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.
For Ice Cold 's production, Choclair has kept, for the most part, in his own Circle - that is, the combined unit of the Figurez of Speech crew, (whose members include Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall and Solitaire) and Choclair's own Paranormal crew. Saukrates, Kardinal and Solitaire provide the bulk of Ice Cold 's production, and Choclair stresses the importance the Circle crew played on the project. Their increasingly sophisticated sample-free production adds to the crew's growing reputations for beats as well as rhymes.
"I realise there's pressure, but I'm not gonna let that dictate what I do."
Choclair says that his album content is "not too deep," but he is aware that Ice Cold is bigger than the record itself. "I realise that there's pressure on me to make sure that this hits off well," he says. "But I'm not gonna let that dictate what I'm gonna do. I'm still gonna do the album that I wanna do. I'm still gonna make sure that what I do, is gonna be me on paper and when you hear it on the CD." While firm in sticking to his own principles as an artist, he is cognisant of the context in which his chance to be in the spotlight has arisen.
Ten Years After
Ten years ago, one hand was plenty to count the number of Canadian hip-hop acts signed to domestic major label deals. Today, a second hand is still not required. Pioneering acts like Maestro, Michie Mee and the Dream Warriors paved the way for Choclair's opportunity. Yet in the late '80s and early '90s, when these artists first came to prominence, there was no nurturing nor development of the artists emerging from the nascent hip-hop scene.
"Around the time of the Dream Warriors, Michie and Maestro, you had [major label] people who didn't really care to understand the music," says Toronto-based urban music promoter Jonathan Ramos. "They knew they would get on the bandwagon for as long as it drove itself. When it petered out - which didn't really take long, about a year - they jumped off. There was no support system. The only way something develops is if there's people to develop it."
With a lack of major label backing of new artists and popular figures like Maestro Fresh Wes moving to a much more established hip-hop scene in New York, the profile of hip-hop in Canada quickly dwindled.
It didn't disappear, however. One group who effortlessly combined soul and R&B as well as the distinctly West Indian sounds that have come to be identified as particularly Canadian in hip-hop, was Ghetto Concept. Their 1994 single "Certified" - which won a Juno for Best Rap Recording - raised the lyrical and musical ante for Canadian artists. Kwajo and Dolo's infectious lyrical delivery and jazzy production set off a chain reaction of independently-issued records that exhibited the growing improvement in the Canadian scene.
"Ghetto Concept was the TSN Turning Point for T.O."
Mr. Attic, of Da Grassroots.
"From that point on when ['Certified'] came out, that was the second wave of hip-hop," says Mr. Attic of Da Grassroots. "It was the TSN Turning Point for T.O." Da Grassroots is a production team made up of Mr. Attic, Mr. Murray and Mr. Swiff, who co-produced "Certified." The "E-Z on Tha Motion" single, produced by Mr. Attic, won Ghetto Concept a second consecutive Juno, but didn't yield the benefits the group or Da Grassroots hoped for. Mr. Swiff and Mr. Attic began their own label, B.E. Records, and their first single, "Drama/Living Underwater," alerted heads to their own talents as artists. Da Grassroots fostered a mutual respect with many other artists who were also releasing noteworthy independent singles such as Red Life, Thrust and Choclair, all of whom appear on their new Da Grassroots Passage Through Time album on Seattle-based label Conception Records.
The production trio's understated, refined work behind the boards was another marked step in development, and their new album showcases those talents, from the simple, yet maddeningly addictive riff of lead single "Thematics," contrasting Arcee's rapid-fire articulate flow and the dub-addled rhythm of "Postal Work" with the random verbals of Mr. Roam. Culling from their large, eclectic vinyl collection, Da Grassroots' subtle, melodic beats facilitate a coaxing ambience.
"It comes down basically to how you edit all your sounds," says Mr. Murray, who often incorporates drum & bass into his production. "Some people edit their snares and they're not getting the full spectrum of the sample, you're not hearing all the frequencies that you're sampling. It's just about taking care and taking loops that are sounding full and fresh and just being able to EQ things properly."
Da Grassroots' attention to detail is illustrative of an approach to production that many camps are using to brew their own distinctive sounds by creatively utilising obscure samples, eschewing instantly familiar four-bar loops or omitting them altogether.
Many Canadian artists have West Indian backgrounds, and the blending of this overt influence, despite hip-hop's roots in the Jamaican sound system aesthetic, is helping the Canadian hip-hop develop a growing sense of identity. "I think with our music up here, we've got a different kind of mix, a musical gumbo type of sound," says Choclair. "We listen to soul, we listen to R&B, and a lot of West Indian influences and we all take that in and put it in our music."
Although he admits to scouting south of the border for production, Choclair ended up sticking close to home. "I'm getting better beats from Kardinal & Solitaire and Da Grassroots" he says. "I don't need to be going all over the place looking for these beats. There's talent up here and it just needs to be grabbed and helped and that's definitely what I want to show."
Shadow Of A Giant
Choclair's example is illustrative of a distinctly Canadian dilemma that the hip-hop community is ever aware of, and constantly trying to escape from - the shadow of our neighbour to the south. After all, hip-hop is, despite its popularity worldwide, an American art form. But with an increased flood of derivative hip-hop from the U.S., home grown artists are benefiting from the urge of hip-hop lovers everywhere to seek out refreshing and innovative material.
