Canadians hip-hop onto centre stage


By Nick Krewen




It was the final straw.

Incensed that producers of the 1998 Juno Awards telecast had again delegated the hip-hop category to the pre-televised portion of the two-hour program, veteran Vancouver rap quintet RASCALZ refused their award for Cash Crop, Best Rap Recording of the year.

Rascalz rapper MISFIT went as far as denouncing the band's victory as meaningless.

"It feels like a token gesture towards honoring the real impact of urban music in Canada," he told the press backstage at Vancouver's GM Place.

A year down the road, someone seems to have been listening.

Tonight when the Juno Awards are presented at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum before an estimated 16,000 fans and some 1.7 million CBC viewers, rap will be sharing the performance spotlight with CELINE DION, SLOAN and COLIN JAMES.

NORTHERN TOUCH, a collective that involves The Rascalz and members of THE CIRCLE, a budding Toronto aggregate that includes SAUKRATES, CHOCLAIR, KARDINAL OFFISHALL and THRUST, will perform their self-titled hip-hop anthem and give the Canadian rap scene something it's been sorely missing in coveted prime time: an audience.

While New Jersey hip-hop artist LAURYN HILL sells four million copies of her album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, captures five Grammy Awards and has her face plastered on TIME Magazine as an acknowledgment of the mainstream impact of hip-hop culture, Canadian rap is still struggling for recognition in its own backyard.

Hip-hop music lovers from Halifax to Vancouver are only too aware of the California-generated gangsta hip-hop of an ICE CUBE or a TUPAC SHAKUR or the Long Island collective concerns of the WU-TANG CLAN and their various incarnations. But ask them about GHETTO CONCEPT's street savvy "Brownsville2Toronto" or The Rascalz rapping about their "33rd Faction" Vancouver neighbourhood and you'll probably draw some blank stares.

So the Juno broadcast is viewed as an important victory in giving national exposure and helping put some faces to Canada's evolving rap scene. The kicker is that Canadian hip-hop has its own identity, which critics argue would be more readily embraced if more avenues of exposure were opened to Canadian rappers.

"We're offering an antidote," claims DANIEL CAUDEIRON, self-proclaimed "Candance activist" and president of the CHEER dance pool, a Toronto collective that has been promoting urban music for 20 years.

"What we're producing in Canada is distinctive because it's not gangsta rap, it's not specifically hardcore or misogynist, but something cooler with a call for unity. There's a narrative style that seems to combine West Indian storytelling and a reference to the old black poet style of dub poetry. This makes it fresh."

He says Canadian rap fans are responding because they can't identify with American storylines.

"Where do we live in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal under the same kind of deep-seated, institutionalized, racist and depressed, second-class poverty conditions that you have in the U.S?

"Nowhere. We have housing projects and the like, but we don't have the sub-human conditions, the deeply entrenched racist style of some American rappers. We offer something more provocative in intellectual terms, a broader range of subjects. Ours is more laid back and mellow. It's love versus war, basically."

Hip-hop music can help define distinctions between Americans and Canadians, says Jason "Kardinal Offishall" Harrow. "It's definitely not a passive type of music. It's positive aggression. It's a culture where you have to take a stand for something. You have to be pretty powerful with what you say."

According to SOL GUY, a principal of Figure IV, the Vancouver management firm that oversees the careers Rascalz and Kardinal Offishall, and a consultant to U.S. labels with his own Time Zone Entertainment, Canadian fans are responding.

"Canadian fans are now proud of Canadian hip-hop," Guy claims.

"For instance, the Rascalz talk about life in Vancouver. Fans love to hear RED-1 call out about the 33rd Faction, which is where he lives. It's a lot easier for a kid in Winnipeg to understand that then what happened to (slain rapper) BIGGIE SMALLS in Brooklyn. Kids are getting an identity through these artists.

"As a result, these guys are getting stopped every two blocks by kids asking for their autographs and people leaning out their cars and yelling, Rascalz! They're stars, and it's up to us now to build them as stars, and not just throw them out there."

