At the beginning of December 2019, it was announced that, according to Spotify, Drake was the most streamed artist of the decade. Since 2010, it was estimated that the Toronto-born MC’s music had been streamed 28 billion times.
Whether you have reservations about streaming being an accurate barometer of listening tastes or not, the fact that this news was greeted with a collective shrug, conveying a lack of surprise, is actually quite telling. A decade ago, there were very few people that would have predicted that a Canadian hip-hop artist might be the most listened-to artist on the planet – even in the decade when hip-hop largely supplanted every other music genre in popularity. On one hand this is indicative of the uncharted territory in which hip-hop from Canada in 2019 finds itself, but it’s also only the tip of the iceberg, and offers a very small window into the breadth and potential of the hip-hop scene in this country.
While Drake’s influence straddles the decade, because his debut album Thank Me Later dropped in 2009, it was in 2011 that his influence arguably kicked Canadian hip-hop’s worldwide recognition into overdrive. His sophomore effort exerts a sonic influence so wide, its effects are still evident on hip-hop as a whole, let alone the newer crop of emerging Canadian hip-hop artists to this day. The album opened the door for a slew of Canadian hip-hop producers, like Boi-1da and T-Minus, to make their mark on hip-hop and pop music as a whole – through what became known in hip-hop circles as the Toronto Sound. The current Canadian hip-hop focus on Toronto is not an excuse to defer to the city, as the Canadian centre of the universe. Simply put, Toronto can now count itself as a city that exerts notable influence on hip-hop culture around the world, behind traditional spheres of influence such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the genre’s birthplace of New York.
Consequently, it’s now commonplace to see names like Murda Beatz, Frank Dukes, Wondagurl, and a slew of other producers who got their big break with Drake, presiding over some of the biggest pop, let alone hip-hop, hits of this past decade.
With this evidence, on the surface it’s easy for the casual observer to surmise that Drake’s hyper-visibility means that he’s the only hip-hop artist from Canada making music of any significance. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s never been the case. Historically, hip-hop from Canada has always been high-quality, and could always go toe-to-toe with the American originators of the form, whether we’re talking about Maestro Fresh Wes (recently honoured by the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame), Michie Mee, or Vancouver’s Rascalz. However, these artists never benefited from, among many other things, the de-centralized digital distribution of mixtapes that emerged in the late 2000s, that ultimately helped Drake to get his music heard when he first started out.
Shad, the London, Ontario, rapper who actually beat Drake for the Best Rap Recording JUNO in 2011, with the outstanding TSOL, has established an enviable catalogue in the past decade, with a steady stream of witty and conceptually taut album releases, including Flying Colours and A Short Story About a War. These are important entries in the Canadian hip-hop canon that the Kenyan-born MC, of Rwandan heritage, uses to deliver a widescreen view, expounding on a number of relevant issues of diasporic identity that reflect crucial perspectives and voices. All told, Shad has had four albums short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, more than any other artist.
Indeed, Haviah Mighty, this year’s winner of Polaris – and the first hip-hop artist to actually win the award – is a good indicator of the future directions Canadian hip-hop could be headed in during the next decade. Her album 13th Floor unapologetically addresses the marginalization she’s experienced as a Black woman in Canadian society, delivering a potent tour de force that builds on, and broadens, the perspectives of whose voices are heard, and what they’re talking about, in the country’s hip-hop scene. Continuing in that vein, Mighty’s fellow 2019 Polaris Prize short-listers Snotty Nose Rez Kids are bringing hip-hop by Indigenous artists to the forefront. The Haisla Nation duo, currently based in Vancouver, continued their subversive critiques of colonization, and spiritual devotion to the environment, on their latest album Trapline.
Of course, there are countless other hip-hop artists across the country making compelling music. The list of artists who could be set to blow up on a larger scale is too numerous to mention (a very good problem to have), but there are some trends that seem primed to continue as we enter the 2020s.
Hip-hop culture’s influence is undeniable, and will continue to appear strongly across popular culture, and in genre-adjacent music such as electronica, through the work of acts like Kaytranada and A Tribe Called Red, and through the cadre of established Canadian hip-hop producers plying their wares. Hip-hop will continue to re-shape and evolve notions of what Canadian music sounds like. Additionally, staying true to its roots, Canadian hip-hop will continue to highlight voices and issues that aren’t favoured by the mainstream, to deliver cutting-edge, thought-provoking music. And finally, because of the increasing influence of hip-hop artists and producers from this country, a nurtured and supported infrastructure for those artists in successful programs or initiatives like the Remix Project could lead to an increased development of global superstars, furthering Canada’s growing effect on hip-hop culture
With established hit-makers like Tory Lanez, and exciting creatives like Clairmont the Second, Sydanie, and Sean Leon also in the mix, forging their own creative lanes, the drive, passion and ingenuity emanating from Canadian hip-hop artists ensures that their voices will be heard.