NOW MAGAZINE PRESENTS THE NEXT SHIT: ISIS FROM THUNDERHEIST, EMPIRE, THEOLOGY 3, KAMAU, MINDBENDER and DJ NANA at Wrongbar (1279 Queen West), Friday (March 21). $12, advance $10. 416-516-8677. Rating: NNNNN
With so many insanely great artists making bangin beats and dope discs, why is the local scene so slept on? NOW writer and hip-hop artist Addi Stewart, aka Mindbender, wants answers.
This is a throwdown a show-down between art and business, past and future and, ultimately, success and failure.
Ive been part of the Canadian hip-hop scene performing as Mindbender of Supreme Being Unit since 1996. Back then expectations were high.
Choclair was featured in hip-hop bible The Sources Unsigned Hype section in June 1997, and so many Canadians thought, This is it, guy! Torontos gonna blow up this year!
Eleven years later and were still waiting. Were still trying to convince Canadians that our hip-hop is as good as, if not better than, anybody elses. Meanwhile, some of the best talent in the city in the country! remains almost completely unknown.
Scarborough supercrew Monolith, with Dan-E-O, have been doing it since 1995s anthemic Dear Hip Hop video. He knows a multitude of reasons why Toronto hasnt blown up.
The only way you can get local hip-hop is from independent artists, because its not on the major labels. Back in the day, we had to pay for it and tape it off the radio. Now the value has decreased, he says. I guarantee you, a lot of us are making superior albums, but no one knows about it.
Thats why NOW has put together The Next Shit at the Wrongbar Friday, showcasing some of the local hip-hop talents who havent had the attention they deserve.
In the meantime, the question remains: Whats getting in the way of these artists finding success, whether nationally or internationally?
Some people blame Toronto for refusing to take pride in its homegrown hip-hop. Sometime after the Northern Touch-era mid-90s peak, when the Rascalz united with Thrust, Checkmate, Choclair and Kardinal Offishall to create Canadas unofficial rap anthem, Toronto was being hailed as the T. Dot O. Dot.
Then our fair city devolved, becoming the Screwface Capital, the city that didnt care. Its a shameful moniker but one the local hip-hop community begrudgingly accepts as an accurate reflection of the prevailing attitude.
Respect to David Miller, but the original mayor of the Screwface Capital is community service icon/MC Theology 3, who gave us that name back in 2000.
That indifference really started well before I was on the hip-hop scene, and not much has changed, he says. Its excruciating, but its also a great proving ground in terms of performance.
Remember when radio DJ Arcee, host of FLOW 93.5s The Real Frequency, poignantly said: Welcome to Toronto, where well pay $20 to boo you!? And local MC Marvels hilarious reference to a Toronto rap show inspiring an attack of the killer tomatoes?
Damn straight you better come correct. Those who were there back in the day know how many obstacles we still must overcome. Listen to David Click Cox, Universal A&R rep and former Maximum Definitive group member.
Back in the early 90s, before BET and urban radio, it was almost better for us, says Cox. There was a lot more patriotic love for Canadian music than I think there is today.
This is a conservative marketplace, and thats embedded in Canadian blood and minds. Its an inferiority complex. [Canadian artists] need to find their own identity, create something special and unique.
Local light Eternia worries that the hip-hop identity crisis is related to a broader Canadian identity crisis.
The reason why native Canadian hip-hop does well, cuz it does, the reason why Quebecois hip-hop does so well, the reason why people in France go platinum is because they are speaking to their people in a language and a way that nobody else can.
The reason why an English-speaking regular Canadian artist like myself cant blow up on our home turf is because we dont agree on what the language of our people is.
U.S. rapper Bun B, who was featured on Jay-Zs Big Pimpin and appears on Kardinal Offishalls new album coming soon on Akons Konvict Records, appears to have mastered the art of sparking hometown pride. And he wants us to learn how to do it, too.
People have to show how strong the hip-hop fan base is in Canada and make that understood in America, cuz we dont really know. You first have to get up and support your own people.
