Urban music and its Canadian stars are getting love
Urban music and its Canadian stars are getting love
As the rain pours down and the smell of sweat and marijuana permeates the air, 35,000 fans, most in their teens and 20s, cram into Molson Park near Barrie, Ont., for the alternative rock extravaganza, Edgefest ’99. The crowd buzzes in anticipation. With the shows start just 10 minutes away, 20-year-old fan Jeremy Willard surveys the stage and recalls the Edgefest of 1997, the first time a hip-hop act appeared on the bill. He claims the audience did not appreciate BTK’s rapping.
“They were booed off the stage,” says Willard, a Barrie resident, with a grin. “The crowd threw bottles and shouted at them until they left.” In fact, the group finished its set, but the performance spawned an urban legend, one based on the notion that rock audiences won’t tolerate hip-hop. Looking around, Willard adds: “They are going to get destroyed.”
“They,” at this year’s event, are the Rascalz, a Juno Award-winning hip-hop group from Vancouver and Edgefest’s opening act. Willard’s prophecy, uttered loudly and with relish, incites a quarrel in the crowd.
Fans—those who know the difference between rap (what hip-hop artists do) and hip-hop (the kind of music they make)—are enraged by Willard’s disparaging attitude. “We should have an entire day for hiphop,” argues 17-year-old Samantha Donalds. “Hip-hop rules!” A few minutes later, the crowd greets the Rascalz with a chorus of cheers. Still, as predicted, a few hard-core alternative fans try to drive them off, hurling full bottles of water and other debris. But the attacks seem to embolden Misfit and Red 1, the Rascalz’s rappers. “We will be here forever. Do you hear?” Misfit yells to the crowd. “Forever.”
Certainly, at least, for the foreseeable future. Hip-hop, to use hop-head slang, is getting love. Like rock and roll in the 1960s, it is smashing established musical styles and creating new pop icons. Hip-hop—which music critics and executives file, along with rhythm and blues and funk, under the label “urban”—is the musical distillation of the inner-city African-American experience. Its ascension has spawned legions of fans and a billion-dollar industry. And like rock and roll, it is reviled by the older generation—generally aging rockers—as dangerous and subversive, not even music, just noise. “The kids love it,” says Daniel Caudeiron, a founder of the Black Music Association of Canada. “Their parents, who listen to Phil Collins, don’t understand it and don’t
like it. And that makes their kids love it all the more.”
The hip-hop love affair is passionate and unswerving. In 1998, fans bought 81 million rap CDs, tapes and records, making it the top-selling musical style in the United States. (Country, the reigning champ, fell to 72 million.) According to statistics from SoundScan, a record-sales monitoring company, rap music purchases in the United States rose 34 per cent in the first quarter of 1999. Those who buy the music also buy into the lifestyle. Urban street-wear labels such as FUBU and Enyce—characterized by bright colours and baggy pants—are doing a billion-dollar business. Hiphop magazines such as The Source and Blaze are challenging established pop-culture glossies. Even mainstream companies are muscling in: Nike, Sprite and Tommy Hilfiger have used hip-hop to reach young consumers. Calvin Klein has even sponsored a break-dancing tour.
Hip-hop has yet to reach such heights in Canada, although its popularity is soaring. Rap was the only genre to show a sales increase in 1998. In fact, this summer marks urban musics Canadian coming of age. It kicked off in the spring with the release of Rap Essentials: The Rebirth, a CD that features many Canadian hip-hop acts, and the Hard Knock Life Tour, a crosscountry string of sell-out concerts that featured American
hip-hop giants, among them Redman, Jay-Z and DMX. “Four years ago, there were no national hip-hop tours in Canada. Now, there are four this summer,” says Colin Lewis, a booking agent with The Agency Group. “Dance clubs are booking hip-hop, and universities are demanding it for their social events. A good 30 per cent of the concerts in Toronto are hip-hop.”
The label “urban” is, in reality, a tag that serves as a veiled reference for any musical style that is predominantly performed by black musicians. By using such a racially neutral term, record companies can sell black music to white fans. “In Canada, you cannot run around calling it black music,” says Nicole Chrysostom, urban music representative at BMG Music Canada. “You’ll never see that label because you would alienate a large section of consumers.”
