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In a year with no concerts, these artists are building music culture and burning it down
What is the sound of a city with no concerts? Tracking the Toronto music scene has been different this year. There are no live shows to scout out bands, find instant favourites or dance our faces off. It’s not an easy time to be an emerging musician in Toronto or anywhere else. But music, like everything else, has found ways to pivot and find meaning in this strange new world.
Without real spaces to congregate in, Toronto music scenes are taking shape online, over TikTok and Zoom, in Instagram lives and Bandcamp Fridays. Artists are taking action in other ways, building music culture from the ashes of what we took for granted, and in some cases burning it down themselves.
Here are five snapshots of Toronto music acts pushing boundaries in this pandemic year, as well as recommendations of 15 more to keep your ear on.
The sound: Punk to burn the Canadian music industry down by
The OBGMs are loud as hell – both onstage and off.
“We’re not just happy to be here. That might work for some people, it doesn’t work for us,” says Densil McFarlane, lead singer and guitarist of the punk trio. “We are hungry, and we’re going to show people that we’re one of the best bands in the city.
“And we’re going to do it loudly.”
You can feel the heat coming off their sophomore album, The Ends, which came out this past October on Black Box. It’s a searing collection of punk songs, combining rhythmic swagger with hardcore intensity and some Pixies guitar hooks peeking through the cracks.
Their confidence carries into interviews, where the band is about as modest as a Gallagher brother. That’s on purpose. As a majority Black band in the Canadian music industry, they know there aren’t seats at the table for bands that don’t look or sound a certain way. Being humble and waiting your turn just isn’t an option.
“Why is Canada always getting behind the same old bands?” he asks. “Since I grew up, it’s always been the same bands. We’re ready to move on.”
McFarlane and drummer Colanthony Humphrey have been making music together since the mid-2000s. They started out as a hip-hop production duo, but found there was a certain ceiling to hip-hop acts in Canada. They wanted to do something to stand out, so McFarlane taught himself to play guitar and they morphed into a rock band.
“At the time it was less common for two Black guys from Neptune Drive to be running shit like DFA,” McFarlane says. “Now, there’s more diversity there, but not enough.”
The OBGMs released their debut album in 2015 and got a bit of a following, but they got much more ambitious for this follow-up. It’s mixed by Dave Schiffman, who’s done production for a handful of A-listers. He hooked them up with Stefan Babcock from fellow Toronto punk band, PUP, who co-wrote a few songs and helped them refine and re-approach the songs they’d already written to make them as strong as possible.
By 2020, they were ready to burst back out of the gates. On March 11, the band (slimmed down to a trio, with Joseph Brosnan on bass) played their first concert in two years, an invite-only house show that they packed past fire code regulations. It was the same night Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA suspended its season. It’d be one of the last times they or any other band in the Toronto music scene could play a show like that.
That’s unfortunate. They’ve played some virtual concerts since then and you can still feel the energy, but this is a band whose legend is made in the mosh pit.
But rather than sit on his hands, McFarlane has used the time to strengthen what the OBGMs can do around their music. Humphreys’s brother is the do-it-all Toronto rapper Clairmont The Second, and they took a page out of his DIY book, learning to shoot and edit their own music videos and taking creative direction into their own hands.
And they’re paying it forward to the next generation of BIPOC artists in the rock scene. McFarlane is launching an artists’ network called Burn Industry, which is designed to share resources around production, videos, streaming and radio, grant-writing and access to other assets that often aren’t available to them in an industry that doesn’t represent them or support them. They want to help bands find each other and create a community, and they’re currently working on a directory of BIPOC artists.
“We’re going to make way for the next generation and give them the supports we don’t have.”
The OBGMs are tired of being treated as a novelty or being minimized. Don’t compare them to Bad Brains. And don’t even think to call them underrated.
“We’re tired of being underrated. Overrate me!” he says. “I just want my Grammy, I want my Juno and I want my Polaris. Give me that and other things. Give me a Nobel Peace Prize. I want that too.” RICHARD TRAPUNSKI
Maryam Said makes introspective and emotionally intelligent alt-folk songs. Poolblood’s recent releases have been more stripped-down than their 2019 Yummy EP (recorded with the artist Shamir). More recent songs are labelled demos, but their aching intimacy is perfect for this moment. In a solo performance of In My Little Room recorded for Toronto music series Long Winter, Said sings about the claustrophobic experience of being trapped in your own space and mind while in an actual little room. It gives you chills.
