The NMOH is an initiative to establish a true museum to hip-hop culture in NYC. For now, all they have is a website, but looking at their behind-the-scenes work they are making great strides to make the museum a reality.
They also run a frequent newsletter, so I decided to write about what I know: Canadian hip-hop, and while I was limited to 600 words I think I did it up pretty nicely. Take a look.
I can’t lie: I’ve got a crush on Ayah. The Toronto-based singer has been working on her come up the last few years, crafting a fantastic mix of R&B and soul music. She’s had a number of collaborations with hip-hop artists, such as Skyzoo, STS, and Tona, but most notably, she frequently works with DJ Jazzy Jeff (yup, the partner of the Fresh Prince, and all around dope producer), and they’ve been putting out some awesome music. Today they just released their latest record, Back For More, an awesome free project with funk, R&B, and soul-laced tracks featuring Jeff’s solid production and Ayah’s fantastic voice, but before I listen to that particular record, I had to mention this track right here.
From her 2009 album 4:15, “In My Lifetime” was my intro to Ayah, and from the moment I heard it I was hooked. It’s a smoooooth listen, so smooth I had to add some extra “O”s to it. The thumping beat, the rich harmonies, and the callback to Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” are all tops, and the video’s imagery of Ayah traveling through the streets of Toronto makes this transplanted Canadian pine for his hometown. I love this track.
Da Grassroots (feat. Mr. Roam) - “Price of Livin’”
Being the transplanted Canuck that I am, I try to keep myself abreast of the latest news and happenings going on in my hometown of Toronto, especially when it comes to hip-hop. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear about CBC’s hip-hop summit last week, inviting prominent Canadian rappers, past and present, to perform. And a hell of a show it was! Kardinall? Maestro? k-os? Dream Warriors? Choclair? Red1 of the Rascalz? K’Naan? Shad? And that’s just scratching the surface! So many of these artists I grew up on, watching their videos on MuchMusic (think of a Canadian version of MTV which still actually plays music from time to time), and hearing them on Flow 93.5 (Toronto’s sole hip-hop station the last time I checked). It’s a nostalgic rush, but seeing the lineup also gives me a lot of hope for CAN rap, especially when it comes to dealing with America.
Name a Canadian rapper (who isn’t Drake) who has been a hit in America. Can you do it? That was the dilemma for a lot of rappers from the North: It’s great to be popular in Canada, but the real challenge is to make it in America, something which very few have done. In fact, the only dude who comes to my mind is Snow, of “Informer” fame.
You know him.
He’s the dude who did “Informer, gfdjsbncvcegswreicvlkvyuirthimmaplayer, A LIKKIE-BOOM-BOOM-DOWN”.
Not the best achievement right there.
But, what’s going on now is that we are finally starting to see Canadian rappers getting respect and success in the United States. There’s Drake, of course, but you also got Kardinall Offishall, who is working with Akon (and had a huge hit with “Dangerous” a year or two ago), Shad (who recently toured with Freddie “Gangsta” Gibbs and saw his latest, TSOL, reviewed by Pitchfork), k-os is making inroads, and K’Naan is going worldwide, with special thanks to his wonderful anthem, “Wavin’ Flag.” It took time but it’s good to see some of our great ones breaking out.
Alright, so let’s move on. Tonight’s post is a lovely little gem by Da Grassroots, the trio of Mr. Murray, Mr. Attic, and Swiff, a production crew out of Toronto who lassoed in a group of undergound T.O. and Vancouver rappers for their (very) underrated release, 1999’s Passage Through Time. Da ‘Roots style is understated, and very, very smooth. It’s another one of those late-night records, where you kick back and let the crew take you on a little trip. Don’t worry about it, they got everything covered. They’re professionals.
It was a tossup between several songs from the record, but I’m feeling pretty laid back at the moment, so tonight’s post is “Price of Livin’” featuring the indie T-Dot rapper, Mr. Roam. The instrumental is simple but infectious, and I love the voices in the background repeating “wake up.” Plus, Roam carries himself pretty well, too.
Geeze, you’re gonna have me singing “O Canada” up in this bitch in a moment.
When I first started messin’ with old school hip-hop one of the first records to introduce me to this much larger world was Breaking Atoms, the 1991 debut of Main Source. The Main Source were three dudes: Large Professor, a legendary producer and emcee from NYC, and Sir Scratch and K-Cut, two Toronto deejays (T-Dot stand up!) who were…well, in the company of greatness? I dunno.
Anyway, Breaking Atoms is a textbook definition of a lost classic. Released on the Wild Pitch label, the album had seen the light of day for only the briefest of moments until the label tanked, due to a variety of reasons (shady dealings being one looming issue). The album went out of print and remained out of print for most of the ’90s, only reappearing on the market in 2008. It’s a damn shame that this one was out of commission for so long, especially considering the album’s great significance to hip-hop music. For one, the Large Professor’s production work on the record was the calling card of a master. His skill on the SP-1200 was like a science (hm, that’s where “Breaking Atoms“ came from), and the album features snappy beats and unique production techniques. The Professor’s lyrics were just as solid, tackling social problems, personal issues, and of course, a moment or two to handle whack-ass emcees.
