SonReal's got stardom on his mind

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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).

Comments (9) Add New Comment
mr dobalina
that first paragraph is WRONGGGGG. obviously this writer doesn't know what hes talking about!
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Hey!
What about Checkmate? He was fucking dope!
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Homer
Too bad SonReal's main focus seems to be stardom. What's that got to do with putting out a good product that moves people? Hopefully the writer misspoke.
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nash
HipHop is dead. No one cares about that genre any more. It all sounds the same. SonReal???! Little late to arrive on a scene.
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Jan Ethan Shrimpledimpklekin
He looks like a Chav. Because he's from Canuckistan, he should be referred to as "Chav Kroogger MC".

This clownshow needs to spend a day in Compton or better yet, Chicago and see how far his white rap schtick lasts...

Perhaps his premature balding prevented him from being a "pasta rasta".

He reminds us of Toronto embarrassment Snow...

Good luck chump.

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Booourns
Garbage. Who writes this crap? You have obviously no idea about rap or hiphop, it doesn't come from image and marketing, dudes gotta be real to be respected. Moke, mcenroe, Josh Martinez, have all done bigger things independently and never conformed. This cats name is a walking paradox because, to me, a long time fan of rap, it just ain't real or appealing. Contemporary Rap.
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Female MC
crap crap crap... this is all crap. learn about real Hip Hop, how about checking out Edge, he's better than all up and coming from Vancity
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goonzie
SonReal's got stardom on his mind?! that's EXACTLY what's wrong with the music industry today. it aint about the stardom, it's about expressing what's real. HIp-hop is a movement and a culture, and when it's mixed with pop, that's the side that's usually in the spotlight and many people (including myself) feel it's on the wrong side. REAL hip-hop is for your mind, its poetry with the beat. it ain't about the money or bentleys or STARDOM... it's something you can feel. We need more artists like Hybrid Fix (Hy-Fi), E.D.G.E., and Nitty Scott MC. Peeps who are keeping it real, not some v-neck wearing dude by the name of Aaron Hoffman. DON'T LET HIP-HOP DIE!
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Cierno
being from canada spitting about ' the struggle ' just don't cut it. what a joke. the projects in canadian cities look like mansion homes compared to what you find in the U.S. unless you move to the States nobody takes it serious.
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