That's why the Juno Awards exposure is "long overdue," says TONY YOUNG, or "MASTER T." as the devoted viewers of MuchMusic hip-hop specialty programs Da Mix and Rap City  know him.

"They should have done this eight years ago."

""It's the first time ever a rap group will perform on the Junos, which is fantastic," adds GEOFF KULAWICK, director of artists and repertoire of Virgin Music Canada, the label that signed promising Scarborough rapper Choclair last year and smoothed the way to his U.S. signing last week to Priority.

"I don't think it's going to change the world, but the establishment, the Canadian recording industry and the CBC have all taken notice that this genre of music is hugely popular and should not be ignored."

Mr. Kulawick claims that Canadian urban music sales have leapfrogged 30 per cent annually since 1996. In its 1998 "In The Name Of The Cool" study on Canadian music consumer preferences, Solutions Research Group lists rap as the music of choice for Canadian teens aged between 15-19, a dramatic increase from hip-hop's 1997 No. 5 ranking. Based on a national poll of 1215 people, Solutions concluded that 12 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and over are core urban music fans.

Despite the genre's ever-increasing appeal, Canadian hip-hop artists are the ones getting the bad rap.

"MAESTRO FRESH WES to this day still has the only gold Canadian hip-hop single with `Let Your Backbone Slide,'" observes Mr. Kulawick. Scarborough's WESLEY "Maestro Fresh Wes" WILLIAMS also holds the Canadian rap sales record of 190,000 copies for his platinum-plus album Symphony In Effect. The Canadian Recording Industry Association dictates that a record is certified gold when it sells 50,000 copies, and platinum at 100,000.

But "Let Your Backbone Slide" and Symphony In Effect  were released in 1989. Newer acts such as Choclair, Saukrates and Kardinal Offishall are mere blips on the map.

According to Soundscan, the computerized retailing tracking system that currently measures 70 per cent of Canada's music retail industry, The Rascalz' Juno-winning Cash Crop  has tallied 41,000 copies to date. Meanwhile, the careers of U.S. urban icons SEAN "Puff Daddy" COMBS, CALVIN "SNOOP DOGG" BROADUS and New Orleans marketing guru PERCY "MASTER P." MILLER skyrocket, financed in part by millions of Canadian consumer dollars.The Canadian numbers for Long Island impresario PUFF DADDY's 1997 album No Way Out  sit at 641,000.

Which is why Northern Touch's Juno exposure could be important to Canada's evolving hip-hop future.

"I'd like it to be a stepping stone," says Kardinal Offishall, who will be among those performing. I hope it establishes something that will continue each year. Hopefully hip-hop can become a bigger part of the Juno picture and not be treated as an outsider."

Many in the industry blame radio as the biggest culprit for why the Canadian rap scene has been spinning its wheels.

"That's the thing that's hand-cuffing hip-hop in Canada...not getting the radio support," says Kardinal Offishall, whose critically acclaimed album Eye & I  has received limited commercial attention."We've got a lot of print behind us, and MuchMusic has stepped up their game with the TV support. So we need radio."

Agrees Maestro Fresh Wes, who resurfaced last year with a new album called Built To Last, "A lack of radio makes it hard for us to get out there right now."

Geoff Kulawick says Maestro's early success is a consummate example of radio's impact.

"At the time of Maestro, Top 40 radio was more open to playing rap music in Canada," he explains. "I think a big part of Maestro's success was that he received airplay on stations like CFTR in Toronto. Shortly thereafter, radio consultants determined that rap music on the radio drives adult listeners away. So you saw a complete shutdown of rap music on the radio as well as Top 40. As the number of stations declined, so did the exposure you could get for Canadian hip-hop artists."

For Tony Young, who has been with MuchMusic since 1984 and is attempting to launch a syndicated urban music radio program, "the bottom line is that this music is pop music." He says radio must "give the audience an opportunity to embrace it -- It's about time it's respected."