And, perhaps most notably, Breaking Atoms also featured the debut of a kid out of Queens named Nasir Jones… Nas.
But tonight’s post ain’t about Nasty Nas (whom, I got to get to his stuff soon, I’ve mentioned him in passing probably 20 times so far on this blog). Instead, tonight’s post is “Looking At The Front Door.”
One of the record’s highlights, “Looking…” is perhaps the most level-headed, rational, and despondent look at a failing relationship that rap has ever produced. A subdued listen, Large Professor takes a long, hard look at the state of his relations with a woman he used to love, coming across as a man who’s weathered a terrible storm and has collected his thoughts. Interestingly, he’s not mad, just hurt and very detached, and even more interestingly, he’s not the aggressor in the relationship either. The Professor really bares his soul here, providing for a late-night burner which makes you think, and genuinely feel bad for him. It’s an outstanding listen.
So recently I realized what this blog was missing: French Canadians.
Woah, wait, get back here! Just hear me out for a minute, okay? You’ll like this one or double your money back.
Alright. So I recently discovered Graciellita (thanks, Kelly), an indie musician from everyone’s favorite spot north of the border, that referendum-threatenin’, English-hatin’, mildly retarded distant child of France…you know it: Quebec (or “Kay-Beck” for the French [AKA snooty] way of saying it)!*. A singer and DIY-wizard, Montreal-based Graciellita (Little Grace?) has built a considerable career over the past few years for her experimental, electronic-tinged music, much of it self-created. Her songs draw from all sorts of sources, in sound and content, and she sings in several different languages, such as English, German, and of course, French. For the last few days I’ve been lending an ear to her 2009 release, Shine, a collaborative affair which has her working with a variety of different independent electronic producers, probably the most well known being Emancipator. Shine is a mellowed trip-hoppish affair, giving me an Esthero-if-she-was-more-upbeat-more-French-and-not-so-damn-moody vibe. It’s an enjoyable listen, but this one right here has dominated my playlist for the last little while.
“Je T’aime,” French for “I Love You” (if my four years of mostly-forgotten grade school French serves me right), is a supreme listen. The track starts off slow and rather benign, with Graciellita’s breathless and angelic-sounding vocals (can any French speakers translate here?) descending from above. But soon the track quickly transforms. It grows these enormous and brilliant wings and elevates into an electrifying, otherworldly masterpiece. It’s sublime.
Yeah, it’s nowhere near summer and I’m quite aware that there are people pretty much freezing in their homes right now. You don’t have to remind me, alright?
So recently I’ve been vibing on Love and Other Struggles, the latest album by Toronto-based spoken-word poet Ian Kamau (or just Kamau…kinda like Cher). Kamau is pretty well known for his guest spots on the records of some prominent musicians from Canada, appearing on several albums from k-os and contributing to Shad’s latest, TSOL. Initially, I was never a big fan of the guy. His talent on the wordsmithery was overshadowed by his delivery: a straight droning, monotone style of performing which sounded awkward and out of place, and despite his host’s musical backdrop, he struggled a bit.
I was a bit hesitant to pick up Love at first, but decided to do it for the hell of it. It had been a few years since his earlier spots on k-os’s stuff and his latest appearance on Shad’s album made me reconsider. Giving the record a listen was like a slap in the face.
A slap of awesome.
Kam must’ve been very well aware of his past, because he’s upped his game considerably for this one. His delivery on the record is more nimble, confident, and emotive. He’s addressed the monotone, and his words carry a greater presence and impact. On top of that, he’s got a selection of excellent beats to flow over as well, which drive home his poems on life, love, and perseverance.
“Summer in the City” is a short (rather too short!) but sweet listen, with a relaxed but determined beat which carries a deceptive sense of security, like a summer day somehow corrupted… perfect for Kam’s lyrics about struggling on the streets. It’s a tune I’ve been bumping regularly for the last few days, and I can’t get enough of it. Plus, the sample of Do The Right Thing in the end is a nice little addition.
K’Naan is a musician who I have the utmost respect for.
Born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia, K’Naan is a dude who has went through a hell of a lot. He’s handled guns, seen friends die, and has had more than a few close calls with death and chaos. K’Naan and his family escaped the country in 1991, on the eve of the country’s collapse into civil war, and emigrated to Canada. And while life in Toronto was a bit less hectic than Mogadishu, it presented new struggles. K’Naan grappled with culture shock of a new country, feelings of disenfranchisement as a recent immigrant, survivor’s guilt from friends and family lost, sympathy for family left behind in Somalia, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress. He took to writing and poetry, speaking out about his experiences at home, the country he loves so much but he cannot go back to, and dealing with the wealth of feelings that coming from such a location brings.
