On this day in 1973, at a house party in the Bronx, DJ Kool Herc made music history. The innovator lit up the night. With just two turntables and a microphone as his instruments, the deejay created a new genre. Hip-hop’s history in Canada does not have such a defining origin story. Instead, its evolution was slow and steady. In the early to mid 1980s there were underground scenes inspired by American MCs and deejays that blazed the hip-hop trail. Canadian rap artists looked to the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. Canadian hip-hop is not a mere mimicking of our southern neighbours. Rather, our pioneers in the genre developed a unique northern identity, style and sound influenced largely by the Caribbean rhythms from Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Bahamas. With mainstream radio play non-existent in the early days, Canadian hip-hop artists received support and distribution of their creations by college/community radio and MuchMusic.
Much of Canada’s hip-hop history is lost — or simply forgotten by today’s generation. But, long before Drake, there was already an established scene. Pioneers include: Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee (our first international superstar), the Dream Warriors, the Rascalz and Choclair, to name a few. Now, thanks to champions like: Mark Campbell, an adjunct professor at Ryerson who created the Northside HipHop Archive; the OG: the Maestro, and former MuchMusic VJ Master T (Tony Young), this legacy is being retrieved and shared.
In advance of a special event: 50 Years of Hip-Hop: Four Elements from the West, moderated by Master T to celebrate the genre’s golden anniversary at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, later this month, Amplify chatted with the on-air personality and urban music promoter.
How does Canadian hip-hop differ from the U.S. MCs and DJs?
When it comes to hip-hop, Canada was a bit behind the U.S. What we’ve found, if you connect or talk with any of the major legacy hip-hop artists in this country, is that there is always a U.S. connection first … they pay homage to American hip-hop. But, after that, the biggest thing we noticed is that throughout those years when hip-hop was developing we also created our own identity and our own voice. Kardinal [Offishall] did that by incorporating elements of West Indian sounds and culture and Jamaican slang into his songs. Maestro [Fresh Wes] did the same — coming up with his own style. Ever since then our hip-hop artists have been sharing and telling our own Canadian stories. It has evolved from there. Maestro was the base, but other early pioneers include: Choclair, Saukrates and Michie Mee. Now, we have our own level of history and legacy. Community and college radio also deserve a big thanks. People like Ron Nelson, DJ Mel Boogie and Mastermind … those people all carried the torch and supported Canadian hip-hop from the start.
Another one of those early industry pioneers was Ivan Berry with his independent record label Beat Factory. Talk a bit about his influence and legacy.
Ivan was very important. He signed Michie Mee and the Dream Warriors. He is one of those guys that was connected to a major label [EMI] and he put out one of the earliest hip-hop compilations: Rap Essentials. He definitely has a legacy and is important to the hip-hop game. It’s amazing to think back on acts like the Dream Warriors who traveled and found success in Europe and they were still not getting played in their own country … there is something to be said about that. The legacy of Michie Mee is also incredible. She was a fierce rapper and battler on the mic; she took on a lot of the female – and male – MCs back in the day. Berry’s legacy is also important for hip-hop in this country because he gave a level of credibility to the business side of things: enabling management and record labels to say we can survive and put out these hip-hop artists that people want to consume. That opened up opportunities for other artists like Choclair, who signed to Virgin Music Canada in 1998 and his major-label debut Ice Cold was certified gold.
Talk about the role of MuchMusic and your role as a VJ at the nation’s music station as a catalyst and a platform that helped these early hip-hop artists get exposure from coast to coast?
MuchMusic was a big factor and really important as well to the growth of hip-hop in this country, especially the vision of Michele Geister, who created the show RapCity in the 1980s. I hosted and produced two shows on Much: X-Tendamix (later renamed Da Mix) and RapCity. For the rest of the country, MuchMusic was not only a video music channel, but we were also a radio station since at the time hip-hop music lovers they could not access this genre on mainstream commercial radio. When we played stuff, it was fresh out of the gate. People in Western Canada and Eastern Canada all got to hear it at the same time. I still pinch myself when I think back and realize that I was a VJ on the air for 11 years. That gave me a high level of legacy of supporting Canadian products. That’s what I called our acts. I wanted the audience to understand and define that this music was Canadian … this is us. When played next to Public Enemy or Wu-Tang Clan, Canadians could hear these artists and realize that this is our music too and feel proud.
Talk about the pivotal moment in Canadian hip-hop history that occurred in 1998 when West-Coast group the Rascalz collaborated with some of the rising stars in the genre to create what is now considered our national hip-hop anthem: “Northern Touch.”
