Since Toronto rapper Smiley released his new single and video “Over The Top,” featuring the Certified Lover Boy himself, how “over the top” has his life become?

“Oh, brother – very crazy,” says Smiley (born Alexandre Morand), on the line from Los Angeles. “It’s just so crazy to see the difference. For a Canadian artist, you get high in your city, and then you come to the States and you’re no one. And now it’s different. I’m getting recognized, I’m getting more friends out here. It’s really over the top, to be honest.”

Not that he’s complaining. “It’s all I ever wanted,” he admits. “But I know I have a lot more things to do; this is just the very beginning. This is my first initial song to American audiences.”

Currently in the studio working on a 16-song album featuring multiple producers (including Boi-1da), the rapper from Toronto’s Pelham Park neighbourhood is making the most of his opportunity: he’s cut out the excesses, works out twice daily, and has dropped his weight from 260 pounds to 220 in the past six months or so.

“I want to be running on tours,” says Smiley. “I don’t want a laid-back vibe. And the way I wanted for myself, I never had the time to really eat healthy and go to the gym.  But this is always what I’ve wanted.”

He’s also eating healthier… although he admits his attempts to convert to a vegetarian diet isn’t going smoothly. “When I go vegetarian, I can only do it for a week or so,” he admits. “I get angry and I don’t want to do nothing. I eat once a day. I’ve only eaten at three o’clock, and let’s say I eat salmon and eggs and vegetables. I feel great during that whole week – I feel light, my skin gets clearer, everything feels better. But then I get too hungry and angry.”

He laughs. “I want quick results, so I go on a diet for about a week, and then I go on another diet after that, which includes meat and stuff.”

Maybe his fitness regimen will one day create the buzz that his lackadaisical delivery style does, on such hits as “In My Zone” and “Moving Different.” The latter is what charmed Drake, arguably the world’s biggest music superstar at the moment, to take Smiley under his wing.

“I would say three years ago, I knew he was listening,” says Smiley, who Drake listed as an influence on Scorpion, and whose lyrics to “Free Baby” he posted when Pusha-T outed the existence of his son on “The Story of Adidon.”

“I know I have a lot more things to do; this is just the very beginning”

“Then when he was showing me all that love and stuff, that’s when I got the different love from America and everywhere,” says Smiley. “That was more serious – the real freak-out moment. That’s when I had to have a team around me, management, everything.”

Up until that point, Smiley had been toiling hard with his musical friends in the OLN crew, which included rappers MKsolive, Ryda, and Homie, as well as learning studio tricks from neighbourhood colleague Blacka Da Don.

Initially, it was trial by fire. “When I first did my first song, everyone was saying I was talking,” says Smiley. “They hate me now, but they used to hate me even more. I’ve been rapping five or six years, though at first, it was very bad. It was just like talking, basically. But over the years I’ve gotten better at mastering it.  I just got better, although it wasn’t anything I tried to do.”

Starting with 2018’s Buy. or. Bye. and his mixtape A Tape To Remember, then Road To Buy or Buy 2 (The Playlist), and – released through Warner Music – YYZ-LAX, Smiley has been industriously working on his craft.

“My first grooves were with guys from the neighbourhood, and we had a buzz from there in the city,” he explains. “We were popular and had a few songs where I always had the city buzz. It felt good, but then after the Drake push, it was a whole different story. It made me realize I could literally do this, not just for fun and games… that this could actually be something where I could take care of my family and friends.”

Drake’s presence has loomed large in Smiley’s career to this point, as evidenced by “Over The Top.” “Drake sent it to me,” says Smiley. “As soon as the boy sent me the beat, I was just in the car driving and I stopped and listened to it. He already had his part on the hook, and I cued the intro up – I liked the beginning – and I squeezed off something quick, just in the car.  After that, I just had to write a few verses, and then I picked the right ones.”

When it comes to his songs, Smiley works quickly at first. “If I’m really focused and I’m locked in a room by myself, I usually write a hook and a verse just to get the idea out there,” he explains. “Then, whoever’s producing will choose the songs that have the most potential and I’ll finish it. But just for a hook and a verse, it’ll probably take me 48 minutes.”

Smiley says he writes his ideas in the Notes app on his cellphone. “Alone in the studio, I’ll kind of freestyle, but  that’s not my specialty,” he says. “I like to just write in my phone Notes. I’m freestyling now, because sometimes you come up with some good stuff, y’know? [But usually] I’ll go through my e-mails as people send me beats, I’ll save it to my Notes, and then as I play it, I’ll start writing to it.”

