THE SORORITY at Adelaide Hall (250 Adelaide West), June 14, 8 pm. $15-$20. ticketfly.com.
Arriving at a Queen East coffee shop on a chilly Good Friday afternoon, the four members of The Sorority are shivering but energized. They’ve just come from an outdoor photo shoot.
The café is unreasonably busy for a stat holiday. Keysha Freshh, Haviah Mighty, pHoenix Pagliacci and Lex Leosis cram around the end of a long table to talk about their debut album, Pledge, out Friday (April 13), and their first North American tour.
For the next hour, the Toronto MCs will bicker about how many bars they have on one of the tracks, debate the state of hip-hop lyrics, and fan out about their favourite artists. There’s also lot of self-deprecating jokes and laughter.
“This right now – us hanging out – translates into our performance,” explains Freshh. “We actually try to spend time together so we can go onstage and vibe off each other. That personal connection outside of music builds a stronger relationship when performing and in the studio.”
A few weeks earlier, they played an invite-only show on International Women’s Day for Pledge’s lead single, the bassy banger SRTY. Canadian rap luminaries Michie Mee and Eternia were in attendance, as were reps from Spotify.
While social media likes and shares are all-important for young artists, the Sorority are keenly aware that a tight live show still counts. It was clear at the gig they’d upped their game, incorporating backing singers, skits, ad libs and their long-time DJ Mel Boogie.
“We’ve revamped and choreographed our whole live show,” explains Mighty, the youngest of the four.
“Some of our earlier performances were sloppy,” adds Freshh. “We were bouncing into each other, rapping over each other and saying the wrong words on each other’s ad libs.”
“My bad,” Pagliacci mutters, cracking a smile.
“Say her name Keysha!” laughs Leosis.
Pagliacci gets serious again.
“A lot of people will look at a rap group and be like, ‘You ain’t gotta rehearse,’” she says. “‘Just get up there and do your thing.’ I know that’s the mentality I had going into it.”
“I don’t think just standing onstage rapping can hold a crowd, but I can understand why major artists can do that,” says Mighty.
“It’s an easy route,” says Leosis. “We can all eat a cypher.”
The Sorority were born during an all-female cypher – a freestyle jam session – on International Women’s Day two years ago when a video of their spontaneous collab went viral. People started sharing it and urging them to continue collaborating. Michie Mee booked them to perform at her birthday party that November.
Groups are rarities in hip-hop these days, much less all-female groups of Canadian MCs. It goes without saying the Sorority have to work harder than many of their peers.
While Pledge’s songs are full of melodies, hooks, intros and outros, more than anything the group is rigorously lyrical, following in the footsteps of verbose MCs like J. Cole or Little Simz.
“Lyrical hip-hop isn’t dead,” says Pagliacci. “But while hip-hop is popular culture now, the reasons the culture was formed are not as popular.”
“When people talk about lyricists, it’s like they have to be cypher-esque and all bars and no hooks,” Leosis adds. “But it’s all about expressing and connecting with people through words, wordplay and voice.”
The bars on Pledge come fast and furious. Blacklist tackles the smallness of the Toronto music scene and how easily you can find yourself on the outs by running afoul of a gatekeeper On Me is a breezy, backyard BBQ-worthy jam heavy on Caribbean patois and Midnight takes shots at assorted trolls and exes.
There’s also the funky R&B cut Vanity 6 (named after the 80s R&B trio), a Prince- and Bad Boy Records-inspired jam orchestrated by Pagliacci that is mostly sung.
“It’s all about female empowerment,” she says. “[The singer] Vanity was all about that. She was confident as hell and anytime someone tried to subtly play her, she’d always turn that around.”
For boom-bap-obsessed Freshh, Pledge was a chance to get out of her comfort zone. “Blacklist, I’ll be honest with you, was not my style,” she says. “It was more new school for me, so I took Haviah’s flow. We all got over ourselves and made the album work.”
“We understand how hard it is to do what we do,” says Mighty. “Your last thing doesn’t define your next thing. Your spot is never secure. There’s never a reason to get to comfortable because someone could just come take it tomorrow.”
Getting the industry used to a group of four female MCs from Toronto is their goal for the rest of the year.
“We’re gonna make a lot of people uncomfortable – no good change comes from any kind of comfort,” says Pagliacci. “We’re going to rock worlds and rock stages. End quote.”
Kevin has worked in journalism for 20 years, first as a general assignment reporter before being sucked into the glamorous life that is arts and entertainment coverage. Kevin now contributes to music, tv, film and culture.