“Resisting the Singular Voice”: On Canadian Hip-Hop

 

The following is a conversation between Mark V. Campbell the Guest Curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s recent exhibit, “… Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital” and the editor of a book of the same title, and Paul Barrett, Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University. Campbell sat down with Barrett for a lengthy discussion of hip hop, race, Canada, and history over two humid July days in Toronto.


Paul Barret: Mark, your love of hip hop is evident throughout the book and the exhibition. I wonder if you can remember back to the moment of falling in love with rap. I can remember hearing Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper”—the sounds of the drums and bells samples from Bob James’s “Take me to the Mardi Gras” and the rapping just totally blew my mind. An entirely new space of artistic appreciation suddenly appeared possible. Can you remember the first hip hop record you heard?

Mark V. Campbell: I remember very clearly watching one of the breakdancing movies, Breakin’ or Beat Street, and hearing the soundtrack and thinking, “Wow. What is that sound? How is it being made?” Then I saw Run-DMC at an awards show and I had the same thoughts: “What are they doing? How is that possible?” I was completely mystified; it was wonderful. I really didn’t know how to understand it.

Then, when I saw Run-DMC with a big system on the stage, and of course Jam Master Jay was there, doing his thing, I thought: “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” At age seven, I realized that this is the most important thing in the world.

The track that really changed my whole life was Jazzy Jeff’s “Live at Union Square.” It’s so vital and real. Will Smith is speaking to the audience and Jazzy Jeff does the famous transformer scratch. As a kid and a fan of Transformers it was unbelievable that this guy just made a transformer sound out of records. I would sit beside the tape deck and listen to this song and just try to imagine what he was doing. I didn’t have turntables so I’m wondering, “Does he have a robot? How is he creating this?” It was a glimpse of an entirely new understanding of the world

 

Hip Hop in the Canadian Gallery

PB: Your exhibition at the McMichael gallery is about Toronto hip hop photography. This is an interesting cross-medium depiction of hip hop culture. Hip hop is cross-medium in ways that a lot of other musical genres aren’t. It includes MCing, DJing, breakdancing, graffiti—yet you very convincingly show the importance of images to hip-hop culture in Canada. The Rascalz had their break dancers as part of the group, Chuck D was a graphic designer before being a rapper, and there is the signature style of Maestro Fresh Wes in his conductor’s outfit, etc. What do you see as the particular importance of this visual dimension of hip hop culture?

MVC: The visual has [always] been critical, in a number of ways, to interrupting Western, European knowledge and systems of understanding the world. [The exhibition] allows audiences to engage with hip hop, albeit problematically because it enables a distanced consumption of Black and racialized bodies without having to deal with the actual folk. But these are the rules of a gallery: it produces a kind of detached “objectivism” which we know, of course, is not real yet it creates a relation to the culture through that distance.

But the visual is different for hip hop heads: seeing graffiti murals on the street is their entrance into hip hop. Finding those visual representations in the world is a clue of some other culture alive beyond the dominant culture. Someone like Rammellzee, for instance, was a groundbreaking graffiti artist and his perspective was that graffiti is a kind of urban hieroglyph or a secret language. Hip hop’s interruption of a visual poetics of Western life is, for me, one way to think about its creative potential and reach.

The exhibit starts with you walking down this narrow hallway and there’s three huge graffiti murals. I want to pull audiences in, to have a conversation, or to think more critically about hip hop through how they experience hip hop in this visually detached way. At the same time, the visual has always been a kind of disruptive entry point in that way and also with the big gold chains, the Mercedes Benz, jewellery—all those ways that Black culture tries to signify its capitalist and consumptive success. These are all parts of how the visual can disrupt the public sphere and how Black people can assert a presence that they control.

PB: This highlights one of the challenges of this kind of work: the way that hip hop is easy to consume—and this is particularly true in a gallery—without actually having to contend with Black people. This may be partly just a necessary condition of working in a gallery space but how did you manage that paradigm?

MVC: Yes, this was a major concern—I can’t bring hip hop to the McMichael and allow it to be colonized. To put it another way, the most critical part of the exhibition was to create something that would detail the art form and the culture’s possibilities to novices while also producing something that doesn’t allow itself to be easily enveloped back into a comfortable racial imagination.

Visual culture is a double-edged sword: it provides a way into Western ideas and thoughts—yet the visual acts of racializing and objectifying, and privileging the visual over the oral or the sonic, is largely how Eurocentrism works. For me, then, if I must play by the rules of the Western art gallery, I have to produce something that is not going to be easy, comfortable, or singular and won’t contribute to silencing.

So I had all kinds of creative possibilities for the show, and a significant amount of latitude. That’s why I decided to focus on this idea of “rawness,” because I couldn’t produce something that would be comfortable. How do I get people to think about this thing—hip hop—that they feel is either not important or diluted or exhausted at this moment?

