Hip-hop may have started out in the parks of New York, as everyone from MC Shan to Jay Z has reminded us, but Toronto’s world-conquering battle-rap scene started out in a back alley behind the Eaton Centre.

King of the Dot, Mad Child

Mad Child at King of the Dot

“We couldn’t get a venue. We were 21 years old, and no venue wanted to associate themselves with battle rap,” says Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, recalling the pauper origins of his King of the Dot empire, nearly a decade ago, in 2008. “So we just did it any way we could. Originally we were planning to do it at Yonge-Dundas Square, and then they kicked us out so we had to move to the closest alleyway.”

Understandably, Toronto police thought the circle of 40 or so kids cheering and jeering as two alpha males squared off was building toward a fight. But once they realized that the blows would be only verbal, the cops let it slide.

“They never once shut us down,” says Fleetwood. “They would always ride their bikes by the alleyway and they looked at it like, ‘at least they’re doing something productive and not out causing trouble.’”

After a few more outdoor events that kept doubling in attendance, Fleetwood eventually found a basement venue belonging to a friend’s dad, and sold it out before the doors opened. His fledgling battle-rap league King of the Dot would soon grow into a WWE-like phenomenon, boasting a YouTube page of their fiercest live face-offs with nearly 600,000 subscribers and more than 170 million views.

“We literally built his from the ground up,” says Fleetwood, who quit his steelworker job to run KOTD full-time in 2014. “Everything we’ve done has been trial and error. There was never no blueprint to run a battle-rap league.”

“We literally built his from the ground up. Everything we’ve done has been trial and error.” – Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, of King of the Dot

Battle rap began as a natural outgrowth of hip-hop culture’s inherent braggadocio and competitiveness. It’s a feature also found in the breakdancing, DJ, and graffiti pillars, but came to define this rap offshoot. Battle rap evolved from freestyle sidewalk “cyphers,” where early MCs showed off their rhyme skills to brutally personal lyrical beat-downs, as battlers competed to land the cleverest, cruelest insults. It remained an underground proving ground until an Eminem movie delivered the scene into the mainstream in 2002.

“I was battling when I was super-young, in the ‘90s, I was just going neighborhood to neighborhood. That was the raw feel of it,” recalls veteran Bishop Brigante, King of the Dot Vice-President and the first Canadian battle rapper to appear on BET’s 106 and Park. “By the time 8 Mile dropped, I was like, ‘I did that. I already been through those trenches.’”

“[Back then] it was on beats, it was freestyle off-the-top,” Brigante explains. “It was the purest form of battle rap, because you had to be super-skilled on the spot, with no preparation.” But King of the Dot helped the musical sport evolve into its current form, by having competitors rap a capella with pre-written punchlines, allowing the insults to cut deeper, and the rounds to last longer. “The entertainment value went up when you had a couple months to prepare, and you really wrote it out,” Brigante says. “It became a performance.”

But like Bob Dylan going electric, longtime fans needed convincing, and Drake stepped in to help add credibility by co-hosting a 2011 event, and helping run another in 2015.

King of the Dot, Drake, 40

Drake and Noah “40” Shebib attending King of the Dot

.“A lot of people were still on the fence because the battles were now written, and [Drake] made the city get behind us a lot more,” says Fleetwood. “Toronto was thriving at that time, so it was more than just supporting the league, it was showing unity between the hip-hop scenes from the industry level to the underground level. It showed that the whole community was standing together. A lot of cities don’t got that. You’re not seeing the big names over there going to these underground functions to support these kids on the come-up. Drake was doing that. And it helped us push our brand into America.”

Maybe it wasn’t hard to become the biggest battle-rap league in Canada, since there wasn’t much competition. But King of the Dot has successfully expanded southward, throwing throw-downs in Massachusetts, Arizona and California, while attracting international competitors to their World Domination events. Legendary MCs like Too $hort, E-40 and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Method Man have co-hosted events.

Even the new Eminem-produced battle-rap movie Bodied, which debuted at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, was scripted by Toronto battle-rapper Kid Twist, the first King of the Dot champion.  “It’s a good dive into the culture and people are gonna be wowed, and when they’re done they can go on YouTube and check out King of the Dot and see a lot of people who were in the movie,” says Brigante.

“We were actually one of the more prominent battle scenes in the world but I don’t think the rest of the world knew that yet,” adds Fleetwood about the old days. “We knew up here because we could see what the rest of the world was delivering, but not many people had their eyes on Toronto. Back then it was a tough struggle.”

