40 at 40: Revisiting the birth of hip-hop in Toronto

In our series of 40 memorable NOW covers from the past 40 years, we revisit a 1982 report on a hot new trend called rap music


In February 1982, NOW Magazine put the spotlight on an interesting new trend that was popping up in the Toronto music scene. 

It was called rapping. 

Less than six months into NOW’s existence, the magazine had its finger on the pulse of an underground scene that would soon take over the culture. 

Looking back at it now that hip-hop is arguably the biggest genre in the world, it’s funny to read the cover story written by NOW’s co-founder Michael Hollett, now the editor and publisher of the recently launched print music publication NEXT Magazine. As he reported on the scene at the Dub Club – aside from some nights at 14 Hagerman Street, maybe Toronto’s first hip-hop venue – Hollett also had the task of explaining what rapping actually is.

“You’d hear dribbles about some new type of poetry music going on in New York,” Hollett reflects now. “But unless you were really clued in you might not know what it really was. Now it’s everywhere, but at the time it was so new and different you really had to explain it to people. It’s like telling people about this new thing called television.”

In the story, he describes it as a form of disc jockeying that “sees the DJ move from passive record pusher to performer… [adding] his vocals live along with recorded sounds… to make sure the dancing doesn’t stop.”

By 1982, Sugarhill Gang had already released the first big rap record Rapper’s Delight and the genre was starting to pop off in New York, but hip-hop was still very much in its infancy. Though Sugarhill Gang and Kurtis Blow had both played shows here, as Hollett writes in the piece, hip-hop was nowhere near Toronto radio. But some predominantly white bands like Tom Tom Club and Blondie were starting to bring a version of the burgeoning genre to punk and new wave scenes. 

The Dub Club, at 115 McCaul (now an OCAD building), didn’t actually start as a rap club. It was more about Jamaican culture and the city’s Caribbean diaspora. Hip-hop had roots in Jamaica with reggae, dub music and sound systems, with “toasters” rapping over instrumentals of existing records. As rap gained steam as its own thing, it started to take over the Dub Club. 

Andy McCurbin was a regular toaster at the Dub Club. Part of the Maceo Sound Crew, he rapped under the MC name Brother A multiple nights a week. 

“You could tell from the energy that it was something special,” he reminisces over the phone. “It was free, easy, free-flowing. You’d get going and just go with the music, come in and just become part of the scene. I was the guy who welcomed you into the room, and just keep the party going, keep the energy going.”

The venue was run by a trio of impresarios: Raymond Perkins, Adam Break and Marcus O’Hara. They operated it out of a pub called Harrod’s near the AGO. O’Hara was a notorious man about town who ran clubs like Squeeze, the Horseshoe and some boozecans (he still puts on the annual Martian Awareness Ball, which has been going for more than 40 years).

He convinced the father-son team that owned the pub to let them throw parties there, pack it with people and take a cut of the bar and the door. The owners were never very happy about the crowd, but they were happy that the bar was packed every night. 

O’Hara remembers holding people at the door and choosing who got in – like Studio 54. 

“It was a real scene,” he says. “The bar looked like something you’d find at the airport, which was part of the mystique.”

O’Hara’s siblings include the musician Mary Margaret O’Hara and the actor Catherine O’Hara, and they were regulars at the club. So were comedy actors Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Martin Short, Neville Staple from the ska band the Specials and reggae musicians like Leroy Sibbles and Third World. Perkins says when English bands would come by, they’d stop in at the club, as would Hollywood types in town for shoots. 

People would come by for the good vibe, the scene, or because they were fans of reggae, dub or rap. O’Hara remembers the crowd as racially diverse, with an equal number of white and Black patrons, which he says was rare at the time, though it would soon become more common at nearby Queen West scene spots like the BamBoo and the Cameron House.

“It didn’t last long, but it was pivotal,” says Perkins, who went on to become the director of culture at the clothing brand Roots.

