Straight Outta Moose Jaw: Hip-Hop Nostalgia Is Big Business for Small Cities Across Canada

Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Sean Paul, and Method Man and Redman are among the artists touring smaller markets across the country this year

Photo: Snoop Dogg by Kamara Morozuk, Ludacris by Eve Baker, Ice Cube by Rick Clifford

BY Kyle MullinPublished May 29, 2024

To paraphrase Ice Cube's biggest hit: we gotta say it's a good day.

Not just for the South Central L.A. neighbourhood he rapped so famously about in the '90s. It's also a good day for Canadian cities like Laval, London and Moose Jaw.

That's because Ice Cube and other veteran hip-hop acts like Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Redman, Sean Paul, and Ludacris are touring smaller Canadian markets this spring and summer, while Nas and the Wu-Tang Clan went deep into the Prairies last year for their joint N.Y. State of Mind Tour. It's delightful for local fans who have long felt overlooked, and bemusing to industry insiders looking on from typically dominant big cities.

"A lot of artists don't even think about the cities that aren't on their radar. But you'll have tons of fans there," Ice Cube tells Exclaim! during a recent phone interview. Sounding reflective and surprisingly soft spoken — at least for us OG's raised on his bruisingly gruff flow — Cube adds, "I made it a quest of mine to try to hit every nook and cranny where I can find fans that's been down for three decades with me, and want to see me live."

There is indeed a strong incentive to play these underserved Canadian cities, says Kevin Donnelly. The Senior Vice President, Venues & Entertainment with True North Sports + Entertainment, which is promoting Snoop Dogg's Winnipeg show in June, puts it simply when asked why these rappers are heading off the beaten performing path: "I think it's the money," he says, chuckling. He points out Snoop Dogg's upcoming show at Winnipeg's Canada Life Centre has already sold out. Ludacris's upcoming show is also expected to do well, much like recent legacy rap concerts in the Manitoba capital including Ice Cube and 50 Cent, as well as ascending MCs' shows like Russ and A Boogie wit da Hoodie.

Donnelly says concert promoters had long dismissed hip-hop in smaller towns, pointing to their lack of local rap radio stations. All that changed thanks to satellite radio and streaming, and now "These marketplaces have woken up to the reality that hip-hop is arguably the most listened-to genre today."

In past years, smaller independent promoters would bring an occasional MC off the bigger circuits to locales like Winnipeg, but the shows were too often bogged down by delays or technical issues.

Now, however, legacy rappers look more and more like slick classic rock acts to Donnelly, able to capitalize on years of fame and experience, attract nostalgic fans with deep pockets, partner with entertainment companies Live Nation or AEG, and put on airtight shows.

The greater consistency and success of those shows has also rolled over to hotels and restaurants, as fans from surrounding areas — who often can't commute to a major urban centre, but can make it to the nearest midsize city — hit up the show and benefit the local economy, helping to make each town more "vibrant," says Donnelly.

Those big entertainment companies sound equally enthused. Colin Lewis, Global Tour Promoter at concert behemoth Live Nation, says in an email statement to Exclaim!, "Global touring continues to be on the rise, with artists eager to explore new territories and reconnect with fans who have been waiting to see them again. Canada, being so close to the US, is a prime destination for these tours. Just take a look at recent successes like Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, 50 Cent, Ice Cube, and the upcoming Snoop Dogg tour — they all prove that the demand is real."

That demand is clearly apparent to DJ Kav, one of Calgary's club mainstays and biggest radio personalities, who is an opening act on Ice Cube's Straight into Canada Tour. He says, "The love and passion the fans have is unreal. They are so grateful for iconic superstars like Ice Cube to travel into their cities. You can tell by how fast they sell out."

Kav also agrees with Donnelly's point about the fans being nostalgic and grateful that MCs they grew up listening to are willing to tour beyond major cities, making the commutes manageable for those showgoers. He calls it "truly a bucket-list concert for many, that they probably didn't think they would see. It's a trip to younger days and youth for them. And some bring their kids to show them one of the legends of hip-hop."

