Memories from URBNET’s 23 years as an independent record label. Photo courtesy of Darryl Rodway.

Canadian Labels: Toronto’s URBNET is a Home for Homegrown Hip Hop

Headquarters: Toronto, ON; Sudbury, ON; St. John’s, NL 
Year founded: 1999
Founders: Darryl Rodway, Janusz Jarosinski
Notable artists: Elaquent, Korea Town Acid, Moka Only, OBUXUM, Anzola, Sweatshop Union, D-Sisive, Swamp Thing, Ill Sugi, Nickelman, Howiewonder & Jabbu, Mood Ruff, The Carps, DL Incognito, Def3, Dan-e-o, Tru-Paz, Grand Analog

For almost a quarter century, URBNET has provided a home for Canadian hip hop acts to release their music. Started by Darryl Rodway and long-time friend Janusz Jarosinski as an online magazine, the pair saw a hole in the market and set up the label a few years later. Their first signing was Winnipeg’s Mood Ruff — co-founder Odario Williams is now a host on CBC radio — and the label, to date, has a catalogue of about 200 releases.

While others may have had to adjust to working remotely during the pandemic, URBNET never bothered with an office. Jarosinski worked out of his home in Sudbury, Ontario, and Rodway sold his home in Toronto in 2021 and moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Since 1999, it’s just been the two of them “on staff,” and they subcontract a range of services, including photography, video creation, radio promotion, advertising, and social media. The label is distributed by Fontana North in Canada and Fat Beats Distribution, out of California, for the rest of the world.

Darryl Rodway, co-founder of URBNET in 1999. Photo courtesy of Darryl Rodway.

Karen Bliss spoke with Rodway about launching URBNET for NMC Amplify’s new series on Canadian indie labels.

What were you doing career-wise in 1999 when you decided to start URBNET?

Career-wise, I exited the major label system, then decided to start URBNET. We started off chasing the dot com boom. It was strictly a magazine at that time. In 2002, we started releasing records as we started realizing a lot of our web clients had no means of having their releases available at brick and mortar retail.

By “we,” you mean your business partner, Janusz Jarosinski?

We were buddies from high school. We bonded over hip hop and electronic records. After college, we started talking about doing an online magazine and we started the company in the spring of ‘99.

Darryl Rodway (pictured) started URBNET with business partner Janusz Jarosinski in 1999, building the company from their home offices. Photo courtesy of Darryl Rodway.

In 2002, was the goal to be an online distributor for hip hop releases?

Yeah, pretty much. At that time, we were just doing stuff in Canada. We didn’t have any global distribution.

So the labels didn’t mind all those years that you had an online magazine they needed to promote their acts, but also a label that could be perceived as competition?

They didn’t because we kept our online community running and active for many years since the label started. I don’t think they felt we were any competition. We focused on underground records and under-the-radar type of products. 

Was it straight-up hip hop or did you branch into jazzy rap or trip hop?

We were very openminded about it. The type of records we were putting out were all over the map. We had signed artists from the East Coast, from the West Coast. We really kept it as a national thing. And that really mirrored how we ran the online publication as well. We had connections in all the markets, working with artists in Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto. All those records are very different though.

When you say signed, was it exclusive?

Oh, yeah. They were URBNET artists.

Darryl Rodway hanging out in Toronto with URBNET artist Moka Only in 2015. Photo courtesy of Darryl Rodway.

What were you offering them, versus an established indie label or major label in Canada?

Well, that was the big issue is that the major labels were completely sleeping on homegrown and domestic hip hop. There were no distributors out there that would really distribute any of those products. That’s where we found the opportunities; there was a market and artists that were touring and putting out great records. And by us going to a distributor with a catalogue made a lot more business sense for them, instead of just distributing one-offs from groups that would release an album every two years. We started developing a catalogue and through Outside Music at that time, they opened up the door to, you know, a steady release schedule of Canadian hip hop releases.

Did you have radio, publicity, marketing?

Yeah, all that stuff was done in-house. We essentially used our contacts that we built through the years of running the online publication. We had partners in almost every province to champion our stuff and it really helped.

When did you realize URBNET was working as a label?

When we started making profit. That was the moment where we were like, “Maybe we can sustain this business over time. I would say within the first year we knew were doing something well. It wasn’t what I pictured it to be. We jumped on in a time where the music industry in general was not expanding. It was contracting, through online piracy. So we’ve always had to adapt to the changes of technology and how we monetize music. And I think that that started the minute we started the company.

Darryl Rodway making music with URBNET artist Elaquent at Post Office Sound in 2016. Photo courtesy of Darryl Rodway.

We didn’t have a huge market for homegrown hip hop. You could always name them on two hands or so. Maestro, Michie Mee, Dream Warriors, Kardinal Offishall, Swollen Members, Rascalz, Choclair, Saukrates, Ghetto Concept… Rarely did a new name break through. We always had trouble, despite the charts being filled with American hip hop acts. But then Drake came along, and made a point of using dozens of then unknown local producers and co-writers, helping them up the ladder.

There was a breaking point for sure when things started really expanding. I think access to technology and recording in general, the fact that artists were able to work on their sounds off a laptop or a home computer really changed a lot and opened up the door to a lot of extremely creative producers and beat-makers. And when people had access online to start hearing the material. I think that’s when Toronto or let’s say Canadian production started getting recognized globally. And I think technology has a big part to play in that. I think 2010 onwards.

Which artists have stayed with URBNET all this time?

People come and go. We’ve always been really artists-friendly in that no one owes us options on records. We either work well together or we don’t. A lot of artists have worked with us for a very long time. Some of them shorter durations because they have other opportunities.

Are there artists you’re proud to have helped launch their career?

Absolutely. The first compilation that we put out [ / Hiphopmix v1, 2001] Swollen Members were on. They blew up and went major. So that was a really good feeling to have a group like that succeed. Also, really proud of Classified. We put four records out from him [Union Dues, 2001; Trial & Error, 2003; Boy-Cott-In The Industry, 2005; Hitch Hikin’ Music, 2006] and after that, he moved on to the major label system and had incredible success.

Was the company name short for urban music on the Internet? The word “urban” is now fading from use to describe the hip hop and R&B genre because it perpetuates a racial stereotype. Universal, Republic, and the Grammys have made the change. What is your view?

The origin of the company name was short for Urban Entertainment Network, our online community connected all major markets in Canada, containing entertainment listings, regional artists profiles and editorial. Our business has not used the word ‘urban’ as a genre name description since the mid-2000s. It is positive to see more companies and industry organizations finally doing the same now. Genres should be individually recognized on charts and award show categories. Some progress has been made out there, however, much more work needs to happen in every sector of Canadian music industry. Our business is constantly working to contribute to a more inclusive music industry, and our brand will be constantly evolving to represent that.

Interview conducted June 2022.