Published Nov 01, 2003At Peg City Holla, a three-day hip-hop fest in Winnipeg, War Party's Kool-Ayd the Chubby Cree takes the stage. Towel hung over his bowed head, his arms waving, Kool-Ayd hypes the crowd: "We're from the reservation, we're from the reservation."
It's like any underground hip-hop show minimal, intimate, all eyes on the MCs. There are no props, no DJ and no fancy light shows. The smooth, commanding cadences of Kool-Ayd (Karmen Omeosoo) and Mic Noble (Rex Smallboy) are complemented by the natural flow of Girlie Emcee (Cynthia Smallboy). The innovative beats have a hint of a West Coast sound; the look is more poverty chic than contemporary hip-hop glitz sideways black ball cap, T-shirt and jeans.
Around his neck, Kool-Ayd sports a modest silver chain with a pendent of a warrior wielding an axe, just one indication that his perspective is unique in this diverse crowd of nodding hip-hop heads. Dropping verses from "Feeling Reserved," the cadence is familiar and so is the subject matter: hip-hop, once again, being used to illuminate an underrepresented perspective, providing a means of self-expression for young people whose voices have gone unheard. First, the Bronx, a quarter-century ago; now, Canadian Native communities.
The very first Native hop-hop groups started in the mid-90s in Alberta and slowly spread across the country. The scene is in its infancy, but with three solid albums under their belt, War Party are its elders many up-and-commers are joining them in recording and releasing hip-hop.
Like any emerging music scene, the Native hip-hop community is not monolithic but the challenges it faces are familiar. Some groups, like War Party or Reddnation build their tracks with traditional Native beats and draw lyrical inspiration from their political realities; other young Natives like Tru Rez Crew or Da Skelpa Squad are more interested in a party vibe, more eager to see hands in the air than pickets at a protest. While the successes of black American hip-hoppers are inspiring, this scene isn't all political voices and positive messages. The scene is still tempered by the images of bitches and Bentleys that inundate all young hip-hoppers.
Spreading the Word Up
Kool-Ayd the Chubby Cree started writing rhymes ten years ago at age 13; his group War Party formed in 1995 in Hobbema, Alberta. Drawn to hip-hop for its seeming openness, regardless of creed or colour, Kool-Ayd and his pair of compatriots quickly took advantage of hip-hop's potential for potent commentary. Their first album, The Reign, was a highly political affair that immediately got them noticed within the Aboriginal music scene it won a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for best hip-hop album in 2001. The respect their unique perspective garnered them led to opening slots for heavyweights like Wu-Tang Clan, Ice-T, Guru, Maestro, Choclair and K-OS.
That their follow-up, Exclusive Rez Cuts, had them repeat the award-winning feat the following year, along with picking up hardware for best video ("Feeling Reserved") speaks both to their talent and to the size of the Native hip-hop scene.
They'll face stronger competition at this year's awards; their third album, The Greatest Natives From the North, is once again nominated but the Native hip-hop scene is starting to blow up around them.
Each of War Party's albums show their growth as a group and as individual artists; work has already begun on a new album that will delve into more personal issues. Less political than their debut, The Reign, Kool-Ayd characterises the new work as more accessible than the angry Native perspective that dominated their teenage work.
"We're not doing any commercialised tracks," he explains. "We're doing more personalised tracks so people can understand who we are. What they heard before was a lot of emotional stuff. This time we're just going to try to spread the message, get it out there and show kids that they can too. There's strong growth in that."
The empowerment message, for themselves and for their community of fans, is the cornerstone of War Party's message now. "Nobody stopped us, and if anybody was going to stop us it was going to be ourselves. That's what we try to pass on to the kids that you can do anything you want to. Everything that you want rests inside of yourself."
Native hip-hop's target is a marketing department's dream: 35 percent of all Native people in Canada are younger than 15 years old, and another 18 percent are between ages 15 and 24.
"I think hip-hop's role on the reservation now is a means to get out of the rut," Kool-Ayd says. "A lot of kids used to look up to sports figures; they still do, but it seems now they want to do the hip-hop thing."
The attraction stems, to some extent, from commonalities with black Americans and the inner city tales chronicled in a lot of hip-hop. "It's more poverty-stricken, like on the reservation. I think that the reservation is just like the ghetto."
Rez Rockin' Beats
7th Generation MC Kasp, who hails from Penticton in the interior of British Columbia, agrees that there are similarities between the neglected urban core and desolate reservations, except the population difference. The Cree Nation MC, who also goes by the name Rob Sawam, grew up in East Vancouver with his father, who was a drug dealer, user, alcoholic and pimp.
The 23-year-old Kasp moved to Pentiction to get away from the city streets and the life his father led. Initially attracted to hip-hop as an escape from reality, today Kasp raps to cope with and confront his past. His relaxed, informal flow complements the intense subject matter of his rhymes.
"My past comes out a lot in my music," he says, "because it makes me work harder. I don't want to go back to where I was, I want something better for my stepson and if I have any kids of my own, you know I want better."