The approach is working. It may be called urban, but there isn’t a place in Canada that hasn’t been hit with hip-hop. Dez Loreen, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student in Inuvik, N.W.T., buys hip-hop CDs at Inuvik’s Northern Store. What he cannot find, he downloads from the Internet. “The stereotype is that we don’t listen to music up here,” he says. “But most of my friends are into hip-hop.” How times have changed. As little as a year ago, record executives and radio programmers were still dismissing hip-hop as a musical curiosity. Yet, when American
hip-hop diva Lauryn Hill won five Grammy awards in February, and shortly afterwards appeared on the covers of a myriad of U.S. magazines, hip-hops ascension became undeniable.
Its rise began in the late 1970s. Hip-hop grew out of the neighbourhood block parties that African-American and Puerto Rican youths held in the Bronx. The genre’s pioneers were musical alchemists who used African oral storytelling traditions and transformed equipment like turntables, speakers and microphones into instruments. The Sugar Hill Gang released the first commercial hip-hop single, Rappers Delight, in 1979 and it became the best-selling extendedplay single in history. “But there was no crossover,” says Adam Krims, an assistant professor of popular music at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “Initially, record executives considered it a fad.” Hip-hops most startling incarnation—gangsta rap—arrived in the late 1980s. With its lurid lyrics detailing violence, sex and drugs, it quickly became the predominant style. But the genre turned off many rappers and fans alike, and by 1994 the market began to shrink. From its ashes rose a decidedly pop-flavoured breed of hiphop. By sampling (borrowing parts of other recordings and using them in their own songs) mainstream tunes and middle-class themes, rappers found it was easier to crack Top 40 radio. Jay-Z s hit It’s a Hard Knock Life features snippets from the Broadway musical Annie.
Canadians aren’t just listening to hip-hop, they’re making it.
From gangsta’s ashes ros
Each city has a hip-hop scene with its own distinct flavour. In 1 Winnipeg, groups like Mood Ruff harness a harsh mechani-
0 cal sound with playful reggae-inspired rhythms. Vancouver’s
1 Rascalz borrow freely from everything from classical ballet I scores to Austin Powers’s “Yeah, baby” catchphrase. In Que" bee, French hip-hop groups such as Montreal’s Dubmatique
are conquering airwaves. The trio’s 1997 debut album, La Force de Comprendre (The Strength to Understand) sold 114,000 copies. Hip-hop is not restricted to multicultural Montreal. La Constellation, a duo from Quebec City, tours the province regularly and has sold 10,000 copies of their debut album, Dualité (Duality). “In Chicoutimi or La Tuque,” says Claude Guillet, a publicist with Montreal-based TACCA Musique, “the kids are all following the same trends.” Halifax is the centre for less commercial hip-hop. Halifax DJ Robert Squire (Sixtoo) distributes his underground hiphop on the Internet. His Web site gets 500,000 hits a month. Sixtoo’s wired sales technique allows for global sales (everywhere from Sweden to Japan) targeting hop-heads turned off by mainstream product. Underground artists such as Rich Terfry (Buck 65) and Sixtoo look down on what they consider the selling out of the genre. Says Buck 65: “The guys we are behind are not making music for 14-year-old boys.”
The centre of Canada’s commercial hip-hop universe is Toronto. Early trailblazers, including Maestro, the Dream Warriors and Michie Mee, have been joined by newcomers like Madlocks and Kardinal Offishall. Madlocks’ hip-hop is influ-
enced by a host of musical genres, including jazz and reggae. Offishalls latest single, And What, has won raves in both the United States and Canada. Maestro remains a strong player in the urban scene. His latest CD features the track 905/416, a tribute to Toronto’s nighdife. Producer 2Rude used 10 hip-hop artists on his debut CD Rudimental 2K “The beauty of Toronto’s hip-hop scene is its sheer diversity,” says MuchMusic VJ Tony Young (Master T), who hosts the hip-hop show DaMix. “They are tapping into their Canadian identity.” Crucial to this identity are the differences between the black experience in the United States and Canada. Many American blacks can trace their ancestry back to the slave trade. While Halifax and parts of southwestern Ontario boast black communities that date back centuries, elsewhere a large percentage of black Canadians are firstor secondgeneration immigrants. “It originates from the Caribbean,” observes Caudeiron. “Canadian hip-hop is driven by an emphasis on the word as opposed to the jiggy of the music. You add Jamaican-style DJ impressions with the American style and you have Canadian hip-hop.”
