Rising In the West Vancouver Hip-hop's Renaissance
Published Jul 01, 2002"Vancouver is not part of Canada." So wrote British Columbia novelist Douglas Coupland in City Of Glass, a turn-of-the-millennium photographic take on the writer's native city. Coupland's declaration might well be extended to include the rest of BC, a province that has long been the black sheep of the English Canadian flock. There's no denying that, apart from Quebec, no province is more different from the Canadian norm than B.C. It is the birthplace of Greenpeace and Margaret Trudeau, the home of science fictionist William Gibson and punk gods D.O.A. With its back pressed against the Rockies and its toes dipped in the Pacific, the nation's westernmost outpost is a fertile breeding ground for wacky, nonconformist, and when it comes to music, winning ideas. Nowhere is this truer than in Vancouver, which boasts a hip-hop scene set to challenge Toronto for the title of nation's best.
Of course, there's no American-style, violence-ridden East-West rivalry going on in Canadian hip-hop. That said, the rise of underground California acts like Blackalicious and Jurassic 5 has lately given a boost to Vancouver's scene, one that has long existed only on the peripheries of the centrally-dominated Canadian movement. Though the West Coast city's hip-hop history is a brief one, and though its community of artists remains largely unknown, the early 21st century has seen an unprecedented rate of growth in the quantity and quality of local acts. The Rascalz have gained followers worldwide. The Swollen Members are now crossover national stars. In their wake, a seeming cast of thousands works diligently in basements city-wide, sculpting beats and waxing poetic, waiting for their turn at bat.
At once isolated from the rest of Canada and integrated with the American West Coast, Vancouver has proven an ideal incubator for a unique sound, one that rejects the commercial shift afoot in the T-Dot scene. "There's a distinct vibe out here," boasts Moka Only, lapping up the sunrays on an East Van patio in early summer. The Victoria-born MC, best known for his work with Van City's Swollen Members, is the next big thing in crossover rap. "The West Coast is the West Coast. We're physically separated from the rest of the continent, all the way up the coast."
Indeed, Moka and Swollen MCs Prevail and Mad Child have long cited a closer affinity with California artists such as Dilated Peoples and the Souls of Mischief than with their T-Dot counterparts. While the American hip-hop lens has tended to pan along an East-West axis, any camera trained on the Van City scene must first move South to gain a full appreciation of the city's sound. Moka, Mad and Prevail all lived in California during the 1990s, and given their status as three of Vancouver's leading hip-hop heads, it's no surprise that the city's signature style has incorporated the cheebafied slow beat and double-time rhyme schemes of underground West Coast rap.
Still, in a city as big as Vancouver, there are bound to be some dissenting voices about a definitive sound. "I feel that shit is bullshit," insists an agitated Mobius, the beat-maker for Coquitlam's up-and-coming Brougham Camp. He's clearly not buying the notion of a uniform Van City style. "I'm not really feeling the mentality of hip-hop in Vancouver. People try to label Vancouver hip-hop as a certain style of music; they think it should sound like underground shit, like old Swollen or something like that. That's not what Vancouver hip-hop is. The typical underground hip-hop [mentality] in this city is that you gotta rap complex lyrics that you took out of a dictionary and spit about metaphorical this-and-that on top of boring beats and repetitive loops. That may be cool, but I want my shit to be taken to the international level where anyone in the world can feel it." Listing American titans like Timbaland and Swiss Beatz among his influences, the 25-year old Mobius doesn't shy away from the style of bouncy, club-friendly boardsmanship that plays to large audiences Stateside and beyond.
While the club-influenced Brougham Camp is among the most promising of Vancouver's next generation crews, the godfathers of the local scene have moved beyond the West Coast approach and have used their international status as a springboard to a border-less sound. The Rascalz' new album, Reloaded, sees producers Red 1, Misfit, and Kemo employing dub-lite bass lines, bhangra beats, and American-style hooks to bring their conscious message to the masses. "We've been in this game for a while," relates Red 1, over lunch at a downtown café. "We've been all over the world and we wanted to apply everything that we've learned [to Reloaded]. We've done a lot on an international level. Most people want to blow up in America. We want to blow up in America, too, but there's so much more out there. We know the world is watching what we do."
In The Beginning
Before the world started paying attention, the Rascalz were paving the way for the convoy of hip-hop artists that now rumbles non-stop from Lotus Land. A review of the scene's history shows that the East Van crew was the first group in the city to be signed to a major label, and the first to gain widespread international recognition. "When it comes to Vancouver, we're the originators," claims Red, the MC-producer who coined the term Van City back in the mid-90s. "The only cats that was before us was this group called EQ. Those were the cats that inspired me. They were my heroes."