Kasp believes that Native youth need positive role models and he says he's grown into his responsibility as one. He doesn't drink or do drugs and has been sober for almost four years. It was a transformation that took place after he saw Native kids looking up to him.
"Different rezs you go to, there's the same thing. There's racism, there's lots of alcohol, there are drugs and parties, so they need a positive influence. That's what we're hoping to be."
Kasp says Native youth are struggling to find an identity and they're adopting hip-hop because they can relate to it. By doing so, they're creating new beats and a new Native style. But Kasp also knows that hip-hop isn't always a positive influence on Native youth, because mainstream hip-hop isn't always leading them down the right path.
"The kids follow what they see, right, so they're going to see some guy sipping on a 40, rockin' all this ice and saying he's dealing this and that and he's smoking all this weed. They're going to go out and do the same thing, and that's what I'm not feeling."
No matter how remote a Native community is, TV and the internet are bombarding Native youth with the commercial rap du jour essentially an ad for the material good life: decked out SUVs, expensive liquor and mansions with bikini clad women by the pool. The music that's turning many Native youth on to hip-hop is also turning many Native rappers off.
Manik (aka Derek Edenshaw) is a 23-year-old Haida and Cree MC from Vancouver, and one of Canada's most controversial rappers because he takes his background as an activist and laces it with hip-hop. Manik is a member of the Native Youth Movement and has been involved in government office takeovers, community roadblocks and political rallies. He doesn't see his lyrics as extreme, but more a reflection of reality. "I think art is the medium of choice for a lot of activists," he says. "I think it's the most successful tool."
What makes Manik's music distinct in Native hip-hop is his experimental flow and beats. His music is heavily influenced by underground and avant-garde hip hop; his flow is rapid and harmonious and he's not only focused on his lyrics but on the way his words sound to the listener's ear.
Manik wants to inspire Native youth to find their own voice in the larger hip-hop scene, contending that in any remote Northern community you see Native kids dressing like residents of South Central L.A. when most of them have never even been to Vancouver. "Hip-hop has a very influential role on our people," he says. "A lot of kids are walking around acting in ways that they would never have."
He knows where he's coming from because he's been that guy: a bad guy. "I thought that I had to be that, had to call girls bitches and I had to go sell drugs, and I did that too. Those were my role models." He knew it was wrong, but needed a little encouragement. Crediting his liberation to meeting media-literate people who helped guide him, Manik hopes to inspire a sense of pride.
"Maybe they're going to want to grow their hair longer. Maybe they're going to want to talk to their elders and ask their elders a question about who they are as a person, or who their people are as people."
Manik, who collaborates with OS12 as the Sunday Skool Dropoutz, uses hip-hop to educate Native youth about alcohol, drug abuse, suicide and Native history. He's been organising hip-hop shows for the past four years and also facilitates events in Native communities, featuring workshops during the day and a show at night. At first, he would cold-call band councils to book shows in their communities; initially hesitant, many have been amazed with the results.
"They're like We've been trying to figure out a way to talk to the kids about this type of stuff,'" Manik explains. "We come in with a little bit of hip-hop flavour and it works for them."
7th Generation's Kasp recently experienced a similar reaction at Kamloopa Pow-Wow, one of British Columbia's largest pow-wows. The group performed for 3,000 people, most of whom had never heard of them. "It was nuts," Kasp enthuses. "Right when we got off, kids were getting us to sign arms, hats, and shirts. They were loving it."
Ill Logikal, MC for Grande Prairie, Alberta group Reddnation agrees; he's seen a new interest in Native hip-hop by youth on reserves. "They're starting to go out and buy our music," he says.
Ill Logikal's father is a Canadian music pioneer who introduced country rock into the bar scene of Northern Alberta and British Columbia during the 1950s. Like his father, the member of the Bigstone Cree Nation is a leader in the Canadian music scene. In 1994, he joined Full Blooded, a Calgary-based group that was one of Canada's first Native hip-hop crews.
His current group, Reddnation, is the Native hip-hop group that incorporates the most Native culture into their music and performance. Ill Logikal says that the reason people like them so much is because they include pow wow singing and traditional dancing in their shows. "They're not just coming to a hip-hop show," he says. "They're coming to see and to realise who they are, where they come from and not be ashamed of their heritage."
Country music still dominates Native communities, but seeking out their own sound, Native youth are more drawn to hip-hop than to rock. Both can be rebellious means of self-expression, but hip-hop is more accessible and less expensive an investment all you need is to write some rhymes or freestyle over a beat.
Not only is production easier, but promotion is too. Ill Logical points to the internet for the rapid growth of the Native hip-hop scene. With no internet access when he started, Reddnation now gets 80 percent of its exposure online.
"People are starting to look at Native hip-hop as legitimate and people are starting to branch out to form companies, record labels, opening up recording studios, and so now it's become accepted as a legitimate way of life."
With big bass and in-your-face lyrics, Tru Rez Crew from Six Nations Reservation in Southern Ontario makes music for the club. Maawho (aka Joshua Harris), has his eye on a major label deal for the group, as long as it wouldn't effect their message of staying true to themselves.