Densil McFarlane of the OBGMs credits Joncro’s Daniel G. Wilson with making him more vocal about the issues surrounding BIPOC people in rock music. The Mississauga musician’s Festival Lingua Franca has been making space for people of colour in punk and has continued the mission online. Joncro have been prolific on Bandcamp too, stretching from the usual punk and noise sounds to everything from doo-wop to ska, spoken word poetry to hardcore. He’s been doing some good writing too with the new Canadian music journalism co-op New Feeling.
Dorothea Paas has been a presence in Toronto music for years now, solo and with acts like Badge Époque Ensemble and U.S. Girls, but she’s finally set to release her solo debut. Anything Can’t Happen, out May 7 on Telephone Explosion, shows off her timeless voice, infused with the emotional mysticism of Joni Mitchell, English folk like the Fairport Convention and her own religious upbringing singing in church choirs.
The sound: Bad gyal anthems with island flare
Ebhoni can’t stop thinking about summertime in Toronto – when block parties and bashment reign supreme and you can catch a whine with a friendly stranger.
She’s been splitting her time between Atlanta and Toronto ever since her mother remarried and says the most noted difference between the two cities is that people in Atlanta don’t listen to dancehall, reggae or soca. As an artist whose music always has an island flare, she misses the influence of Caribbean culture.
“When I hear island music, I want to be in Toronto before anywhere else. The culture there is so crazy. I can’t wait to come back.”
X, her EP released last month, is sung mostly in patois with the panache of a true bad gyal. It’s fun, bold and undeniable.
Like many children of the Caribbean diaspora (she has Antiguan, Jamaican and Indigenous roots) she remembers soca and reggae blasting on Sunday mornings. She grew up in Weston with a lot of West Indian friends who introduced her to the whole gamut of Caribbean music.
The past year has given her time to come into her own. She deprioritized the expectations she had about how her music should sound or who it should appeal to, and feels more in control than ever.
“The pandemic has had a lot to do with me finding myself in the music because I’ve had the opportunity to spend so much time alone,” she says. “I feel like I’m learning to just trust god and trust that my work is going to get out there.”
Ebhoni has been releasing music since she was a teenager, and when she goes back through her Soundcloud archive she can hear the moments where people pushed her to veer from the sound she wanted.
“There’s always been someone who says ‘maybe we should try a happy pop beat’ and I would always do it because I’m the type of person that likes to please people. And I would always find myself being unhappy.”
Now, if she has a vision, she sticks to it and the people around her build her up rather than making her second-guess her intuition.
Ebhoni always wants to put her true self into her lyrics. She uses songwriting to process everything she experiences and is sitting on a gold mine of unreleased tracks. Enough to fill two new projects, one coming out later this year.
X almost went unreleased but thankfully her producers and friends convinced her the tracks needed to be heard. It’s some of her most compelling music to date.
MIA is a standout track with the lyric that gave her a new Instagram bio: “qween of tittie dem small.”
“Tittie dem small” is a defiant reclamation of her body, which she’s grown to love again. She went from being a body-positive Tumblr girl to beating herself up about being too petite after she turned 19.
“Last May when I wrote MIA, I was actually booked for a surgery consultation,” she says. “But writing that song made me feel so good about myself I didn’t go through with it.”
Her music empowers any listener to walk with their head a little higher, but she’s really creating these anthems of defiance for herself. KELSEY ADAMS
Savannah Ré’s video introduction to her 2020 EP, Opia, describes the word as “the intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable.” Her soulful and melodic R&B is a contemporary take on an old standard – she is singing the hell out of these notes. Ré started making music a decade ago and has written for artists like Babyface and Daniel Caesar but this is her first EP. The Boi-1-da produced project is a study of the kind of vulnerability necessary to truly let someone else see and love you.