Comprised of the Incredible Ease and Quaze, EQ was the first Vancouver hip-hop group to make a dent outside BC, first by playing shows Stateside and then by seeing its video for "Swellsville" get rotation on MuchMusic in 1988. Asked to name the local pioneers, Swollen's Mad Child gives it up to Craig Crush and Mike D'Zire, a pair of artists who both sang and rapped to packed rooms at now-defunct clubs like Casablanca's and the Warehouse.
Maximus Clean has long been an important figure in the city's urban scene, and with the 1987 inauguration of Soul Sonic Shocks (on Simon Fraser University's campus station), he became the first radio jock to broadcast hip-hop on the Canadian West Coast. "These guys, like Ease and Craig Crush, they were the ones who really paved the way, as far as performance in this city," says Clean. "But they never got their props, because clubs at the time would rarely book hip-hop acts urban R&B, maybe, but as far as hip-hop was concerned, it was too new and club owners weren't willing to risk booking it."
With little radio support and almost no club presence, Vancouver's second generation rappers occupied a sub-underground position in the early to mid-90s. Influenced by the sometimes violent fractiousness of the American hip-hop community, Van City's hip-hoppers were a divided lot, if only for petty reasons. Red 1 and his crew, formerly known as the Ragamuffin Rascalz, were at the top of the heap, while aspirants like Mad Child and Flipout (a duo named What The Hell?), MC Checkmate and DJ J-Swing (a young suburban team), and Prevail and Moka Only (formerly of Victoria), were making a run for the throne. Mad Child tells the story of his first meeting with Prevail, when the latter walked into North Vancouver's FWUH hip-hop shop with Moka in tow. "It was the sort of thing that, when he walked in with Moka, I turned up my nose and they looked at me and turned their noses up. If the three of us hadn't all moved to California as individuals, we definitely would not have hooked up back home and formed a group [in Vancouver]."
Divided by petty beefs, Vancouver's various hip-hop crews were united by their shared work with one of the city's uncredited pioneers, production engineer Roger Swan. In the basement of his parents' Coquitlam home, Swan was one of the few heads in the city with professional-grade recording equipment. As a result, crews from all over the city would descend on the suburban residence to lay down tracks and spit their rhymes. "We had nowhere to go to get beats," recalls the Rascalz' Red 1. "Roger was the only man we knew with equipment. He basically started Swollen Members and started the Rascalz. If it wasn't for Roger Swan, the Vancouver sound would be a whole lot different, because he's the man behind the boards for most of these cats."
No longer in his parents' basement, Swan's new production home is the west side's Hipposonic Studios, where he's mixed and engineered everything from the Rascalz' first major label effort, Global Warning, to Swollen's crossover smash, Bad Dreams, to Checkmate's nimble debut, Welcome To The Game. If Vancouver's hip-hop scene has a hero in hiding, Swan's the man.
As much as Vancouver's hip-hop history is oriented in a southerly direction, the city's most significant rap recording was the result of an inspired cross-Canadian collaboration. That song was, of course, 1997's "Northern Touch," a track that saw the Rascalz and fellow West Coasters Checkmate and Concise join forces with Toronto's Kardinal Offishall, Thrust, and Choclair to form the Dominion's first hip-hop super-group. If Maestro Fresh Wes's "Let Your Backbone Slide" inaugurated the era of crossover Canadian rap, "Northern Touch" elevated the national scene beyond its fringe status, permanently fixing Canadian hip-hop into the mainstream consciousness.
In demanding that the Canadian music industry take hip-hop seriously punctuated by their refusal to accept the 1998 Best Rap Recording Juno the Rascalz have become national flag-bearers for this music, and their activism has borne fruit for artists across the country. "We did a lot of the groundwork," claims Red 1. "A lot of things that go on now [in Canada] wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for us. Cats wouldn't be performing at the Junos if somebody didn't take a stand like we did."
While the Rascalz and their T-Dot collaborators rode the success of "Northern Touch" to fields of big label green, the Swollen Members toiled away in the grime of the underground, releasing a series of well-received twelve-inches before dropping Balance on an unsuspecting public in late 98. History will one day note that album as one of the finest underground rap releases of the late 90s. Propelled by rugged rhythm tracks and haunting minor chord string passages, MCs Mad Child and Prevail took listeners on a tour of their twisted inner landscapes. Strangely, the reception to Balance on the home front was less than warm, with the group chalking up middling local sales and receiving only scattered praise in the West Coast press. That all changed at the 2000 Junos, when Swollen picked up the award for Best Rap Recording, in the process defeating the infamously stunned and petulant Maestro.
