The Fall and Rise of Canadian Hip-Hop

By: Chris Dagonas

“Anything that he tried to tell you people, disregard/ Syd is sweeter than my great grandmother’s Christmas cards/

This pollutant couldn’t lift an arm to let the whistle spark/ Said the kid is hard I ain’t feelin shit he spit so far/

Think you’re sharp? Get ripped apart with scissor parts and mirror shards/ Prison bars, lit cigars, fifty shards of pickle jars/

Six Alarm Chili Farm Pepper Spraying Scimitars/Fishing Bars/flat serrated Patrick Bateman business cards/

Hangs on Santa Monica/Lives behind the Kwik-E-Mart/Just discard him with the garbage/ downstream by the river guards/

Where dudes get death-gripped apart with more missing parts than a whip that’s parked between a titty bar and a shipping yard.”

-Bender

Bender, Canada’s best battle rapper.

“Been a long wait/locked in my enclave, writing/

’til the paper filled more/than the paper mill made/

no paper they had to make scrill/ outta old stale paper mache/

They told me Shad K don’t treat paper that way/

cuz, uh, we can’t breathe if you kill them trees/

that’s a roundabout way that I kill MCs”

-Shad K

Shadrach Kabango, aka Shad K. Quite possibly the world’s best rapper.

The lyrics above are premier examples of the two styles of hip-hop lyric writing in Canada these days.  The first entry is a visceral, knock you on your ass narrative about Ottawa’s Bender slicing apart his opponent, Atlanta’s Syd Vicious, and discarding him in an industrial zone on the waterfront.  The second is a poetic, tongue-in-cheek depiction of London, Ontario’s Shad K defeating his opponents simply by working harder, taking his time, and writing lyrics so exhaustively that the world runs out of trees and, by extension, oxygen.  Hip-hop is commonly thought of as predominantly an urban phenomenon, but within the past decade, it has exploded in the suburbs and townships all over Canada.  As a genre, hip-hop is roughly forty years old, a baby compared to older genres like jazz and rock and roll.  But in Canada, hip-hop bloomed late, only really coming to prominence in the late 1990’s.  Today, Canada boasts a staggeringly talented hip-hop community.  Come with me, then, as we journey through time and space to trace the past, present, and future of Canadian hip-hop.

Organized Rhyme, featuring Tom Green (yes, that Tom Green) was an early Canadian hip-hop group

Hip-hop’s first appearance in Canada was in late 1982, with the release of Ottawa’s own The Singing Fools’ single “The Bum Rap“.  It sounds more like a spoken word track than a modern hip-hop track, and attacks Pierre Trudeau’s attempted implementation of wage controls.  American hip-hop has a long history of anti-establishment, politically themed songs (a history that fans of modern rappers may be unaware of, but nevertheless exists).  It should be no surprise, therefore, that “The Bum Rap” is also a political-themed track.

Canadian hip-hop first found a home on CKLN-FM, otherwise known as (until recently) Ryerson University’s campus radio station.  CKLN created the first Canadian hip-hop program, titled The Fantastic Voyage, in 1983.  Unfortunately, Ryerson’s campus radio station did not generate the kind of audience needed to launch an entirely new genre on the Canadian public.  Prior to the Internet, listeners only had one option for finding new music: the radio.  Though university stations are usually on the cutting edge, they also have a much smaller listenership than mainstream radio stations.  Throughout the 1980’s, Canada continued to produce hip-hop artists who would struggle to find fans.  In 1990, an application was made to establish an entirely urban radio station in Toronto, but the CRTC decided to launch a new country music station instead.  Hip-hop fans would have to wait for a new avenue to find their preferred style of music, and that avenue appeared in the 1990’s.

CKLN FM, 88.1 – Canada’s first home to hip-hop music

MuchMusic first introduced Canadian TV viewers to the music video in 1984.  The concept was a novelty for much of the 1980’s, and the focus was largely on rock and pop music.  However, with a growing audience courtesy of singles like Maestro Fresh Wes’ 1989 single “Let Your Backbone Slide”, and Dream Warriors’ 1991 hit “My Definition of Bombastic Jazz Style”, viewers demanded an outlet for more Canadian hip-hop.  MuchMusic responded by creating “MuchVibe”, a half-hour show that would spotlight hip-hop from both sides of the border.  In the 1990’s, artists such as Tupac, Notorious BIG, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Wu Tang Clan were being introduced to impressionable youth (like me) who had previously only heard old-school tracks like “Rapper’s Delight” and the above mentioned “My Definition”.  Those songs, though classic, lack any serious material and sound almost goofy compared to current hip-hop tracks.  But the groundwork was being laid, and continued to be into the 1990’s.

