It’s been a busy past few months for Drake. A couple weeks back, he rode to the top of the Billboard album charts yet again with, What A Time To Be Alive, his quickie collab mixtape album with ATL autotune auteur, Future. And before that he spent the summer leaving Meek Mill’s career in ruins after the Philly rapper’s ill-advised attempt to call him out on his MC bona fides. Both things solidified for all but the most stubborn haters that, at this point in the game, his position as the biggest rapper on the planet is pretty much undisputed.
Drake’s unf-ckwittable status comes at a time that’s been a great one for Canadian music. Often seen as the sleepy backwater neighbor to the bigger (population-wise, at least) and usually more culturally influential US, Canada has in recent times been responsible for having arguably the biggest rock band (Arcade Fire), pop star (Justin Bieber), R&B singer (The Weeknd) and rapper (Drake) in the world all at the same time.
Drake’s music has evolved from what some at the time uncharitably dismissed as 808s & Heartbreak-lite on his breakthrough release, So Far Gone into something that’s more uniquely his own in which the borders between hip-hop, R&B and electronic music have been blurred and rendered meaningless. The growth in his sound has helped redefine (or actually created a definition of) what people think of when you ask them what the sound of Toronto hip-hop is. The T.dot, as Toronto has been nicknamed since the mid-90s, is the biggest city in Canada and home to the country’s most active hip-hop scene. For a long time the T.dot was also known as the ‘Screwface Capital’, a city full of staunch (but now greying) hip-hop traditionalists for whom the Cult of Dilla and Wu-Tang never truly faded away and a place where people would ‘pay $20 to boo [visiting hip-hop stars]’ as local Toronto radio personality, Arcee once famously quipped.
But Drake has not only given the city a musical identity from a hip-hop point of view, but popularized a new nickname for it too. The 6ix (or is it The 6? Or The Six? Take your pick) has grown into one of the more exciting hip hop scenes in the world and Drake, as the most famous name from and de facto face of that scene, marks a demarcation point for Canadian hip-hop in 2015. He’s definitely hip-hop with his reverence for the past (like name checking Wu-Tang on a song from his Nothing Was The Same album even if it didn’t much sound like anything the Wu would have actually made themselves) but he’s also something more than that. From switching between rapping and singing without ever compromising his rapper cred or embracing the new, like when he jumps on existing records by SBKTRK or Nigerian afropop star, WizKid with UK Grime star, Skepta and makes those remixes feel like they’ve always been part of his own musical lexicon.
On one side of hip-hop in Canada, 2015 are artists like Shad, Tona, SepTO and Theo 3, MCs who take a more conservative & classicist approach to the genre, hewing closer to the traditional boom bap, beats n rhymes formula that is a natural extension of the genre’s late 80s/90s Golden Era and Toronto’s Screwface roots. OG T.dot MC, K-Os just dropped a new album, Can’t Fly Without Gravity that includes the incredible posse cut, “Boyz II Men” featuring Shad (now also the host of Q, CBC Radio’s flagship national arts & culture magazine show), longtime T.dot hip-hop standard bearer, Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Choclair and King Reign, all leading lights in Canada’s Golden Era. On the other side is a wave of new school acts, influenced by Drake’s eclectic genre blending and disdain for being boxed in by the genre’s limitations and stereotypes, who embrace everything weird and wonderful in the world of modern hip-hop, from Trap and Drill to Grime and Cloud rap and beyond, that has expanded the idea of what mainstream hip-hop can sound like.
For all of Drake’s success and influence though, none of these new artists has been able to ride the wave his success has set off and become the next breakout star, yet! But even as the Canadian music industry largely ignores this scene for reasons that have been critiqued, many in this next wave aren’t waiting for major label anointment and instead are taking a more DIY, entrepreneurial approach to building their careers leveraging the power of social media and the internet to develop their brand and grow their fan base. In the process, more than a few are attracting attention not only at home but internationally as well. Underground heads may have heard T.dot young gunner, Raz Fresco’s track, “Cortez Nikes” featuring Chuck Inglish. The track comes from his debut commercial album, Pablo Frescobar released this past July in partnership with long–running hip-hop indie label, Duck Down Music and is the culmination of five years grind during which time he released four mixtapes.