"We try to bring a positive message, but life isn't always positive," Maawho says. "Everybody has love, I write that into the music. Everybody has hate, I write that into the music. You have your ups and you have your downs. It's just real life."
Winnipeg's Da Skelpa Squad is Canada's youngest Native hip-hop group, ranging in age from 15 to 20; they too sport a party vibe and have their eye on the big time. Skelpa Squad MC Henna C' (aka Craig Beaulieu) says they want to be the first internationally known Native hip-hop group to go platinum.
"Native hip-hop is about political stuff and I have nothing against it, but our music is different. I don't look at us as Native hip-hop artists. I look at us as Natives doing hip-hop," says the Ojibway Nation MC.
Da Skelpa Squad's music mixes Native traditions with contemporary urban sounds and Henna C' wants to further bridge those gaps with music videos as well: Native culture in a contemporary setting, featuring his friends' low riders and girls in Jingle dresses transformed into mini skirts and tube tops.
The fact that a slew of young Native hip-hoppers are taking the music in a new direction is the healthiest indication of the scene's life groups like War Party and Reddnation have had a significant enough impact that Da Skelpa Squad and Tru Rez Crew want to bring a fresh perspective to the scene. And common to all these artists is their strong message of empowerment. "We're just showing you that Natives do have talent," says Henna C'. "We ain't what you see on TV Natives doing bad shit, drunk on the streets. We are making sure youth can use hip-hop as a tool to feel better about themselves."
According to Ill Logikal, all the potential is there if the music comes first. "If the production is tight and the message is there then I don't see any problem contending against any other mainstream acts."
A Native Hip Hop Primer
With three solid releases and a fourth on the way, War Party demonstrates the rapid growth of this scene. Their debut album, The Reign, is an emotional and political look at Native issues, giving national exposure to Native hip-hop as a new and cutting edge genre. Their follow-up was a six-track EP called Exclusive Rez Cuts; their latest is The Greatest Natives From The North. The album's production is superior to their previous releases and their focus has shifted from calling out the ills in society to trying to inspire and improve their environment. War Party is currently in the studio recording their fourth album and are aiming to have it released by the end of the year. (www.warparty.cjb.net)
Tru Rez Crew
Tru Rez Crew released their second album, Ain't No Turning Back, in August and it's already receiving critical acclaim. The party album with a message is nominated for best rap or hip-hop album, Jonathan Garlow for best producer/engineer and best song single for "I'm a Lucky One" for best single at the 2003 Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. (www.trurez.com)
Manik rhymes with verbal dexterity over innovative underground beats on his debut album, Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies, which dropped in late June. The highly political album is 15 tracks of exciting hip-hop featuring guests OS12, Chile, War Party, and Tru Rez Crew. Manik is currently working on a new album with OS12 as the Sunday Skool Dropoutz expected early in 2004. (www.manik.ayn.ca)
7th Generation's debut, Kasp Komplikations was nominated for a Canadian Aboriginal Music Award in 2002. The album is a first-hand look at the problems and issues facing Native youth mixed with an encouraging message. 7th Generation: Omega Project was released in September and is their first professionally recorded album, and the superior production has enhanced the listening experience. (www.7thgeneration.cjb.net)
Reddnation is putting the final touches on their debut album, which should be released in the next couple of months. Until then, check out www.reddnation.com for updates and listen to some samples of their songs.
Da Skelpa Squad
Da Skelpa Sqaud: The Unstoppable Team is the working title of their first album which they're aiming to release by summer 2004. Check out www.daskelpasquad.cjb.net to get your hands on some Da Skelpa Squad merchandise everything from mugs to tank tops to coasters.
National Aboriginal Music Awards
The Canadian Aboriginal music community gathers November 28 to 30 at Skydome in Toronto to celebrate the 10th Annual Canadian Aboriginal Festival and Pow Wow; it will also mark the fifth year for the National Aboriginal Music Awards, held November 28 at the Metro Convention Centre.
The NAMA ceremony is a servant of two masters: on one hand, keeping traditional Aboriginal music alive is a key priority; on the other, they must acknowledge the changing tastes and creative interests amongst Native youth. "We've always had a mandate to preserve traditional music," says Michele Baptiste, who serves as co-chair of the NAMAs creative committee. She's also the National Manager of Aboriginal Relations at Scotiabank, a title sponsor of the event.
"Those are our stories," Baptiste continues, "that's our medicine. Traditional music is the carrier of that that's who we are as people, but it's not the only thing we are. Our music isn't just about the big drum and hand drumming and pow wow dancing, it's also contemporary."
Challenging stereotypes is a fight on many fronts, but one battle is taking place within these communities the battle for recognition of hip-hop and other youth music as a legitimate form of Aboriginal expression.
"I think [hip-hop] is still misunderstood," says Laura Milliken, another member of the NAMA creative committee. "I don't think a lot of older people understand how strong this message can be, how powerful this music can be for healing. [Hip-hop] artists are talking about things that are hurting them, about healing and hope for their communities."
"The average Canadian puts us in a box," says Baptiste. "Oh, it must be chanting and drumming. We're so much more than that." Information on the Canadian Aboriginal Music Festival and Pow Wow can be found at www.canab.com.