He made the move into activism and music, and two albums deep K’Naan has really established himself as a very talented and thoughtful artist. I caught on with his first record, 2005’s The Dusty Foot Philosopher, but I really became a fan with his second effort, 2009’s Troubadour. Incorporating many different elements into his music, from American rock to Algerian Raï, K’Naan brings a really unique sound. He sings, raps, and speaks loud and clear about Mogadishu. While he comes from a place that is very dangerous, he remains positive and happy, bringing a very celebratory feel to Troubadour. It’s great to see him catching on as well, with his track “Waving Flag” becoming an international anthem for triumph and perseverance.
One of my favorites of the record, aside from the obvious “Waving Flag,” and the fantastic, thug-rapper callout that is “A.B.C.’s” (because really, you can claim that you’re hard all that you want, but Mogadishu is pretty much the hardest place on earth), I really enjoy “Take A Minute,” where K’Naan takes a minute to ruminate on his life and his inner strength.
I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations / Creating medication out my own tribulations / Dear Africa, you helped me write this / By showing me to give is priceless…
Shad is the definite article, a rapper who is incredibly good at what he does: Spitting sharp, endlessly entertaining rhymes, and TSOL stacks up favorably against his previous works, 2007’s The Old Prince and 2005’s When This Is Over. TSOL has Shad working hard at refining his craft, dedicated to making his rhymes and beats tighter, smarter, and more resonant than ever, which, he pulls off nicely, making the album a quirky, entertaining, and all-around solid listen.
“Rose Garden,” the first song on TSOL (and a warm opening to both the album and the wonderful dude who is Shad), is a beaming song with lots of heart, humor, and irrepressible charm. I love that “rose garden” soul sample, along with the harmonies, cheery whistles, and boom-bap drum kicks. The icing on the cake are the additional vocals on the chorus, provided by Lisa Lobsinger. This is pretty much the song for a perfect, happy day, and it’s guarant-freakin’-teed that one listen to this will brighten anyone’s mood.
As well, it wouldn’t be a Shad track without the mind-bending, super-fantastic, stream-of-consciousness-but-well-thought-out lines which only Shad can pull, such as:
“Glenn Beck better duck like foie gras…” - Self explanatory, but Wikipedia foie gras if it still flies over your head.
“The missing saga (Mississauga) continues, in Brampton / While my DJ’s lamping like Green Lantern, sampling…” - Mississauga and Brampton are two neighboring suburbs of Toronto, Canada, and Brampton is my hometown.
“Seven days of black power naps every forty eight half hours / That’s 24 star Jack Bauer…” - One of my favorite TV shows!
And to top it off, this video, with it’s recorded-backwards premise, is a callback to the L.A. rap crew The Pharcyde (a group I still have yet to write about…) and their ingenious video for their 1995 song “Drop” (which Shad spells out for you in the end if you didn’t catch it).
Ah, a dude after my own heart. Wonderful, wonderful track. Listen to it right now.
I read in a review of k-os’s fourth release, 2009’s Yes!, that the album is the closest thing to the definitive ‘sound’ of Toronto. I can agree with that statement, however, I believe that it can be applied to all of his music just as easily. k-os, AKA Kevin Brereton, a Trinidadian-Canadian hailing from (where else) Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has gained a considerable following up North, starting out as an underground rapper back in the early ’90s and subtly refining his sound to the point where his music is unclassifiable, genre-wise. As a guitar and piano virtuoso, along with a backing band and a good dose of samplers, turntables and beat machines, k-os has crafted a unique sound. His music, much like the wonderful city of Toronto, is a melange of diverse styles and cultures. He toys with genres, playing flamenco, indie rock, electronica, jazz, reggae, and of course, hip-hop. As well, his numerous references to T-dot hotspots and the pride for his city provides a refreshing perspective from the typical NY/West Coast/Dirty South/Midwest talk that dominates US rap. As a Canuck myself, k-os’s music is what I add to the playlist for when I want to go home without actually getting on the plane (or shelling out ridiculous prices for a ticket).
“4 3 2 1” is the song that I most strongly associate with home. On a trip up during Spring Break of 2009, this song was getting regular rotation on Toronto’s sole hip-hop station, Flow 93.5, and on my travels around T-dot and my hometown of Brampton I got pretty friendly with it. Nostalgia and some melancholy aside, “4 3 2 1,” a hip-hop response to singer Feist of the indie rock group Broken Social Scene and her 2007 hit, “1234” (a track which k-os is a huge fan of), is far and away one of his best. It’s an uncompromising, streamlined listen, and the instrumentation, with those strings and piano, is simply spectacular.
“4 3 2 1” is the musical equivalent to heroin, combined with meth, also combined with every other super-addictive drug I can’t think of at the moment (with none of the soul-and-body-crushing, “Requiem For A Dream”-style bad points). I’ve listened to this song so many times in the past year that it boggles my mind to even try to put a number of plays on it (Thankfully, Last.FM always remembers, but even then it doesn’t count listens in the car, in my head, or my MP3 player). This is one of the most played songs in my library, and I don’t think I’ll tire of it anytime soon.
(knock on wood…just in case).
And oh yeah, that video is a real trip. Getting down in Zellers and the Dollar Store? Sure, why not.