Canadian hip hop
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The Canadian hip hop scene was first established in the 1980s. Through a variety of factors, it developed much more slowly than Canada's popular rock music scene, and apart from a short-lived burst of mainstream popularity from 1989 to 1991, it remained largely an underground phenomenon until the early 2000s.
Canada had hip hop artists right from the early days of the scene — the first known English Canadian rap single, Singing Fools' "The Bum Rap", was released in 1982, and the first French rap single, Lucien Francœur's "Le Rap-à-Billy", was released in 1983. Toronto's CKLN-FM was also an early supporter of the genre, launching Canada's first hip hop program, The Fantastic Voyage, in 1983. For the most part, however, the infrastructure simply wasn't there to get most artists' music to the record-buying public.
Even if a Canadian hip hop artist could get signed to a record label at all, it was very difficult for them to get widespread exposure — even if their music videos were played on MuchMusic, many artists still couldn't get their records into stores or played on the radio. Although a few Canadian hip hop artists did break through to mainstream success around 1990, and a few Canadian acts such as Maestro Fresh-Wes, Main Source and Dream Warriors even gained cult-status recognition internationally from the underground hip hop scene, through much of the following decade, Canadian hip hop acts experienced a slowdown without any significant artists breaking through to the mainstream — although many hip hop musicians continued to record and tour, not one Canadian hip hop song reached even the Top 100 on a Canadian pop chart between 1992 and 1998. Beginning in 1998, however, a sequence of events spurred by the anthemic collaborative single "Northern Touch" finally brought hip hop back into the mainstream of Canadian music.
Canada's propensity to create quality artists who rarely achieved public recognition prompted Allmusic to state that Canadian hip hop is the "best-kept secret in hip-hop." However, with the strong entrance of Drake, K'naan and the moderate success of P Reign and Kardinal Offishall after the turn of the millennium, Canadian hip hop artists have finally achieved worldwide mainstream international recognition.
Late 1980s/early 1990s: The rise of Canadian hip hop
Artists such as Devon, Maestro Fresh-Wes and Dream Warriors did manage, for a brief time in the late '80s and early '90s, to break into the mainstream. In 1989, Maestro's first single, "Let Your Backbone Slide", was the first Canadian hip-hop single to break the national Top 40 and U.S. Billboard charts. It remained the bestselling Canadian hip hop single of all time until 2008. Other notable rap singles of this era include Maestro's "Drop the Needle", Devon's "Mr. Metro", Dream Warriors' "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" and "Wash Your Face in My Sink", Ground Control's "Another Dope Jam", MCJ and Cool G's "No Sex With My Sister" and "So Listen", and Kish's "I Rhyme the World in 80 Days".
Michie Mee became, in 1988, the first Canadian rapper to sign a deal with an American record label. This action did not result in significant chart success for her — she has asserted in interviews that the reggae influences on her 1991 debut album Jamaican Funk—Canadian Style met with resistance from American label executives and radio programmers.
The Get Loose Crew released an independent mini LP in March 1988 from their own record label East Park Productions with global distribution, thus becoming the first Canadian rap group with international record sales. The group featured the first recorded white rapper (MC Shadow) in Canada. The group disbanded in 1990 forming notable groups JUST Me, B-Kool (a Juno Award nominee), and Self-Defence.
In addition, DJs K-Cut and Sir Scratch of the Toronto/New York-based hip-hop group Main Source were Toronto natives. In 1991, Main Source released the hip-hop classic Breaking Atoms, which featured the debut of a young Nas before his rise in popularity. Rap also began to surface in Canadian mainstream pop in the early 1990s. Rapper Frankie Fudge performed a rap break in Celine Dion's 1990 single "Unison" and appeared in her video. Female R&B duo Love and Sas performed rap in their 1991 single "I Don't Need Yo' Kiss".
Early to mid-1990s
In 1990, Milestone Radio applied to the CRTC for an urban music station in Toronto, which would have been the first such station in Canada, but that application was denied in favour of a country music station — which Toronto already had on its radio dial.
The decision was controversial, and hurt the Canadian hip hop scene considerably. Hip-hop and R&B fans in Toronto relied on Buffalo, New York's WBLK, an American station with no Canadian content responsibilities, while other Canadian cities often had no access to any urban music radio stations at all. After 1992, Michie Mee was the only Canadian rapper to make an appearance on the national pop charts until 1998 — and even she didn't accomplish the feat with a hip hop song, but by partnering with the alternative rock band Raggadeath for 1995's "One Life".
