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Twenty years later, the Canadian hip-hop anthem means more than just beats and rhymes
It’s been 20 years since one of Canada’s most important hip-hop songs was released.
Northern Touch – featuring Vancouver hip-hop vanguards the Rascalz, fellow Van City MC Checkmate as well as Toronto’s Choclair, Kardinal Offishall and Thrust – has recaptured attention recently in the wake of its landmark anniversary.
The song has garnered an oral history on CBC’s Q, multiple reminiscences and panel discussions (including Before The 6ix, which I hosted as part of the Toronto Reference Library’s Black History Month programming) and, according to long-time Canadian hip-hop music industry figure Craig “Big C” Mannix, a forthcoming vinyl reissue.
On Tuesday, February 27, many of the song’s participants and people the song influenced gathered at the Drake as part of a Sonos Song Stories event.
It’s worth remembering the context in which the song emerged given today’s ubiquity of Canadian hip-hop. The Rascalz were virtually the only English-language Canadian hip-hop group signed to a major label in 1997 (that would change after the song’s release). After Canadian major label indifference to pioneers Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee and Dream Warriors led to them signing elsewhere, the mid-90s Canadian hip-hop label scene was largely driven by independent 12-inch vinyl releases garnering U.S. and international audiences via tastemakers and word of mouth.
It was within this environment that the Rascalz turned down their 1998 Juno for best rap recording for Cash Crop in protest of the fact that the awards had never televised the rap category. Northern Touch, initially released as a vinyl single, was added to new pressings of Cash Crop shortly after and released as a single/music video, winning the following year’s Juno in the same category. The group would not only accept the 1999 award as part of the main broadcast, but perform on it as well – the first hip-hop performance at the Junos.
“To be able to come onstage like, ‘Yo, this is some Canadian hip-hop unity’ – it meant so many big things to me,” says the Rascalz’s Red 1 at the Drake event.
Space and place have always been integral to hip-hop culture. In a localized sense, terms like “the 6ix” – and “the T-dot” before it – were birthed to reconfigure spaces so that marginalized voices could be heard where their outlets were limited.
Revisiting Northern Touch within this framework, the geographical references embedded in the song are powerful assertions of self-validation. The song’s boisterous hook “We notorious / Ain’t nobody can hang with us,” inimitably delivered by Kardinal Offishall, was less ego-tripping than a statement of fact.
Van City MCs Rascalz and Checkmate make unifying diasporic statements in their verses, connecting “people from Jamaica, Trini, London and Australia” from “T-dot to the Van City All-Stars.” The Toronto MCs, meanwhile, home in on specific locales. Choclair hangs out watching wrestling at the Skydome, Kardinal’s patois-infused hook crystallizes the worldly “Toronto sound” he was instrumental in developing, and Thrust’s verse name-checks influential Toronto DJs and crews like Starting from Scratch and Baby Blue Sound Crew.
“This was a song that touched kids all over the country and I’m one of those kids,” says rapper Shad at the Drake. “It was a song that expressed this cross-Canada identity and unity and me as a kid in London, Ontario, I felt included in that. I felt represented in that.”
At a time when domestic hip-hop was mostly played on campus radio and MuchMusic, the song’s striking multi-hued video was a major factor in its success. Helmed by Toronto’s Director X, then known as Little X, the video proved to be a major breakthrough for his career, too. (He now directs videos for Kanye West and Jay-Z, among many others.)
Like Kardinal Offishall, X was an alumni of the short-lived Fresh Arts multidisciplinary program, a major catalyst for Toronto hip-hop in the 1990s. Community arts incubator The Remix Project, which drew direct inspiration from Fresh Arts, was where Drake recorded tracks for his 2007 Comeback Season mixtape, invited by then-program leader Noah “40” Shebib.
Bridging the philosophical link between those arts programs, X has directed many of Drake’s most popular videos (Started From The Bottom, Hotline Bling), and his Popp Rok production company is behind Drake’s latest viral clip, God’s Plan.
The impact of Northern Touch goes way beyond its beats and rhymes.
“Northern Touch [and] what the Rascalz did at the 1998 Junos culminated in what we have now, which is probably some of the best artists in the world , so that’s what I think is really dope,” Choclair says at the Drake.
“I think we made a stamp on history, and hopefully one day it won’t be just the hip-hop community talking about this song – it’ll be the whole music industry.”
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