"Winning the Juno definitely made a lot of people in the industry take notice," relates Mad Child, who as the owner of the Battle Axe label, carries himself with the air of a shrewd businessman. "The type of music that we started off making was the kind of music that people had to dig to deep to find it was really underground. But there could be people out there who work nine-to-five and shop at the Gap and who like to check out different kinds of music, but they don't have the time to find out what the new underground CDs are. I would like some of those people to hear our music. If those people can appreciate our self-expression, then that's great. We're happy about that."
Indeed, Swollen's rise to national prominence is as much a lesson in marketing as it is in music-making. The duo's core constituency is comprised of the trend-setting boys and girls of the skate- and snowboarding world, a demographic whose musical allegiances have long tended to the punk end of the spectrum, but one that has now adopted hip-hop as a way of life. Building on that core fan base, Swollen's catchy singles have established themselves as crossover stars, garnering high rotation on Much, and radio play on a wide variety of local outlets, from top 40 (Z 95.3) to modern rock (X-fm 104.9 and CFOX 99.3) to urban (The Beat 94.5).
The last of those stations is the newest to the market, and its launch this past February marks a significant turning point in the evolution of Vancouver hip-hop. In the past, all of the city's rap talent was, by definition, underground; there existed virtually no mainstream platforms on which to broadcast hip-hop, no matter how commercial it may have sounded. With The Beat on air, local producers are ambushing the station's programming personnel with their music, driven by the 35 percent Canadian content requirement placed on the nation's broadcasters. Stated bluntly, the pool of commercial-grade Canadian hip-hop and R&B is shallow. As a result, every head and his dog seems to be recording beats these days, angling for a piece of the CanCon pie.
"I'm excited about it," says Mad Child of The Beat's launch. "In the United States, these stations are very popular in cities across the country. It's a step towards Canada being fully caught up in [terms of] having an urban market.
"It's a bonus for artists right now," he continues, "because they're probably getting extra spins out of it. It will take time for us to come into our own as a city and as a country. But it's an avenue for artists to develop and get a chance to have exposure in our country. If kids start seeing that they have an opportunity to get played on the radio, they're going to focus more on the formula of making songs that can get played on the radio while maintaining their creative integrity. They're going to say, Let's make sure that we formulate our songs in a way that makes sense for the radio play it.'"
Where the Vancouver scene has long prided itself on being deeper underground than Toronto's there are no ass-slapping Choclairs on the West Coast, thank you the launch of The Beat will likely bring about a rightward shift in beat production and lyrical content. Former Winnipeger Rod Bailey (aka mcenroe) now operates the indie darling Peanuts & Corn label from his home in Vancouver. Even if mcenroe's left-of-centre tracks will no sooner see play on the Beat than will, say, Rita MacNeil's, his views on the effects of the new radio station are diplomatic. "It's inevitable," he says of the coming commercialisation of the Van City sound. "Your goals change when you see a station like that and start thinking, Maybe I can get on the radio. It would be great to have a local hit.' But if that's what some people do, that's totally cool. I'm not the guy at the front screaming sell out!' We won't do it because we're a quirky label and that's not what we have going for us. Going commercial would be the worst thing that we could do."
Indeed, while many will be disappointed by the nascent popification of the Vancouver sound, it's possible to interpret The Beat's inception as a launching point for a mass expansion of the scene. The bigger the community, the more diverse it will become, with some artists opting for a market-friendly sound and others pushing the boundaries of experimentation. Where the Vancouver hip-hop scene could formally be compared to a wading pool, the current rapid pace of growth will flip that analogy, taking that wading pool and turning into an Olympic-size tank, one with room for all manner of flows.
One crew that has reluctantly benefited from play on The Beat is the Social Deviantz, a trio comprised of MCs Fatbone and A-Train, and producer Junya. The three-man team has seen two of its new tracks ("Minimal" and "Lucky 5") garner heavy play on the new station, an odd occurrence given the group's decidedly anti-pop bent. "Our music is not made with commercial intent," holds Junya. "I think that's pretty obvious because there are virtually no choruses in our music. There are virtually no hooks and it's not what I would call catchy.' We're not going to be like every other hip-hop band. At the same time, it's nice to hear our music on the radio, and it makes it a lot sweeter to succeed on our own terms."
Another emerging success story is the City Planners, a five-man crew made up of rappers Jeff Spec, Ishkan and Moka Only, and beatmakers Sichuan and Sweet G. On the instrumental side of things, the Planners flip the classic boom-bap style in intriguing new ways, while on the mike, the crew's MCs spit rugged about their West Coast realities. "I think all of our MCs have done a really good job of writing truthfully," says producer G. "There's no one here who's trying to be a New York MC. We're not thugs. And you can feel Vancouver in the music; this guy's talking about taking the SkyTrain downtown. They're talking about their life; they're not talking about made-up lives."
