Published May 30, 2013Formed in 2000 when Vancouver rap groups Dirty Circus, Pigeon Hole and Innocent Bystanders, along with solo artist Kyprios, joined forces to pool resources, Sweatshop Union has grown into one of the most successful rap groups in Canadian rap; a relentless tour schedule and a consistent succession of politically-minded, socially conscious hip hop music doesn't hurt, either. Sweatshop Union have been nominated for both the Junos and the Western Canadian Music Awards, winning at the latter in 2011 for Hip Hop Album of the Year for The Bill Murray EP. The release, their first without Kyprios, who left the group in early 2011 to pursue a solo career, also evolved the sound of SSU as they experimented with EDM influences in their music, a direction that continued this year on Pigeon Hole's sophomore album Chimp Blood and new group effort Infinite. The Sweatshop Union's latest reveals the multiple sides of this six-man crew, running the gamut from upbeat party jams to their typical socio-political fare.
Prior to the release of the new album, Exclaim! asked Innocent Bystanders member Conscience to give up the goods on the new Sweatshop album, the current direction of their music, and the secret to touring as a large group.
With the Murray EP, Sweatshop Union started experimenting with an edgier, more modern sound influenced by EDM. Why did you decide to do so?
Conscience: We just wanted to go for a bigger, more powerful sound than what we had been doing. [We] wanted to do something different.
Did the success of that release help in the decision to continue to experiment with that sound for future releases?
We plan to keep trying to evolve what we are doing as producers and songwriters. I really like the way we have been going and that sound hopefully will keep evolving.
Did you receive any backlash from old Sweatshop Union fans unhappy with the different direction?
Not as much as you might think. Our fans are pretty good about liking what we do as we grow. They are growing as well. There are fans who like our old stuff better, I'm sure. A lot of people really hold some music close to their hearts because of experiences they may have had that it reminds them of. Any artist shouldn't feel like they have to recreate that moment for someone every album. We have to keep growing and having new experiences to relate the music to.
Can we expect more of this direction in the future?
Never know. I hope we keep growing and who knows what may happen next.
What is NVSBL College? They produced a lot of the new album...
Many members of Sweatshop Union are also members of NVSBL College, the operative arm of which was brought back into existence by us last year. Our inner circle, which operates as a production supergroup, consists of myself, Mos Eisley, Metty [the] Dert Merchant, Ray Black, Jamie "Preme Diesel" Kuse and David Knill, plus a secret member. However, NVSBL College is an ancient, worldwide organization of artists, musicians, producers, activists, scientists, spiritual seekers and leaders and laypeople who all feed into the great cultural ocean that we draw from to do what we do. Look out for an NVSBL album in the future.
I'm seeing more and more of the solo projects, collaborations and spin-offs lately. Now that Sweatshop Union is somewhat established, has the emphasis switched to the individual projects now?
Pigeon Hole just released their record Chimp Blood and it's amazing. I'm so happy that I am in a group where we are able to break off and make different music. Sweatshop Union, while changing, has a certain feel to it and sometimes it's nice to work on different stuff. I wouldn't say that the emphasis is on side projects, though. Sweatshop Union isn't going anywhere. There will be more side projects for sure, though.
How do you decide when it's the right time for a new Sweatshop Union record?
I think we feel we always need to be making music. Once someone makes a great song it gets a fire lit under everyone and that's how albums usually begin for us. The first few songs set a tone and we just follow it through.
How do you decide on the topics to cover on Sweatshop albums? Are there ever disagreements over topics to discuss on record, or maybe dissenting views within the group that have made certain topics difficult to choose?
No, we haven't ever run into that problem. We tour a lot and have so many conversations on so many long drives that we all pretty much know where each other's heads are at.
How important is it that Sweatshop Union has something of a moral or message in the music?
I can only answer this for myself, but I like my music to represent me as a person. So as long as something matters to me I'll probably write about it.
Are there any subjects that are off limits to Sweatshop Union?
Not that I can think of.
The chorus of new single "Infinite" states that you're "infinite" but the lyrics on "John Lennon" off the Murray EP are "Grow up to recognize we're not so innocent, not so infinite and limited a little." Has there been a change of heart regarding the infinity of humanity within the SSU collective?
Not really. The lyrics from "John Lennon" are from a different person with a different perspective. Not everyone in the group necessarily shares the exact same views. I think most people think both ways most of the time. There are times you can feel old and run down, and others where you feel infinite.
You've built a name for yourselves and a fairly solid fanbase, mostly through touring. Being such a large group of individuals, how do you find touring together? Do you have any suggestions for how to tour successfully?
We are all great friends. Have been for a long time. That helps a lot. Having a lot of us is actually a good thing, as far as touring goes. You don't feel like you are spending all your time with just the same few people every day. If you're having an argument or something with someone you can hang out with someone else that day. It helps things from getting boring.
What's up next for Sweatshop Union?
We are releasing and touring Infinite, planning on getting into Europe and Asia and working on some more music as we go. Hopefully another Sweatshop record [is] around the corner…