No one will ever deny the impact Aubrey “Drake” Graham – at 8.7 billion streams, the most globally streamed artist of 2016 – has made on hip-hop, nor the amount of Toronto-centric talent he’s mentored or seeded (like 40, Boi-1da, Majid Jordan, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Nineteen85, just to name a few) on the way to their own international success stories.
But it’s also important to remember that Drizzy and The Six aren’t the only game in Canada: there are rappers from East to West across the country who are making their own noise, creating their own buzz – and not necessarily contemplating a T.O., L.A., or NYC re-location to further their careers.
Quake Matthews is one such individual, who feels that life in Halifax, N.S., is good enough to forego the city where the majority of the rap music-industry machinery is based. “I definitely don’t feel compelled to move to Toronto,” says Matthews, a two-time East Coast Music Award winner. He recently dropped his new Classified-produced single “Just Another Love Story,” featuring Reeny Smith, in anticipation of his forthcoming six-song EP Celebrate the Struggle.
“A big example to me was Classified, who’s undoubtedly one of the biggest hip-hop artists in Canada,” says Matthews. “He never made the move, so it showed me that it was possible.” It’s a strategy that seems to be working. “I’ve seen my show price rise – almost double in the last year,” he says.
Rollie “Cadence Weapon” Pemberton – the veteran, Polaris Prize-shortlisted rapper and poet who’s put out two albums and two mixtapes since the dual releases of 2005’s Cadence Weapon is the Black Hand and Breaking Kayfabe – now calls Toronto home. But during his formative years in Edmonton, that city’s lack of a strong, central rap scene did him a big favour.
“I think it was beneficial because there was no history,” says Pemberton. “There was no pressure or expectation of how music has to sound. If I was making a rap song with an electro beat, or rock drums, there was no historical precedent to make me feel like, ‘Oh, that’s not how people do it here.’ In a lot of ways, it was very freeing.”
Pemberton, who also called Montréal home for six years before settling in Toronto for personal reasons, feels a long-held loathing of the T-Dot helped strengthen the Edmonton indie music scene. “Back in Edmonton, the vibe was very dismissive towards Toronto,” says Pemberton. “When I would play Toronto, and tell people I’m from Edmonton, they’d go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’
“That makes you really competitive. A lot of people in Edmonton pride themselves on just being able to build their own music community without any help from the other side of the country, or any kind of exposure elsewhere. It’s a very insular scene.”
“When I would play Toronto, and tell people I’m from Edmonton, they’d go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’ That makes you really competitive.” – Cadence Weapon
The Lytics can relate. The absence of Toronto’s shadow, and the long distance from the music establishment, enabled the Winnipeg-based, brother-heavy quartet to discover its own sound.
“Being away from the noise sometimes, you get to hone your skills and your own sound without the scrutiny of the industry,” says The Lytics’ Andrew “Andrew O” Sannie. “So early in your career, you’re not really thrown to the lions. If you’re good at what you do, you rise to the top a little quicker in a smaller town. It becomes more obvious that you may have something. Plus, the competition isn’t as fierce. If I end up putting on a show on in Toronto, I’ve got to wade through a lot of noise to draw attention.
“But without Toronto, in a lot of ways, Canada isn’t as available to you,” he says. “What we’ve had to do is find a path that led us to more eyes, finding the industry from different routes – like doing the [2016 Allan Slaight] JUNO Masterclass – because I really had no idea how to get in front of these people. Our strategy has been, ‘I’m going to throw myself in front of you as much as I possibly can. Eventually, you’re going to have to respond.’
“What we’ve done, also, is to look outside of Canada. We manage to sustain things because we’ve been able to, in the last two years, go over to Europe and tour as much as we can. Without having the industry at your fingers, you really need to find a different way to operate.”
Some territories have their own challenges. Québec has such a cultural distinction from neighbouring Ontario that Jean-François “Yes McCan” Ruel of the six-member, Franglais-rapping, experimental hip-hop collective Dead Obies says Toronto doesn’t even register on its radar.
“What’s happening in Toronto, to me, is as relevant as what’s happening in New York or Houston,” says Ruel. “To me, it’s not related to our culture, like how we live and talk. We do have huge love for that scene – the XO [The Weeknd] and OVO [Drake and crew] – but here, it’s another world. Either you try to make it in English, so you aim for the world, or you try to make it here, so you aim for the French.”
Ruel says Québec’s dual ability to solely support self-contained artists and distribute “a good bunch of money that comes from government funding” ensures their survival. Although sales of their 2016 album Gesamtkunstwerk aren’t enough to buy them mansions, the band is selling concert tickets and merch in Québec like hotcakes. But that doesn’t diminish their feeling of isolation.
“If you’re good at what you do, you rise to the top a little quicker in a smaller town.” – Andrew O of The Lytics
“[Québec is] like this island, and you’re trying to make it, and there’s a lot of initiative to promote French cultural endeavours and creativity,” says Ruel. “But as far as we’re concerned, we’re a mixed bunch of French and Anglo people working together, so we’re kind of outside of that, too.
“We don’t even dream of going outside of Québec, except maybe France, because there’s a huge rap market over there,” says Ruel. “We just want to be able to make a living off it, which is not easy, because you don’t have enough local people listening to rap in French.”
Cadence Weapon’s new single, the Kaytranada-produced “My Crew (Wooo),” finds him rapping about the Montréal after-hours underground scene – an experience quite different than that of Dead Obies. “It was amazingly inclusive and very tight-knit,” says Rollie Pemberton, whose upcoming album chronicles both his Edmonton upbringing and his Montréal residency.
Pemberton found that the economic realities of the now-375-year-old city made life more conducive to creativity. “In Edmonton, the cost of living could keep you from spending more time being creative,” he says. “In Montréal you don’t have that problem, because the cost of living is insanely low.”
On the West Coast, Vancouver-based Aaron “SonReal” Hoffman decided to bypass Toronto and directly tackle America. He’s making serious inroads into the U.S. with his current NoWarmUp tour, playing in New York, Boston and Chicago. “It’s safe to say this is my first headlining tour where every show’s been good,” Hoffman explains. “This is the first time we’ve sold out more shows on this tour than I’ve ever sold out, ever. These shows in America are poppin’.”
Humourous videos for such songs as “Can I Get a Witness” and “No Warm Up” have been his chief icebreakers in the U.S. market, thanks to the Internet. “I just separated myself from everybody else by doing what I thought was cool,” says SonReal, who’ll drop a new album called One Long Dream this summer. “That’s been the biggest vehicle for me, leading my fans to understand and know my whole catalogue and me. What I’m trying to do is capitalize on not being afraid to tour America. It is do-able.”
But at least one Vancouverite is contemplating a move to Toronto’s greener pastures. Ashleigh Eymann says that she’s gone about as far as she can go in Vancouver’s rap scene. “The more that time passes, the more that sounds quite appealing,” she says. “I love Toronto… It’s hugely inundated with the culture, and when I was there, I found it really, really inspiring, with all its availabilities and possibilities. Same with L.A. and New York; all of those places are looking pretty good.”
Eymann, who’ll be dropping a new EP in a few months, says she’s ready for the next step in her career. “[Vancouver has] been a nice incubator for me to find, and thrive in, what it is I’m doing. It’s been a close family, with so many circles that cross over, like a Venn diagram. If I’d left early, I wouldn’t have felt confident in my own stuff.”
Maybe she’ll end up in T.O., maybe she won’t. But Eymann has made it this far – and maybe one day in the near future, another city in Canada will loom large as a fresh talent hotspot for rap.