How typically Canadian to seek international affirmation of our home grown talent; how predictable to deny it's what we want, to claim our own distinct identity away from the juggernaut. But for those who need it, there's plenty of evidence that the world's ears have heard what Canadian artists have to offer - then and now. A decade ago, both Dream Warriors and Michie Mee signed deals outside of Canada first; recently, Saukrates was lured away by an ill-fated deal with Warner U.S., and even Da Grassroots' independent effort comes courtesy of Seattle's Conception Records.
Artists from both sides of the border are collaborating with increasing regularity on equal artistic footing. A series of underground Toronto hip-hop shows this summer, entitled "Ill-A-Mental," consistently featured American and Canadian performers on the same bill. The last instalment of the series featured revered underground NY lyricist O.C., who couldn't stop raving about show openers, Toronto crew Monolith. O.C. has collaborated with Saukrates, who has also teamed up with a number of Stateside MCs on his albumThe Underground Tapes . Choclair 's "Just A Second" was sampled on Gang Starr's '97 single "You Know My Steez" by DJ Premier, while his partner Guru appears on Choclair'sIce Cold .
"We've been following the underground rap scene in Canada since we first came here with EPMD in '92," says Guru, who also worked with the Dream Warriors. "We started meeting cats since then, like Maestro Fresh Wes, and there are a lot of white labels [featuring Canadian artists] that come out. So I've known about the whole movement here for a while."
Acknowledgement from the birthplace of hip-hop culture confirms that Canada's scene is gaining confidence and a self-identity that isn't a shallow imitation of the American version. Manifestation can be seen in the dubbing of major Canadian cities Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver as T-Dot, Mount Real and Van City.
"There's a different energy among the artists right now," says Thrust, a durable MC from the Toronto scene. " A lot of us have gotten play in the U.S. in the last three or four years. So you've got the attitude, ' I can go anywhere'"
The Four Elements
Canada's rapidly developing self-identity has come in part by maintaining a strong connection to hip-hop culture as a whole. While marketing in America focuses on rap, and often downplays or ignores its other facets, the absence of a multi-billion industry based on this culture in Canada has allowed hip-hop's elements to remain in comparatively close proximity to the elements of the MC and the DJ.
One group that has embraced incorporating the largely ignored and maligned elements of b-boying and graffiti are the Rascalz. Originally brought together by b-boying at some of the first regular hip-hop events in Vancouver, the group sees the manifestation of all four elements as integral to the representation of hip-hop. While MCs Red-1 and Misfit and DJ Kemo represent the musical output of the group, dancers Zebroc and Dedos are also members. "Wherever we go, they go," says Red-1. "It's not like a thing where they're expendable, 'We don't need them today.' If the group has to be somewhere, they're a part of the group, they have to be there."
The Rascalz have brought the same inclusive attitude to their recordings. Their "Northern Touch" single featured fellow Vancouverite Checkmate and Toronto artists Kardinal Offishall, Choclair and Thrust. The song captured this year's Juno for Best Rap Recording and the group performed the song with its featured artists during the telecast of the awards.
What a difference a year makes. Just one year earlier, the Rascalz won the very same award, yet refused to accept it. They were protesting the distinct lack of representation of urban music artists both on the telecast and in the awards. "I think the proof is in the pudding," says Misfit, discussing the difference between the two events. "It hasn't changed our career any. I think we just gained a bit more respect for our genre of music as a whole. It was good for the future and for the Junos to have us perform, so everything is relative and we're grateful that it all worked out."
A new record, Global Warning , signals the Rascalz' communal urges remain undeterred. With the matured lyrical outlook of "Priceless," the diasporic celebration "Top Of The World," and the evocative "Fallen," the Rascalz' have reeled their occasionally quirky beats into a taut alliance with Red-1 and Misfit's aggressive deliveries. Kardinal Offishall and Choclair, guests on the "Northern Touch" single, return and other Canadian content includes Esthero and Montreal quartet Muzion.
Despite this crop of new artists with great potential, not enough has changed. Yes, the Juno audience saw the "Northern Touch" crew perform their hit as part of the telecast. It never would have happened without the previous years' protest, but the fact that they were supporting a number one hit certainly didn't hurt. There is still scarce, almost non-existent support of domestic hip-hop artists from Canadian major labels. Of course record labels are reluctant - there's a paucity of radio stations playing urban music across the country. Instead of feeling secure and supported, new major label releases by the Rascalz and Choclair are anything but - they're being asked to represent not just for themselves, but for the country.
"We don't want people buying records because they think they're rescuing something."
"If these [releases] are successful, we can build our industry up," says Red-1 of the Rascalz, signed to Vik/BMG. " If they're not successful, labels are gonna be hesitant, and a lot of that support is not going to be built and in that aspect [the records] have to stand strong on their own. We don't want people buying them 'cuz they think they're gonna be rescuing something."
Fortunately, the Rascalz and Choclair releases make strong, if very different statements, side-stepping slavish pandering to momentary trends, making welcome additions to the home grown mix. These artists deserve support not because they are Canadian, but because they are good, a transition that speaks volumes about the creative efforts of hip-hop artists in this country.
"Everybody really does it from the heart, so you really got people who are really wanting to do it, not 'cuz it's gonna sell a million, says Choclair. "I think that's why we're making a real mark in the market in the U.S. and around the world right now, 'cuz we have our own sound coming, something different. We're bringing something different to what's been going around for so long."