The Dub Club ended up closing after less than a year. The owners decided they didn’t need O’Hara, Break or Perkins and thought they could run a club themselves. It didn’t work.

There was another brief resurgence at a club near the Eaton’s Centre at 100 Bond, which they called One Double-Oh (punning on the word “dub”).  

It didn’t take long for hip-hop to explode, with promoters like Ron Nelson bringing in acts like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Run-DMC in the next few years. Just a few months after the T.O. Raps It Up issue of NOW, in June 1982, hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy was on the cover as part of the Kitchen Sync tour. 

The two rappers who graced the cover of this issue – Hugo Samuels and Tony Langley – were hard to track down. In the 1982 article, Samuels said that he has no aspirations to record, that his performance is all about the moment. 

“A lot of people thought it was going to be a fad,” says McCurbin, who still makes music, does voiceover work (it’s his voice you hear in commercials for African Lion Safari) and also does some work for Roots. “It wasn’t getting much mainstream attention, much radio play. I can see why [Samuels] wasn’t aspiring to record his own music. It was more about getting people to come out and share in the energy.”

“This city was really popping back in the day, I don’t think we really realized what we had,” he continues.

“There was so much talent here, as strong a scene as anywhere outside New York. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anybody to harness that situation at that time. If we had labels or producers or radio paying attention, we could have been out of the gate as fast as Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash and all those guys. If we had the support to record and tour and do all those things, I think Toronto would have been known for hip-hop as much as New York was.”

Some things never change.

– Richard Trapunski

Below is Michael Hollet’s cover feature, T.O. Raps It Up, republished from our February 18, 1982 issue.


In his February 1982 cover story, NOW co-founder Michael Hollett had to describe what rapping was.

Rappers delight 

By MICHAEL HOLLETT 

In the course of the evening the music shifts from Blondie to the Jacksons, the Specials, Bob Marley, and even Queen. The familiar melodies are barely audible but the dancing rhythms remain powerfully constant, serving as a link that weaves through the different songs and types of music. 

Stepping through the sound, working with it and apart from it is the rapper – a figure to the side of the room who clutches a microphone, moves to the music and sings and chants his own words and sounds. In a night of music, Deborah Harry, Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie will all come and go but the rapper remains, shifting and adjusting the rap to suit the song, the mood, and the people. 

Rapping is a form of disc jockeying that sees the DJ move from passive record pusher to performer. Either by turning down the vocal tracks or simply taking advantage of instrumental breaks in a song, the rapper performs his vocals live along with the recorded sounds. 

The objective is primarily dancing and the rapper uses his musical selections and links to help. He counts on his ability to adapt the rap for the crowd to make sure the dancing doesn’t stop. 

A musical force with links in the mountains of Jamaica and the U.S. east coast, rapping has been part of Toronto’s Black music scene for years. Already very big in New York and London, rapping takes a step into Toronto’s mainstream with the recent opening of the Dub Club (115 McCaul) which features rapping, to funk and reggae. 

Hugo Samuels is a funk rapper who’s worked plenty of private parties and special events before moving to the Dub Club for a regular Wednesday and Thursday rap, beginning Feb. 24. Samuels describes rapping as both “singing and talking.” 

Happy rap 

“You do whichever is appropriate at the time.” 

Samuels has no aspirations to become a singer or to record. He’s happy to develop his rap and cultivate a reputation among those who can come and see him live – his only ‘band’ being the dozens of records he spins each night. 

“When you’re a singer, you basically come out and perform your set of music, a collection of songs you decide on in advance. With rapping, you’re creating on the spot for the people in front of you at that very moment. You may not ever hear the same rap again. It’s artwork. It’s there for the moment and then gone.” 

The rapper can say just about anything during the rap. Sometimes the words make sense, sometimes they’re just sounds. Sometimes the words form sentences and sometimes they’re just freeform. 

“Often, it’s like we’re composing poems and rhymes right on the spot,” says Samuels. 