PB: To what degree were you thinking about the creative depictions of Black people and culture in the larger Canadian context? I’m thinking here of Katherine McKittrick’s concept of unvisibility where Black people in Canada are simultaneously too visible—too brash, too loud—yet also invisible. In what ways does visual representation challenge the racist imaginary of anti-blackness in Canada?

MVC: Anti-blackness can’t be challenged by visual representation alone but I think it plays a role. I think the visual can work well in enticing these new vocabularies, encouraging people to look again, look more closely, and to develop new conceptual itineraries. Art galleries enable this kind of visual literacy as a site for reflection and learning but the visual also has to be coupled with language and discourse to dislodge racist depictions. Also, hip hop doesn’t just attack racism visually—it works in the kind of postmodern way in which the meaning gets emptied out and reinserted in different ways.

The erasure of Blackness in Canadian public spaces that McKittrick documents reminds us of this constant experience of being pushed outside of the nation that the discourses of multiculturalism produce. Specifically, the ways in which Blackness is seen as un-Canadian, as always foreign or new, as having no history in Canada. So, visual depictions of hip hop—I’m thinking about these excessive public performances of opulence and consumption and forms of outlandishness like wearing a clock around your neck—these all strike back at the social and state erasures that make Black life only visible when it is going to be criminalized, defiled, or profited from.

Sheinina Raj (born 1975)
The Ghost of Ghetto Concept, 1998
40 x 50 inches
35mm cross-processed colour negative film, reproduced from original darkroom print
Digital chromogenic print
Courtesy of the artist

So when Rakim is wearing all of this jewellery, someone might read this as just consumerism, but I’d also argue that if you were living in New York in the 1980s and saw the drug dealers on the corner and how fly they were dressing, it’s not necessarily just about consumption but also about honouring an aesthetic code that refuses to wear tucked-in button-down shirts. A refusal of a certain status quo.

PB: One dimension of the visual that we also need to discuss is the treatment of women, particularly the misogynist or objectifying depictions of women. In the “Northern Touch” video, Choclair delivers his verse while getting a lap dance. There are countless examples of this kind of thing. This raises the question of hip hop’s legacy of misogyny and how that undermines that “refusal of the status quo.” Is there a certain conception of masculinity that is purchased somewhat by degrading women? At the same time, hip hop’s misogyny gets critiqued whereas misogyny in rock music is often ignored. Can you discuss that misogyny both in terms of hip hop in general terms and how it informed your exhibit?

MVC: Unfortunately, the aesthetic codes of hip hop include expressions of power that mirror the ways in which Hugh Hefner or Donald Trump might degrade women. Remember, in Nelly’s “Country Grammar” he asks Donald Trump to “let him in,” I am assuming to the upper echelons of the billionaire club. However, when I use raw as a descriptor of the aesthetic codes in hip hop, I refuse to endorse or reinforce the imagery that reeks of misogyny. I had many opportunities.

This legacy of misogyny in hip hop is directly correlated to the music and the culture’s intimate relation to Western culture. Hip hop is intertwined and implicated in capitalism, and patriarchy. So yes, hip hop culture has failed miserably at overcoming patriarchy, just like the rest of the Western world, and women have borne the brunt of that failure.

It becomes interesting in a Canadian context when, for example, you compare the notes of Choclair working with Virgin Records in the States and this earlier generation working with a smaller label in the United States, the BeatFactory imprint in Toronto, and Island records in London, UK. A very different relationship between misogyny and Canadian hip hop emerges.

That said, if I can return the gaze, the question of misogyny is a question first and foremost of black life—and I am not even talking about Moya Bailey’s intersectional language of misogynoir. First, the attempt to pinpoint an inherent fault in hip hop culture, whether this be violent language, sexism, or profanity, is an attempt to look away from the over-policing and pain. Instead, there appears to be a specific and intentional neglect for the well-being of Black life when there is an insistence on highlighting hip hop’s obvious misogyny. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, the question of misogyny in hip hop, particularly when it comes from non-Black women, is never concerned with or invested in the well-being of Black women. When Joan Morgan or Ava DuVernay express their frustrations with the culture we know their expressions are also about the well-being of Black women, rather than a demonizing of Black expressive cultures.