Back then. But nowadays they’re the kings – and not just of the dot.

Tire le coyote“Recently, I taped an episode of the TV series Microphone with Louis-Jean Cormier,” says singer-songwriter Benoît Pinette – better known as Tire le Coyote since the release of his first album, Le Fleuve en huile, in 2011 – on the phone from Québec City. “We were singing together, and that’s when I realized how he puts tonic accents on this or that syllable, whereas I put them elsewhere. It’s funny how each singer has their own way of doing things and writing, isn’t it?”

To each their own. For a long time, people said Pendant was mimicking someone else – Neil Young, mostly. Because of the musical signature, but mainly because of his falsetto, so reminiscent of Young’s 1970s heyday, especially 1972’s Harvest and 1974’s On the Beach, his folkier and more intimate albums. “It’s how I sing, and that’s that,” says Pinette. And, just to be perfectly clear, he absolutely doesn’t have to justify the way he sings to anyone. “When I started tinkering with the guitar, I was listening to bands like Radiohead,” he says. “That’s how I learned to sing. I don’t even need to strain; I can give several concerts a week and my voice is still good!”

His writing, however, is very singular. Désherbages, his third album – notwithstanding a first EP released in 2009 where he strictly penned the lyrics – appears to be his most polished so far, yet retaining his instinctive way of stringing words and images together. He’s the first to admit that as a lyricist, he’s an aesthete, an impulsive writer.

“I rarely work from a theme or a precise idea I want to express,” says Pinette. “Phrases, images, come to me in segments, and I knit the song using those bits.” Though he might sing like a young Neil Young, or a Thom Yorke, only Pinette himself can write the kind of stanza that opens “Toit cathédrale” (“Catherdal Ceilng”): “Les clichés ont le vent dans les voiles, à qui la faute / Quand les aimants ne collent plus sur le frigidaire de l’autre” (“Clichés are riding high, whose fault is it / When the magnets no longer stick to the other person’s fridge”).

Or, for another example, on the haunting, atmospheric rock psalm “Tes bras comme une muraille,” one of the album’s outstanding tracks: “J’espère faire valser les vieux fantômes / Jusqu’à la limite de nos origins / Pour qu’on puisse donner au soleil son diplôme / Le ménage se fera sans garantie légale / Je regarde au loin mes fenêtres sont sales / Faudra au moins s’assurer qu’elles donnent sur l’avenir” (I hope to make old ghosts waltz / All the way to our origins / So we can give the sun his diploma / The clean-up will be done with no legal warranty / I look into the distance, my windows are dirty / Let’s at least make sure they look to the future”). Tire le Coyote’s poetry is like no other, using simple words that rhyme nicely, and pretty images that illustrate profound and all-too-real sentiments.

Two exceptions to the rule are hidden on Désherbages. At one end of the album sits “Jeu vidéo,” a skillful French adaptation of Lana del Rey’s “Video Games,” or rather, a Québécois adaptation, with stanzas such as “L’ivresse est “stallée” sur ta peau” (“Drunkenness is stalled on your skin”), as he uses the word “stallée”, which is a typical Québec Anglicism (the use of an English word in French). The other surprise is “Le ciel est backorder” (another example of a Québec Anglicism), and its subject matter is serious: “Quand ton corps est une cage où on enferme la maladie / Tu veux reprendre le tirage sous prétexte de tricherie” (“When your body is a place where illness is caged / You want to do it all over, feeling there was foul play”). “That’s the one song on the album where I had a precise idea before I started writing it,” says Pinette. “A friend was seriously ill, in and out of the hospital regularly, and an example of strength and resilience.”

For his new album, Pinette restricted himself to a pre-determined period of writing, contrary to his habit of “writing almost all the time, especially on tour.” His previous album had taken him on the road for more than 18 months, introducing him to new audiences. “I took a break in September of 2016,” he says, “in order to work on my next album. It was the first time I did such a thing: devote myself entirely to creation. I’d decided to write the whole album in three months. The goal was to be done by January.”