First hit 

A rapper might describe someone in the audience who catches his eye for part of his rap. Funk rappers tend to stay assay front politics but West Indian rappers have been known to make a political point or two. 

What the history of rapping is is anything but clear, it has deep roots in Jamaica and emerged there sometime in the 50s. Jamaica had only one radio station in the 50s, run by the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation, carefully modelled after the BBC. Real Jamaican music wasn’t likely to be heard on the MC so mobile disc jockies, who would play anywhere a party could be arranged, became a musical force. Ever striving to attract a dedicated audience, the travelling disc jockies quickly realized that good songs weren’t enough and they began to rap over their music to further distinguish themselves. 

Ironically, what developed as an outgrowth of recorded music has gone on to be recorded itself. Since rapping started, many Jamaican musicians responded by recording longer versions of their songs to leave room for the rapper. Many popular Jamaican artists began recording instrumental versions of their hit records on the flipsides of their singles to headoff pirated versions, designed for rapping. The development of dub, a less mainstream form of Jamaican music than reggae, with plenty of echo and almost no vocals was an outgrowth of rapping. 

On the funk side, the first huge rapper hit was the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight a few years ago. You won’t hear too much rapping on Toronto radio stations, although more white musicians are doing rap, and they do get airtime in Toronto. Blondie took a somewhat laundered shot at rap with Rapture and the Tom Tom Club (with its Talking Heads crew) rap on their debut album. Soft Cell have re-released Tainted Love in a dub version, perfect for rapping. 

Geoffrey Roberts, a partner in T.O. Express, a Toronto disc jockey service specializing in rapping contrasts recorded music and rapping saying, “Which would you rather have, a plastic flower in your house or a fresh one that blooms fresh every day – that’s what you get with rapping, something that’s new every time out.” 

A lot of people will never forgive disc jockies for their role in perpetrating disco, but the rappers draw their records from all over the musical spectrum. 

Tony Langley, another rapper at the Dub Club says, “It’s not just all funk and reggae, I love to rap Kraftwork, Soft Cell, all kinds of groups. 

“What I look for in a rapping song is the beat, there’s got to be a basic rhythm to hang onto and rap, and you can’t rap to a slow song. If you can dance to it, I can rap to it although some songs are better than others. Songs with long musical breaks are good and you want a song with lots of bass and not too many highs.” 

Huge popularity 

Raymond Perkins, one of the owners of the Dub Club says he and his partners wanted to open a rap spot for a lot of reasons, including the clear potential of rap evidenced by its huge popularity in cities like New York. 

“We were also attracted by the social dynamic that comes with rapping. Besides being cheaper to put on, rapping leads to a completely different atmosphere in a club compared with a place that has live music. 

“When you go to see a band, it’s heavier, it’s like you’re at a formal concert and people are expected to sit and listen to the show or dance in a specified area. And it’s so loud there’s no com-municating while the band plays. Rap is more of a social scene where you can talk because the music’s not quite as loud and it’s going non-stop. You can move around and don’t have to worry about blocking anybody’s sightlines. You dance on the dance floor or just sort of move your feet while you’re standing talking to someone. 

“Also, with live music an audience tends to follow a band around from club to club until they get sick of watching their show, With rap you can build up a clientele for a particular club. After all, you can come and see the same rapper night after night and you know his show’s going to be different. For one thing, they’re always adding new songs.” 

Like any performer, rappers get requests. “Sometimes it’ll be a birthday or special event, somebody will ask us to rap about someone in the crowd or a topic,” says Langley. “We’ll do it.”

At the Dub Club, the rapping starts at 8 pm and runs until 1 am, five hours later. How can somebody talk/sing basically non-stop for all that time? 

“Once I start rapping I can hit a groove and rap all night, the music carries me,” says Langely. “If the people in the crowd are giving me something back I could rap for days.” 

Check back every Monday morning for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

@trapunski

Leave your opinion for the editor...We read everything!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *