This summer, as fans celebrated the Toronto Raptors’ historic win, many were celebrating to the music of Just John x Dom Dias, the dynamic Toronto duo whose “Pull Up” track made it onto the official Raptors playlist, alongside heavy hitters like Drake’s “Nonstop” and Cardi B’s “Press.”

“It was really cool,” says Just John (John Samuels) from his home in Toronto. “A lot of Raptors fans really connected with that record and started following us. And after some of the winning games, they would play our track.”

“We’re fortunate and grateful to be a part of this history, this legacy,” adds Dom Dias.

While some call their inclusion on the playlist “talent meets perfect timing,” the duo call it “energy,” something they credit for everything – including their collaboration.

In early 2018, producer Dom Dias came across a sponsored Instagram post featuring Just John. Dias was intrigued, immediately reaching out with a beat. “John really liked the beat and we got in the studio next day,” explains Dias. “That record he recorded is ‘Pull Up,’ the one the Raptors chose.” Instantly, the pair found something in each other that they were looking for. “I saw his style, his persona and his lyricism, and that caught me off-guard. The moment we got into the studio, it was super-easy to work with him.”

And for Just John, founder of the award-winning art collective Blank Canvas, Dom got the multi-faceted vision for which he was striving. “I felt like my prayers [were] answered, because I was struggling, trying to find [producers] that understood the kind of energy I wanted to record. And, also, someone who challenges me to be a better artist. Dom was, and has been, that person.”

“We make things that we like. We’re making vibrations.” – Just John

Dom gave John a space where the threads found in his collective could be laced just as powerfully in his sound. “I sharpened my teeth [in] the DIY art scene,” says John. “A lot of my ideologies are about taking up space unapologetically. Staying true to yourself. Living in love, not fear. I voice a lot about my own experiences, about police brutality. And sometimes it’s just the energy I’m rebelling against, the energy itself in the record. When people come see us, they’re connecting with that energy. They want to let loose, turn-up, [and] get free themselves. I think that’s another piece we contribute to music.”

The pair often make music every day. Dom will create beats and present them to John in person. “I’ve known John long enough to know when he really likes a beat, and when he really doesn’t,” says Dom. When they agree on a beat, John lives with it for a few days.

Just Dominating: Critical Praise

  • “Just John’s collaboration with producer Dom Dias has turned his energy level up to 11, and made them both impossible to look away from.” – NOW Magazine, Nov. 16, 2018
  • “They’ve already created an unrelenting hype around them, including sold-out shows and label love.” – Exclaim, April 30, 2019
  • “A sonic match made in heaven… The Toronto duo have been making some serious waves during this short run, and that’s thanks to a handful of great videos and tracks including the incredible cut ‘Soundboi.’” – Complex, April 21, 2019

“It’s a very independent, autonomous process,” says John. “Dom makes a beat; I trust him in that, and he trusts me in the performance and the lyrics. And then we are open to the collaborative synergy that can be created in the negative space. We’re always editing. ‘How can we make this better? How can we make this cooler? Ooooh, that was a mistake. Ooooh, that mistake is fire! We can use that in the record.’”

Drawing from various genres, including hip-hop and punk, while channeling manic, raucous energy to create cathartic release, the pair recently released their EP, Don III, and a video for “Pull Up.” They’re also working on new music that they describe as combining their “manic, mosh-pit energy with a beautiful, lucid dream.” And they continue to shrug off any aspirations of fitting into a mainstream “Toronto sound.”

“It’s never, “Let’s try to make it sound like this,’” says Dom, who uses everything from crazy snares to elephant trumpeting, to take listeners into adventurous sonic spaces. (The elephants don’t receive royalties for the recordings, they confess with laughter.) “It’s, ‘Let’s try and make a feeling.’”

John agrees. “We make things that we like,” he says. “We’re making vibrations. There has to be innovation, you have to be a visionary. You have to be OK with some people not getting it right away, and really champion what you’re doing. If we were looking to our contemporaries [for inspiration], we’d already be too late.”

It was a year-end recital that Regent Park School of Music (RPSM) students will never forget.

Toronto’s Frank Dukes, currently one of the production kingpins of the contemporary pop era – with recent credits like Camilla Cabello, Drake, and Post Malone bolstering his global profile – spent three days with RPSM students in the winter of 2018-2019 to record Parkscapes, a charitable twist on his own ground-breaking Kingsway Music Library.

The story behind the Grammy-nominated Dukes (a.k.a. Adam Feeney) is that he’s revolutionized the sample business by creating and licensing his own atmospheric, ethereal loops to bypass the often lengthy clearance process. And the premise of Parkscapes, which is offered by Kingsway, is that Dukes would provide samples with fresh arrangements, and the RPSM kids would play the instruments.

“It was all stuff that was written before,” Dukes explains on the line from L.A. “Either I’d write a demo on the piano, or a demo that I’d laid down myself. Then I would teach the kids the chords, and come up with different arrangement ideas on the spot. If I was playing piano, then the recording you hear on Parkscapes might be the kids doing a vocal line, or playing a steel pan lead melody. Same writing, just different arrangements.”

Dukes confirms that all Parkscapes income will go directly to the school. “Say somebody uses those samples for a Drake song,” he says. “They would clear the sample, and the proceeds – the sample clearance money – would go to the school and then, just like how my regular libraries work, there would be a royalty. Over the next two years, the royalty would be paid out and distributed to fund the program.”

The timing of Dukes’ generous gesture couldn’t be better – especially in the light of heavy funding cutbacks to the arts and non-profits by the Ontario Progressive Conservative government under the leadership of Doug Ford.

Dukes said he was approached by long-time pal Rana Chatterjee, a former hip-hop radio host, and currently Associate Creative Director at BBDO Canada Advertising and Creative Agency in Toronto, with the idea. “I think, at the time, he wanted to propose the idea of something  called Sample School,” he says, “where I’d bring in kids from Regent Park School of Music, and incorporate them into one of my music school libraries, and it sort of blossomed from that initial seed.

“We refined the idea a little bit more, and we came to the conclusion it would be a cool idea to make a music library. It’s really amazing, because there’s potential to fund the school in a really big way, depending on what happens with the library. And the library, in the past, has been sampled by everyone from Drake, to Kendrick Lamar, to Logic, and more.”

Dukes, known for nurturing such Toronto acts as Bad Bad Not Good, River Tiber, and Mustafa, was impressed by the kids who participated in the recording. “The talent level of the kids was really remarkable,” he says. “They were really, really special and gifted kids. I think for me, it was being able to create something of a bridge between maybe something they listen to and what they do on their own.

Dukes in Demand
Currently at the apex of high demand, Dukes has several upcoming projects bearing his production stamp, including those by James Blake, Post Malone, and of course, Camilla Cabello’s sophomore effort, hot on the heels of her Dukes-produced, global-hit, chart-topping smash, “Havana.”

“It was powerful for them to see that there’s infinite possibilities, and that if you really want to apply yourself when you’re passionate about something, you can make a career out of it, and do what you really want to do.”

An unexpected by-product of the Parkscapes sessions was the enthusiasm expressed by some of the shyer kids in the program. Says Dukes, “Speaking with some of the instructors afterwards, they were saying, ‘Wow, that was insane! Some of the kids, they’re not really vocal, or [don’t] participate too much in the day-to-day classes – but to see them so engaged, and excited, and invigorated in this was really amazing!’ This was fun for me, and for them too, to live in that energy for a little bit.”

Dukes, who sold his first recording artist sample to U.S. rapper Lloyd Banks for $5,000, says his specialty is predicated on emotion. “For me, it’s just a feeling,” he explains. “A good sign is that I can hear a song on it – and I can listen to it over and over again and not get tired of it – something I want to hear indefinitely.”