The uninitiated might assume those small-town fans are more appreciative or enthusiastic, because seeing a major name is more rare where they are. But Ice Cube doesn't "look at it as big cities or small cities."

He reflects, "The love is the same. I got Ice Cube fans out there, and I gotta get to them. And when they get a chance to see me, and I get a chance to see them, it's a fuckin' love fest. So that's really what it's all about, you know what I mean? We in there partyin' and have the building rockin'. And that's the centre of the universe to me."

Because our Ice Cube interview unexpectedly, but fortunately, went far longer than the five minutes we were initially promised to strictly talk about his Straight Into Canada Tour, Exclaim! took the opportunity to ask the rap legend broader questions about his near-40-year career. In our conversation, he opens up about overcoming self-doubt post-N.W.A., how it feels to age in what was once considered a young man's genre, why it's bittersweet that "It Was a Good Day" remains relevant, and more.

Can you tell us more about what makes small-town Canada an appealing market for rappers like yourself?

Yeah, I mean, the fans deserve it. At the end of the day, people have been supporting you for so long, and never had a chance to see you, and want to see you. So you really almost owe it to them to make sure you get out there, and check them out. Let them get a chance to see you, and keep showing why they been a fan all these years. So, to me, it's important.

Some musicians tell me that when they play smaller markets like this, the fans can also be a little more appreciative or enthusiastic than show goers in bigger cities who have maybe seen it all. Has that been the case for you, and if so can you think of any standout examples?

To me, if you're a great performer, you should get the same reaction everywhere. So we're dedicated to rocking the crowd. To me, you rock every crowd that you in front of. With the bigger crowds, sometimes you gotta make adjustments in the middle of the show. To keep the energy going. But with crowds that haven't seen you before, no, that's not the case. You run through the show without a lot of different… audibles, I'll put it that way.

I read that you have some new music coming out in the spring or maybe early summer. Can we expect to hear a little bit of that on this tour?

I don't know. It's gotta really be going amazing to do so. [Laughs.] New songs, to me, I always like to perform them once people had a chance to hear them, and kind of marinate with it. I'm not really a "pull out a new song in the middle of a show" kind of guy. I got so much catalogue that it'd take time away from one of my hits. So, I kind of play that by ear, and it's very rare that I pull out new music and perform it right there without people having a chance to hear it.

In that case, should we expect "It Was a Good Day," some of the N.W.A. stuff, and maybe "Check Yo Self"? What are some of your other standbys, and what do crowds respond most to?

All of those. And "You Know How We Do It." I get a great response to that. "You Can Do It" does amazing. I do a nice medley of my older songs like "Ghetto Bird," "Steady Mobbin'" and "Jackin' for Beats." To me, it's just a very, you know, cool show that really shows the whole catalogue — from N.W.A. all the way to the present day.

Some musicians say their songs take on new meanings when they perform them many times, or for different crowds. Have you found new dimensions to your early hits on these tours?

Yeah, some songs like "Until We Rich" or "Ghetto Bird," I'm starting to see being used in TikTok videos and as IG background music. And when you perform a song live, sometimes that's when people fall in love with that particular song. It could be a song that they overlook a little bit, but when they see you do it live, it becomes one of their favorites.

Many of us choose "It Was a Good Day" as our favourite. Which is interesting, because it's such a specific snapshot of South Central L.A. that one might not think someone in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or London, Ontario, could relate to it. What's it like to connect with people from very different backgrounds with a song like that?

It's my biggest song, without a doubt. I think it's the spirit of the song. And of course, the music — using The Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark," you're already starting off with a hit. [Laughs.] And the lyrics are about a good day that anybody can have, in a way, where we count the small victories and the big victories. I think that's the outlook. When things don't go wrong, and you get home safe. And everything is like you left it — that's a good day. When there's no tragedies. It's not always winning the lottery. Sometimes it's just not having no hassles throughout your whole day.

