Published May 01, 2000Toronto-based Exclaim! writer Thomas Quinlan stumbled upon the Halifax hip-hop scene in 1994, with Hip Club Groove's Trailer Park Hip Hop. It was an entry point into a new world that contained characters like Witchdoc Jorun, Stinkin' Rich, Gordski, and Len. By 1996 Quinlan was hooked, championing the East Coast scene through his own Hand'Solo label and the Bassments Of Bad Men compilation. Four years later, the Halifax scene continues to thrive; Quinlan takes an insider's look back at the future sounds of Halifax hip-hop.
"The popularity of Halifax hip-hop is increasing fast," says Classified, "and I think it's just gonna keep happening. People like jumping on the bandwagon when they see things are happening. I think we'll make a mark on the Canadian hip-hop scene, and then hopefully the international scene." It's a Halifax hip-hop explosion ? at least, if you believe the subtitle of the new EMI compilation, 44ºN/63ºW: The East Coast Explosion, the second of two recent Halifax collections featuring Classified and his Ground Squad crew. Ground Squad's 1999 From the Ground Up compilation, produced by Classified, features many of the same artists and even some of the same songs as EMI's 44ºN/63ºW collection but the difference in flavour is clear. While From the Ground Up maintains a distinct Halifax identity, one of Toronto's biggest hip-hop producers, 2Rude, seems to have been brought on board to give 44ºN/63ºW a more accessible slant in hopes of reaching a wider audience.
There are other signs of new life on the Halifax scene, including Classified's recent VideoFact grant ? the first in Halifax hip-hop history ? and interest from California-based independent label Anticon in the work of Halifax scene veteran Rich Terfly (aka Stinkin' Rich, Buck 65).
The East Coast seems poised to become the next big thing on the hip-hop map, but there's a lingering sense of déjà vu. This isn't the first time the hip-hop fuse has been lit on an East Coast explosion; since the mid-80s, but particularly in the last ten years, heads have been waiting for the accompanying bang.
Despite the preponderance of attention paid to Halifax lately, scene vets recognise it's all relative. "No one from across the country or anywhere else really recognises that there is hip-hop coming from Halifax," according to Ground Squad crew leader Classified. "It's real hard getting exposure outside of the city."
"People think Montreal is the Eastern-most point in Canada," complains DJ Gordski, who has released three solid full-lengths as part of the Goods. Production wizard and current member of Len, DJ Moves expands on the problem: "The only drawback is Halifax's geographical location," he says. "Being on the very East Coast can make it difficult to make certain moves in the industry. But if you want something, you'll overcome any odds to get to the goal."
Ironically, this isolation may be the very thing that gets Halifax any attention. Being so far from any other urban centre, Halifax was left to discover hip-hop on its own. "What makes Halifax different," reveals Buck 65, "is that we make records out of fishing line and chicken bones and coal and driftwood and dog shit. How do you expect our music to sound?"
Halifax pioneer Witchdoc Jorun makes it a little clearer: "We learned what we knew from what little was given to us. We taught ourselves ? no instruction manuals, all trial and error." This process has created some of the most creative hip-hop music in Canada, whether it be the bugged out space rhymes of the Sebutones, the mellow storytelling of Buck 65, the drunken Buddhism of the Goods, Witchdoc Jorun's hard-hitting funky production or the crazy antics of Tachichi & DJ Moves.
The Halifax scene has a rich history that dates back to the inception of the Care Crew back in 1984. "Most of the early history of hip-hop in Halifax reflected that of hip-hop at large, just a few years behind," according to Buck 65. With early groups like Care Crew, New Beginning, and Down By Law, Halifax built a strong hip-hop foundation. It wasn't long until Halifax was experiencing its first explosion, when MCJ of New Beginning & Cool G experienced tastes of Canadian hip-hop stardom, becoming the city's best-known hip-hop group. Their R&B-tinged hip-hop might explain the criticism that occurred (and still does), but Jorun expresses a different view. "I can't really diss them," says Jorun of his fellow old-school vets. "They really made it a reality that Halifax could do it, get signed and burned. You have to learn from experience, even other's misfortunes."
MCJ & Cool G made it big with two singles from their major label debut ? their biggest success being the rather humorous "No Sex With My Sister" ? but the possibility of more Halifax groups signing deals never came to pass. Their experience, it could be argued, effectively entrenched a DIY attitude in Halifax that still dominates today.
While still active with his second group, Mod'rn World Thang, Witchdoc Jorun wanted to expand his production boundaries by working with other people, so in the early 90s, he formed Halifax's first super-group, Haltown Projex. "The big turning point," says Buck 65 of the moment. "That's when things really advanced." Jorun quickly began producing a series of compilation cassettes, dubbed the Haltown Meltdown. The importance of the Haltown tapes should not be underestimated ? most of the hip-hop artists in Halifax have either came out of this project or were influenced by it. The Haltown tapes never really created an explosion on their own but they created a mindset of collaboration, creativity and innovation that inspired the future.
