Canadian Music Week: How Toronto Became Hip-Hop’s Multicultural Nerve Center

Many artists are building careers beyond the shadow of the scene’s two superstars, Drake and The Weeknd.

Three Dimension sign in Nathan Phillips
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At last March’s Juno Awards, Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys, the presentation of the year’s best rap recording award was accompanied by a look back to a pivotal moment of the country’s hip-hop history. Storied Toronto rap figures Kardinal Offishall (pictured below), Choclair, Red1, Checkmate, Misfit and Thrust flooded the stage to present the award, and ended up performing an impromptu rendition of their 1998 single “Northern Touch,” which served as a statement of purpose for Toronto’s hip-hop community after years of resistance from Canadian radio programmers and general indifference from American listeners. For a city that has spent the better part of the last decade as one of hip-hop’s global hotspots, it was a welcome reminder that the Toronto’s history goes back much further than that.

Of course, if you grew up outside of Canada or bordering areas, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing that song, or the scene it was written to celebrate, even existed. With a few one-off exceptions – Kardinal’s 2008 collaboration with Akon, “Dangerous”; reggae-rapper Snow’s early-‘90s single “Informer” – Canadian hip-hop and R&B never received anything resembling widespread American attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, even as plentiful Canadian pop, rock, and country stars enjoyed substantial success south of the border. All of that began to change around 2009, however, as first Drake and then the Weeknd became two of the most successful artists of the last decade, notching ten No. 1 albums between them, and pioneering an oft-imitated sound that is distinctly associated with the city of Toronto.

Neither Drake nor the Weeknd show any signs of losing steam, and each has readied their own imprints with a roster of hopefuls. Drake’s OVO Sound has an established star in PartyNextDoor, as well as burgeoning R&B groups Majid Jordan and dvsn. The Weeknd’s XO label has a rising talent in Nav, whose collaborative album with American hitmaker Metro Boomin reached into the top 20 of the U.S. album charts.

“What you have now, and have been having since XO and OVO came out, is you just have a steady stream coming through that portal,” says Vivian Barclay, longtime Toronto industryite and general manager of Warner/Chappell Music Canada. “And they’re not all related to those two camps, but the door is now open. You have A&R people and label people and managers calling everyone they know in Canada saying, ‘Hey, who else is over there?’ So it’s become this sort of pond that everyone’s trying to fish in.”

Attracting the world’s ear is one thing, but maintaining a hold on it is another. The 1990s offer plenty of cautionary tales of once-ignored local scenes – be it the Seattle grunge movement or the East Bay’s explosion of third-wave punkers – igniting a gold rush of industry attention, only for that spotlight to peter out once the initial hype began to fade. The decade offers counter-examples, too: Atlanta was barely on the wider industry’s radar when the likes of Outkast, Goodie Mob and TLC first began organizing their own brand of noise. Two decades later, the city stands as the unofficial capital of hip-hop.

Fortunately for Toronto, the city’s hip-hop and R&B talent pool remains as deep as ever, and American audiences are beginning to realize how many artists are building careers beyond the shadow of the scene’s two superstars.

Tory Lanez was arguably the first artist from Toronto’s current generation to break in the States from outside of the OVO and XO orbits, signing to Benny Blanco’s Interscope imprint Mad Love Records, and notching two U.S. Top 40 singles and a Grammy nomination for his 2016 debut, “I Told You.” His second major label release, “Memories Don’t Die,” debuted at No. 3 on the U.S. chart last March, but he still remembers the difficulty of reintroducing himself to an abruptly widened audience.

“I didn’t get discouraged or anything, I just felt like it was a new thing to conquer in terms of coming to the States and not being f–king Drake, you know?” he says with a laugh. “Everyone knew Drake, but you didn’t know me, so every time I said Toronto it was like, ‘oh, where Drake’s from?’

“You gotta remember, dog, not to say anything about anyone else, but at the same time I haven’t had a chance to have my teammates with me. On XO they got Weeknd, Nav, Belly. You’ve got OVO with Drake, Party, everyone. They’ve got teams. I’ve just been out here by myself, like yo, running through the jungle.”

Fortunately, he’s getting more and more company. KILLY, who first attracted wide attention on SoundCloud with his 2017 track “Killamonjaro,” just released an indie full-length, ”Surrender Your Soul,” and is in the early stages of a world tour. Singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez is starting to make serious noise, winning this year’s Juno for breakthrough artist. Daniel Caesar notched two Grammy nominations and five Juno noms this past winter, and beyond those names, a whole orbit of MCs and R&B talents – Juno winner Jazz Cartier, Preme, SYPH, Pressa, Clairmont the Second – are ready for a spark to turn American listeners’ ears.

As Barclay points out, the Stateside focus on OVO and XO has never really squared with the sheer range of Canadian pop talent breaking through in recent years. “Shawn Mendes doesn’t come out of that camp,” she notes. “Alessia Cara doesn’t come out of that camp. Bieber doesn’t come out of that camp. Jessie Reyez doesn’t come out of that camp. Tory Lanez doesn’t come out of that camp. It just happens to be there are these two headlights who started the spotlight. And the artists that are coming up are taking advantage of the fact that there are so many eyeballs on the country now. It’s easier now if the U.S. is your goal. In the early days you had to do a lot more knocking on the door.”

In fact, if any city shouldn’t have an easily pigeonholed sound, it’s Toronto. One of the most diverse cities in the Western Hemisphere, the Toronto hip-hop scene is likewise a rainbow coalition of ethnicities, with artists of East African, West Indian, Middle Eastern, Punjabi, Colombian and Filipino heritage all making their presence felt, introducing new sounds and textures to mainstream hip-hop’s sonic landscape all the while.

“It’s only just the beginning and the sound is already pretty versatile,” KILLY says of the new Toronto sound. “The city is a melting pot, with so many cultures converging, the art and music we produce is bound to be special.”

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Barclay points to yet another promising sign for Toronto’s musical future: the sheer number of young producers making inroads with major artists, both Canadian and otherwise. While the likes of Boi-1da, Noah “40” Shebib and T-Minus are household names, the city’s bench of beatmakers are finding more and more exposure on American airwaves. Brampton producer Jaegen had a career-making credit on French Montana’s 2017 smash, “Unforgettable.” Jazz Cartier collaborator Lantz continues to attract wider attention. Toronto jazz/hip-hop group BadBadNotGood have been kicking around for years, but expanded their profile substantially when they snagged production credits on Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” and this year’s “Black Panther” soundtrack. WondaGurl was still a teenager when she got her first big break – landing a beat on Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” – and she’s since gone on to produce standout tracks for the likes of Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert.

According to Barclay, there’s plenty more where that came from. “There are a lot of these producers who are super young, super quiet, just kind of holding their own,” she says, “and slowly but surely they’re building a following.”

And as they build that following, Toronto’s young talents continue to do so on their own terms.

“All those people are helping the movement,” Lanez says. “You’ve got so many different styles of people. Before, maybe it wasn’t as much of an expressive thing, because as Canadians we all felt like we had to do what America was doing. And now it’s more that we’re doing what we want to do, and you guys are just gonna have to like it. That’s why it’s dope.”