Plus, Canadian artists need to cross the border and get down here and start representing the movement, says Bun B. Yet in order for them to explode on the international scene, they gotta explode in Canada. Whether its rock, rap, R&B, jazz, blues or whatever, its gotta seem like Oh my god, what have we been doing in America that we werent paying attention to Canada while all these people have been making this incredible music?
But the combination of Canadas identity insecurity and American influence flowing over the border is a perpetual obstacle to manifesting our destiny. Craig Big C Mannix, EMI consultant and one of Canadas first black music executives, sees it all very clearly.
The Canadian market has a lack of self-respect. Ive travelled the world, and Toronto is the number-one self-loathing, self-hating city in the world. Theres no reason for it, because everybody else thinks our artists are the shit.
The original godfather of Canadian rap, Maestro Fresh Wes, agrees. My culture has done so much, and kids need that empowerment, not necessarily to be better than anyone else, but at least to love themselves. This lack of love is self-hatred, and with self-hatred youre going back into mental slavery.
When people know youre black and into hip-hop, they dont expect much from you, says Maestro. They think youre an uneducated Neanderthal. And the kids are going around thinking that of themselves.
In a way, I think we are already on the map, argues Kamau, one of the old-school griots. Were not on the map in terms of industry standards, but in terms of people standards.
People who are angry about the commercialism of the music often ask me, Is hip-hop dead?, but if you go to Cuba, Nairobi and other places, you find a whole other community that connects hip-hop to community development young people, social development, politics and art. Its less about making it and more about using hip-hop as a tool for uplifting your community.
Also, I think Canadian artists need to find their own identity, stop trying to fit into some box. Just be honest and communicate something you feel like communicating.
Changing that is hard when America dominates the airwaves.
I cant watch these videos right now, says Maestro. Its like we gravitate toward American stupidity, and we as black people have given white people the opportunity to disrespect us.
I was asked to be the special guest speaker at the Governor Generals Urban Arts Summit in Vancouver. We got potential political power, brethren. Thats how powerful hip-hop is. There are black kids in Canada right now who dont know we have nine generations of black Canadians!
And Dalton McGuinty questions the need for Afrocentric schools?
When, wonders Maestro, was the last time we saw that little kid dancing in Let Your Backbone Slide on MuchMusic?
There are kids now who dont know Maestro Fresh Wes, he says.
Its not really these kids fault, says Greg Baptiste, a head MuchMusic video programmer. They arent the ones controlling the programming on MuchMusic or MTV, and all these shows are doing is gravitating to whats going on in America. From a business perspective it makes sense, but from a cultural perspective its detrimental to peoples well-being on so many levels.
Canadian MC 4th Pyramid, who has toured America with the Wu-Tang Clan, diagnoses our stunted culture in a way our high school teachers never did. Canada is conservative. You gotta go back to the history. Were the Brits who didnt separate, basically. We werent the rebels who said, Fuck the system.
This rap shit is Fuck the system. Its not Pillage and be savage, says 4th Pyramid, but its Fuck the system. Wake up, Canada. Its easy to look at America and be like Yo, theyre fucked up. So then why are we imitating them?
All the potential and coming-of-age understanding of our unique artistry cant be realized without the infrastructure to get the music out there, even given the existing hip-hop websites.
Scarborough rapper Tona, writer of Dial Tone, knows the pain. All we have is rappers and producers. We lack moguls and managers.
People ask me all the time how to get on, says Bramptons MoSS, producer of Ghostface Killahs gem, Kilos.
A producer needs a manager in New York or L.A. My turning point came when I was living in the U.S. and ended up meeting Obie Trice. I started doing more work once Obie started getting a little buzz I had people getting at me. You can kind of build yourself a name, says MoSS, the way Marco Polo made his own album, but how to go to New York and find management that will push you? Thats very difficult.
Empire, aka Fifth Letter Fam, is a massive crew of Toronto talent. Youve probably seen them hustling CDs anywhere the sun is shining. Likely the number-one hand-to-hand unit-shifting salesman in Canadian history, Empires Rhyme Animal doesnt think its that hard to sell music in the Screwface.