Sol Guy, a hip hop promoter with Figure IV Entertainment, said in 1999 that
|“||after "My Definition", nothing happened for two years. No labels were signing, or trying to sign, anything. Nobody was getting a shot. Radio disappeared with Wes and the Dream Warriors and it still hasn't come back.||”|
A special collaborative single, "Can't Repress the Cause", was released under the name Dance Appeal to advocate for greater inclusion of hip hop in the mainstream of Canadian music. Participating artists included Devon, Maestro Fresh Wes, Dream Warriors, B-Kool, Michie Mee, Lillian Allen, Eria Fachin, HDV, Dionne, Thando Hyman, Carla Marshall, Messenjah, Jillian Mendez, Lorraine Scott, Lorraine Segato, Self Defense, Leroy Sibbles, Zama and Thyron Lee White.
Ottawa-based hip-hop group Organized Rhyme, which featured a young Tom Green before his rise to fame, had some success on MuchMusic with "Check the O.R." in 1993, but did not receive widespread radio airplay or reach the RPM charts. Maestro Fresh-Wes, who moved to New York City in 1992 and attempted to break into the American market with the albums Maestro Zone and Naaah, Dis Kid Can't Be from Canada?!!, found his career faltering in this era. Snow, who had a number one Billboard hit in 1993 with "Informer", is sometimes mistakenly labelled a rapper, but in fact his style was more accurately described as dancehall, a style of reggae, than as hip hop.
Many American hip hop artists were popular in Canada, and Black Canadian musicians such as Infidels, Deborah Cox and The Philosopher Kings had notable successes in the R&B, pop and rock genres; however, even the most prominent Canadian hip hop acts during this era, including Ghetto Concept, Rascalz, Farm Fresh, TBTBT, Graphidi Logik and Hip Club Groove, struggled to gain any kind of commercial traction. Although Toronto-market radio stations CHOG and CING-FM began to include some Canadian hip hop songs in their contemporary hit radio formats, the hip hop audience in the city remained loyal to WBLK — and for most artists the only venues available for reaching an audience anywhere outside of the Greater Toronto Area were campus radio and MuchMusic's RapCity and X-Tendamix.
That began to change in 1996, when the Urban Music Association of Canada was formed to build the domestic and international profile of Canadian urban music. The following year, Dubmatique broke through as the first Quebec rap band to top Canada's francophone pop charts, and some controversy erupted in Toronto when Milestone was again passed over for an urban radio station on its second application. Instead, the CBC was awarded 99.1 to move its existing Radio One station, CBLA, from the AM band — and, ominously, this was believed at the time to be the last available FM frequency in the city. The CRTC decision was not met with as much uproar as there had been in 1990, because the ruling was not seen as much of a shock; indeed, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the CBC would receive the frequency.
1998: Northern Touch
However, 1998 proved to be a transformative year in the development of Canadian hip hop, as the Vancouver hip hop band Rascalz quite unexpectedly found themselves at the centre of a sequence of events which gave Canadian hip hop an unprecedented level of media attention, leading the Canadian music and broadcasting industries to make a number of structural changes which would ultimately give hip hop musicians a more stable and commercially visible platform going into the 21st century.
First, Rascalz collaborated with emerging rappers Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Thrust and Choclair to record "Northern Touch", a galvanizing statement of purpose for Canadian hip hoppers which was released as a single in 1998 — and which beat the odds to become the first Canadian hip hop hit since 1991. Although the song just barely missed the national Top 40 charts, peaking at #41 in RPM, it reached the Top 10 in most major markets, and was the first Canadian hip hop song to reach the Top 100 at all, and the first to garner widespread radio airplay both in Canada and internationally, since "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style".
Later that year, Rascalz won the Juno Award for Best Rap Recording for their 1997 album Cash Crop. Because of Canadian hip hop's lack of commercial visibility, the award was presented during the non-televised portion of the ceremony, along with the technical awards, rather than at the televised main gala. The band had not yet arrived at the ceremony when the award was announced — when they did arrive, they were simply pulled aside and told that they had won the award.
|“||In view of the lack of real inclusion of black music in this ceremony, this feels like a token gesture towards honoring the real impact of urban music in Canada. Urban music, reggae, R&B, and rap, that's all black music, and it's not represented [at the Junos]. We decided that until it is, we were going to take a stance.||”|
For several weeks cultural critics and hip hop musicians debated the issue in the press — some suggested, in fact, that the hip hop award's lack of visibility could be seen as not just a result of Canadian hip hop's poor commercial performance, but also a contributing factor.
Maestro Fresh-Wes, now known simply as Maestro, also broke his own hit jinx in 1998, with "Stick to Your Vision" — buoyed, in part, by a Guess Who sample — becoming his first Top 40 hit in seven years. Although he would not actually reach the Top 40 until 2001's "BaKardi Slang", Kardinal Offishall also made his first appearance as a solo artist in RPM's Top 100 in 1998, peaking at #91 with "On wit da Show". Artists such as Choclair, Jelleestone and Saukrates were also beginning to make waves in the press, as the year's more dramatic events renewed attention on Canadian hip hop.
