Monday, November 29, 2010

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

Welcome to PART 3 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. Part II talks about influences on Canadian hip hop, especially from our neighbours to the South. 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!

Michie Mee (photo:
PART III. Notable points in Canadian hip hop history

Although Toronto MC Michie Mee became the first rap artist to be signed to a major American label in 1988, it was Maestro Fresh Wes that became the first Canadian hip hop artist to hit double platinum (200,000+ albums sold) with his debut Symphony in Effect (1990) on the strength of the single “Let Your Backbone Slide” (1989) (“Canadian hip hop”; Shapiro 52). He remained the best selling rap artist in Canada until Drake came along, whose album Thank Me Later was released on June 15, 2010. The record sold 447,000 records in its first week, reaching No. 1 on the American Billboard 200 (“Drake (Entertainer)”).

By the early 21st century, the digital age has allowed independent artists to release albums directly to music consumers without the mediation of big record labels. The internet rewards artists who are entrepreneurial, allowing them to connect directly to their fan base, magnifying the effectiveness of grassroots marketing and promotions. Particularly in Canada, where large cities are separated by hours to days of driving and touring is rendered impossible for four months of the year, the internet is an increasingly important medium to sustain artists’ careers. However, distinct challenges to the Canadian rap field hinder its growth, which include a smaller market of consumers, lack of producers and studios specializing in hip hop, the financial upstart cost, as well as lack of support from the music industry (Haines 79). As of 2001, there are more than 200 rap groups across Canada, about half of which are located in the Greater Toronto region. Vancouver, Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax are also important cities for Canadian hip hop, which support clubs and the touring circuit. There are also fans from various ethnic backgrounds in these cities (Chamberland 312).

Hip hop styles

Hip hop music contains numerous distinct elements, including the DJ, who plays and mixes records, the emcee (MC), who vocalizes composed rhymes or improvises on top of a beat, the artist, who creates visual transformations using forms such as graffiti, and the dancer, otherwise known as the B-boy/girl, who moves to the rhythm laid down by the DJ. For the sake of simplicity, this paper focuses on emceeing (MC-ing), or rapping, which is often the focal point of hip hop culture, as emcees provide “recognizable voices, styles, faces and personas” (Motion Live Entertainment and Saada STYLO 11).

Both KRS-One, a celebrated rapper from the US, as well as Krims identify four separate styles of rap. Their conceptualizations overlap substantially, although not perfectly. Firstly, party rap, or “the Fun style” as deemed by KRS-One, is marked by a celebratory tone and emphasis on getting the crowd to move. It draws its influences from the Jamaican and African-American tradition of DJ roasting at parties over tracks, as well as lindy hop. Secondly, he identifies mack rap, which parallels KRS-One’s “Sexual Style.” It’s marked by bravaggio and a misogynist reputation, as exemplified by the “pimp and ho” focus of rap. Thirdly, Krims names jazz/bohemian rap, or the “Intellectual Style,” which is often marked by eclecticism, and incorporates samples of jazz/soul/pop. Topics addressed in this genre often qualify it as “conscious hip hop” and includes social critiques, parody and irony. Lastly, Krims identifies reality rap, dubbed by KRS-One as the “Violent Style,” which is marked by the realism of inner city life. “Gangsta” rap would be included in this genre, which emphasizes an “authentic” gangster persona, with a focus on the ghetto, masculinity and hardness. Musically, reality rap is often punctuated with dominating bass, dissonant pitch combinations, and distortions in the samples (Motion Live Entertainment and Saada STYLO 11; KRS-One qtd. in Krims 54-80). It’s also important to note that these styles are not mutually exclusive, and that an artist may incorporate multiple types of rap within even one track.