So, now that Canadians could listen to and watch hip-hop artists, we responded by refining and cultivating our sound.  Hip-hop collectives like the Rascalz and Hip Club Groove began to catch some attention, but this was still, even in the mid-1990’s, limited to underground clubs and campus radio stations.  In 1996, yet another application for an urban music radio station was blocked by the CRTC, which awarded the 99.1 signal to CBC Radio.  Hip-hop continued to be disregarded by the Canadian music industry.  The turning point finally came in an unaired portion of the 1998 Juno Awards.

Canada’s original hip-hop collective, the Rascalz

In 1998, Rascalz won the Juno award for best hip-hop recording for their album Cash Crop.  At the time, the hip-hop segment of the show was still not televised (relegated to the ranks of spoken word, gospel, polka and barbershop quartet).  The Rascalz actually arrived at the Juno Ceremony AFTER they had won, and were informed of their victory on their way in.  As the premier performers of Canadian hip-hop at the time, this slighting was too much for them to absorb.  They DECLINED the award, and claimed that the exclusion of the genre from the televised program was racist.  That sparked a tremendous debate, and one year later, lo and behold, Rascalz were nominated for the 1999 Juno Award for hip-hop, won it on television, and even performed the award winning single. That single was the famous “Northern Touch“.

“Northern Touch” exploded in 1999, and shifted the focus of Canadian youth away from pop music and towards urban sounds.  R&B, reggae, rap and hip-hop were all in a state of massive growth at this time, both here and in the United States.  Eminem had just burst upon the scene, rocking the cities and suburbs with his album “The Slim Shady LP”, and his popularity meant that listeners wanted more hip-hop.  And for once, record labels and radio programmers were finally ready to give it to them.  CFXJ-FM (also known as Flow 93.5) was created in 2001, and was Canada’s first urban music station.  This was quickly followed in other major urban centres, and the spark that had dimly, yet determinedly, stayed lit since the 1980’s was finally ignited.

The current home of Canadian hip-hop on mainstream radio. A little too much Drake, sure, but it’s a start

In the past decade, hip-hop has not only gained a foothold in Canada, it has indeed flourished.  While American hip-hop artists like Common and Talib Kweli are often ignored by radio stations and fans in favour of mainstream commercial rappers like Lil Wayne, Canada continues to produce an overwhelming majority of true, old soul hip-hoppers.  American rap has been bought out and sold, but Canadian rap, perhaps because of almost two decades spent in the shadows, has maintained its heart.

Take Bender and Shad K, for example.  Bender is a big, scary looking guy.  He shaves his head bald and wears a thick beard.  He looks more like a potential member of a motorcycle gang than one of Canada’s premier battle rappers.  But that’s exactly what he is.  From St. Catharines, Ontario, Bender is also a part of the hip-hop trio Flight Distance, and as the lyrics that opened this piece indicate, Bender is all about the violent, aggressive side of hip-hop.  In the days of the freestyle battle, unleashing a sequence like the one noted above would be enough to take the crown and head home.  But these days, battle raps are all pre-written, and as such, the expectations are much higher.  While this sequence still made the crowd go nuts, it takes more than that to be the best.  So Bender likes to mix the violent aggression with a touch of the enlightened.  While he can paint a vivid picture of a victim being sliced and dumped, he can just as easily drop a philosophical line to appeal to the hip-hop “nerds” or draw from an endless arsenal of double entendres. “Your new girl looking tight though, believe me when I saw her, Syd.  She broke that piece (peace) off quicker than a treaty on the Gaza Strip”  In that line, Bender has managed to achieve three of the necessary battle rap insult ingredients; 1) His opponent was cuckolded; 2) An intelligent connection to the current and ongoing strife in the Middle East, one that freestyle rappers ten years ago would never be able to make; and 3) the clever play on the word piece, or peace, to connect the two seemingly disparate concepts.

