Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Canadian Hip-Hop: A Bright New Day (Pt. II)

Welcome to PART II of Canadian Hip-Hop: A Bright New Day. This Special Feature originated as my final research paper for the World Pop Music class at UBC.

Don't forget to check out Part I, which sets out the Canadian music context, as well as my research sources. There's also a corresponding playlist to go along with the feature, which you can listen to here on CBC Radio 3.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

PART II: Influences on Canadian hip hop

Rapper Kardinal Offishall (photo courtesy of
In order to explore the origins of Canadian hip hop, a brief overview of the influences on hip hop in its place of origin, the United States, is necessary. Motion Live Entertainment and Saada STYLO identify Jamaican dub, a subgenre of Reggae music and culture, as a predecessor to the first styles of hip hop (7). Haines complements their description by noting that hip hop draws from black oral storytelling traditions, such as toasting and playing the dozens, as well as the call and response style of African-American religious traditions (58). As a musical style that originated from minority populations, hip hop has long fostered challenges to accepted norms in various forms, such as the “proper” use of language and techniques and technology in music production. Moreover, on a more macro scale, hip hop has been a channel for political protest (Low, Sarkar, and Winer 61). In this latter form, Low and colleagues identify rap’s similarity to genres such as folk, punk, and dub in opposition to a dominant culture (62).

Although a substantial amount of literature exists probing the history and social elements of hip hop culture, there is far less academic attention paid to the musical components that underlie hip hop styles. Krims identify two periods of hip hop styles, beginning from its genesis in the 1970s. The “old-school” style of hip hop, that is, prior to 1983-4, would sound “sing-songy” to contemporary listeners’ ears due to its relatively slower tempo and less complex rhyme patterns. Comparatively, “new-school” hip hop often contains complex rhyming patterns, which may include “multiple rhymes in the same rhyme complex, internal rhymes, offbeat rhymes, multiple syncopations, and violations of meter and metrical subdivisions of the beat” (Krims 49). Musically, measures of four are most common in rap, as is the norm with other popular genres such as rock, dance, and funk. This has enabled a great deal of interactions between the different genres (Krims 53).

Canadian differences from American hip hop

The generally accepted origin of hip hop music is in New York City, in particular the South Bronx area, in the 1970s (“Hip hop music”). In Canada, the hip hop scene was present in major urban centres such as Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa as early as the early 1980s due to the population of Caribbean and African immigrants, as well as cultural fusion between the border cities (Motion Live Entertainment and Saada STYLO 8). Contrasted with American hip hop, which was influenced by popular styles Motown and rock, these immigrant youth north of the border were more influenced by dub and reggae, resulting in a relatively less “hard” sound (Motion Live Entertainment and Saada STYLO 8).

Thematically, Canadian hip hop differs from our American neighbours’ content. In the Ottawa Citizen, Daniel Caudeiron makes the following comment about the differences he sees between hip hop from our two countries:

What we're producing in Canada is distinctive because it's not gangsta rap, it's not specifically hardcore or misogynist, but something cooler with a call for unity. There's a narrative style that seems to combine West Indian storytelling and a reference to the old black poet style of dub poetry. This makes it fresh.
Where do we live in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal under the same kind of deep-seated, institutionalized, racist and depressed, second-class poverty conditions that you have in the U.S?
Nowhere. We have housing projects and the like, but we don't have the sub-human conditions, the deeply entrenched racist style of some American rappers. We offer something more provocative in intellectual terms, a broader range of subjects. Ours is more laid back and mellow. It's love versus war, basically. (qtd. in Krewen)

Although not all hip hop aficionados will agree with Caudeiron’s assertion that Canada doesn’t exhibit some of the deep social and institutional inequalities that contribute to American ghettos, his implication that Canadian rap fans are responding to local hip hop because they can't identify with American storylines rings true for rapper Kardinal Offishall. He comments that “Hip-hop music can help define distinctions between Americans and Canadians, [via] positive aggression. It's a culture where you have to take a stand for something. You have to be pretty powerful with what you say" (qtd. in Krewen).

In PART III, we'll start going into Canadian hip hop history, as well as distinctions between different styles of rap.