Honestly, if you can sell something as a salesman, none of that matters. You can sell vacuum cleaners to people with vacuums and people will still buy them, because of your will to sell the product.
The group treated me to a sneak peek at their highly anticipated debut, Get It. Its powerful and dope, to say the least. But Toronto-bred battle champion Tony Ranks, formerly known as Scandalis, knows the importance of promoting it.
In Canada in general we need the right amount of promotion behind people. We have hip-hopcanada.com and we used to have Project Bounce (formerly on CIUT 89.5 FM), but we dont even have that any more.
I wish these major labels would do another Rap Essentials [a popular mid-90s Canadian compilation released on Ivan Berrys BeatFactory Records] but call it S.A.R.S. [Empires yearly street mixtape], because we did all the groundwork already. We built an empire off face-to-face marketing.
Empires the Legend Adam Bomb breaks down the vicious circle of abandonment artists experience.
[Labels dont invest in artists] because they dont see anybody putting that 110 per cent in. But nobody puts that 110 per cent in because nobody is out there offering if you do.
Its true that a disproportionately small number of black Canadian artists are signed to major labels. But whats the point of trying to get signed when the Canadian black music industry has so few success stories compared to unprofitable failures? Still, hip-hop is the largest youth culture in Canada today. So why in the world arent the labels signing more homegrown hip-hop black music talents?
At the countrys biggest record label, Universal, A&R man Cox has a perpetual dilemma. It comes down to trying to find the right project for Universal. For some artists, getting signed is going to be more of an injustice than you think. Theyll get lost in the system. They should take their destiny into their own hands. If they cant figure that out, they arent even ready for a label.
But thats throwing it back at the artists, blaming them. The influence of racism permeates Canadian culture on a much deeper level than most mild-mannered Canucks would like to admit.
EMI consultant Mannix speaks from first-hand experience. [The Canadian hip-hop scene] has never been nurtured properly. It never developed like the indie rock or the country scene. Its like Okay, heres our black artist. This is the one were going to let through, the one were going to have succeed, yet there can be 100 indie rock bands that get written about.
The multi-culturalism celebrated by the media and politicians is visible in our eating options and small business ventures, but not in our government or industry ownership, and that has affected the economic and cultural well-being of hip-hop.
Theres no denying that a level of bias stuff wed call anything from discriminatory to downright racist is affecting the scene. Organizers of North By Northeast have always had a hard time getting some clubs to embrace the festivals rap component. Even while trying to organize The Next Shit showcase, NOW encountered resistance from club owners who claimed hip-hop shows require too much security and were generally unprofitable.
That sounds strange given how many clubs will book no-name indie bands that draw 10 people.
At the same time, Canada isnt Alabama, and artists would be smart to get their shit together. T.O.s original, Michie Mee, puts it this way.
There are too few stages to perform on and there are venues that are still afraid of hip-hop shows but thats sometimes justified.
Cox, from inside the rock-oriented Canadian music industry, has a subtler take on the situation. I dont really feel that the people who make the wheels turn in the industry are heavily racist, he says. If there is a level of racism, its subconscious. In their hearts the executives arent racist, but in how theyve listened, programmed or viewed things for years it might be subconsciously in their heads. The people I work with, its not about that. Its about business.
Maybe. But hip-hop is among the biggest profit-makers in the U.S. music biz. Thats partly because genuine pride is taken in promoting hometown heroes on radio and television across the border, from Eminem in Detroit to Outkast in Atlanta.
Torontos and Canadas biggest commercial urban radio station has been on the air for a tumultuous seven years now. It became the new FLOW 93.5, but its not drastically different from the old FLOW. Those who hoped it would be need to understand that the station wont have to play anything different until it gets some competition. Remember Canadas other (defunct) urban radio stations?
Jonathan Ramos of REMG, Canadas biggest black music promoter, weighs in this way.