Patrick Nichols (born 1965)
10013 Michie Mee, 1993
40 x 40 inches
120 mm colour transparency
Digital chromogenic print
Courtesy of the artist

PB: To return the gaze yet again, is this necessarily about some “inherent fault in hip hop” or about a “demonizing of Black expressive cultures” or is it just about calling out men’s degradation of women in order to bolster their own? Of course hip hop is not unique here—I’m thinking here of Jessica Hopper’s important essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”—and certainly misogyny in hip hop needs to be contextualized within discussions of Black life and anti-black racism but the misogyny in so much of the culture seems to undermine its utopian impulses. How do we talk about the disruptive visual possibilities of hip hop—say the cover of Ice-T’s “Power” album—without discussing the obvious objectification of women? Are we too quick to assert hip hop’s power to challenge social norms when we neglect tracks like Slick Rick’s “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” or the lyrics in the original 99 Problems: “Fuck how you feel / You fucking cheap thrill / I hope you took the pill / cuz I won’t pay the bill?” In our appreciation of hip-hop, how do we hold these two dynamics—the liberatory and the misogynist/misogynoir—together? And furthermore, is there any difference in Canadian hip hop in this regard? Does the Choclair example illuminate anything there?

MVC: The cover of The Power record is a great way to jump into a discussion of the objectification of women by being attentive to governmentality, biopower, and the circulation of power in relation to gender and beyond. Hip hop is unequivocally about Power, the power to define one’s humanity in the face of dehumanization. The refusal of the dominant culture’s exercise of power over one’s body. The power to play with the meaning of words through lyrical ingenuity, the power to transform a turntable into a musical instrument. Hip hop’s attempts at empowerment, just like the Black Panther Movement, are problematically over-invested in the hierarchical arrangements of Western culture. Hip hop’s misogyny is a continued ill-informed attempt at empowerment—parasitic empowerment, even—that reifies Western culture. When we treat hip hop in a holistic way so that the sexism and the pain are measured side by side, the fleeting empowerment and the systemic dehumanization side by side, then I think we can critically engage hip hop in a way that does not reproduce Eurocentric silos that underpin colonialism.

I find it interesting when artists working with hip hop, either through video, music, or photography, find unique ways to distance themselves from hip hop’s misogyny while still participating in the culture. I am thinking here of Mark Valino’s video series “Moments of Movement,” in which women dancers are beautifully centralized but not in an objectified way. Valino’s work is fresh and refreshing at the same time as we are all well-versed in the cookie cutter images of racialized and sexualized objectification. Raw can be about this too, about new perspectives, the audacity to be dope in ways that might even speak back to hip hop culture within and beyond the acceptable aesthetic codes.

 

Rawness and Commodification

PB: The concept of rawness that pervades the exhibition recognizes the restrictions of the racial imagination while refusing to let those restrictions define identity. Your book is entitled … Everything Remains Raw, and there you discuss the polyvalence of the term raw. You write that raw:

in hip hop circles is a term of endearment, an adjective that MCs bestow upon their crew members’ skills … The term evokes a fearlessness, a willingness not only to defy convention but also to engage a creative modality resistant to censorship or co-optation … raw refers … to a refusal to refine oneself to suit the status quo and a refusal to continue the dehumanization that circumscribes the lives of ‘Others’ in the Western world.

In what ways do you see this exhibition working between these various conceptions of raw?

MVC: This is really about how to read the works in the exhibition around this concept of rawness. So if we think about the graffiti pieces in particular, these pieces aren’t guided by my vision but work in combination with some of the ideas in the exhibition. Similarly, one of the walls in the exhibition is all live action shots and I wanted to balance that with portraiture and studio shots to talk about how rawness, and this continual refusal, is always interwoven into the depiction. Particularly the way in which we have to continue to recreate who we want to be in the face of powerful media depictions that control the narrative.

PB: Has that changed in recent hip hop? Are we still talking about acts of refusal or has commodification won the day? Has rawness as a kind of desirable aesthetic category been diminished in recent years?

MVC: For sure. That’s part of this: an archive of something that is historical—maybe a relic of the past—but I want to bring it back because it’s necessarily rejuvenating. Yes, rawness is historical but it has utility in the present so bringing it back is one of the ways to think about replenishing the culture and forcing people to think critically about it. So I wanted to use that term because I thought it could be dying out and I also thought it was an important conversation piece across generations. When concepts like ‘rawness’ no longer exist we’re just left wondering, “What happened,” and, “How do we replenish the future?”

PB: How do you conceive of the relationship between the commodification of Canadian hip hop and its rawness? You write about the manner in which the forms and styles of hip hop allow “for a humanization and rehumanization for racialized individuals whose mere existence is cause for the collusion of social institutions in the over-policing, racialization, and criminalization of those outside of the dominant culture.” Is that necessarily at odds with the commodification of the form?

MVC: No, they’re not at odds; there’s a relationship there in which one feeds the other. The continual erasure and disrespect of Black life and racial hierarchies that attempt to reduce Black life to labour and profit actually fuel this continuous cultural innovation. The things that get created by hip hop are fuelled by the restrictions on Black participation in the market and other exclusionary policies. Things like the 5 Percent Nation and the Nation of Gods and Earths—this is thinking that is completely outside the cosmology of what’s rammed down your throat in Western culture. So anti-black racism stimulates all kinds of psycho-social and behavioural, creative adaptations.

