DJ Serious Leads the Pack

DJ Serious Leads the Pack
When Toronto's DJ Serious made his first big moves as an artist nearly five years ago, the current of the city's hip-hop scene was moving in an entirely different direction. At millennium's turn, the city was in the midst of its most prolific period, with artists from all corners feeding off their combined energy and producing music on a level never heard before. Major labels warmed up to homegrown hip-hop, and big gains were expected not just domestically, but in making Toronto a permanent and recognisable landmark on the global hip-hop landscape.

It was within this climate that DJ Serious dropped his debut disc, Dim Sum, a record very representative of the city and its influences, blending snatches of jazzed-out rare grooves, old time funk, and R&B over classic boom-bap that kept the neck loose. The album was a solid show of force by the novice producer — whose ever-expanding resumé includes band member (with jazz-funk outfit the Quartertones), radio show host (with DJ Fase on CIUT's Stylistic Endeavours) and label owner (Headless Heroes) — and one that proved to be one of the high watermarks of that promising era.

In the years since, the idea of a unified Toronto movement has abated and the city has lost a bit of steam. Yet Serious has continued to build a following, one track at a time, releasing a string of twelve-inches and noteworthy remix assignments.

All this has brought him to the release of his sophomore LP, Cold Tea. The title references late-night festivities in Chinatown restaurants; indeed, the whole vibe is tilted toward midnight marauders. It's a more focused effort, one that immediately reveals a producer developing and exploring his natural sound. "This album is more rounded, a little harder and a little more rough-edged night-time music," he says. "That's more where my heart is at in terms of hip-hop — I just like that kinda East Coast, mid-‘90s sound, and you can definitely feel that type of vibe in it. It's like that music that you're gonna put on on your way home from being out, or just music you can put on when you're chillin' at night."

Exploring that mid-'90s vibe has attracted the attention of one of the decade's surviving elder statesman, Juice Crew alumnus Masta Ace. The veteran MC adds his contemplative, been-here-for-years rhyme style to Serious's Cold Tea on "Again," the second of their two encounters to see the light of day.

"Someone had a beat CD of mine and sent it to him, and they told me that he liked some of the joints on there," says Serious. "But that was the last time I heard about it, until about a week before [his first Toronto] show, when I found out that he actually had a song written and was ready to go." So enamoured were they with the way the track worked out that the two hammered out a second, "The Ways," that ended up being released first, on Masta Ace's '04 disc, Long Hot Summer.

Mid-'90s influences aside, the sonic shift toward a more solitary, individualist late-night vibe on Cold Tea might (however unintentionally) speak to the current state of Canadian hip-hop, one where artists operate in isolated groupings toward their own ends, instead of working for a collective progression. For Serious, one of the primary contributing factors to the splintered scene is a combination of relatively easy access to pro-level technology and the net.

"[Today] anybody and everybody can have a home studio," he opines. "They can do their music and put it out and they don't have to talk to anybody, and maybe that's what is contributing to the feeling of ‘Where is the scene, and why aren't people coming together?' Everybody's kind of in their own lab doing their own thing, and there really isn't a place to congregate right now, and there really isn't a showcase that people can sit down and say ‘here's a movement.'"

That said, this long-time community ambassador sees change on the horizon. "I think over the next little while there's gonna definitely be a renaissance, or a resurgence, in terms of something that people can regard as a movement. Something that'll have a certain kind of uniformity and a certain kind of sound to it," he assures. If his recent work is any testament, he may just play a central role in shaping that resurgence.