Maybe some of that takes on a new dimension after the George Floyd protests. Or how, in Canada, much of the Indigenous population faces similar brutalities.

Without a doubt. That's the beauty and tragedy of music, when the things that you said decades ago still apply to this day. I think of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On record, how you can play that right now, and he's on point. It's amazing. But it's kind of sad, too. Things haven't moved forward. Not enough.

How does it feel playing the N.W.A. songs these days, given the beef you had with the other members?

It's great. Awesome songs. And I'm proud to be a part of it. We made up, you know, 20 years ago. So I don't feel anything like that. I think people need to understand the history, and hear it from my mouth. And at the end of the day, we celebrate N.W.A. Keep it moving.

Did having the movie Straight Outta Compton be such a success impact your show at all, in terms of the setlist, or the fan response to the N.W.A. catalogue?

Just placement, where it is in the show. But these are the songs that I've always performed from the N.W.A. catalog. There's just so much music to try to get through in an hour and a half. We kind of hit it and we keep it moving.

Speaking of keeping it moving, I know a minute ago you mentioned that the catalog is really important for the live show. But what about your new music? "That New Funkadelic" from your last album, and 2006's Laugh Now, Cry Later were high water marks. So what's inspiring this album you'll drop in the spring or summer?

This record is going to be a lot more soulful than my past records, which were more b-boy hip-hop, West Coast. This has got a lot of grooves. I think we've lost the groove in music. So if you like "That New Funkadelic," you'll love some of the stuff that I'm doing with this new album, Man Down. It's kind of a snapshot of where I see us as a society, without beating it over the head. This is not a hyper-political record. It's just good observation.

For a long time, hip-hop was supposedly a young man's game. Now, some of the biggest names are the veterans. So what are some of the benefits of being older in hip-hop, as opposed to when you got started?

Well, I know the game inside out. I can almost see around the corner. That gives you perspective on what you need to do. So, as an artist, I've really stopped worrying about what's being said on the outside. Kind of like a painter who goes and paints his painting, without an audience most of the time, and he hangs it on the wall. And if you like it, that's great. If you don't like it, too damn bad. Keep walking. Look somewhere else. [Laughs.] It's on the wall. That's how I am now with my music — if I like it, that's good enough, and we'll put it out. And hopefully everybody else will like it, too. I believe Ice Cube fans is going to love it, and that's really all that matters at this point to me.

Some people might be envious of that self-assurance. Was there something in particular that sparked it?

When you first start off, you are really obligated to make hit records. Because nine times out of 10, you want to make your budget back, be in profit. So you're hyper-focused on trying to do something people like. And sometimes you come off the rails chasing the newest hit. So as an artist who don't take much budget —I spend my own money — I feel like I can just do the music I want to do. Without worrying so much about the return. That, to me, makes me focus more on true creativity. And not, you know, "Dr. Dre didn't do this beat, so it's not going to be a hit." I don't think about that stupid stuff no more.

That wisdom sounds hard earned. You must get a lot of colourful comments, both for your music and movies. Do you still get a lot of fulfillment out of acting as well, or is music and BIG3 basketball more the focus right now?

Yeah, I mean ya know, I'm an actor. The pandemic slowed things down. And then when it came back online, there was fuckin' strikes. Now we just getting really back into the mix.

It'd be good to get back into the mix, for both you and your son, who played you in Straight Outta Compton. What was it like seeing him play you at certain points in your life?

He was very prepared. So I was just letting him know what I was thinking at the time, and how I felt about different people at different points. He ran with it, and did a great job.

Before we run out of time — do you have any memories that stand out about performing in smaller Canadian cities?

The love is the same. I don't look at it as big cities, small cities. I got Ice Cube fans out there, and I gotta get to them. And when they get a chance to see me, and I get a chance to see them, it's a fuckin' love fest. So that's really what it's all about, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] We in there partyin' and have the building rockin', and that's the centre of the universe to me.

Tour Dates

Latest Coverage