For those who want to explore what else Canadian hip-hop has to offer besides Drizzy, there are plenty of options on where to begin. All across the country there are specialty shows on community and college radio, many of which can be accessed online, as well as blogs and sites championing domestic talent like HipHopCanada, CityonmyBack, Toronto Rappers, Hip Hop Vancouver and King of the Dot (KOTD), the acclaimed MC battle league founded in 2008 in Toronto. The blog I edit and run, Different Kitchen which covers hip-hop and other sounds beyond, regularly covers Canadian hip-hop and released a compilation album last year called This One Goes To Eleven… that featured several Canadian hip hop acts from vets, King Reign and Saukrates to new jacks like Names Are Known and Hamilton, ON’s Emay plus some others I’ma get into below. One article can’t really do justice to everything happening here even if it only focused on Toronto, let alone the whole country, but here’s 10 other artists worth keeping your eyes and ears on:
Toronto’s Jazz Cartier is arguably the buzz rapper of the moment in Canada, generating equal excitement within hip-hop and indie music circles. His debut mixtape Marauding in Paradise was long listed for the Polaris music Prize, Canada’s equivalent to the Mercury Music Prize. Marauding takes some creative cues from the Drake sound and then keeps going left with it. But, as left as he gets, the title also hints at how Cartier might actually have as much reverence for 90’s urban music as the hip-hop traditionalists. The breakdown on opening track, “Guardian Angel” interpolates Mista’s cult R&B track, “Blackberry Molasses” and on “Forever Ready/Band On A Bible,” a track that begins with audio clips from a Notorious BIG interview, he flaunts a decidedly 90s/Hiero-inspired flow. The highlight of the album though might be “Rose Quartz/Like, Crazy” which samples a Toro Y Moi track of the same name.
Slow and steady wins the race, might become the mantra for Mississauga rapper/producer, Keita Juma at the rate he’s going. He’s been on the grind building awareness and winning over fans with each successive release starting with 2009’s The Headphone Album through to this year’s Chaos Theory. Over that time, his sound has undergone a huge evolution from its left-of center, underground hip-hop roots to something far more experimental that could just as well be called electronic music as hip hop. As a result, KJ (as he used to be known before resorting to using his full name a couple years ago) is attracting ears from within more progressive circles in the hip-hop world but also beyond. While some of Juma’s music might be a little out there for those heads who prefer their hip-hop more ‘traplistic’ or boom bap-y, he can still rein it in and deliver something for the clubs and the party like the main single & video from Chaos Theory, “Come Over” featuring electronic soul singer, Brendan Philip.
You may already know Toronto’s Tory Lanez from his Brownstone-sampling hit track this summer, “Say It” or perhaps Ed Sheeran’s cover of it. A lot of the smart money is on Tory, a triple threat producer, MC and singer now signed to Interscope, being next to blow. He’s already completed one headlining North American tour in support of his well-received Lost Cause mixtape from last year which, while largely self-produced, features production by electronic beat makers, Ryan Hemsworth and RL Grime mixed in with radio-friendly trap beats and more-than-competent R&B singing (watch out, Drake!).
Ajax, ON MC, Sean Leon describes himself as a ‘Black Punk Rap Rock Motherf-cker’ (also the name of one of his songs) and his eclectic, out there sound, best represented on his narcissus, THE DROWNING OF EGO mixtape from last year, reflects that mindset perfectly. Leon’s music brings to mind the trippier side of A$AP Rocky combined with Yeezus era Kanye but done (yeah, I‘m saying it) better! Narcissus… might be Leon’s most complete artistic statement to date, but his latest full length release, King of the Wild Things, an odds & sods-style compilation of loosies he’s released since then, is creatively still better that most MC’s commercial album releases. King of the Wild Things
UK heads might already be very familiar with Scarborough, ON’s Tre Mission, a Canadian MC whose sound and rhyme style is as much influenced by the UK Grime music scene as it is hip-hop. Tre spent time in the UK and toured with Grime star, Wiley while over there. Stigmata, his well-received, most recent album after 2013’s Malmaison was also long-listed for the 2015 Polaris music prize and features Wiley, buzz Grime MC, Skepta, JME as well as fellow Canadian MCs, K-Os and Saukrates.
