Rising In the West
Vancouver Hip-hop's Renaissance Page 2
In The Beginning
Before the world started paying attention, the Rascalz were paving the way for the convoy of hip-hop artists that now rumbles non-stop from Lotus Land. A review of the scene's history shows that the East Van crew was the first group in the city to be signed to a major label, and the first to gain widespread international recognition. "When it comes to Vancouver, we're the originators," claims Red, the MC-producer who coined the term Van City back in the mid-‘90s. "The only cats that was before us was this group called EQ. Those were the cats that inspired me. They were my heroes."
Comprised of the Incredible Ease and Quaze, EQ was the first Vancouver hip-hop group to make a dent outside BC, first by playing shows Stateside and then by seeing its video for "Swellsville" get rotation on MuchMusic in 1988. Asked to name the local pioneers, Swollen's Mad Child gives it up to Craig Crush and Mike D'Zire, a pair of artists who both sang and rapped to packed rooms at now-defunct clubs like Casablanca's and the Warehouse.
Maximus Clean has long been an important figure in the city's urban scene, and with the 1987 inauguration of Soul Sonic Shocks (on Simon Fraser University's campus station), he became the first radio jock to broadcast hip-hop on the Canadian West Coast. "These guys, like Ease and Craig Crush, they were the ones who really paved the way, as far as performance in this city," says Clean. "But they never got their props, because clubs at the time would rarely book hip-hop acts — urban R&B, maybe, but as far as hip-hop was concerned, it was too new and club owners weren't willing to risk booking it."
With little radio support and almost no club presence, Vancouver's second generation rappers occupied a sub-underground position in the early to mid-‘90s. Influenced by the sometimes violent fractiousness of the American hip-hop community, Van City's hip-hoppers were a divided lot, if only for petty reasons. Red 1 and his crew, formerly known as the Ragamuffin Rascalz, were at the top of the heap, while aspirants like Mad Child and Flipout (a duo named What The Hell?), MC Checkmate and DJ J-Swing (a young suburban team), and Prevail and Moka Only (formerly of Victoria), were making a run for the throne. Mad Child tells the story of his first meeting with Prevail, when the latter walked into North Vancouver's FWUH hip-hop shop with Moka in tow. "It was the sort of thing that, when he walked in with Moka, I turned up my nose and they looked at me and turned their noses up. If the three of us hadn't all moved to California as individuals, we definitely would not have hooked up back home and formed a group [in Vancouver]."
Divided by petty beefs, Vancouver's various hip-hop crews were united by their shared work with one of the city's uncredited pioneers, production engineer Roger Swan. In the basement of his parents' Coquitlam home, Swan was one of the few heads in the city with professional-grade recording equipment. As a result, crews from all over the city would descend on the suburban residence to lay down tracks and spit their rhymes. "We had nowhere to go to get beats," recalls the Rascalz' Red 1. "Roger was the only man we knew with equipment. He basically started Swollen Members and started the Rascalz. If it wasn't for Roger Swan, the Vancouver sound would be a whole lot different, because he's the man behind the boards for most of these cats."
No longer in his parents' basement, Swan's new production home is the west side's Hipposonic Studios, where he's mixed and engineered everything from the Rascalz' first major label effort, Global Warning, to Swollen's crossover smash, Bad Dreams, to Checkmate's nimble debut, Welcome To The Game. If Vancouver's hip-hop scene has a hero in hiding, Swan's the man.
As much as Vancouver's hip-hop history is oriented in a southerly direction, the city's most significant rap recording was the result of an inspired cross-Canadian collaboration. That song was, of course, 1997's "Northern Touch," a track that saw the Rascalz and fellow West Coasters Checkmate and Concise join forces with Toronto's Kardinal Offishall, Thrust, and Choclair to form the Dominion's first hip-hop super-group. If Maestro Fresh Wes's "Let Your Backbone Slide" inaugurated the era of crossover Canadian rap, "Northern Touch" elevated the national scene beyond its fringe status, permanently fixing Canadian hip-hop into the mainstream consciousness.
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