An easy example is the mixtape. If you’re Grandmaster Flash, making custom mixtapes in 1975 and you’re selling them for $25 – $30, which is hundreds of dollars in today’s money, well there’s only certain people who can afford that. He was capitalizing on these custom one-off mix tapes. That’s a kind of rawness where Flash working outside of a formal studio environment and outside of copyright laws and outside of the other ways in which his life is circumscribed as a Black kid who has training as an electrician and likes to fiddle around with sonic technologies. He comes up with the concept of the mixtape, a super smart way of promoting yourself, introducing new music to the public. It’s those moments for me when you understand that different forms of human life can exist outside of how we’re told to behave.

We also have to remember how commodification attempts to erase Black subjects, particularly if that subject interrupts the consumptive possibilities of the work. I’m thinking here of race records and the whole idea that in order to sell records to white audiences, they can’t see black people. That changes into we can’t see Black people doing things that interrupt how we imagine them. So, Public Enemy had their career basically assassinated; they are actively destroyed. With their video for “Can’t Truss It”, which re-enacts rape on a slave plantation—that’s too much of a disruption of the racial imaginary. A group like NWA, the complete opposite of Public Enemy, gets propped up and their careers explode.

As hip hop becomes something that’s purchased in American suburbs, the multi-dimensional aspects of Black life have to be erased. It’s not that all Black life gets erased, but a certain kind of Black life is promoted because it nourishes this racial imaginary that sells records. The kids that buy these things believe these rappers are bad assess or violent or whatever. Whatever NWA ended up standing for that Chris Rock made fun of in CB4—and what 2Chains problematically embodies today.

PB: I was just thinking that as you were answering: how brilliant CB4 is in its parody of this dimension of rap music. Chris Rock’s character in CB4 has a life that doesn’t align with the record company’s idea of what a rapper is about so he steals the identity of a real gangster, Gusto. He becomes MC Gusto and he and his friends become Cell Block Four. It is such an incredibly smart parody of the music and the cultural devaluing of Black life.

MVC: It really is. Well, its always been the case that record labels want the cultural production that they can market and sell but they don’t want Black people. And that continues. Drake, for example, is an amazing talent, but Drake is palatable because of his skin colour and because of his presence on Degrassi—and shades and celebrity culture are intimate bedfellows. Drake can take up Black culture in any way that he decides while other folks can be erased. The actual shade of Drake’s skin viscerally doesn’t provide the same disruptiveness as, say, Choclair, or Saukrates, or Red One—or someone who visually falls into line with how Blackness is imagined. Drake’s success has something to do with the fact that Blackness is not imagined as Drake.

One way that I tried to contend with some of this in the exhibition is that I tried to have a careful balance of known stars and widely unknown but significant cultural producers. Artists like 2Rude who produced music that is less well known than Boi 1da. People like Mathematik: he’s on the cover of the book and he’s the kind of person—people in Toronto are almost unanimous in acknowledging the man’s level of talent and that he is something of the epitome of hip hop, despite not being well known.

So my response to the commodification is to structure the exhibit with both an A side and a B side to the show. The A side allows for the kinds of conversations around celebrating Canadian hip hop. The B side is like the deep cuts and underground classics, what the DJs would prefer to spin and recognizing the graffiti artists, the dancers, and understanding the wider culture of hip hop.

 

Hip-Hop and the Archive

PB: History matters in this book. You discuss the history of Toronto hip hop radio programs, Master Plan, Power Move, crews like The Circle, events like Honey Jam and Live at the Barbeque, etc. Is this a function of expanding the mandate of a visual representation of hip hop or is it more / also about the impossibility of reading that archive without understanding historical context? Another way to think about this is to ask how do you find yourself as an archivist contending with a legacy of Black erasure or the tropes of Black silencing and killing that one finds in archival work? Is it important for you to situate this archival recovery / discussion within such a tradition?

MVC: Yes, it’s really about all of that: the impossibility of reading an archive outside of its social context, but part of what I kept coming back to in the creation of the exhibit is how do you decenter the rapper and illuminate the infrastructure of hip hop? This allows you to formulate a sustainable response to commodification and commercialization. Back in the day you’d have Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince: so the DJ’s name would come first. Then we have a major shift in the 1990s where MCs are pushed to the forefront and the DJ starts to disappear but the bigger thing is that it’s also about the refusal to be consumed in a singular way. Hip hop is not just about rappers.

In terms of the second part of the question, “… Everything Remains Raw” is both an insertion and an assertion that tries to creatively decentre the Black body. I mean that the archiving project refuses to reproduce the ways in which people are comfortable consuming blackness in a range of mediums.