One station cannot carry the burden of breaking black music in this country. If the momentum were really there, not only could the station not do it, but the station could not stop it. Its not a matter of being anybodys fault.
And, to be fair, FLOW cant just spin everything for hardcore hip-hop heads like its DJ Xs Powermove Show. Its a business. They gotta sell ads between hit songs. So tune in or tune out.
Torontos MC Promise, whos about to sign to Brooklyns Duck Down, is one of those people tuning out.
They dont want to play whats good, he complains. They want to play what they think people want to hear.
We submitted my song featuring Slum Village, he says. When people heard it, they were like, Wow, this is amazing. How come were not hearing it on FLOW? FLOW was the first place to have it and didnt play it, but they are playing it in the UK and the U.S.
And what ever happened to the high profile MuchMusic used to give the music? Programmer Baptiste is honest in admitting that Much has gone through changes since back in the day, when Michael Williamss Soul In The City led the way as one of the only places you could see black Canadian or American music videos.
I wondered if veejay Master Ts exit from the station in 2001 marked the end of the golden age of Canadian hip-hop.
Master T was more than just an on-air personality, says rapper Promise. Once he left, it guaranteed that a large chunk of Canadian hip-hop left with him. Then we had Namugenyi, who did stories within the community. Now we have MuchVibe and RapCity, which are hostless. Its more a sign of the industry of the whole.
Baptiste says the stations entire demographic has changed.
The modern Much targets a younger audience. When we were growing up, it didnt. Even the music itself was more risk-taking in terms of genres. Its not like it used to be.
Beverley McKee, executive director at VideoFACT, which funds music videos, is candid about the percentage of rap grant applications she sees.
We do get a lot from the genre. We got about 2,000 applications last year, and out of those Id say about 350 were from the hip-hop community across the country.
She says the fund for videos is always over budget, so aspiring artists need more than just a banging song to offer. Tours, press, buzz, it all counts which brings us back to the issue of missing infrastructure.
She encourages use of YouTube and other viral distribution and says proactive artists have a better chance of getting grants if they show that kind of initiative. Limited funds or bad timing may force VideoFACT to reject an application its not always a case of wack music or a bad video. Persistence pays.
Im not describing these hidden realities from the typical depressing, negative perspective. This is the truth of Canadian hip-hop as it is now. Nevertheless, I see so much potential for the future if we all choose to change our ignorant or uninspired and entrenched ways.
It might be just lip service, says Eternia, but we are more supportive of our own acts at home being from home, representing home, rapping about home. I see that a lot more than I did in the 90s.
In 2005, popular Toronto MC Collizhun took his incredible production skills to New York and almost instantly started mixing records for Junior Reid, Freeway, Paul Wall, MC Lyte and others. He knows what success feels like on both sides of the border, and counts his blessings.
In Toronto we have all these opportunities at our door every day. They dont have this in the States. Its either Puffy signs you or youre not signed. Its either yes or no. Toronto lives in a shelter of maybes.
With Parkdales Remix Project, Gavin Public Sheppard has taken a hands-on approach to bankrupting Screwface Capital-ism, helping kids express themselves in various positive ways.
From Drake ghostwriting for Dr. Dre, to Circle Research getting a distribution deal in Germany, to Isiss Thuderheist project blowing up and Bishop Brigante working with Nate Dogg (and possibly Snoop Dogg!), plus many more Canadian/international collaborations and blooming business opportunities, there are many reasons to believe.
As I was finishing up my phone interview with RZA a few weeks back, he spoke positively about his experience in Toronto. I spent October in Canada and got a chance to learn a lot about your culture. I never knew about the sovereign Indian nation there, or health benefits, and you actually encourage immigration! You have a very unique culture that could really lead America.
In reality, instead of following America, yall are in a position to lead the way. Thats beautiful. But nobody dont know about it thats the only catch! I was happy to talk to some people to learn about it.
In the immortal words of Kardinal Offishall on BaKardi Slang, You think you heard the hot shit? You havent heard nothing yet!