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.
I’ve 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 Source’s Unsigned Hype section in June 1997, and so many Canadians thought, “This is it, guy! Toronto’s gonna blow up this year!”
Eleven years later and we’re still waiting. We’re still trying to convince Canadians that our hip-hop is as good as, if not better than, anybody else’s. 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 1995’s anthemic Dear Hip Hop video. He knows a multitude of reasons why Toronto hasn’t blown up.
“The only way you can get local hip-hop is from independent artists, because it’s 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.”
That’s why NOW has put together The Next Shit at the Wrongbar Friday, showcasing some of the local hip-hop talents who haven’t had the attention they deserve.
In the meantime, the question remains: What’s 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 Canada’s 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 didn’t care. It’s 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. “It’s excruciating, but it’s also a great proving ground in terms of performance.”
Remember when radio DJ Arcee, host of FLOW 93.5’s The Real Frequency, poignantly said: “Welcome to Toronto, where we’ll pay $20 to boo you!”? And local MC Marvel’s 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 that’s embedded in Canadian blood and minds. It’s 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 can’t blow up on our home turf is because we don’t agree on what the language of our people is.”
U.S. rapper Bun B, who was featured on Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’ and appears on Kardinal Offishall’s new album coming soon on Akon’s 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 don’t 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 it’s rock, rap, R&B, jazz, blues or whatever, it’s gotta seem like ‘Oh my god, what have we been doing in America that we weren’t paying attention to Canada while all these people have been making this incredible music?’”
Who are we anyway?
But the combination of Canada’s 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 Canada’s first black music executives, sees it all very clearly.
“The Canadian market has a lack of self-respect. I’ve travelled the world, and Toronto is the number-one self-loathing, self-hating city in the world. There’s 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 you’re going back into mental slavery.
“When people know you’re black and into hip-hop, they don’t expect much from you,” says Maestro. “They think you’re 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. “We’re 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. It’s 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.”
America the not so beautiful
Changing that is hard when America dominates the airwaves.
“I can’t watch these videos right now,” says Maestro. “It’s 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 General’s Urban Arts Summit in Vancouver. We got potential political power, brethren. That’s how powerful hip-hop is. There are black kids in Canada right now who don’t 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 don’t know Maestro Fresh Wes,” he says.
“It’s not really these kids’ fault,” says Greg Baptiste, a head MuchMusic video programmer. “They aren’t the ones controlling the programming on MuchMusic or MTV, and all these shows are doing is gravitating to what’s going on in America. From a business perspective it makes sense, but from a cultural perspective it’s detrimental to people’s 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. We’re the Brits who didn’t separate, basically. We weren’t the rebels who said, ‘Fuck the system.’
“This rap shit is ‘Fuck the system.’ It’s not ‘Pillage and be savage,’” says 4th Pyramid, “but it’s ‘Fuck the system.’ Wake up, Canada. It’s easy to look at America and be like ‘Yo, they’re fucked up’. So then why are we imitating them?”
The missing infrastructure
All the potential and coming-of-age understanding of our unique artistry can’t 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 Brampton’s MoSS, producer of Ghostface Killah’s 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? That’s very difficult.”
Empire, aka Fifth Letter Fam, is a massive crew of Toronto talent. You’ve probably seen them hustling CDs anywhere the sun is shining. Likely the number-one hand-to-hand unit-shifting salesman in Canadian history, Empire’s Rhyme Animal doesn’t think it’s 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. It’s 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 don’t even have that any more.
“I wish these major labels would do another Rap Essentials [a popular mid-90s Canadian compilation released on Ivan Berry’s BeatFactory Records] but call it S.A.R.S. [Empire’s yearly street mixtape], because we did all the groundwork already. We built an empire off face-to-face marketing.”
Empire’s the Legend Adam Bomb breaks down the vicious circle of abandonment artists experience.
“[Labels don’t invest in artists] because they don’t 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.”
It’s true that a disproportionately small number of black Canadian artists are signed to major labels. But what’s 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 aren’t the labels signing more homegrown hip-hop black music talents?
At the country’s 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. They’ll get lost in the system. They should take their destiny into their own hands. If they can’t figure that out, they aren’t even ready for a label.”
Daring to use the R-word
But that’s 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. It’s like ‘Okay, here’s our black artist. This is the one we’re going to let through, the one we’re 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.
There’s no denying that a level of bias – stuff we’d 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 festival’s 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 isn’t 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 that’s sometimes justified.
Cox, from inside the rock-oriented Canadian music industry, has a subtler take on the situation. “I don’t 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, it’s subconscious. In their hearts the executives aren’t racist, but in how they’ve listened, programmed or viewed things for years it might be subconsciously in their heads. The people I work with, it’s not about that. It’s about business.”
Don’t believe the (media) hype
Maybe. But hip-hop is among the biggest profit-makers in the U.S. music biz. That’s 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.
Toronto’s – and Canada’s – biggest commercial urban radio station has been on the air for a tumultuous seven years now. It became the new FLOW 93.5, but it’s not drastically different from the old FLOW. Those who hoped it would be need to understand that the station won’t have to play anything different until it gets some competition. Remember Canada’s other (defunct) “urban” radio stations?
Jonathan Ramos of REMG, Canada’s 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. It’s not a matter of being anybody’s fault.”
And, to be fair, FLOW can’t just spin everything for hardcore hip-hop heads like its DJ X’s Powermove Show. It’s a business. They gotta sell ads between hit songs. So tune in or tune out.
Toronto’s MC Promise, who’s about to sign to Brooklyn’s Duck Down, is one of those people tuning out.
“They don’t want to play what’s 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 we’re not hearing it on FLOW?’ FLOW was the first place to have it and didn’t 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 Williams’s 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 T’s 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. It’s more a sign of the industry of the whole.”
Baptiste says the station’s entire demographic has changed.
“The modern Much targets a younger audience. When we were growing up, it didn’t. Even the music itself was more risk-taking in terms of genres. It’s 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 I’d 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; it’s not always a case of wack music or a bad video. Persistence pays.
Finding future positivity
I’m 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 don’t have this in the States. It’s either Puffy signs you or you’re not signed. It’s either yes or no. Toronto lives in a shelter of maybes.”
With Parkdale’s 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 Isis’s 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, y’all are in a position to lead the way. That’s beautiful. But nobody don’t know about it – that’s 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 haven’t heard nothing yet!”