Part of disrupting those archival traditions is about not reproducing depictions of the black body as easily visually consumed or objectified. So my archival work with North Side Hip Hop deals with erasure and silence by decentering the Black body and, instead, focusing on the sonic, musical, and linguistic creativity which you see in the exhibition. This becomes a kind of praxis for counter-archival practices; we’re not fetishizing the particular object of Black embodiment but focusing on the sonic innovations and creative outputs. So, when you focus on graffiti and the ways that letters are shaded, the drip of the aerosol—all of that is in place to disrupt how we experience writing and urban hieroglyphs, rendering us uncomfortable with those things.

Battling erasure is not just about restoring the thing that is missing in the archive: it’s also about changing the rules of reading and interpretation. So, here it’s about discussing hip hop and blackness without reproducing a kind of easy depiction of, say, criminalized Blackness.

PB: What about the challenge of bringing hip hop to the McMichael Gallery—what adaptations of style, voice, or acts of translation does this require? For instance, you write, in your introduction, that “as the re-spatialization of hip hop artists make Western life livable for those on the margins, the tactics by which artists remain fresh-to-death are not neat and tidy, rule-bound endeavours.” I find that statement intriguing because it simultaneously demonstrates the kind of re-spatialization that you are doing in your work—bringing hip hop photography to the McMichael Gallery—while also performing the blending of styles and terminologies that hip hop practices. How do you grapple with your own need to speak in multiple voices in order to do this work—to find a language that is both scholarly (“re-spatialization”) and hip hop (“fresh-to-death”)?

MVC: The norms of the gallery space operate like a kind of language. And the way hip hop deals with mainstream language is that it remixes it, transfers the meaning, disrupts it—all while using that creative energy to make something new. For me, it is about resisting the singular and showing how this hip hop approach can be used to change the expectations of the gallery and the audience.

As a curator, I had to think about the protocols and what I’m interested in accepting, refusing, and disrupting. Of course, there are some things you have to accept: things will hang on a wall, people are going to come and see it. But I don’t need to accept the silence of the gallery, that the walls need to be white, or that things need to be linear or chronological.

So we have, for instance, three archival boards from people involved in hip hop in the exhibit.

One is from the publisher of Peace Magazine, another is from the founder of Chic Dynasty Soundsystem, the other from a DJ on the Masterplan Radio show. The idea is that those boards gesture towards what gets lost in the act of professional curation and archiving. So this includes ticket stubs and other things that are important to their experience of hip hop; this diffuses the power of the curator as a kind of all-knowing, organizing force. Resisting the singular voice was very important: if I’m entrusted with the act of trying to share this history, I need to ensure that I’m sharing that space and ensuring multiple voices are being represented.

 

The Voice of Toronto Rap

PB: Thinking about those multiple voices from another perspective, what is the voice of Toronto hip hop? Is there a particular Toronto hip hop style?

MVC: There used to be but the Caribbean influence is waning. When Rumble and Strong, Michie Mee, Maestro all came out—they all had a very heavy Caribbean influence. Now you have people who’ll take up a Toronto slang but in the production & sampling practices there isn’t the same references to the Caribbean as with, say, Kardinal’s “Ol’ Time Killin.” You won’t find newer artists with that same Caribbean influence so that particular style is disappearing.

PB: Is that a good thing in some ways? Could we see that as a sign of the culture expanding in new directions? If we think of some of the contemporary rappers, or even people like NAV—bringing new styles to the music. Isn’t that what has always happened?

MVC: In many ways, yes. People are not feeling shackled by their backgrounds or the background of the music itself. There’s an ongoing reinvention. That said, I think this has a lot to do with the transition to digital: people can be on their computers, copying an Atlanta style or the latest mumble rap or the chopped and screwed style. So the local doesn’t necessarily have the same weight that it once did .

For the analogue generation, that’s totally different. Kardinal talks about seeing Michie Mee on stage and that encouraged him to use patois in his rhymes. Now, live shows, or the local scene, aren’t just the only avenues to develop a style and draw on influences.

That also has a kind of temporal effect: now people can know what’s going on somewhere else and it isn’t necessarily a nostalgic thing. So Caribbean music really influenced Toronto hip hop, but it would’ve been the music of the early ’80s influencing rappers in the late ’80s—there was that time lag that came with just getting music later. But now, the music people are listening to from elsewhere is current: Future releases a track and Toronto rappers are hearing it within the hour. That difference in the time lag of cultural exchange has a big effect on the ways that communities imagine themselves.

PB: For a lot of casual fans, “Northern Touch” seemed like the moment that Canadian hip hop really broke out. You historicize this moment very effectively—describing The Rascalz’ refusal to accept their Juno because the award wasn’t being televised and was treated as a lesser category. “Northern Touch” seemed to change that and really led to success for The Rascalz, Kardinal, Choclair, and, further down the line, Drake. Can you speak to the importance of that moment and what it meant for Canadian hip hop?