Smiley, now part of Drake’s Warner-distributed OVO Sound crew, is eager to establish himself South of the border. “I feel like I’m unique,” he says.  “No one sounds like me. Once I release this album, too, they’ll understand me more.” And he’s grateful for the Drizzy career boost. “He put me in this position,” says Smiley, “and he’s been like a big brother to me.”

Live music is back! The George Street Festival, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, hosted Arkells, Glass Tiger, Blue Rodeo, The Reklaws, and Robyn Ottolini, among others, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 1, 2021. Check out our photos from the event below, taken by Mike Slute.

Growing from a specialized publisher to a larger, curated catalogue that grows daily, Toronto-based Nagamo Publishing is filling a void. Its desire: to strengthen Indigenous representation in the film and television industry. So far, the upstart company – which has grown organically over the past year-and-a-half – is succeeding. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

Nagamo’s goals include providing Indigenous composers with opportunities to showcase their talent, as well as giving clients access to their music, which spans all genres and all First Nations. The roots of this venture were planted four years ago, when well-known publishing house Bedtracks’ president and co-founder Oliver Johnson created a production library of Indigenous music called Storytellers. In 2020, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) acquired the organization, which has morphed into Nagamo Publishing.

“The original idea was to build a niche playlist of Indigenous production music to pass around to clients and producers,” explains Nigel Irwin, Nagamo’s co-Creative Director, and also one of its composers. “It was a great door for me to step into. At the time, I was making music, but I didn’t know much about production music… My role just grew organically.”

Until now, there was a lack of Indigenous production music easily accessible, and available, to which the screen industry could turn. According to Irwin, there are a couple of reasons for this untapped potential in the market.

“First, finding composers who are focused on production music is a very specific ask. Since most musicians go down the ‘artist’ route, the pool is already small,” he says. “Indigenous communities also feel like a small pool, but it’s growing fast; there’s just a bit of a disconnect when it comes to opportunity, and potential clients knowing what’s out there.”

Nagamo PublishingSecondly, there was the challenge of Indigenous composers seeing the opportunity as well. Before joining Nagamo, Irwin worked as a facilitator for Indigenous youth programs, and travelled to reservations all across Canada. “I would meet tons of talented kids, but none of them had the mind-set that they could move off the reservation and find a job in this dynamic and cool industry,” he says. “Part of Nagamo’s mission statement is to wave the flag and tell these future composers, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”

Thirdly, the Canadian music industry didn’t widely consider Indigenous representation before the new era of diversity, equity and inclusion mandates, which Irwin says ultimately is a good thing, allowing for “new people at the table.”

When it comes to Nagamo’s current catalogue, the roster is diverse. That, Irwin adds, is a big selling point. “The moment we tell them it’s Indigenous, there’s so much ground to cover,” he explains. “I like to compartmentalize our music into two broad categories: contemporary and traditional. For example, a Tribe Called Red did a lot for mainstream Indigenous exposure in the area of EDM/dance music, and that’s one style of music we carry in our catalogue.”

Nagamo offers something in many styles, to match any mood a film or TV production is after: from orchestral works and high-energy drum sounds that lend themselves well to epic scores, to acoustic music and traditional throat singers. Irwin name-drops a few of the artists with whom Nagamo is currently working: Jesse Doreen of Six Nations; Andrew Joseph Stevens III (a London, Ontario, based Mi’kmaw artist known on TikTok as Drives the Common Man); Mimi O’Bonsawin, a Métis artist with Abenaki roots; and Jacob Hoskins from Vancouver.

Irwin is also really excited about the recent signing of PJ Vegas — Nagamos’s first artist outside of Canada. Vegas is an award-winning singer-songwriter and trap-beat composer from Los Angeles, whose father Pat is a founding member of 1970s Indigenous American funk-pop band Redbone (best known for their hit song “Come and Get Your Love”).

When he’s not discovering new artists to add to the Nagamo roster (mostly via word-of-mouth these days), Irwin, who traces his indigenous heritage to the Enoch Cree Nation, still finds time to compose.

“As the face of the company my role is to curate and build, but I’m also given time to work on my own art, which is important,” he says. “I’ve got a few things lined up for shows coming soon on CBC’s The Nature of Things. It’s just so exciting… Everywhere we turn we get encouragement. People are really interested now in Nagamo.”