Published Feb 01, 2000Nick Holder is a true creature of the underground, preferring to be heard but not seen.
Canadian producers are getting famous the world over. Denise Benson wonders how they translate international accolades into hometown hurrahs.
First, let's debunk the myth. House music ain't that tinny, boppy, whiny Euro-trash or the latest Madonna dance remix you hear on commercial radio. True house music is a soul thing, a body thing, created for the heart and feet. It grew out of the bedroom studios and clubs of black, Latino and gay communities of New York, Chicago and Detroit in the mid- to late '80s. With the recent massive success of house songs by artists such as Stardust and Armand Van Helden, people have begun to look deeper into house's exploding global underground to see who's making noise. Those paying attention know that a number of Canadian producers, DJs, and independent labels are creating a quiet cacophony, making subtle but solid inroads on international house charts, DJ touring circuits and inner sanctums.
In the past year alone, British, European and American magazines have been singing the praises of Canadian producers like Nick Holder, Fred Everything, Abacus, Dino & Terry, the Stickmen and Gavin Froome. Nordic Trax's Necessary Pieces compilation of Canadian-produced deep house inspired not only a glowing review in the UK magazineEchoes , but also name-checks a who's who of Canadian house. They know we've got it goin' on, but dowe ? Outside of small DJ-loving, vinyl-buying enclaves, the names of Canada's house elite are likely to inspire a resounding 'Who?'
Nick Holder is a likely candidate to change that. The 30-year-old Torontonian, who's been releasing music and DJing at prestigious UK and European clubs since the early '90s, is probably Canada's best-known house producer. Though he's recorded for a number of respected European labels and released tracks on almost every house indie in T.O., the bulk of Nick's massive catalogue of uncompromised sounds has been released on his own DNH label.
Holder is a true creature of the underground, creating oft-changing sounds aimed straight at the dance floor, preferring to be "heard but not seen." But through a pair of funk 'n' disco flavoured full-lengths on Germany's Studio K7!, and a series of singles for Bristol's NRK Sound Division, his international profile is growing. His stunning new NRK album, From Within - his best work so far - should catapult him to the next level abroad, and hopefully at home.
"I don't know if I can make a better album than this one," he says. "I wanted to make something that could be appreciated ten years from now instead of being disposable."
"Nick's in high gear right now," affirms fellow producer Austin Bascom, aka Abacus or A:xus. "He's putting out some really great records right now." Bascom is in overdrive himself these days. Identifying more as an "electronic musician" than strictly a house producer, Bascom has built a career upon a solid foundation of deep and experimental twelve-inches for international labels. "Before Christmas of last year, I wasn't really paying much attention to Canada because I had no income from here, musically," he says. "I worked for American and UK labels and was DJing in the States or abroad." A series of domestic gigs, and the strength of his globally successful Baghdad Café EP (Guidance) has set the stage for ears to open to his debut full-length as A:xus, Soundtrack For Life , due in November.
Though they've yet to release a full-length album in their incredibly productive career, Toronto's Paul Mintsoulis and Greg Zwarich, aka the Stickmen, have an enviable international reputation. One hundred releases on their Stickman and Aquarius labels speak for themselves - eighty percent of them are Canadian, the music is consistent (more minimal and track-based on Stickman and funky, disco house with Aquarius), and it sells. These guys have worked damn hard to build an international network, criss-crossing the skies, including gigs in Germany every weekend for more than two years.
"There are handfuls of kids in every city that are hungry for this music."
- Stickmen's Paul Mintsoulis
The Stickmen are also among the few to have played in most major Canadian cities. "We saw Canada growing," says Mintsoulis. "The first time we went to Calgary, our friends were like 'Calgary?' We just played an outdoor event in Regina and there were 1000 kids that drove from all around. There's always a handful of kids in every city, no matter how big or small, that are hungry for this music and we've got to expose them to as much good stuff as possible to make the scene grow."
Producers, DJs and label owners Dino & Terry have also been working and creating in order to do just that. House royalty in the UK and parts of Europe, and name-checked by everyone interviewed for this piece, the Toronto twins have also been on the scene since the early '90s. The vocal-heavy house of their Crash label, and fresh, funk-flavoured four-four of sister imprint Vinyl Peace can be found in the crates of hugely influential DJs such as Derrick Carter, Tony Humphries and Ralph Lawson.
"Selling records at home just doesn't amount to much."
- Dino & Terry
"It's always been a fairly small market here for vinyl, unless it's more commercial," says Dino realistically. "The underground market in Canada has never been that large." Terry agrees: "When we started our label, the last thing that concerned us was selling records at home, just because we knew that it wouldn't amount to much anyway."
