There’s never been a Vancouver-based rapper worth getting too excited about. Sure, the city’s produced some talented solo MCs, but they’ve always been either too scruffy (Josh Martinez), too laid-back (Jaykin), too introverted (mcenroe), or too eccentric (Moka Only) to connect with a wider audience.
Aaron Hoffman (aka SonReal) figures he’s ready to change all that.
“I want to take Vancouver where it’s never been before,” offers the rapper and singer over coffee on Main Street, the comment less a wishful boast than a cool-headed mission statement.
No B.C.–spawned hip-hop artist has excelled in as many aspects of the form as SonReal. He’s a skilled recording engineer, a good singer, a great songwriter, and a likable rapper whose tales of middle-class existence connect directly with the vast youth demographic that broadcasters and marketers covet. Most importantly of all, he’s fiercely ambitious, a guy who gives off the very palpable sense that stardom is the only thing on his mind.
A Vernon native, Hoffman moved here in 2007 to study sound recording at the Pacific Audio Visual Institute. Looking back on his early days in the local rap scene, he admits he struck a typical suburban gangster pose.
“When I first came to Vancouver, I wasn’t being myself,” he recalls. “I was wearing triple-XL-tall T-shirts, big huge jackets, and a toque down over my eyes. I wanted to be accepted by other rappers but nobody was really messing with me—probably because I had my guard up and my music was just plain bad.”
A frequent performer on the city’s open-mike circuit, SonReal reached a turning point with 2009’s The Stroll, the mix tape on which he found his real voice, a regular-guy presence supercharged by the kind of insistent melodies that nag away at you well after a song’s over. 2010’s Where’s Waldo? marked another big step forward, showcasing the candid and emotional style that’s earned SonReal a strong following among teenage girls.
“I was raised with two sisters and a mom and I was always taught to express my feelings growing up,” he explains. “But at the same time, it’s hard to be vulnerable on records, because hip-hop can be a close-minded, intimidating environment. I’ve never gotten as much hate as I’m getting right now, but I’ve also never gotten as much love either.”
It’s Kanye West who made rap safe for sensitive middle-class dudes like Kid Cudi, B.o.B., and Drake, the artist to whom SonReal is most often compared. Like those MCs, Hoffman is building his fan base independently, honing his sound and image through a series of free-to-download releases and regular tours of Western Canada.
If he ever signs to a major label, SonReal will already be a brand name with a built-in following and marketing strategy. The upbeat summer track “Up Up Up”, for instance, is in regular rotation on MuchMusic, but neither that song nor the handful of chart-worthy cuts on the recent Good News (like “For the Moment” or “I’ll Be Damned”) have earned rotation on Vancouver’s three top-40 stations, a sad commentary on the cluelessness of local programmers and their corporate overseers.
Much as he’s proud to call this place home, Hoffman’s gaze extends east to Toronto and south to Los Angeles, two cities where he’s got more collaborators than he’s found in his own back yard. With few exceptions, SonReal’s producers are out-of-towners, folks he’s connected with over Twitter, but never actually met.
“Once you get to a certain level and you have a certain ambition, there’s not a lot of people to collaborate with in this city,” he explains. “Ever since I started leaving and going to places like Toronto or L.A. and working with other people, it’s really helped my career. I just don’t see a lot of other people doing that here right now; I don’t see a lot of people really giving it 100 [percent].”
SonReal’s key accomplice right now is Mississauga’s Rich Kidd (Drake, K-os), an exceptional producer and rapper playing the baritone thug to Son’s affable skater. The artists have signed a three-record deal with Black Box Music; The Closers, a 10-song co-release, comes out in mid-October, while spring 2013 will see the arrival of individual LPs by each MC. That solo album will mark SonReal’s fourth full-length project in 12 months, offering proof that he might just be the hardest-working man in Canadian hip-hop.
Within a year, we’ll probably know whether Hoffman will be the biggest rap star Vancouver’s ever produced, or just the latest in a long line of promising strivers who never broke through. Whichever way things go, he says, he’s not going to let local industry obstacles get in his way. In fact, he might not be long for this pretty little place.
“No matter where I end up, I’m always going to call Vancouver my home,” insists the 26-year-old. “But I just got back from a 10-day trip in L.A. and I can’t tell you how much easier it is there, how much faster things move. It opened up my eyes to how small Vancouver really is.”
SonReal plays Fortune Sound Club next Saturday (November 3).