise funds for a worthy charity.

The future may be grim, but celebrating the best can make it better and, as he sang on that great album, “I’m here to make music.”

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.