Jai Nitai Lotus
Montreal producer/MC, Jai Nitai Lotus is a deeply creative and spiritual soul. His Something You Feel album from 2013 was infused with the spirit of jazz but was not a jazz-rap album, ya dig??! Jai is still on the come–up but has been making enough noise and connections that producer/vocalist Georgia Anna Muldrow and her partner, Dudley Perkins co-released his latest full length project, the Acknowledgement mixtape, on their SomeOthaShip label. On Acknowledgement Jai combines remixed tracks by Pusha T, Kanye West, Stalley, Thunder Cat and Madlib, where he adds his own vocals, with some new originals. (Full disclosure: Different Kitchen premiered the “Pi (Brahma Built)” song and video from Acknowledgement on our This One Goes To Eleven…. compilation)
Also from Montreal and the only group on this list, 3-man crew, The Posterz turned some heads with their Starships & Dark Tints EP last year bringing to mind a Quebecois Pac Div with their precise spit game. Based on their new track, “Rumble” from their forthcoming new EP, Junga that seems only likely to continue.
In many respects, producer/MC, Rich Kidd might be an even more integral figure in the current Canadian hip hop scene than Drake. He’s connected to literally everyone having produced tracks for or worked with Drake, Kardinal Offishall, Shad, K-Os, Saukrates, Raekwon, Talib Kweli and too many others to mention. He’s a relentless worker and networker. As well as being an accomplished and respected producer, Rich built his rep as an artist in his own right with his 7 volume series of well-regarded We On Some Rich Kid Sh-t mixtapes. Besides his official solo album, In My Opinion released last year, he formed a group with West Coast MC, Son Real and dropped an album under the name, The Closers for which they garnered a Rap Recording of the Year Juno (the Canadian Grammys) nomination. Then this year he linked up with Toronto underground stalwarts, Tona and Adam Bomb to form another group called Naturally Born Strangers and, in conjunction with local Toronto streetwear brand, Legends League released a self-titled album featuring tracks sampling Portishead and Radiohead.
Tasha The Amazon
Tasha the Amazon is the only woman on this list but she’s far from a token. She’s been cracking skulls since dropping the single and video for her “Scallywags” track and the FiDiYootDem mixtape it appears on. Tasha’s been relatively quiet since the release of FiDiYootDem in late 2013 but she just started dropping new music again including the track, “My Level.” And the fact that Tasha describes her hometown as “ScrewFace City, Swaziland” on her Soundcloud page probably tells you all you need to know about her and her music!
To date, Spek Won has been one of Toronto’s best kept secrets, but the release of his Sofa King Amazing album earlier this year should start to change that if there’s any justice in this world. Spek is one of many who represent how the Black diaspora in Canada has changed over the past couple decades from having a predominantly Caribbean face to a more African one. Spek is Ghanaian (coincidentally, Rich Kidd is also of Ghanaian descent) and the incredible “Hiplife” video, from his debut DJ Premier-themed concept mixtape, PREEMO DONNA The Mix Album, was a tribute to the hybrid Ghanaian music genre name-checked in the title that combines hip-hop and highlife. Spek has not strayed far from a formula that deftly manages to straddle the divide between the coffee shop and barbershop since. Combining the experimental musical daring of Chance the Rapper with the poetic sensibilities of Wale and the personal lyricism of Logic, Sofa King Amazing, will appeal to heads looking for hip-hop with a more organic or soulful feel.
Follow Ian on Twitter at @Stellaskid