The writing sessions were interrupted by numerous distractions, and weekends in the countryside with his family – stepping away from the blank page only to come back to it stronger. He then gathered his partners in crime, Simon Pedneault (who produced Gabrielle Shonk’s debut album) and Benoit Villeneuve (a.k.a. Shampouing) to breathe life into this musically varied album – more so than its predecessors, in any case – where each song seems to inhabit its own landscape, raging from pared-down folk to rock explorations. “I listened to Andy Shauf a lot,” says Pinette. “Especially The Party. His way of writing rock songs inspired me.”

Inspiration is necessary. Then, it’s all about putting your own tonic accent on it.

Among the plethora –and that’s putting it mildly – of albums coming out in the fall of 2017, one clearly stands out because of its artistic direction, and that’s Hugo Mudie’s very surprising Cordoba. Well-known in music circles as the frontman of The Sainte Catherines and Yesterday’s Ring, Mudie has launched his first solo album, and it’s a big departure from what are considered his musical roots, while retaining the sarcastic and off-beat tone that he’s owned since the start of his career.

“It’s probably the most representative album I’ve made, because there were no compromises,” says Mudie. “It’s the first time I can really be who I’ve always wanted to be. My closest friends do recognize me in it… I was always a little more fucked-up and open to all styles of music than most.”

Pop Goes La Vie

Hugo MudieLet’s tell it like it is: Mudie ventures into pop territory that few would have expected him to approach to this point. “I don’t know if we can call it a pop statement,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, it came very naturally. I’ve always listened to a lot of pop music and I’ve always based my compositions on melodies, even in my bands. The difference is that it was executed in an aggro or country way, depending on the band I was writing for.

Add to that the fact that the songwriter was saturating his ears and mind with rap during the writing and recording of the album – from Kanye West to Chance the Rapper to Young Thug. “I love the way they try things, sonically,” Mudie says. “There truly is a lot of research that goes into it. I get a feeling the genre re-invents itself every six months. It’s crazy.”

Yet, despite all that, his “natural” side re-appears every now and then, on tracks like “Ferme ta radio” or “Tofu Dogs,” where Mudie lets loose the punk/hardcore energy that drew the spotlight to him early in his career. “I wanted to do pure, bona fide Minor Threat or Dead Fucking Last, and I like the idea of having a couple of tracks on the album that are pure punk, like the Beastie Boys did back in the day,” he says.

Add to the mix a large pinch of Wavves and Beach House, and you’ll start having an idea of the multi-genre affair that you can expect. “In the end, I guess it’s my attempt at making Beach House tracks,” says  Mudie. There. Case closed.

We Are Wolves’ Alex Ortiz is credited with his first official production duty. “I didn’t know him and he had never done this,” says Mudie. “I liked what he did with WAW and, musically, his personality seemed as all-over-the-place as mine. We clicked immediately when we first met, and it was an awesome collaboration.”

Dyed-in-the-Wool Punk


And not only has the release enjoyed great visibility – “Livre d’or” has earned rotation on a few commercial outlets – the man behind the project is also the object of media attention, being a guest columnist of the ICI Première, Urbania and Vice platforms, to name a few. More often than not invited as an “industry” columnist, Mudie recently penned an op-ed piece on the role of music critics that was considered incendiary by some.

At a time where social media occupy most of our collective imagination, critics have a hard time finding their rightful place. The reactions to the op-ed were just as colourful as the piece itself: “I wasn’t expecting people to react with such intensity!” says Mudie. “Some even flat-out refused to talk about my album. But to be honest, I prefer that to pure disinterest. I’ve always loved stuff that shakes things up.”

Again, let’s be clear. “Even good critics piss me off,” says Mudie. “When I read it, all I can think of is that the writer has never made music. I truly believe that, and it drives me mad. And Québec is so small, everyone knows everyone. That drives me nuts too, when I think about it too much. All of that is who I am, I don’t over-think it before I commit. People who know me know I’ve always been that way. In school, people said I was a negative leader. When I was in a sports-study program, my teacher once told me: ‘You’re not a hockey player, you’re a rock star.’ Apparently, she had great vision. There comes a point in life where you either embrace your larger-than-life personality, or you are ashamed of it. And if you try to dumb it down, you’ll feel bad. In the end, it’s simple: if you like me, you’re welcome, if you don’t, oh well.” Another case closed.

“I’m only at the beginning of my career,” says Mudie, “and I already have songs ready to go. I’ve hung up my multi-band singer role for now, and I’ll no longer try to justify the style I choose. If I want to do balls-to-the-wall music, country, or pop, then that’s what I’ll do.” Don’t say you haven’t been warned.