MVC: It’s a watershed moment for a couple of reasons. One, it was important that it was Vancouver-based and that this wasn’t just a Toronto thing. Also, it puts Canadian hip hop in this kind of global trajectory of music and protest. If people thought that Canada was copying America, then that copying is following a lineage that is authentic to the blues and Black cultural production. Also, the refusal to accept the Juno is in line with Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s refusal of their Grammy for similar reasons, or someone like Miles Davis turning his back to the audience. This is about people, not clamouring for recognition from the establishment.

Two other important things happen around that moment in 1999 when the song gets big. First, hip hop becomes the #1 selling genre in the US, and Napster arises: this is critical in terms of opening up culture and disseminating things in a way we’d never seen before. This changes everything. If you were trying to get hip hop in Canada in 1987, you have to go to a particular booth at a flea market. There weren’t tapes at HMV, videos weren’t in regular rotation, you’d have to know where the party is, or know the radio show, The Fantastic Voyage.

This all changes in the late ’90s: Much Music is playing “Northern Touch,” it’s getting rotation, and people are able to get the music through Napster or in stores—hip hop goes pop. All of these things coalesce to boost this record and to demonstrate the connections between hip hop communities across Canada. This allows the young people listening to that music in the ’90s to have a different conception of Canada that was maybe new to their generation.

It’s also an important moment because the music industry never invested in Canadian hip hop. Ever. The groups that were signed were typically signed to imprints, to the smaller labels, so the major labels were always insulated from the threat of failure. The music industry has proven to be uninterested in supporting hip hop, to be polite.

 

Temporary Spaces, Continually Upending

PB: One of the beautiful things about hip hop is its capacity to open up temporary spaces in which young people, particularly young Black people, can resist surveillance, criminalization, and racism and imagine their lives differently. In some ways your exhibition offers a similar kind of temporary depiction of blackness in Canada, in the Canadian art scene, etc. Yet, how do you transform these temporary events and experiences into something more sustained?

MVC: The desire to sustain would only be there if this temporary moment could effectively eradicate anti-blackness. But, the continual return and reinvention of anti-blackness ensures that these temporary interventions create something new and unique. These temporary spaces open up as a response to a particular moment of erasure, criminalization, and anti-blackness and then dissipate and reformulate, later, in a way that’s usable at another time. These sites continually upend the status quo as necessary.

At the same time, though, these spaces aren’t just responses. I think of the blues or jazz or hip hop; they’re not just responses to cultural conditions. They’re actually part of a longer artistic trajectory of how human life can be imagined differently. There’s always hope that the new thing that emerges will help us imagine that.

I think the idea of sustaining an archive, though, is something I wrestle with throughout my work with North Side Hip Hop. You create a platform and make this material accessible, but what happens when I’m no longer around or I can no longer do the work. We have to create new relationships with institutions. How do we get the institutions to respect the culture and participate, rather than dominate? So I’m meeting with the ROM and they’re learning how to deal with the community, how to think about longer term relationships and presences in that space because they’re still just getting over the Into the Heart of Africa exhibit. So sustainability is less about sustaining the particular event, but rather the relationship that is healthy and can produce future work.

PB: One of the things that’s been implicit in our conversation, via these relationships and via Canadian hip hop, are the geographies of hip hop. Of course the sampling practices and borrowing of styles lend hip-hop a Black Atlantic sensibility: it is part of an international network of cultural exchange that links places together in unexpected ways. But hip hop also does interesting things to remap our conception of local and global: artists are at once very proud of the particular places they’re from while also crossing their styles and sampling from music from all over. The radio show you sample in your opening to the show begins by shouting out local listeners and areas in Toronto all while Boogie Down Production’s “South Bronx” is playing in the background. Maestro’s Breakout hit, “Let Your Backbone Slide” samples from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” and Mohawks’ “The Champ” and he shouts out “Birchmount,” “Kennedy Station,” “Don Valley.” Kardinal will namedrop Oakwood and Vaughan next to Brixton and Michie Mee’s “Jamaican Funk” is an interesting Jamaican-Canadian take on life in the diaspora. In what ways do you see Canadian hip hop reinserting Canada, or particular spaces in the nation, into this transnational network of Black diasporic life?

MVC: Canadian hip hop is actually one of the most under-theorized aspects of Black Canada and there are a number of reasons for that: maybe a politics of respectability or just generational differences between critics and hip hop heads. But Black Canada gets reinserted in the Black Atlantic through hip hop in a very postmodern way, through the practice of “repping” your local area. This is about making your local place matter by connecting it to other areas that would nurture the same ideas and viewpoints of diasporic Africans. So that raises the question of what these forms do when they take us outside of the nation, question national categories and borders, and actually live diasporically. The culture refuses to be anything but diasporic. That’s what Ron Nelson is doing on the Fantastic Voyage show—suggesting that we are all connected through the same experience whether it be hip hop or racialization—so really widening the possible communities outside of the immediate physical boundaries.