“Northern Touch” was a posse cut that received a high level of attention. MuchMusic was rinsing and repeating and had the single in heavy rotation, so mainstream radio could not avoid playing it. The song connected the country: from the Rascalz and Checkmate on the West Coast to Kardinal [Offishall] and Choclair in Ontario. Unlike the U.S., where there was a distinct divide — and disdain — between the East Coast and the West Coast rappers, this Canadian collaboration showed our artists, from both coasts, harmonizing. To this day, that remains a pivotal piece of our hip-hop history, along with the Rascalz refusing the Juno the following year, claiming racism for CARAS not including the Rap category since its debut in the televised broadcast. No disrespect to the Junos, but they needed that slap on the wrist and that protest has led to more diversity and inclusion in the televised ceremony and important changes in all urban music categories.
Why is it so important for Canadians to understand our hip-hop legacy and the fact that we also had MCs and deejays making mixtapes long before Drake apparently put The Six on the global hip-hop map?
It’s very important. Look at guys like Kardinal [Offishall] and Maestro [Fresh Wes]. They are still relevant today and they bring that foundation. There is a rich history here, but it is also important for these artists to pass it on, which they’ve done, so young cats today realize there was somebody before Drake. I mean no disrespect to Drake; he is amazing and he has done a great job sharing this legacy. At his “All Canadian North Stars” concert event at his new venue History in 2022, he paid homage to everybody: from Nelly Furtado to Maestro, Choclair and Jully Black.
What does the future look like for Canadian hip-hop?
Back in the day when I was producing RapCity, at the tail end of the show’s run, I did this special series called Hip Hop: Is it in your city? I went to Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver, etc. and in each city I got a local DJ to tour me around to the clubs to try to find out who the latest artists were in their city. That’s hard to do today. There is always a scene. Also, now everything is online, so it’s not like artists have to turn to a major label to try and get signed. Many of these artists are independent and they are out there performing all over Europe and you and I would not know who many of them are. They’ve carved something out. Think of an artist like Cadence Weapon who has had a successful career and keeps it going.
These days, you can get up in the morning, have your own home recording studio, film a video, and bounce it out on various online channels and see what hits. The ease of the technology and the level of independence for people to get their creations out there makes it easy, but the challenge is that there are 50 million other people trying to sneak in too, so what makes you different? Labels are looking for that. If they sign an artist today, they want to know what their social media numbers are. And, a lot of times, these young new hip hop artists already have such huge numbers they do not need a major label.
Do you have any final words on the legacy of hip-hop in Canada?
Only that we need to continue the hip-hop legacy we have in this country. As much as we all know that it’s an American-based genre, we have our own stories.
CANADIAN HIP-HOP TIMELINE
- Ivan Berry founds the independent hip-hop label B-Side Records
- Michie Mee becomes the first Canadian to sign to a U.S. label when she teams with DJ L.A. Luv. The pair signed with First Priority and Atlantic Records;
- Maestro Fresh Wes (Wesley Williams) releases his debut Symphony in Effect and becomes the first Canadian rapper to have a Top 40 single in the U.S. (“Let Your Backbone Slide”); the single sells more than 50,000 units (another first for a Canadian hip-hop artist) and wins the inaugural Juno in 1991 in the newly created Best Rap Recording category.
- A seminal year in Canadian hip-hop, especially in Ontario’s capital city; Toronto was hailed that year by the international press as “an important new rap music centre.”
- Toronto hip-hop duo Dream Warriors, who formed in the Jane and Finch area in 1988, releases their debut Act Now the Legacy Begins, marked a new jazz rap style. Thanks to the popularity of their single: “My Definition of a Bombastic Jazz Style,” the duo were the first Canadian hip-hop band to find success in Europe, especially in the U.K.
- The Rascalz release Cash Crop. The following year, it wins the Juno for Best Rap album and the group refuses to accept the award citing racism due to the fact this award was not part of the telecast for the first decade of it being given out.
- The Rascalz collaborate with Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Thrust and Choclair to release “Northern Touch.” The song became the first Canadian hip-hop hit since 1991 and it reached the Top 10 in most Canadian markets.
- Choclair, from Scarborough, releases his debut (Ice Cold) studio album on Virgin Records Canada; it is certified gold (selling more than 50,000 copies).
- Canada’s first urban music station — CFXJ (Flow 93.5) — debuts.
- Drake releases his first mixtape.
- Drake third mixtape (So Far Gone) is nominated for a pair of Grammy awards; that June Lil Wayne signs the Canadian hip-hop artist to his label, Young Money.
- Drake releases his sophomore record (Take Care Now) and it wins the artist his first Grammy award the following year for Best Rap Album.