South Rakkas Crew

BY David DacksPublished Feb 2, 2010

Depending on who's writing about them, you may see electro-dancehall masterminds South Rakkas Crew described as Kingston-via-Miami-via-L.A., with Orlando and Mississauga thrown in for completeness' sake. This last locale is crucial to understanding what the Crew is all about. Producer Dennis "Dow Jones" Shaw insists that growing up in Canada was a key part of the group's musical development. Their Myspace page features a background image of Toronto's million-strong Caribana parade; their music brings the picture to life. The Crew have come a long way since being best known for quirky dancehall productions and remixes half a decade ago. Now name-checked by everyone from Diplo to Tricky (whose last album they remixed in its entirety), the time is right to drop their first full-length… for free download.
The Stimulus Package is a landmark release in Greater Toronto musical history. South Rakkas fluidly and forcefully combine soca, hip-hop, kuduro, dancehall, electro and rave sounds with unabashedly poptastic production (seriously, do you remember DJ Chris Sheppard?). Further elaborating on the multifaceted party jams of Kardinal Offishal, The Stimulus Package is the sum total and future direction of diasporic Caribbean music flowing through the Toronto region given a further twist by multicultural cross-currents. They're not trying to pummel an audience with snarling synths and grim beats: this ain't nothing but a party that maintains a good-natured feeling with occasional gusts to out-and-out goofiness. Above all, they provide an alternative point of view on the social dynamics of the west part of the 905 area code, so often unfairly portrayed as a cultural wasteland.

What did you listen to while you were growing up?
Dennis Shaw: I was born in the '70s, so I grew up listening to disco and old school reggae. Before [moving to Mississauga], in Jamaica I listened to a lot of Bob Marley, stuff like that. Into my teens, I listened to everything, rock, pop, Casey Kasem, Rick Dees. I went through phases ― my house phase, my b-boy phase, and my ragamuffin phase where it was pure reggae and basement parties. Then, raves and jungle. I think it's a pretty unique experience to Canada, unique to the Toronto region, cause pretty much everyone around me was doing the same thing. With Alex (G, the other member of the Crew) it was the same way. And I don't see that anywhere else in the world. People grow up listening to a couple of different types of music and that's what they're listening to their whole life. Especially here in the States: hip-hop, R&B, that's all some people know. But in Canada you're surrounded by all these different cultures and people and just live together. I don't see Mississauga as unique to Toronto. Scarborough, Brampton ― in all those areas, we listened to the same music and all had our basement parties.

When did you start making music?
When I was about 13 I played with my father's set. He had two turntables and some speakers. He wasn't a DJ but he was pretty serious about his music. I made up my mind that DJing was what I wanted to do with my life. I went to college for audio engineering. Alex G is really the technician. I have musical ideas when we go into the studio but he puts the polish on them. He's the Mozart. He's recognized worldwide for the sound that he has ― clean, crisp and very polished.

Was he the first to move to Orlando?
We were working together in Canada doing Latin hip-hop and dance stuff. Alex got invited down to produce 95 South and ended up staying. It took him a couple of years for him to convince me to come down but eventually he did. You can't, or at the time you couldn't, make a living doing urban music in Canada. It was a hobby. I had to hold down three jobs just to go into the studio. I knew that if I had to make this a career if I have to leave.

How was Orlando different from your experiences in Mississauga?
Very different. It's very segregated down there. I'd have to say most of the United States I've been to has been very segregated. If you're a hip-hop guy, you're a hip-hop guy. If you're a dance guy, you're a dance guy. You don't really see a lot of mixing going on down there. Talking to people down there they wouldn't get certain references to other types of music, because they just don't have that experience. I'm very thankful for growing up in Canada.

How did you hook up with Mad Decent?
It was through M.I.A. She hit us up a few years back to do a remix of "Galang." This was long before she blew up ― we have mad respect for her. She was in Miami and gave us a call, so me and Alex jumped in a car (from Orlando) and met her for dinner. She was with Diplo, who at the time I believe was her boyfriend. At dinner he said, "I'm a DJ, I've got my label, we should put stuff out for you, it would really appeal to my audience." That's where it started.

What have been some of your favourite productions?
We're just all over the board. I love challenges. I like being in the mix with somebody you wouldn't expect, like Deerhoof. That's one of my favourites.

How did that come about?
The label we were dealing with in Japan was a distributor for them. I kept asking them "If you have anything that's weird or interesting, please send it to us, I want to do something different." They sent me that Deerhoof song "+81" and I loved it, I loved the energy. I checked them out on YouTube and I thought they were absolutely hot. That's how we started, and I hope we can do stuff in the future from scratch.

One of the things I like about your music is that there are so many different influences into what's going in, but it's so perfectly fused. It's not fussy music, that's for sure.
That's what we want to do ― make music so that people jump up. Doing our own full album, we can do our own thing, nobody can tell us what to do and we can make it a true representation of ourselves. Cause some people still don't get it: dancehall or electro people go "Uh, what are you doing?" But I think the world is coming around to what we're doing. I don't come from a (strictly) dancehall world, I come from a world where all these musics influence what we do and who we are. So the album is a true representation of who we are.

Do Caribbean audiences in particular respond more strongly to this music?
I haven't really thought about it on a daily basis. I've never done a show in the Caribbean. But I played a show in Vancouver and a girl came up to me who was from one of the islands and said "This is the best music to come out of the islands, ever." But I don't really want to speculate, cause I don't know enough people from the islands who listen to our music. I know the dancehall guys are loving this album so far because there are some tracks that are more riddim driven. I would have thought they'd be like "What's all this other stuff?" but they like that too. I think that the world and music is coming closer together. You listen to a lot of stuff coming out of Jamaica right now and it's very electronic influenced.

Do you think there's a difference in your music because you're building on sounds you've always loved rather than working with musical styles you've only come to recently?
I think so, I haven't thought a lot about it. I came from dancehall and hip-hop, and Alex came from electro, rock and new wave. I think we have more history [than some other producers of dancehall-inspired beats around the world]. I read some reviews out there, and some people seem to be tuning in to the fact that there is history with us. I can't remember the name of the article that said "It doesn't sound like guys coming out now and trying to capitalize on how popular dancehall is." You listen to our stuff and it comes from a real place. Not to say it's any more viable than anybody else, but there is a history there. You can listen to some songs and there are little touches that are from way back. We're not young cats; we draw on a lot of experience.

Getting back to what Diplo said earlier about how you would appeal to his audience, what kind of audience are you going for?
We're not going for an audience, we're just doing our music. When we started out with "Clappas" [a very popular riddim from 2002], people said "OK, electro-dancehall." European guys dubbed that name on us. Other producers in Jamaica started following suit, using rave sounds. Diplo, when he was starting the Major Lazer project, he told me straight: "I want to do what you guys do." We've influenced a lot of what's going on now. It's cool.

And a lot of people are going to be discovering your music through the Mad Decent site. It's really making a statement to give away your debut for free!
The first day we did it we got people telling us we were nuts. But that talk spread like wildfire. There isn't really that much in terms of money from record sales now, it's about downloading: people don't pay for it and they share it. It wasn't all that hard a decision, cause all these DJs are playing it and sharing it. This time around, we'll get a lot more out of it if we just give it away because we'll get it into the hands and the heads of the people. We'll benefit down the road with more shows and merchandise. It seems backwards but it really isn't. It's music. It's Christmas. It's hard right now. That's why it's called The Stimulus Package!

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