The Canadian press has burped up a lot of hoopla lately about the sudden deluge of homegrown hip-hop, and, this being Canada and all, the stories have nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with whether honchos at BET will give a damn. We’ll see. One thing, though, remains certain about Canadian hip-hop in the year 2000: It really does exist. If this sounds like faint praise, bear in mind that never in history has such a glut of indigenous urban music been available in shopping malls from Edmonton to Fredericton; nor has any other Can-rapper received the U.S. backing that Toronto’s Choclair is getting from Priority Records. (Plus, I’m a Canadian citizen myself, and apparently it’s in my genes to praise faintly—or so a Margaret Atwood book once led me to believe.)
Anyway, plenty of evidence suggests that something other than Labatt‘s is brewing in the Great White these days. Most of the current crop of Can-rap releases comes from Ontario, though there are also pocket shout-outs from British Columbia and—oui, oui, y’all!—Quebec. According to Canadian Hip-hop Online, there are hundreds of rap acts coast to coast, from Nova Scotia to Manitoba to—”representing out of Yellowknife”—the Northwest Territories. Also impressive is the list of American guest stars on the more prominent releases: Guru and Memphis Bleek on Choclair‘s Ice Cold, Common and Pharoahe Monch on Saukrates‘s Underground Tapes, KRS-One and the Beatnuts on the Rascalz’ Global Warning. Apparently, Choclair’s signing is just the beginning: Saukrates recently passed ink with Def Jam, and Toronto’s K-OS is being feted by Capitol. “If Choclair can at least go gold in the U.S.,” The Source predicts, “the floodgates from Canada will burst open.”
It’ll be interesting to see if this happens, but even more interesting to see if anyone notices. For although we may be on the threshold of a Can-rap explosion, there’s no evidence of an identifiable Can-rap sound. Can-crits of all stripes have harped on about Canadian lack of identity for as long as the country’s existed, but a challenge would be nice. Most Can-rappers are of West Indies descent, and Saukrates and the Rascalz exhibit a ragga-hop influence: The former turns in a delicious bit of stuttering patois on “Ay, Ay, Ay,” while the latter snag Jamaican dancehall prince Barrington Levy, who brings a lilting charm to “Top of the World” (not least because his chorus is a dead ringer for “Indiana Wants Me”).
These are mere hints of what Choclair himself recently described in an interview as Can-rap’s unique “musical gumbo.” But to find something of the national spirit, you have to go back to the genre’s pioneer, Maestro Fresh Wes (currently just Maestro; in a year or two, he’ll have whittled his moniker down to “Mice”). In 1992’s “Conductin’ Thangs,” Maestro rapped, “Because I’m from Canada/Don’t think I’m an amateur,” a hilariously self-deprecating semi-boast (can you imagine, say, Ol’ Dirty Bastard pleading not to judge him too harshly because he’s from the States?). And in his aborted 1998 comeback, “Stick to Your Vision,” Maestro wistfully tapped into the mood of the Guess Who’s “These Eyes”: Hearing it while stuck in Toronto traffic one sunny afternoon, I thought for a minute the local “Psychedelic Sunday” DJ might’ve dropped the wrong color tablet. (It wasn‘t the first rap to credit Bachman/Cummings, though: In ’95, the Lordz of Brooklyn bit “American Woman,” and come to think of it, P.M. Dawn paid homage to Joni Mitchell in “Looking Through Patient Eyes.” So maybe there’s a Can-rap heritage after all.)
Maestro’s more or less old school by now, and apparently an anomaly: Despite a nod here and there to “T-dot-O,” nothing on Choclair’s Ice Cold suggests any specific place or culture (aside from the vast culture of hip-hop itself). Though on Amazon.com “a music fan from Columbus, Ohio” recently wrote: “Choclair has some great rhymes and an almost unmatched flow, but the beats on [Ice Cold] are very simple… Maybe that’s the Canadian style. If it is, this is probably the last Canadian album I am purchasing as I prefer the sounds of the dirty South.”
Choclair may not be from the “dirty South,” but he does have a dirty mouth. On Ice Cold he proves himself a real three-letters-on-his-mind guy, a new Canadian Loverboy who turns himself loose on anything that walks—and, predictably, picks up flak in Toronto papers for doing so (not that I disagree with all of the criticism; his healthy desires sometimes make way for a creepy, cartoon machismo). Ice Cold‘s catchy first single, “Let’s Ride,” is built around the sort of plunky piano hook that you could sit down at Grandma’s Steinway and learn in 30 seconds (though you probably need at least your grade two to figure out “Ride” ‘s left-hand harmony). The rest of the album often leaves me, well, ice-cold. It’s a credible production, but present-day hip-hop—certainly from a technical standpoint (and especially in comparison to rock)—is almost always credible. Even at its most generic.