Gavin Sheppard, seated in Public Records’ basement bunker headquarters in downtown Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, is discussing urban infrastructure. Specifically, urban music infrastructure. Although the city’s spending another year with its highest-profile hip-hop and R&B exports topping charts, collecting awards, and headlining festivals, these internet-fueled global successes have been accomplished despite the domestic industry’s long-standing lack of investment in urban music.
“The argument for a long time has been that [urban music is] a smaller market and, at this point, we know it’s undeniably the largest market across the country and beyond,” says Sheppard. “There’s a larger conversation here about Canada’s inability to admit how racist it is. Doesn’t mean every individual within the country is a racist person – that’s why it’s called institutionalized racism. But the first black A&R in this country was hired in 2005. That’s insane.”
Sheppard points out that for years Canadian urban music was relegated to “street marketing,” until Universal finally established a department. He says that there’s still an overall “lack of label infrastructure, in terms of people that can recognize the talent at the very beginning, and develop it, market it, and promote it.” He also cites how few people of colour are booking agents, club promoters and in management companies. “I don’t mean any disrespect to very few people that do occupy these spaces – but in terms of an institutional level, it’s almost non-existent.”
Sheppard has spent his career trying to change this.
He’s been in the music game for two decades–first as a high-schooler hawking mixtapes, then as a fledgling manager for friends, including Toronto rapper Rochester – and in the community development game for about as long. In 2000, he co-founded a hip-hop youth program called Inner City Visions that began as a community centre drop-in, with breakdancing, MC battles and DJ lessons, before adding free studio access that attracted lines of young artists who couldn’t afford recording time.
In the wake of 2005’s Summer of the Gun, this grassroots effort got funding to evolve into the now-internationally renowned Remix Project to bring more urban music-based business opportunities to Toronto’s marginalized communities. Boasting the slogan “get money, make change,” this nonprofit incubator has fostered such talents as Jessie Reyez, who Sheppard still works with as a consultant, as well as wunderkind beat-maker WondaGurl, and JUNO-winning rapper/producer Rich Kidd.
“About a year ago, I was thinking about what my next steps were, given the reality that I was aged out of being a young person,” Sheppard says, noting Remix prides itself on being a youth-led initiative. “I wanted to continue to have an impact. To continue to be involved in music and culture. To complement the work that we’d been doing, by adding to the infrastructure, and becoming yet another exit strategy for young people looking to change their scenarios and get into music full-time and actually make a career of it.”
Public Records launched last spring as a partnership with Universal Music Canada to specifically address these industry gaps and develop new urban acts. The label’s first rap release was Pilla B’s album 1 Year to The Day, produced by Harley Arsenault, and executive produced by Noah “40” Shebib as his first non-OVO project. The title references the release date, a year after Pilla was shot, and his best friend/musical collaborator Yung Dubz was killed.
“It follows a very traumatic experience and outlines his perspectives and his mental and emotional state,” Sheppard explains. “The content is very raw, but it’s also an entry point to start creating a new reality, for not just himself, but his immediate family and his immediate peers. One of the most important things when you’re dealing with a lot of trauma is to be able to talk about it, and talk about it in a healthy way, and be able to say things that are even outlandish sometimes to get them off of your chest.”
Public has also signed charismatic 21-year-old R&B singer-songwriter Surauchie from Toronto’s North York who, Sheppard says, “really accurately represents where a lot of young people’s heads are at – she authentically embodies ‘now.’” And their first non-local signing is Tiara Thomas from Indianapolis, a singer who first made waves with a feature on Wale’s 2013 hit “Bad,” and signals the label is also seeking talent beyond Toronto.
Public Records wants to find and nurture “emerging world-class” artists in need of opportunity. But Sheppard says he doesn’t want to tie them down with long contracts and options like the majors might. Instead, it’s geared primarily toward propelling these artists to the next level. Then they can decide if they want to stay on, sign directly to Universal or another major, or go totally independent and leverage corporate partnerships.
“It’s a label setup that is very much a launching pad for careers, to get people into that international space,” he says. “So it’s still get money, make change.”