Furthermore, Bender achieves, as he often does, a multi-syllabic rhyme scheme that I’m sure sounds much more pleasant than it reads.  Let’s start from “believe me when I saw her, Syd.”  An interesting choice of words, one that I’m sure Bender had to play with considerably before it fit the rhyme of his next line; “…treaty on the Gaza Strip”  When said aloud, and with the proper cadence and dropping of certain consonants, “believe me” rhymes with “treaty”, “saw her” (Saw ha) rhymes with “Gaza”, and “Syd” can be taken to rhyme with “Strip”.  More of Bender’s Raps here.  Oh, look, my ‘hood pass just arrived in the mail.  If Bender represents the aggressive, rugged side of Canadian hip-hop, let’s contrast him with the smooth, polished sounds of a Juno Award winner.

Bender vs. Hamilton’s Arcane, in a legendary battle.

Shad K is straight out of London, Ontario.  His parents are from Rwanda, and emigrated to Canada when Shad (government name Shadrach Kabango) was a young boy.  His upbringing in a mostly white, middle class community may have had some effect on his music, but Shad, like Bender, is no one trick pony.  He can speak on topics ranging from the inane (an early track begins with him and a friend, presumably a white friend, trading lines about whether black or white basketball players are better) to the contemporary (the current state of hip-hop, trouble meeting women) to the ephemeral (he has songs about the meaning of life and the fear of death).  His songs contain humour, solemnity, wisdom, honesty, and a deft use of sarcastic exaggeration to make his point.  His rap songs are more like poems, taking a theme like the music industry, tying it to an old fable about Satan being expelled from Heaven, and connecting the two in a masterful way (I’m really not doing it justice: listen here).

He eschews the violent braggadocio commonly seen in hip-hop, and is not (to my knowledge) a battle rapper, but if he ever does pursue that, I will be sure to be standing front row centre, ready to snap my fingers as he launches a verbal assault on some poor slob who agreed to the match-up.  Shad K is also a Juno award winner, and Polaris Prize finalist, so it’s not just the hip-hop nerds who have embraced him.  Nor is his reputation limited to Canada; Shad has performed in the United States, Europe and Africa and is widely considered among the best in the genre.  Shad represents the heights to which Canadian hip-hop artists can reach, with global recognition and, by the time he quits, likely a shelf full of awards.  And best of all, he doesn’t have to cuss in his records.

Shad, winning a Juno on National TV! “Plottin’ a grand scheme to hold up a Grammy”…Perhaps one day, Shad.

Battle Rap has been around about as long as rap music has.  In its infancy, battle rappers would trade jabs about each other’s clothes, hats, shoes, cars, girlfriends, and other such personal matters.  Their ammo was limited, however, to what they could see in front of them.  Rap battles were traditionally performed freestyle, meaning that one had no opportunity to prepare lines, and could only create them on the spot.  “Your hat looks like trash, you got no cash” and the like.  Along the way, some of these young guys (Eminem, for example) got so good at it that they were able to get record deals and launch careers.  Others, like Toronto’s own Travis Fleetwood, earned quite a reputation under the nom de guerre Organik, a local freestyle battle rapper.  Unlike Eminem,   Fleetwood was never able to parlay his talent into a recording contract.  So instead, he began to host battles, and eventually started his own rap battle community, called King of the Dot, in 2007.

King Of The Dot; Canada’s Battle Rap Community

King of the Dot hosts monthly events, where rappers, beatboxers, graffiti artists and breakdancers converge and show off their skills and hope to take home a small pot of cash.  (Even the marquee battle rap match-ups are contested over no more than five thousand dollars, usually put up by both rappers)  The first King of the Dot championship was awarded in the alley behind Flow 93.5’s studio in Toronto, but it has been growing exponentially since then, with larger audiences, larger venues, and a global reputation as the best rap organization in the world.  Rappers have travelled to Canada from USA, Australia, Europe, Asia and Africa to take part in events.  The current KOTD champion is Dizaster, a Persian-American from California, who defeated Whitby, Ontario’s PoRich in August to take the title chain.  Recently, King of the Dot has surpassed American battle rap leagues like GrindTime and URL (Ultimate Rap League) as the most prestigious on the continent, by bringing in more, and better, rappers to its events.  On YouTube, views of KOTD battles and events far outweigh those of any other league.  (To analogize, remember when WCW wrestler after wrestler began to jump ship to the WWE in the late 90’s and early 2000’s?)

Currently, Canada can claim the premier battle rap league, one of the world’s premier rappers, and a bevy of blue-collar, working-man rappers like Bender, all flush with talent and determination, just waiting for that big break.  We have certainly come a long way from the days when hip-hop music could not even find a home on the radio in Canada.  You should listen to Canadian hip-hop.  There is a whole lot going on up here.

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