But what’s at stake in these acts of representation—because they are both hyper-local and diasporic—is that they transform the local into a livable space, one that honours Black life. They develop a hip hop geography that transforms that urban space—and this is via Clyde Woods’s work on the blues and Black geographies—and plantation logic. This is the logic whereby Black bodies are transported into spaces to be labourers and to reproduce a regime of profit. Black people are told how they must occupy space. This act of refusing to just take up space in those proscribed ways, to just be a labourer, but instead to rep the local in a different way, is a way to resist some of these plantation logics and the dehumanizing tendencies of a city.

So the local renaming of Toronto as the TDot by K4CE and then popularized by The Circle Crew—this produces a geography of the city that is home to hip hop, provides space to black cultural expression, and connects it to Houston, Atlanta, Brixton, where you have these utterances of Black life that are sonic innovations. These expressions of the local are interested in something other than being a labouring body for capitalism, or a trapped migrant factory worker, or former indentured labourer whose job is to reproduce the conditions of his own servitude.

The practice of repping really brings Canada into this global conversation—a reminder that Afro-diasporic life is a relational, diasporic thing. That connection and relationality can always become a resource in moments of oppression in West. In this act of repping the local there’s also this struggle to continue to have dignity and to remain human.

PB: In many ways we can read this as an assertion of resistance but also, perhaps paradoxically, an assertion of a different form of belonging, or a transformation of the terms of recognition. So, for example, Maestro has a song “Black Trudeau” where he takes on the perspective of a Black prime minister—a surprising engagement with the symbols of the nation. In a way, perhaps what’s going on here is a transformation of the imagery of the nation and rendering it a component of Black, diasporic life. Similarly, Kardi includes the line “I am multiculture” in “The Anthem” in a way that isn’t opposed to the politics of nation or multiculturalism but perhaps adopts them. What is your take on this surprising relationship to nation; this isn’t what we normally see in oppositional cultural practices.

MVC: On the one hand, these lines might indicate complicitness with the nation or an acceptance of its logic. But actually I think we can see that as resistant in the sense that the idea of a Black Trudeau is already problematic and impossible. So for him to lyrically invent this Black Trudeau creates a good, creative problem that thinks of the nation differently. I think he’s saying that we’re going to wrestle with this here and now—Blackness and Canada—and these are my tools.

When Kardinal says “I am multiculture” it leaves me, on the one hand, with a sense of disbelief, like “What? You’ve accepted this stuff?!” But there’s another way in which he suggests that if you are multiculture then you’re resisting one-dimensional racialization into the category of Blackness, constructed by others. But you’re also resisting being seen as a singular, frozen entity that has to perform Caribbean or Jamaican identity as the only thing one can be. So when he does “Bakardi Slang” he ensures that he talks about all the Caribbean islands and to disrupt the national framework; so his statement can be read as antagonizing in the sense that it refuses the singular, the check-box of multiculturalism.

Sheinina Raj (born 1975)
Maestro T.O., 2000
24 x 30 inches
35mm colour negative, reproduced from original darkroom print
Digital chromogenic print
Courtesy of the artist

 

Sliding Back into the Future

PB: Turning specifically to the music, I’d like to look at these lyrics from “Let Your Backbone Slide” and think about how this early Canadian hip hop track sets the stage for what comes after. The track samples “Funky Drummer” and “The Champ” but I think it’s the pounding drums and unrelenting lyricism that are so resonant for me. Any thoughts on these lyrics?

A rap is like a slab of clay, that’s shapeless,
Champagne no shimmer no glass is tasteless,
A universe without light is lightless
That’s why I always take time to write this
I mold it in my hands before I start chiselin’
Could be a rain or brainstorm or drizzlin’
Sun could be shining, sun could be showerin’
Practice make perfect and I’m powerin’, flowerin’
My lyrics are awesome, tunin’ from human, bloomin’ & blossomin
Blowing away blockades and barricades, make ya black and blue
From the blast and the blaze, it’s a bloodsport, bloods builds up back
I make your vision go blurry while your brain goes black into oblivion
Beats from box to box to bates, rocks from blocks and blocks
Let your backbone slide

 

 

MVC: The opening is so strong: this sense of creating something totally new out of absence and emptiness with the images of creation and repetition of “less.” It’s simultaneously postmodern and philosophical because those opening lines say “I make the meaning through my performance.” Think of the opening of the song: “This is a throw down.” That’s immediately empowering for anyone whose in a position on the margins and thinking about how one can make their world. His opening lines are world-making and that governs one’s behaviour, strategies of resistance, and conditions of survival.