Daniel Caudeiron, says all three arms of the music industry's commercial trident -- record companies, retail and radio -- are equally culpable.

"We haven't had major industry support of the magnitude deserving of hip-hop," he says.

"I think largely it's a cultural thing. Canadian hip-hop comes largely from the black and West Indian communities. The industry is an older, white establishment, and they have not caught on to the deep-seated appeal among young people."

He says aging radio music programmers simply don't get it.

"I don't think they like the sound," says Caudeiron. "You have to be conditioned to rap. You have to have grown up with rap when it was in its initial evolutionary period in late 1979 and 1980 when the SUGARHILL GANG came forward and rap later developed into RUN-D.M.C. and PUBLIC ENEMY.

"If you didn't listen to it then, you wouldn't be up for it because of the noise of the language. It's a tremendous cultural barrier."

Other problems complicated Canadian rap music's infancy.

"At the beginning... the production really wasn't up to par," says MICHELLE "MICHIE MEE" McCULLOCK, the first Canadian rap artist to be signed to a U.S. label. After her 1989 debut album Jamaican Funk Canadian Style  failed to post significant sales, she was dropped from New York's Atlantic Records.

"We couldn't compete, so every time an artist who was talented lyrically approached an A&R in the U.S., they would say, `Okay, the artist sounds good, but there's no production here.' They wanted the sounds to be very American."

An extended draught after the 1991 success of Toronto's DREAM WARRIORS and its hip hit single, "My Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz Style" didn't help either.

"Nothing happened for two years," says Sol Guy. "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."

As a result boutique labels such as Toronto's ground-breaking Beat Factory Productions suffered.

The lack of a regular Canadian live touring scene also took its toll, as did the sheer size of the competitive American market and far-reaching U.S. media.

"They produce more hip-hop music in America, so you're going to have more good records on average," says Mr. Kulawick. "For every 10 hip-hop records that are recorded in America, or every 100, we'll only hear about one of them -- the exceptional one. The other 99 will fall off the face of the earth."


Certainly industry experts have varying opinions as to why the Canadian rap scene has been spinning its wheels. The biggest culprit?

Radio...or more pointedly, the lack thereof.


"I think a lot of it has to do with radio," says "Maestro" Wesley Williams, 30, who resurfaced last year with a new album called Built To Last.

"We have a lot of internal idiosyncrasies that we have to work on, but one of the major things is radio.

Geoff Kulawick says Maestro's early success is a consummate example of radio's impact.


"Canadian rap artists don't have the same sales or exposure that big American stars have. You can see Puff Daddy on the Grammy Awards. You certainly won't see Choclair there are this point. There still is a lot of room to grow for Canadian artists."

Despite the setbacks, there's been one important champion of Canadian hip-hop."MuchMusic," says Sol Guy. "Not only have they opened the doors to playing video, but artists can access funds through VideoFACT. Two out of every four videos are awarded to urban music. It's something you would never get in the U.S."

There are other optimistic signs. Canadian labels have either been creating or beefing up their urban marketing departments, says Mr. Guy, who doubles as a consultant for U.S. urban record labels.

"Companies like BMG have started investing in international and domestic repertoire, putting big money behind the records and using innovative forms of promotion. With teams like the Street Soldiers, money spent goes directly to the consumer. They literally go to high schools and hand out cassette samplers and stickers. It's a grassroots approach."

Tony Young notices an increased business acumen among young artists.

"A lot of these artists realize that if they're going to compete with American videos, they may not have the budget, but they're going to have to creatively produce something that's going to garner airplay on MuchMusic. A lot of these guys are coming in with videos that are gaining light to heavy rotation."

The next step "is to break a Canadian hip-hop act in America," says Geoff Kulawick, whose company will be launching Choclair's new album later this year. "That will open a lot of doors."

Sol Guy figures major labels should finance and empower boutique labels with the ability to sign and develop their own acts.

"You can only get so far without dollars and cents," he warns.




THANKS: Lynn McCauley, Julius Majerczyk

©1999 Nick Krewen, Octopus Media Ink



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