One of those groups was Hip Club Groove, who started in high school and ended up doing some spots on the early Haltown tapes. Hip Club Groove's Trailer Park Hip Hop (Murderecords, 1994) was a fantastic debut party album, and for those that had previously only heard MCJ & Cool G, it revealed a whole new side of Halifax hip-hop.
Releasing music on Sloan's Murderecords exposed the Groove to a larger audience, prompting talk of another Haltown explosion. The audiences turning out to hear Sloan and other Murder popsters didn't jump at Hip Club Grooves cross-over efforts, and their popularity failed to spark increased fan interest in the rest of Halifax's hip-hop scene. Their 1996 sophomore release, Land Of The Lost (released by Len's Marc Costanzo on the Funtrip imprint), had a much greater hip-hop appeal but failed to reach a larger audience.
Hip Club Groove did, however, open the eyes of some fans to the joys of Halifax hip-hop, myself included. Along with Trailer Park Hip Hop, a couple of Stinkin' Rich releases on Murder, including a seven-inch and the brilliant Game Tight cassette, were shining examples of how different Halifax hip-hop could be. Once again, the anticipated breakthrough never came, but I (and many others) were already hooked.
The city's small size has long contributed to its particular sound and vibrant strength. As Classified says, "every artist in Halifax pretty much knows every other artist." Buck 65 breaks it down in his own way: "We all operate from a compound that resembles that one in The Road Warrior ? flame throwers and shit."
As could be expected in a scene so isolated and insular, a drastic split occurred between Buck 65 (and his crew) and Witchdoc Jorun (and his crew), stemming from the desire for creative control. Elements of this conflict were even played out on various Haltown recordings. On Haltown 2's "Red Rovah" posse cut (which ironically contains ex-Hip Club Groover Sixtoo), MC Skillz dissed Hip Club Groove, asking, "How can you be hip-hop when you do tours with Sloan?" Everyone involved in the verbal attacks got down for a final freestyle battle on stage, which was caught on tape for Haltown Live (Jorun, '96) on a track called "The Original Battle."
"All the crews basically went their own ways around 1996 and stopped being this giant crew," says DJ Moves of the split. "It was a good thing ? now there are a lot of crews making a lot of different sounding music, not just one type of hip-hop."
It was at this time I started my label, Hand'Solo Records, and released what would become the "last hurrah" for this era, a compilation called Bassments Of Bad Men. Based very much on the lessons learned from the Haltown compilations, the Bassments featured many of the crews from both Jorun's and Buck 65's camp.
Despite the ups and downs, today the feud is over for good and members of both sides have recorded a new track, "The Moving Finger" for Jorun's new project, Break Fluid. "I was really sick in January 1999," Jorun reveals. "I was told by my doctor that I was putting myself through too much stress and I needed to change up or I was going to get sicker. I decided to end all of the bullshit, regardless of who started it."
Rich was also going through some personal problems, while being harassed by members of the Halifax scene, and was happy to oblige. "We all agreed to have the last laugh at everyone that wanted this war to continue," adds Jorun. "The Moving Finger" is a seven-minute track featuring Jorun, Buck 65, Sixtoo, Scratch Bastard (Buck's main DJ competitor), and 6am.
For the most part, Halifax seems to be at its strongest point in many years. With label's like California's Anticon hyping up Halifax, word can only spread. "Anticon's finger in our pie here essentially equates to indie cred," says Anticon artist Buck 65 "Anticon's core following is small and nerdy, because the regular customer with tunnel vision would see the Sebutones as straight freaks." (Check the live photo of their banana suit antics for confirmation.) Support from Anticon includes the phenomenal Buck 65 single The Centaur, and plans for releases by Buck 65's Sebutones partner Sixtoo, and Josh Martinez.
Maybe now Halifax is finally ready for the big hip-hop explosion everyone has been anticipating for many years now. "Unfortunately it will probably take someone signing a big deal before anyone pays attention," Buck says. "That's usually how it goes. But the thing is, most of us here have such a strict code of ethics about things. Some of us have had opportunities to sign with majors or to hawk some shit on TV, but didn't because we refuse to sell out."
There's also the problem that those most likely to succeed may take their skills elsewhere. Rumours have been around for years that Buck 65 might leave the city, and Sixtoo has also talked about a move to San Francisco. "My main concern for the future is that everyone will leave the city before it ever has the chance to get put on the map," Rich admits. As we await the next big Halifax break, one can only guess whether it will be accompanied by an explosion or yet another Haltown meltdown.
Rich Terfly: Scene vet Rich Terfly has produced, rhymed, and DJed under the names Stinkin' Rich, Buck 65, DJ Critical, Johnny Rockwell, Haslam, and Jesus Murphy, known collectively as the Certain Others. His greatest contribution over his ten-plus years on the scene is his CKDU radio show, "The Bassment" (now "The Treatment Show"), which has helped give each successive generation of Halifax artists the right mind set. "I've been showing kids the real stuff, [ teaching them] to recognise what the walls are and then to tear them down."
Classified: Since 1992 Classified has been one of the hardest working artists in Halifax. Getting his start under Jorun, Classified has moved on to become the central force behind the Ground Squad crew, a distinct creator of middle-of-the-road party jams, lost somewhere between the underground and the commercial.