Amaal’s recent cover of India Arie’s Brown Skin, a love letter to Black womanhood, is perfectly suited to the singer’s angelic voice and her propensity to centre her Blackness and her Somali identity in her songwriting. She started releasing music at 16 and has a catalogue of unquestionable R&B bops under her belt. Her music is smooth and pleading and imbued with raw sensuality.
We’ve been fans of the Los Angeles-based Toronto music artist for a while, but her latest singles All Along and Got ‘Em is giving us the bounce we need right now. Putting modern spins on 90s pop and R&B subgenres and heavy on layered vocals, the tracks are among her headiest and hardest-hitting to date. We’re ready for more.
DijahSB is one of the artists playing All Axis Festival in early September.
The sound: Smooth hip-hop full of rewindable bars
DijahSB makes you want to click Follow.
“I just engage a lot,” the rapper says from their place in Brampton. “Maybe sometimes too much.”
For musicians, being good at social media is more than a side skill. With no in-person live shows or networking opportunities, it’s a crucial way to get your music out there and show off your personality. But while thirsty artists and labels spend truckloads on online marketing specialists and Zoom workshops, it rings hollow if it feels too manufactured. The same goes for music that’s brazenly trend-chasing or A&R’ed to death.
DijahSB avoids all of that just by being their authentic self. They have the tracks to back up their tweets, so when people discover them anywhere online they tend to stick around for the music.
On last year’s 2020 The Album and their upcoming album, Head Above The Waters (out April 23), it’s clear they’ve found their sound. They started making music about a decade ago as part of a duo called Class of ‘93. That project had a 90s boom-bap vibe, but the stuff they’ve been doing recently has a groovy lo-fi house production inspired by Montreal producer Kaytranada. Vocally, they’re always in the pocket and always spitting rewindable bars.
“A couple years ago, I realized I was making music for other people, like looking for key slang words that people use to put in the hook to make it more catchy or relatable,” they admit. “As soon as I dropped that mentality and started making music for myself, it opened up a world of creativity to me. As long as I’m saying whatever it is I want to say, I know that someone somewhere will be able to relate to it.”
On their latest single, By Myself (produced by local beatmaker Harrison, who has three tracks on the new record), DijahSB raps “I don’t want to fight with any crab that’s in a bucket.” It’s an allusion to the Screwface mentality of a few gatekeeping Toronto rappers who’ve come at them online.
“I’m a masc-presenting lesbian, and men who have huge ego problems see a big issue with that because I’m in a space that they usually occupy the most and I’m doing better than them.”
For the most part, though, Dijah says people have been supportive, especially over the last year. 2020 The Album was paid for by a successful crowdfunding campaign, and recently they’ve got co-signs from their heroes like Kid Cudi and Jay Electronica. The latter had his mind blown when he randomly picked DijahSB out of a crowd to rap onstage in 2018. He invited them to open officially at Mod Club last year, but that concert was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID.
Without the help of any sort of label or management support, Dijah got themselves onto some key playlists and says people message them all the time saying they discovered them streaming and then listened through their whole discography.
“The stuff I’ve been putting out lately is just undeniably good,” Dijah says, matter-of-factly. “It’s kind of hard to ignore me at this point.”
But the best compliments, they say, have been coming from Brazil. It come after DijahSB recently did a cross-continental collab with the Brazilian artist NiLL on the song Control.
“The love that I’ve been receiving from the Brazilian hip-hop scene has been nuts,” Dijah says. “I’ve been speaking Portuguese for a month, bro.” RT
No Tourists is made up of five artists (Deelo Avery, Kafayé, Keynes Woods, Lan’do and James Wesson) whose diasporic Congolese, Jamaican and Nigerian backgrounds inflect their music with fervent energy. Their explosive sound bridges hip-hop, jazz, house, dancehall, funk and grime – something that is worldly and simultaneously very Toronto. They’re releasing their Ultraviolet EP in April, a meditative follow-up to 2020’s more bravado-heavy Guerrilla EP.
Like his former Halal Gang compatriant Mustafa, SAFE has relocated from Toronto. But the formerly Regent Park-based singer is on a hot streak with the singles he’s been putting out lately. That includes a recent duet with R&B singer Kiana Ledé for the soundtrack to the Fred Hampton biopic film Judas and the Black Messiah that has his honeyed vocals in the ears of people all over the world. Whatever comes next could be a huge breakthrough.