Dino & Terry's Vinyl Peace label also introduced the sounds of Montreal's true ambassador of house, Frederic Blais, aka Fred Everything. Though only releasing music for the past three years and DJing for five, Fred has fast-tracked onto the international house circuit. His quick rise has as much to do with focus and commitment as his skills as a producer and DJ. "I love different kinds of house," he says. "I play vocals, disco, deeper, more electronic, whatever." This open-eared approach, coupled with his talent, has led to records on other stalwart international indies, including 20:20 Vision, who will release his debut full-length in November. According to Fred recording for a variety of labels is key to getting his music played. "Almost every deep house DJ will have at least one of my records because they've been on different labels."
We're not a country raised on dance music in the way that many European countries are, but Canada - Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in particular - has had ever-expanding pockets of dance devotees for more than a decade now. And as new generations could do with being reminded, there was house long before there was techno, rave, drum & bass or even commercial dance. It may not be have glitzy monied support, but house has fostered a community based on mix tapes, underground radio, and club and warehouse parties.
Toronto's late '80s dance club haven the Twilite Zone had a huge impact that still echoes today. Dino and Terry speak of an experience shared by many: "We went to the Twilight Zone one night in 1986 and became converts overnight," says Terry. "The music was completely different," Dino continues. "It wasn't just house - you'd hear Gwen Guthrie, garage and club stuff, Detroit stuff, Chicago house. That whole mix changed it around for us. Two days later, we went to Starsound where we used to buy all of our electro, hip-hop and freestyle and we just said 'Okay, any house record that comes in, we don't care what it is, we're buying it.' Of course, there only were a few house records each week in those days. Now it feels like there's a few hundred."
Given the flood of releases on the international market, and the fact that Canada's house producers, like their global counterparts, release the vast majority of their work on vinyl, yet live in a country that virtually ignores records, the odds are stacked against them ever becoming household names at home.
"If you want to be famous in Canada, you've got to leave," says Toronto club promoter and booker Jennstar with a sigh. "I hate to say it, but we just don't have a good, solid network of support. It's growing, but at this time we don't have enough major label, distribution, radio or print support. Nick Holder hasn't been playing many gigs in Toronto since the late '80s or early '90s, but when he started travelling, there wasn't necessarily the publicity on this end to say 'This is what his tracks are doing.' The same with the Stickmen; when they started concentrating on where they wanted to go, they didn't have that support back here. We need that information on a mass scale from Newfoundland to Vancouver; we need that community network and we need the publicity."
"The learning curve was a lot steeper in Toronto - all first-hand, on your own."
-Dino & Terry
Our house and dance scene is developing in the face of little promotion, in a sparsely populated, huge country. It's also sorely lacking in experienced managers, promoters, and booking agents dedicated to the genre. Lacking the infrastructure of an established tradition in dance music, many aspiring Canadian producers find themselves reinventing the wheel. "There's a lot more information now for new producers getting started," Dino says. "But not being in the States or Europe, we were a bit cut off here. The learning curve was a lot steeper, because there weren't a lot of other people to show us all what the hell was going on. I know a lot of New York producers who started ten years ago, and it was a lot easier. They'd just go into studios with engineers who knew the equipment, and know what kind of sound they were looking for. In Toronto, it was learning it all first hand, on your own."
Over ten years of work is beginning to pay some dividends, but when most artists are offered more bookings abroad, it remains an uphill battle. "Amongst one other, there's no encouragement," Abacus says. "Even people saying 'I heard your latest tune, I hope it's doing well' - it just doesn't go on a lot within the house scene. If some of the producers in this city got behind a focal point, which could be an artist, and we all brought that project to the table, properly and correctly, that's when people could actually look at Toronto on a different level."
Increasingly, there are signs of collaboration in the house scenes across the country - Nordic Trax's Necessary Pieces compilation of Canadian deep house, and Stickman Records' Toronto Underground compilation amongst them. Paul Mintsoulis of the Stickmen is excited by the idea and challenge of marketing music as Canadian.
"We've got to try and use that as an angle," he says. "House music from Canada, just like the French guys have done over the past couple of years. To get the press, you need to package and sell it, make it something interesting, but with a mystique that we haven't been able to create in Canada yet. We're definitely going to work on that this year, promoting from the angle of 'Canadian house' or 'house from Toronto.' Most of the big international people have been here and they know the scene is happening - now they need to identify our music with Canada."
Canadian music fans have a history of being tentative, waiting for others to recognise our work before we raise our own voices. The examples of the scene's strength and international respectability are there: In a recent "Hype" chart inDJ Magazine , Fred Everything's "Everything Under the Sun" sat four spots away from Armand Van Heldon's mega-hit "Flowers." "Soul Grabber Pt. 4," by Stickmen with Paul Jacobs, rode high on the same list.
We need these international affirmations because we don't have many home grown sources offering them up. Most of the people running indie house labels in this country are also artists and DJs, working to balance both creativity and the books. Theirs is no easy task, laying the groundwork for a musical scene still in its infancy. So next time you check one of them in a club, say thank you. And buy their records.