As a result of the Rascalz controversy, the Junos moved the Rap award to the main ceremony the following year. It was won, inevitably enough, by "Northern Touch".
2000s: The breakthrough
On June 18, 1999, the CBC's Toronto station completed its move to FM. Because the FM frequency offered better broadcast coverage of the region, the CBC found that it was able to surrender two FM repeater transmitters serving communities outside of the city — thus opening two new frequencies for license applications. In response, the federal cabinet issued an Order in Council to the CRTC directing it to give precedence to applications that took into account Toronto's cultural and racial diversity, effectively guaranteeing that Milestone would get a license in the new round of hearings.
On June 16, 2000, the CRTC awarded one of the frequencies to Milestone, on the company's third attempt. The other frequency was awarded to Aboriginal Voices for a station to serve First Nations communities. At the beginning of this same year, the internet became home to Canada's largest rap/hip-hop website publication and community, HipHopCanada.com. Also in 2000, the CBC created and aired Drop the Beat, a television series about hip hop music and culture which was billed as one of the first such series in the world. The show starred Merwin Mondesir and Mark Taylor as the hosts of a hip hop show on a campus radio station; the cast also included Michie Mee, DJ Shamann and Kardinal Offishall.
Finally, in 2001, CFXJ (Flow 93.5) debuted as Canada's first urban music station. Urban stations quickly followed in several other Canadian cities, as well, and for the first time, Canadian hip hop artists had a network of radio outlets for their music — as well as numerous record labels committed to rectifying their past lack of interest in the genre. In the 2000s, numerous Canadian hip hop artists, including Kardinal Offishall, Drake, Classified, k-os, K'naan, Swollen Members, Sweatshop Union, Buck 65, Belly, Moka Only, Shad, Kyprios and Cadence Weapon, as well as many R&B artists, have emerged as mainstream stars. Cadence Weapon, in fact, was named poet laureate of Edmonton, Alberta in 2009.
In addition to terrestrial radio, the national satellite radio networks CBC Radio 3 and Bande à part, which are both dedicated to Canadian independent music of any genre, also include numerous emerging hip hop artists in their playlists. Bande à part has produced a compilation album of unsigned Quebec hip hop artists, 93 tours, which it distributed as a free download from its website. Several prominent contemporary hip hop artists, including Shad, Cadence Weapon, K'naan, Sweatshop Union, Radio Radio and Omnikrom, have in fact risen to prominence through these channels instead of through terrestrial radio.
Apart from a few major stars, however, the hip hop scene has faced continued struggle. Virtually all of the urban-format radio stations which debuted in the early 2000s, including Flow 93.5, have since shifted from a pure urban format to a rhythmic contemporary format. While the stations still play some hip hop, they now focus far more on artists who have already established crossover Top 40 appeal — meaning that emerging artists can no longer rely on the stations to help them build their audience. In 2010, further, Milestone announced a deal to sell Flow 93.5 to CHUM Radio, a division of the mainstream media conglomerate CTVglobemedia. (Following another sale, Flow 93.5 is now owned by Newcap Broadcasting as of March 2014, and now airs a rhythmic adult contemporary format branded as "The Move".) However, a new radio station, CKFG-FM, was licensed to Toronto in 2011 as a community radio station authorized to broadcast a broad spectrum of African and Caribbean musical genres, including hip hop, reggae, soca and rhythm and blues.
Canadian hip hop musicians have also continued to face obstacles when attempting to break into the American and international markets. Music critics and journalists have sometimes attributed this to the perception, real or imagined, that stereotypes of Canada as a land of igloos and hosers get in the way of Canadian rappers being taken seriously. As early as 1994, noted Canadian hip hop record producer Derek Brin was telling Billboard that "Americans like something that sounds American. From here, it seems if you don't have that sound, you ain't it."
It was not until 2008, when Kardinal Offishall reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a collaboration with established American star Akon, "Dangerous", that a Canadian rapper had a major chart hit in the United States. He was shortly followed by Drake, whose 2009 single "Best I Ever Had" reached #2 on the Hot 100, making it the most successful Canadian hip hop single in the U.S. to date (now surpassed by Drake's One Dance). Another major international breakthrough came in 2009 when a remixed version of K'naan's single "Wavin' Flag" was announced as the official Coca-Cola theme song of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The song has since become a chart hit in at least 16 countries worldwide.
French Canadian hip hop
Montreal, being Canada's second largest city and one of the world's largest French-speaking cities, has developed its own niche of French language hip hop, which later spread to Quebec City and throughout the province of Quebec. The first known francophone Canadian rap single, Lucien Francœur's "Le Rap-à-Billy", was not conventional hip hop as that term is understood today, but featured Francœur rapping over a hybrid funk-rockabilly track which presaged the much later rap rock genre.