What is so amazing too is that the English language itself is being destroyed and rebuilt and this is part of Afro-diasporic modes of resistance: we came here, we learned this language, and I’m going to do whatever I want with these tools. I’m going to use alliteration, similes, rhyming couplets, shifting cadences, and rhythms all to make the language explode with a performative value. I mean, think of the alliteration that runs throughout the second half of the stanza. This is very much about how the Caribbean uses English. Every Caribbean island with an English influence performs language completely differently. Just the idea that we can own language in this kind of way shows up in Maestro’s very first track.

PB: Are there Canadian hip hop songs for you that are the key tracks?

MVC: No way you’re getting me to admit to the best song out there! That said, I have different answers depending on the aspect of the song we’re talking about: flow, lyrics, beat, cadence, delivery. But for me there are a few songs that remind me of excellence. Michie Mee’s “Jamaican Funk” was so diasporic, it was perfectly situated: we are between America, the Caribbean, and the UUK—that what we call Afro-diasporic is all of this. Saukrates’s “Father Time,” from 1994, is so just so incredible. There are DJs in Copenhagen who are still looking for that track on vinyl. Similarly, Kardinal’s “Old Time Killing” is both one of the most iconic tracks from this city, with some of the most original production to come out of Canada. IRS’s “Strictly For the Heads” is just classic boom-bap.

PB: How has the Drake / The Weeknd effect transformed Canadian hip hop? Are the elements that you trace in your archive still integral to the culture?

MVC: Well now there is a different relationship to the status quo: there isn’t that rejection, its an embrace. Drake has the desire to be a mogul as well as to represent the city. For The Weeknd, when he first came out he dropped three mixtapes in one year so he’s engaged in the culture in that way. Also, The Weeknd is part of that tradition of protest: he cut his ties with H&M when he sees their photo, he’s donated money to Black Lives Matter—this all suggests his level of consciousness that connects him to a past generation. The other continuum though is that of style: of opulence, of being avant garde in terms of style and fashion.

PB: The subtitle of your exhibit is “From Analog to Digital” yet digital forms have really taken over in the years after you trace. Music is mostly made on computers, photos stored on Instagram, etc. What would the future archive of say 2006 – 2020 look like?

MVC: I think the future archive already exists on social media. The problem with today’s algorithmic hegemony is that it dramatically limits our imagination. People can’t imagine an archive while they’re engaged with hundreds of tweets that contribute to an archive daily. The way in which algorithms have been unleashed on people as mechanisms of control have limited what the possibilities might be for how we imagine a future archive.

At the moment, algorithms reduce us all to labourers of data to “be connected.” But the same tools that allow us to participate in the digital also prevent us from imagining the ways we might conceive of these tools as a kind of archive. If we could imagine ourselves as not just voluntary labourers enriching these oligopolies but instead organized intellectual property and protected ourselves and our data then I think we could disrupt some of these information systems that just reproduce the status quo. The possibility is there; its coming.

Part of why I wanted to focus on the precursors to the digital isn’t just to recognize what has been lost—that’s something people can grasp immediately—but also wanting to deepen our ability to reflect on the contemporary moment to ask how did we get here? As social media continues to capture our culture and as our behaviours are being modified to fit those forms of cultural control, this really disables us from thinking about future archives, the process of archiving and the politics of knowledge production.

This is really about a utopian impulse and that’s what hip hop has done from the beginning. It has allowed people who live on the social margins, wherever they are, to think that this is not the only world possible. You can hear that message over and over in the records where, like Maestro, these artists are destroying and rebuilding languages to suit their needs.

Part of what I want to do with this exhibition is to speak back to the transformation of our behavioural patterns where we’re being SnapChat’ed in our lives: everything happens, deletes after 24 hours, and then you go back to that work the next day to generate profits for these companies.

Those platforms are really anti-future and anti-past. They don’t encourage you to plan and don’t encourage you to reflect on the past which is exactly what you need to be self-determining. So “… Everything Remains Raw” in this prestigious art gallery is really resistant to me because it refuses the enforced forgetting of this history. Instead, I want to ask how you nourish memory, how do you build memory, or, as M. NourbeSe Philip once provocatively asked me, “How do we grow memories?”

 

All images featured in this interview are from the exhibition Everything Remains Raw and are used with permission from the McMichael Gallery. 

 

Mark V. Campbell, AKA DJ Grumps, is an Assistant Professor at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media and the Founding Director of the Northside Hip Hop Archive. He is also the Guest Curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection’s recent exhibit, “… Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital” and the editor of a book of the same title. His research maps the relationship between black sonic cultures, popular culture, and theories of diaspora.

 

Paul Barrett is an Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University; his recent work considers conceptions of race in Canada and digital forms of representation.

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