Thursday, December 2, 2010

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

Welcome to PART 4 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. Part III notes the history of Canadian hip hop as well as the 4 major styles. 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!
Toronto's Masia One (Photo: CBC Radio 3)
PART IV. Diversity in Canadian rap

Medley writes in the National Post that it’s difficult to identify a specific “Canadian sound,” which had originally hurt the scene when American talent scouts would come knocking. He notes that while U.S. rappers are easily identifiable and marketable based on their community identity (East coast vs. West coast), Canadian hip hop often integrates influences beyond our borders. In Canadian rap, you can find elements of “dancehall and reggae, African and world music, garage, underground battle rap, and indie-rock” (Medley). This fusion of influences was evident as early as the late 1980s, when Toronto's Dream Warriors pioneered a hip hop sound combined with jazz. Later, we would see this fusion in Michie Mee's Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style, and most recently, the African-laced instrumentation of K'naan and the indie-rock-friendly style of Shad (Motion Live Entertainment and Saada STYLO 15).

Even a casual listener of Canadian hip hop artists or Canadian indie rock/dance/pop/folk can pick out the large number of collaborations and influences between the genres. For example, Saukrates has recently released a track named “Emily Haines,” dedicated to and named after the lead singer of Toronto new wave rock band Metric. Vancouver by way of London, Ontario rapper Shad enlisted the help of two members of Broken Social Scene, one of Canada’s most critically acclaimed musician collectives, in recording his latest album TSOL. Halifax rapper Classified had celebrated folk rocker Joel Plaskett sing the hook in his single “One Track Mind.” K’naan worked with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett for his track “If Rap Gets Jealous.” k-os collaborated with new wave dance group You Say Party, Cadence Weapon with indie rockers Think About Life... and the list continues almost infinitely.

When interviewed about the diversity of Canadian hip hop influences, Saukrates responds, “Being eclectic is our sound. Artists up here are fearless. This thing about melody and MCs singing? We started that. And I’ll do a shameless plug, that Big Black Cadillac record? It’s five MCs on one record, we started that whole thing! We’re fearless because we were brought up here in the melting pot” (Kaplan). Similarly, Shad notes in the same interview that “the changes in hip-hop happen so rapidly. I was born in Africa and we have artists in Canada – K’naan, etc. – and we’re the first to be from Africa in Canada making hip-hop music... [This kind of music] wouldn’t have been called hip-hop in 1995” (Kaplan).

Frustrations abroad and at home

Saukrates (Photo: artist website)
Saukrates’ comments about being fearless and innovative certainly come from a place of experience. In an unprecedented 2010 National Post interview between eight prominent Canadian emcees, including Saukrates, a common thread in their comments include frustrations with the music industry and need for persistence in order to have longevity in their careers (National Post Staff).

In the US, rap is second only to rock in terms of record sales, and hip-hop is a cultural and financial empire. Yet Canadian artists are more often than not “left at the border” (McKinnon). Saukrates was mishandled by labels Warner Brothers and Def Jam, and saw his career stagnate while the labels’ resources went to his American equivalents. Speaking from that experience, he demonstrates the characteristic drive of the Canadian rappers who have shown modest success with their craft. “I won’t be satisfied until the world accepts us. I don’t want to be pigeonholed just in Canada – only touring in Canada, only viable in Canada. No, no, no. Hell no. We’re going to do more than compete. We’re gonna get in there. America has heard the east, they’ve heard the west, they’ve heard the south – now here comes the motherfuckin’ north” (McKinnon). Another artist that’s currently enjoying success after decades of hard work is Kardinal Offishall, and he’s experienced a similar frustrating trajectory as Saukrates but with label MCA, where he got lost in the queue after a company merger. “With this label bullshit, I had to sit on my hands for a while when we went through all the red tape” (Kardinal Offishall, qtd. in McKinnon).

Unfortunately, Canadian audiences and industry haven’t been much more accommodating of home grown hip hop talent than the United States. There is only one hip hop album on the Top 100 Canadian Albums list, which was compiled from votes by music industry insiders. This lone hip hop album, k-os’ Joyful Rebellion (2004), came in at #68 (Mersereau). Moreover, although the book is sprinkled with features highlighting top albums in different genres of music, hip-hop is not included. In his spotlight piece for, McKinnon identifies that Canada “lacks the young, urban (or urban-minded) population needed to consistently support high-volume sales for its home grown rhymers. While mainstream pop and guitar stars like Avril Lavigne and Nickelback measure success in millions of copies sold, Canada’s microphone controllers can spend years hustling to reach modest targets like 50,000 or 100,000. Sales outside the country are a rare phenomenon.”

Due to a lack support or investment by record companies, retail and radio, it’s difficult for Canadian “urban” artists to be financially viable. Rap aficionados often know more about American rappers than Canadian ones, due to lack of intra-country publicity. This, coupled with what Morrow names as a “cultural cringe... in relation to local product” (198), means that Canadian hip hop artists are trapped in a difficult confine, where you need to succeed in an already saturated US market before anyone back home will acknowledge your craft. Up until recently, the only hope of home grown rap music being noticed is via play by campus radio, which is reflected in a short lived television series named Drop the Beat. The 2000 CBC series was one of the first to be focused on hip hop music and culture, and it prominently featured the campus radio station, which was the reality of hip hop at the time. As identified on Wikipedia, “until Toronto's Flow 93.5 hit the airwaves in early 2001, Canada did not have any radio stations dedicated specifically to urban music” (“Drop the Beat”).

Then everything changed with a protest. In 1998, Vancouver hip hop collective The Rascalz declined to accept their Juno Award for Best Rap Recording, protesting the organizers' decision not to televise the “urban” awards. Their statement implicated racism in the Canadian music industry: "In view of the lack of real inclusion of black music in this ceremony, this feels like a token gesture towards honouring the real impact of urban music in Canada” (qtd. in LeBlanc). Their boycott incurred great media attention and nationwide discussions, and in 1999, rap was included in the Juno live broadcast. Additionally, rap collective Northern Touch performed during the 1999 Juno ceremony and gave the Canadian rap scene a primetime audience, something it’s sorely needed (Krewen). It seemed that the next logical step for greater exposure for Canadian artists abroad was “to break a Canadian hip-hop act in America" (Kulawick, qtd. in Krewen).

Current state of Canadian hip hop

There’s currently a laundry list of exciting Canadian rappers enjoying success both at home and abroad. Shad just saw his critically acclaimed third album released in the United States. Kardinal Offishall’s single “Dangerous” was a huge hit in 2008. Classified saw his single “Oh...Canada” played prominently during the 2010 Olympics, and k-os has released a string of successful singles as well. Rich Terfry, otherwise known as Buck 65, hosts CBC Radio 2’s show “Drive,” and 24 year old Cadence Weapon is Edmonton’s poet laureate. As Terfry notes, “there’s been growth in the hip-hop scene in this country that didn’t exist 15 years ago” (Kaplan). In the same interview, Cadence Weapon notes that female MCs and Asian MCs are “out there. It’s just the gaze from the lighthouse moves slowly. Things happen, it’s just a matter of time” (Kaplan). One of those artists getting their time in the spotlight is Masia One, a female rapper of Singaporean origin, although she remains a slim minority in the larger Canadian scene.

In Part V, we will address specific populations and their use of hip hop as a voice - in particular, Aboriginal and francophone rap in Canada.