This consistently solid Toronto rapper has been releasing music for almost a decade, and is deservedly starting to bubble up. He dropped the album Because We’re Alive in late 2020 and landed on mainstream hip-hop radio with the hooky single Jungle (featuring Ruby Waters). DillanPonders has a knack for combining the melodic and booming over diverse rhyme patterns.
The sound: Demystified beatmaking for everyone stuck at home
For the past five years, Koal Harrison has had a good presence in Toronto music as a producer for R&B acts like Allie. Under his producing alias The Kount, he earned a reputation for bright and sparkly synth-funk tracks but, in true behind-the-scenes producer style, he kept out of the limelight.
In November 2019, he decided to try something new and posted a video on social media of himself making a beat and noticed more people liking and commenting than usual.
“People were really interested in seeing the process,” he says. “The track is built out one layer at a time and they get to see it progress in real time. And I think people were happy to see my face.”
Fast-forward to 2021, 126 beat videos and a global pandemic later, the 28-year-old beatmaker is demystifying the production process, galvanizing a community of musicians stuck in self-isolation and raising his own profile among big names in American hip-hop.
Each month he hosts the Kount Challenge, a social media competition in which he posts a “genre-less” drum loop that musicians use to build out songs, manipulating the break into disco, hip-hop or whatever they want. Last March, Luna Li (aka Hannah Bussiere Kim, who was in our Sound Of Toronto issue last year) layered harp, guitar and violin to create a dreamy instrumental that went viral. She ended up releasing a whole album of one-minute jams.
Gradually, bigger names would see the videos and retweet – or reach out. This month, Chicago rapper Noname released her first song of 2021, the Kount-produced Rainforest, which she was inspired to write after coming across a Kount beat on Twitter.
“She was like, ‘Could you send me this track? And I saw you did a beat video here, and could you send me that one too?” he says. “That guaranteed I was in the right wheelhouse.”
“I don’t think it’s enough to tell somebody that you make good sounds and then have them just listen through a bunch of sample packs,” he says. “The videos show everything that you’re going to buy in context, how you can use them in a beat and what the final beat will sound like.”
Harrison began playing drums while attending Rosedale Heights School of the Arts. He initially convinced his parents to buy him a guitar, but never got a handle on the instrument. He realized he could hold rhythm (hence his name – which is also inspired by the Sesame Street character that terrified his sister as a child) and fashioned old boxes, a wicker basket high-hat and other objects into a “really janky” homemade drum set.
In high school, he obsessively listened to Madlib and the late J. Dilla, hip-hop beatsmiths who mix live percussion with samples to defy genre convention. So you can imagine his elation when Madlib tweeted his name alongside two fire emojis last November.
“It made me feel like a million bucks,” Harrison says, adding he’d noticed that Madlib had bought one of his sample packs but never had direct contact with the California-based producer. “I was shaking in the studio a little bit.”
Inspired by Madlib, he has focused on working quickly and taking a less-is-more approach to production. He knows when to pull back and say a track is finished. Last year, he says even though he only released a few songs he made “close to 300.” He’s prepping an EP with producer Kaelin Ellis for the spring and promises summer will be “very exciting” – COVID notwithstanding.
When the weather warms up, perhaps the video shoots will move outdoors since it’s unlikely live gigs will be happening.
“At least a drum circle in the park,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.” KEVIN RITCHIE
Zosia Mackenzie recorded the demos for her upcoming electro-pop EP Obraz (out May 15) in her grandmother’s attic in Warsaw. She returned to her home on Roncesvalles to flesh them out with her Soviet-era Formanta Polivoks (as well as more familiar synths and drum machines) and her partner John O’Regan. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was the guy behind the DIY glam-pop project Diamond Rings, once a NOW cover star himself. This is his return to music after nearly a decade. Dub techno pioneers Mark and Matt Thibideau also contributed. But this is Zosia’s project, a warm and pulsing bit of electronic music with lyrics in Polish.