Like many American rappers, Canadians often infuse their lyrics with social comment. The gangsta identity, however, is not as pervasive. The Rascalz grew up in Vancouver’s East End where gangs and guns were a rarity. Yet, they were initially labelled gangsters. Canadian fans of American hiphop often just assume that all blacks share ghetto roots. That
decidedly pop-influenced hip-hop
stereotype denies the unique history and experience of Canadas black community. “Some people listen to rap and imagine it is their reality,” says Krims. “They walk around Edmonton thinking they are in the projects.”
Until recently, the average radio listener did not know that hip-hop existed, let alone had many unique strains. Hip-hop was—and remains—scarcely heard on Canadian radio. Canada boasts 200 country music stations—but not a single urban station. Instead, hip-hop is forced to find a home on college radio, specialty shows and on MuchMusic. “When you took a song to the radio stations,” says Ivan Berry, founder of Beat Factory, Canadas first hip-hop label, “they would say: We can’t play this because it has rap in it.’ And the Canadian record executives were fat, 50-year-old white guys who didn’t care about urban music.”
Berry says record companies are coming around but radio remains a roadblock. The Rascalz experience is typical. Their last CD, Cash Crop, has sold more than 60,000 copies, a hit by Canadian standards. In nearly two years, Vancouver contemporary hits radio station Z95 had played three songs from the CD just once each. At the same time, according to statistics from Broadcast Data Systems, the company that tracks record play, Z95 has played Weird Al Yankovic’s hiphop parody, Amish Paradise, 20 times. This kind of neglect prompted the Rascalz to turn down their 1997 Juno Award to publicize the suppression of Canadian hip-hop. “We can’t get airtime,” says Red 1, “and that’s holding us back.”
All attempts to get a black radio station have failed. “Musically,” says Mee, “we are the last slaves freed.” The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rejected the first bid for an urban station in Toronto in 1985. The CRTC, which declined interview requests for this article, stated in its ruling that there was not a large enough market. The federal regulatory body has been consistent: it turned down similar bids in 1990 (issuing a country licence instead) and in 1997 (CBC AM was given an FM signal).
Critics say those decisions put Canadian hip-hop 15 years behind its U.S. counterparts. “The CRTC is deaf, dumb and blind,” claims Caudeiron. “It is one of the tragedies, in a business and cultural sense, that has occurred in this country. Imagine the impact of having a flagship radio station playing black music and setting off a chain reaction across the country? We would have established a lot more stars than just Deborah Cox. If the CRTC could put aside their latent racism and their contempt for colour they could make some green.”
A new crop of hopefuls is looking to cash in. The bright-
est star on the horizon is Kareem Blake, a 24-year-old Toronto rapper who goes by the name Choclair. Industry § watchers say he has all the quai| ities necessary for success: an innate gift for rhyming, good S j looks, charisma and ambition. ° '
“I don’t want to be just a CanaTerfry; Maestro (opposite): dian rap star,” he says. “What each city has a hip-hop scene about the rest of the world? I with its own distinct want to be international.” He flavour—Halifax is the also has a secret weapon. Fans centre for the underground call an MC’s ability to rap and
rhyme his or her “flow.” If so, Choclair boasts one of the smoothest flows in the business. When he made a surprise appearance on the Edgefest ’99 stage with the Rascalz, his mere presence drove the audience wild. ‘All the people who love hip-hop, let me see your hands,” Choclair told the fans, who answered with a sea of hands extending to the sky. In the crowd, Willard was perplexed: “I guess there are more hip-hop heads here than I thought.” More than many people once thought. But as the Rascalz’s Red 1 gleefully puts it, “Hip-hop is too prominent not to be dominant.”
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