And there will be more Parkscapes, Dukes vows. “It’s a model of something I’d like to bring to different areas and different places, different cities and different countries,” he says. “Really develop it into more of a project that I think is, like, really positive and impactful to kids growing up – especially in areas like Regent Park.”

If we told you about a Canadian musical trio that’s sold more than three million records, performed at the White House, won three JUNOs, and been named to the Order of Canada, you’d probably be wracking your brain to figure out who it could be (or trying to decide which president was a secret Rush fan).

You likely wouldn’t think of Sharon, Lois and Bram, the group that emerged from the Toronto folk music scene in the ’70s to enrapture children and their parents with singalong tunes about elephants, mosquitos, and salty dogs. It’s easy to take children’s music for granted, but Sharon, Lois and Bram deserve those accolades for introducing children to many different styles of music, as well as themes of peace, love, and tolerance in the lyrics.

Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein and Bram Morrison were folk musicians in Toronto who met through Mariposa in the Schools, an outreach program of the folk festival, that sent musicians to perform for children in schools. They recorded their first album, One Elephant, Deux Elephants, in 1978, and began touring the next year when it became a hit. That tour has continued, on and off, for four decades, fuelled by many albums and a TV show – temporarily halted by the retirement, and then passing, of Lois Lilienstein. Now, a whole new generation is coming to the shows to sing along.

“The response has been wonderful,” says Sharon. “We start to sing, and people start to sing with us. We’ve met a lot of people who grew up on us and come back with their families. And one of the sweetest things is when they’re singing your songs to their children. That’s the best you could hope for.”

The road does take a toll, however, and Sharon and Bram are finally going to call it a day – maybe – after their 40th anniversary farewell tour winds up this summer. But first they went into the studio to record some songs originally written by Joe Hampson, Sharon’s late husband, a member of the folk group The Travellers. And in September, they’ll release a book based on their most beloved song, “Skinnamarink” (originally arranged by Sharon, Lois & Bram) which has been re-recorded with new lyrics by Sharon’s daughter Randi, a Toronto lawyer.

The late creative spurt started when Sharon and Bram appeared on a children’s album by NeedtoBreathe’s Josh Lovelace, who has credited SLB with turning him on to music as a child. “Seeing them in the studio, how much they enjoyed it and how good they sounded, I asked why they haven’t recorded as a duo in all these years,” says Randi. “At the same time, ‘Skinnamarink’ was being discussed as a book project, and I said, ‘This song isn’t long enough to be a book. I think it would benefit from some additions – would you mind if I took a stab at it?’ So then we started talking about recording some of my dad’s songs, and expanding them.”

Randi added lyrics to several songs, with Sharon and Bram’s blessing. “I’ve been fiddling with other people’s lyrics for years,” she says. “In law school, I re-wrote songs for the variety show. But with ‘The Colour Song,’ I just knew it needed a rainbow verse. It just felt like the right thing to do. And to have had the trust of my mom and Bram to do this, to give my dad’s music an opportunity to be heard by other people, that’s been incredible. And to be in the audience when they’re singing my words has been unbelievable.”

The other tracks (all of the songs are being released as singles) include “The Hug Song,” “Different,” and “Talk About Peace,” which features a guest vocal by Jim Cuddy. “When I hear him on that song, it thrills me,” says Sharon. “He’s such a glorious singer.”

“Different,” which celebrates diversity with lines like “It would be an awful shame if everyone were the same,” was released to coincide with Sharon and Randi’s participation in Toronto’s Pride Parade in June.  “It’s such an important message,” says Sharon. “You’d think things would get better and you wouldn’t need them, but the messages of Joe’s songs keep coming back.”

And it seems Sharon is leaving the door open just a crack to come back herself. “I won’t miss the travelling part so much, but I’ll miss getting on the stage and singing with the audience,” she says. “I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that we’re not done singing.”