Although a few French rap singles broke through to mainstream success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Les French B's "Je m'en souviens", Kool Rock and Jay Tree's "M.R.F. est arrivé", Le Boyfriend's "Rapper chic (Je rap en français)" and Dédé Tracké's "T'es qui toé", as in English Canada this early success was not sustained, and francophone hip hop remained largely an underground phenomenon until the emergence of Dubmatique, who became in 1997 the first francophone Canadian hip hop group to have a number-one hit on Canada's francophone Top 40 charts. Dubmatique were followed by acts including Muzion, Manu Militari, Yvon Krevé, Loco Locass, Catburglaz, Atach Tatuq, Taktika, Sans Pression, Omnikrom, Anodajay, Gatineau, Radio Radio, Alaclair Ensemble and Treizième Etage.
In 2005, The Dope Poet Society released a multilingual single and video entitled, "All of Us" off the album ProIntelpro: Promote Intelligence Program. Lead vocalist ProfessorD.us raps in both English and French on the track, accompanied by a posse of six other rappers rhyming in a total of five different languages. The most internationally successful hip hop musician from Quebec is Ghislain Poirier, a producer whose own albums primarily feature francophone rappers from Quebec and France, but who is also now an influential remixer equally sought after by anglophone rappers and dance musicians from Canada and the United States. Roi Heenok, a rapper from Montreal, has become an Internet phenomenon in France, and has performed in Paris three times since 2004.
Aboriginal hip hop
Hip hop is also a prominent influence on contemporary First Nations and Métis youth culture, spearheaded by artists such as Winnipeg's Most, Kinnie Starr, War Party, Eekwol, Inez Jasper, Manik 1derful, OS-12, Joey Stylez, Lil Pappie, Wab Kinew, TKO, Samian, Crystle Lightning, A Tribe Called Red, JB the First Lady and Team Rezofficial.
David Dacoine, a member of Tribal Wizdom, has hosted workshops across Canada encouraging aboriginal youth to take up hip hop as a method of creative expression and self-empowerment. Anish created the first ever First Nations Hip Hop Festival; subsequently, the event was held at Pasqua, Saskatchewan in 2004. The festival faltered for a number of years after that, but was reestablished in 2013.
The Aboriginal Voices radio network has also aired a weekly program, hosted by Plex, devoted to Aboriginal hip hop.
In 2009, Team Rezofficial became the first aboriginal hip hop group with a song on the RapCity Top Ten. The song "Lonely" went to number one. In the same year, Manitoba's Native Communications radio network launched Streetz FM, a hip hop station in Winnipeg which was Canada's first radio station marketed primarily to aboriginal youth.
Besides music, hip hop culture has had a major impact on urban aboriginals in Canada in areas such as fashion, visual art, and so on. In 2013, the Vancouver Art Gallery toured the show Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture showing works by Aboriginal artists influenced by hip hop themes.
Although American East Coast hip hop and West Coast hip hop are major influences on Canadian artists in the genre, Canadian hip hop also incorporates a number of other influences not commonly seen in the mainstream of the American genre. The Black Canadian community is much more dominated by people of Caribbean heritage than is the African American community in the United States, and as a result, Canadian hip hop is significantly influenced by the rhythms and styles of Caribbean music. English Canadian hip hop tends to be influenced by Jamaican, Trinidadian and Bahamian styles, while francophone hip hop from Quebec is commonly influenced by French Antillean, Dominican or Haitian music. Artists such as Michie Mee, Dream Warriors, Ghetto Concept, and Kardinal Offishall have incorporated dancehall or reggae into their music.
Even those artists who do not use an obvious Caribbean sounds are often influenced by Caribbean English and themes. A famous example is the Kardinal Offishall song "BaKardi Slang", which gives examples of Toronto black youth slang — many derived from Caribbean speech. As well, Rastafarian vocabulary, speaking of good as "Zion" and evil as "Babylon" for example, is quite common, even if the rappers are not themselves Rasta.
The genre-hopping "Tom Waits with a beatbox" style of Buck 65, who integrates country, rock, folk and blues influences into his music, has also become a major influence on Canadian hip hop in the 2000s. His influence is especially strong on hip hop artists from the Maritime provinces, such as Classified, but can also be seen in artists such as Ridley Bent and mcenroe.
Electronic music is also a significant influence, notably seen in artists such as Cadence Weapon, No Luck Club, Tre Mission, Kaytranada and Ghislain Poirier, and jazz music has been incorporated since the early 1990s, particularly in the work of Dream Warriors, Social Deviantz, Mood Ruff and Da Grassroots. Artists such as K'naan, k-os, Grand Analog, Touch and Nato, Dragon Fli Empire, DL Incognito and Graph Nobel have pursued styles which blend a diverse mix of hip hop, rock, jazz, world music, and R&B influences.
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