Canadian Hip Hop: Choclair
Eyes On the Prize: Turning Northern Touch Into Midas Touch
It's been a decade since Maestro Fresh Wes "Let Your Backbone Slide" and took hip-hop music in Canada into uncharted waters. It was a pioneering moment for Canadian hip-hop - home grown talent making a mark around the world, in a medium spawned and dominated by Americans. Since then, artists in Canada have honed their skills, and have slowly gained respect on their own distinctive terms from hip-hop aficionados worldwide. But while the scene changed from the ground up, and the skills Canadian bring have been acknowledged internationally, support for the music at home has been distinctly lacking.
Now comes a second wave of Canadian talent, including many participants in last year's number one hit "Northern Touch." Yet despite the somewhat belated notion that hip-hop originating from Canada is actually viable, the structural barriers that prevented sustained development of Maestro's pioneering efforts still exist in many ways. Now with new releases from the likes of Choclair, Rascalz and Da Grassroots - figures who have played important artistic roles in the ongoing development of hip-hop in Canada - a crucial litmus test of the state of the hip-hop nation lies ahead.
Spend some time with Kareem Blake, aka Choclair, and you'll notice that his eyes dart constantly behind his black-rimmed specs. While he'll probably attribute this to being an avid observer, as the chorus of his single "Flagrant" attests ("Whenever I move eyes glued"), these days he's more aware of being watched. He's garnered plenty of attention from respected urban publications worldwide, based on the buzz of his independent singles. The announcement of his signing to Virgin was greeted with a standing ovation at the 1998 Canadian Urban Music Awards. His summer included opening for and performing with heavyweights Gang Starr, and a last-minute addition opening for Lauryn Hill. Now, in additional to appearances on highly anticipated releases by the Rascalz and Da Grassroots, he's dropping his own debut platter, Ice Cold .
Choclair is the only solo Canadian hip-hop artists on a domestic major label, a fact that he is well aware of. "A lot of people are like, 'Why is this not me?'" he says. "I don't know. I don't call the radio station to play my songs. I don't call everybody - 'Like me or I'll beat you up' type thing. I just do music that I want to do. I'm lucky enough that people are taking to the music that I'm doing."
About three years ago, Choclair, then working at a day care, was working the label he co-founded with his manager, Day, called Kneedeep. They were putting out a single, called "Father Time" by Toronto MC Saukrates. "I was focusing more on the label," Choclair admits. "I was like, 'OK, just throw me on the B side.'" That B side, "21 Years," featured vulnerable lyrics over Day's melancholy beat, revealing his frustrations and struggles, and his vow to persist despite adverse circumstances. It was one of the most strikingly personal songs to rise out of Toronto's mid-90's hip-hop resurgence.
His follow-up, "Just A Second," was strikingly different, introducing Choclair's amorous side over a butter-smooth Billy Joel sample, confirming his narrative knack and fluid delivery. After copping the 1997 Juno for Best Rap Recording with the What It Takes EP, his major label kick-off single "Flagrant" marks an change in attitude - on the track, he takes his naysayers to task. "It was just me getting things off my chest," he says. "It's like I was venting and there were some things I felt I wanted to address. I always never said anything, just kept kinda quiet."
That decision is a reflection of his evolving writing process. "I'm a lot more confident in what I'm writing," he says "After '21Years' came out, I was thinking 'Maybe I should starting writing like this,' thinking this is what people want to hear. I just got a bit more confident - 'This is what I want to rap about,' and I think people are gonna like it for that." Ice Cold confirms Choclair's cadence and assured delivery are worthy of serious attention, yet the lyrical content does little to dissuade the perception he focuses too much on the opposite sex.
"I write from my perspective," he says. "Whenever people say I just talk about rapping or talk about girls, it's still my perspective and point of view. If you agree or disagree, it's OK. I don't have any problems if you disagree with what I'm sayin'. I don't think I'm raunchy with it. I think I just talk about it." In contrast to the introspective nature of earlier singles, Ice Cold sees him in the role of the observer on the sombre reportage of "Situation 9" and "Takin It In," underscored by Saukrates' throbbing beat.
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