DJ Moves: Once a member of the now defunct Hip Club Groove, in ten years, his warped sound has backed everyone from Tachichi to Buck 65 to the Ground Squad's Nathan C, as well as producing in Vancouver and Toronto and doing time as a member of Len.
The Goods: Composed of Kunga 219 and DJ Gordski. Gordski has around the scene since the beginnings of Hip Club Groove, while MC Kunga 219 is more of a new jack. His rhymes about Buddhism and drunkenness make you wish the Beastie Boys could be as dope. They've released three solid full-lengths with no end in site.
Josh Martinez: Goods collective member Josh Martinez made his recording debut back a couple of years ago with his DJ Moves-produced tape, MAXimum WELLbeing, under the name Maxwell. The nine and a half minute opus, "Deny" was a emotionally powerful song rarely reached in hip-hop. Since then he has changed his name and released a great full-length, bringing himself to the attention of Anticon.
Ground Squad: Composed of Classified, Nathan C, Connx (White Mic and Klepto), Shorty, Unknown, Knucklehead, Mark Mirage, and Loonie Toonez, Ground Squad covers a number of different generations of Halifax heads. Jorun says, "I'd have to say that Ground Squad will be the next big thing in Halifax."
Haltown Projex: The loose-knit organisation formed by Witchdoc Jorun and consisting of Haslam (aka Buck 65), Bon Shah, and Badi (now Tallis Newkirk of Toronto's Plains Of Fascination). Their Haltown Meltdown comps contributed substantially to Halifax's independent mentality.
Hip Club Groove: Now disbanded, MCs Cheklove Shakil and Mckenzie (currently D.Rock as a member of Len), along with DJ Moves, brought hip-hop from a high school club to the trailer park. In 1994, they opened up Halifax hip hop to a wider audience. "We played every show we could get our hands on, no matter what types of music we were sharing the bill with," says Moves.
Local Dre: The most infamous (and probably the forefather) of Halifax's gangsta rappers. Coming straight outta Spryfield, Dre had a little battle going with Witchdoc Jorun, who claimed to have found a Local Snoop tape at the flea market. "He was mad determined to go to the top," Buck says of Dre. "I was surprised when he quit."
MCJ & Cool G: Although they are no longer around, MCJ & Cool G put Halifax on the; MCJ was a member of New Beginning, one of the first hip-hop groups in Halifax. Their bad luck may have hardened many a Halifax artist to the woos of the major labels.
Sebutones: In 1996, this super group composed of Sixtoo and Buck 65 took the music into outerspace and beyond. Their second full-length, 50/50 Where It Counts, is probably the best-known release out right now.
Sixtoo: An early member of Hip Club Groove using the name C.L. S.C.A.R.R., Sixtoo has quit and rejoined the game in numerous incarnations. Having released a pile of emotional tunes, lately he has become more scientific. He has also grown into an amazing producer/DJ.
Tachichi: Starting out in 1995 as Little T, Tachichi has developed a very unique flow and a wild stage show that keeps bringing the fans back. His 1998 Truth Of The Trade tape with DJ Moves is a classic.
Witchdoc Jorun: Halifax's acknowledged "only true and last pioneer," producer/DJ/MC Jorun is probably the most important Halifax hip-hop artist still working. Along with being in Down By Law and Mod'rn World Thang, two of the city's earliest groups, Jorun also helped many get started by producing their early material.
The Music (a selected discography)
Various - 44ºN/63ºW: The East Coast Explosion (EMI, 2000)
Ground Squad - From The Ground Up (Half-Life, 1999)
Classified - Now Whut (Half-Life, 1999)
The Goods - Dream Sequence (Good Night Music, 1999)
Buck 65 - Vertex (Four Ways To Rock, 1999)
Tachichi & DJ Moves - Suicidal Soul EP (Hand'Solo, 1999)
Sebutones - 50/50 Where It Counts (Four Ways To Rock, 1998)
Tachichi & DJ Moves - Truth Of The Trade (Low Pressure, 1998)
Various - Haltown 4 (Jorun, 1998)
The Goods - The Goods (Good Night Music, 1997)
Classified - One Shot (Half-Life, 1996)
Various - Bassments Of Bad Men (Hand'Solo, 1996)
Various - Haltown Live (Jorun, 1996)
Hip Club Groove - Land of the Lost (Funtrip, 1996)
Nathan "C" - Invasion (UGS, 1996)
Stinkin' Rich - Game Tight (Murderecords, 1995)
Various Haltown 2 (Jorun, 1995)
Hip Club Groove - Trailer Park Hip Hop (Murderecords, 1994)
Various - Haltown Meltdown (Funky Lobster/Jorun, 1993)
Sixtoo (I Am 12"), Nathan C, Connix, Ground Squad, Classified (Unpredictable LP and video), Buck 65 (Man Over Board), Josh Martinez, Witchdoc Jorun (Break Fluid), Tachichi & DJ Moves (Ty McFly 12"), Roosevelt Tharpa, and The Goods.