Korea Town Acid
The producer/DJ with an affinity for polyrhythmic and subversive club sounds slows the pace somewhat and melds her love of hip-hop, drum n’ bass and grime on her debut LP, Metamorphosis, due out April 6. Featuring collabs with local R&B singer Desiire and hard-edged South Korean MC PNSB, the project promises to bring her myriad influences together in ways that push the Toronto sound into new and exciting directions.
This is the new project from Carlyn Bezic, best known as one-half of the post-punk band Ice Cream (though she also plays with U.S. Girls, Darlene Shrugg and more). If you like Ice Cream’s mix of sultry disco funk, throbbing pop and critiques of modern life and its fragmentary identity-formation, this will definitely be up your alley. Jane Inc.’s debut album, Number One, is out March 19 on Telephone Explosion.
The sound: Whiplash-inducing pop from your imagination
Moneyphone are entirely uninterested in the conventions of genre.
Their sound exists somewhere between post-punk, hyperpop, drum and bass, alternative hip-hop and UK garage. The duo describes their music as pop, which they see as a conduit for disseminating ideas.
“Pop is a form of communication. It just means you’re able to communicate your ideas at a really high level that connects with a lot of people,” says Enoch Ncube, one half of Moneyphone alongside longtime friend David May.
“From the very beginning, David and I have been interested in trying to understand our references and then filter them through ourselves. We use pop as the medium to take things like really loving post-punk music and loving drum and bass and figuring out how you can take those seperate things and communicate them as a single idea.”
Their recent mixtape is an illustration of this synthesis. FAITH is a trip. It’s braggadocious with rowdy 808s on one track and subdued and contemplative on the next. Centred around the multiple meanings of “faith,” it includes clips of the duo’s friends sharing their own interpretations of the word. It was recorded in late 2018 and 2019 and they look back at it with the sheen of nostalgia.
“We’re paying homage to all the people who impacted us and to have this archive with the people who made that time so special is beautiful to me,” said Ncube.
Before FAITH, they had released two EPs and a handful of singles going back to 2017. They both see Moneyphone as a project that they grew up in. Ncube and May met years ago on the school bus that took them to their Stouffville high school. They’ve been inseparable friends ever since.
They started living together when they moved to Toronto and helped each other with their respective projects. Eventually, they decided to make music together.
“The fact that we live together is how everything happened so fast,” says May. “I think that’s the benefit. You live with the music, it’s all around you. It’s all you’re thinking about. If Enoch is working on something and I’m downstairs and I can hear it, I can be tuned in.”
Their upcoming project is a dance album – all the duo cares about right now is “making people feel good.” They’re avid fans of the dance and electronic scene in the city, dropping names like Bambii, Prince Josh, Teesh and Harrison as inspirations.
“We’ve been doing a lot of learning about dance music while making the album, but we haven’t had the ability to go to a club and hear how bass hits on speakers and take that back into the studio,” says Ncube.
Without being able to pull from real experiences, they’ve relied more on their imaginations. And that feels perfectly Moneyphone. KA
This singer/songwriter’s debut album explores questions around loss and identity. His songwriting is tender and emotionally eviscerating and he bares intimate parts of himself in the music. One of his definitive songs is shoes, a duet in English and Japanese that features his estranged father whom he reconciled with after 15 years of distance. You may have also heard Yano’s yearning croon on songs by his frequent collaborators and friends Moneyphone, Monsune and BADBADNOTGOOD.
The falsetto-voiced singer and producer (and backing vocalist for Sound of Toronto alumni Tush) is floating into 2021 on the delicately caressing Tulips, an R&B cut that sees their artistry hitting new heights. It’s a stripped-down showcase for their ethereal vocal acrobatics – and clear love of whispery Janet Jackson balladry – that delivers the straight-up heat we all need right now.
Kizis is technically a Montreal artist, but the Algonquin two-spirit artist’s new album Tidibàbide / Turn is a monumental album that transcends any sort of artificial boundaries. Over 50 artists contributed, including Owen Pallett, Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Tara Kannangara, Elle Barbara and many more. The sprawling, genreless album is over four hours long and it’s a lot to absorb, but there’s surprises in every minute.
Listen to Richard Trapunski’s panel with The OBGMs, The Kount, Moneyphone and Poolblood in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.