The producer makes a worthy point. While a definitive Vancouver sound has yet to emerge it probably never will what's most important to the scene's long-term health is the production of truthful, convention-busting tracks. Hip-hop has always been a recombinant form, and the best of tomorrow's musicians will be those who can take the old and tweak it far enough to make it new again. Vancouver's next generation torchbearers might be Trevor and Matt Chan, a brother duo known as the No Luck Club. Long-time on-air DJs at SFU's campus radio station (CJSF), the vinyl-phile Chan brothers are collage-style producers in the tradition Kid Koala and DJ Shadow. The NLC use their personal collection of 20,000 records and their connections in Vancouver's oddball vinyl subculture to craft soundscapes that point the way to an absurd tomorrow. In a town where East meets West meets North meets South, the NLC sound seems to make perfect sense. "This city's still very young," says Matt, lounging on a couch in the CJSF studio. "It's going to take a while to grow. Vancouver was a rock'n'roll town for the longest time. I mean, look at the biggest acts to come out of here: Bryan Adams and, who else, Loverboy?"
"But at the same time, that's a good thing," says Trevor of the city's youthfulness. "We have no allegiance to anything. We don't have a background, so we're going to take from everything. We're thieves."
Upcoming Vancouver Hip-Hop
With big labels salivating over the crop of Vancouver's unsigned talent and with the launch of an urban radio station, 2002 is a critical year for local crews. These Lotus Landers have been working feverishly to put the finishing touches on their 2002 long-players.
Monsters In The Closet (Battle Axe/Nettwerk)
Set to drop in mid-September, the unofficial follow-up to Bad Dreams was originally intended to be a collection of B-sides and rarities, but, says Mad Child, "It's become more of a full album because we focused on doing some singles to release. Now we've got a song featuring Sarah McLachlan, we've got one featuring Nelly Furtado and we've got another song featuring Moka Only." Should make for some good videos.
The recently-released Reloaded reads as a friendly retort to Swollen's crossover success. It's buoyed along by up-tempo beats, sing-song choruses and guest appearances from T-Dotters K-OS, Kardinal and Saukrates. "Every time I come out, I'm trying to better myself and I'm trying to raise the bar," says Rascal rep Red 1. "I get inspired by cats who come out with dope tracks, whoever they may be."
Flood (Battle Axe)
The West Coast's Most Prolific continues to live up to his nickname, with Flood marking the 17th tape or CD he's released since 1995. While a limited edition run of Flood covers the streets, Moka will spent his autumn in the studio recording Ambrosia, an album that Battle Axe hopes to distribute through a major label in early 2003.
The Empire Strikes (Brougham Records)
This seven-man crew ain't afraid to bounce, as attested to by lead tracks "Callin' Em Out" and "365." "We make songs that could be hard, that could be some battle shit, and some that could be some club shit," offers Brougham's Mobius. "I don't make a song thinking, It's gotta be jiggy for the radio.' Fuck that. But if I make 16 songs and one of them happens to be jiggy, then that's the one that we pick as a single. Either way, this album will be hot, top-to-bottom."
No Luck Club
Happiness (Ill Boogie)
Originally signed to Dan the Automator's 75 Ark label, the cut-and-pasting Chan brothers had to jump ship in the wake of the Ark's sinking. Now affiliated with L.A.'s Ill Boogie imprint, the NLC boys offer up Happiness, a Kid Koala-style cut-up journey that showcases Matt Chan's turntable trickery and Trevor Chan's offbeat arrangements. A mirthful, conscious debut.
Sweatshop Union (Underworld Inc.)
Bearing the imprint of Battle Axe's subsidiary, Underworld Inc., Sweatshop Union presents an eccentric take on the banalities of daily life. The record is a compilation of tracks from local talents like Dirty Circus and Kyprios. The video for the Circus' "The Truth We Speak" is representative of the Union's skewed take on life it shows the group yukking it up with a cast of freaks on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition. Weird stuff.
Bleaky Deky (Sugarshack)
According to the Deviantz' beat-maker Junya, their 27-track sophomore effort is "designed to be a complete harmonic flow from start to finish and hooks be damned." The long-awaited follow-up to 1996's Essential Mental Nutrients, Bleaky Deky will be available in October. Claims MC Fatbone: "We haven't sacrificed for money or fame or anything. We've put in the work, and we've given our soul for this record."
Disenfranchised (Peanuts & Corn)
Like most people living in Vancouver, mcenroe is from somewhere else. He's from Winnipeg. This is what he has to say about Disenfranchised: "My first full album will be just me with no guests. I just want to have some fun. I tend to be serious on a lot of songs, but I'm trying to balance it with some humour. I'm just looking at the world and trying to get some perspectives on how crazy things are, and how all these good-meaning things that have happened in the last 50 years have started to go sour." Can't wait.