Breaking Out

Can You Get To The Hip-Hop Top From Here?

To be alive in Vancouver is to be immersed in hip-hop, whether you like it or not. Take a stroll downtown and you'll see the culture's influence at every turn, infecting our fashion sense, our language, even the way we walk. Not since disco has a popular musical form had such a pervasive effect on the populace, having an impact on the lives of even those who shun the music itself.

But if ours has become a hip-hop town, why aren't more locals making great rap records? Although indie rock has a far smaller impact on the city's visible landscape, Vancouver continues to churn out guitar-wielding stalwarts, with acts like the New Pornographers, Jerk With a Bomb, and Young and Sexy receiving glowing press across the continent. Go to a Brickyard show and half the audience members are likely to be in a group of their own. Attend a rap concert, though, and you'll find that most in attendance are passive consumers for whom hip-hop is merely a fashion accessory.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, especially not after Swollen Members brought home the Juno award for best rap recording for 1999's Balance. From 2000 to 2002, all signs pointed to Vancouver's potential usurpation of Toronto as Canada's new rap hotbed. Anchored by a strong indie label (Swollen's Battle Axe Records) and a new urban radio station (the Beat 94.5 FM), the city seemed primed for prosperity, leading to the westward migration of Canada's finest underground talents, including MC Josh Martinez (of Halifax) and producers mcenroe and DJ Moves (from Winnipeg and Halifax, respectively).

If its potential once seemed limitless, why has the scene fallen flat? There are no sure answers for that, only speculation. Even given its minimum 35-percent Canadian-content requirement, the Beat has yet to break a local artist, few of whom adhere to the station's R&B--flavoured template. Not without blame is NewMusicWest, against whom local hip-hoppers organized a boycott last May. Although that collective action was undoubtedly merited--the annual festival has always given short shrift to hip-hop--such an embargo only makes it easier for heads to fault the gatekeepers for the community's shortcomings. In the end, if a scene is sluggish, its members have no one to blame but themselves.

What's most distressingly absent from Vancouver is not talent--for our city is blessed with some of the best young artists in Canada--but business acumen. The reason the Straight doesn't publish more reviews of local hip-hop? Because hardly anyone sends us any CDs. With the exception of a few diligent players--Battle Axe, Peanuts & Corn, and East Van's Grow-Op Records--the scene is pretty much inept with regard to self-promotion. Given the integral role of marketing in the entertainment industry, local players need to reach out to a wider audience, both by fostering better relationships with the media and by ensuring their concerts are well-promoted.

Untapped though it may be, there remains a discernible vitality in the community, as confirmed in May 2003 when a half-dozen Vancouver acts gathered at the Element Sound Lounge for an anti--NMW showcase. The concert offered a welcome display of intergenerational solidarity: in the 15 years since the release of the city's groundbreaking rap single (EQ's "Swellsville"), the scene has grown large enough to accommodate several subgenres.

Chief among these is the old guard, led by veterans Checkmate and the Rascalz' Misfit, each of whom is preparing solo material for 2004 release. Meanwhile, seasoned groups like the City Planners and A.M.P. have shown impressive growth over the past year, driven by dynamic frontmen Jeff Spec and Flipout, respectively.

Most fascinating of all the microscenes is the oddball underground fronted by mcenroe and Martinez. The former's Peanuts & Corn label is a significant player in left-field hip-hop, fostering a soul-baring style that has found favour among a growing army of sensitive heads. Martinez, meanwhile, is a gifted narrator and a passionate social critic, toting his singsong style across the land like a Pied Piper of indie rap.

The Vancouver scene also has its share of MCs aiming for the mainstream, notably Brougham Camp and Motoe, artists whose music has figured intermittently on the Beat's play list. These acts are to be admired for their sheer ambition, because by stepping up to producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes, they are challenging Vancouver's reputation as a strictly underground town.

Brougham Camp's fight for radio airtime is a familiar one for local acts, many of whom are struggling to carve out their own identity in a genre rich with stereotypes. Given the form's powerful American archetypes (whether of the Benz-driving gangster or the socially conscious Everyman), a Canadian MC who adopts an established identity risks being deemed a poseur. But if he shuns those personas, that same artist risks running afoul of radio and music-video programmers, who have strictly defined how rappers are supposed to behave.

Such is the maddening state of Vancouver hip-hop that its two best MCs are depriving the public of their solo skills, preferring instead to foster their careers within the confines of a group. Once on the precipice of a multiple-album deal with Universal Records, Moka Only now plies his trade in Swollen Members, putting a long-awaited solo project (Ambrosia) on hold. That's a shame, for Moka is the scene's most charismatic personality, hailed by heads and dilettantes alike for his clever lyrics and mellifluous delivery. Similarly exasperating is the route taken by Emotionz, a onetime Dreamworks signee who has forsaken his solo career to work with his long-time group, Fourth World Occupants, which will release a hotly anticipated LP on Battle Axe this spring. Short of stature, slight of frame, the young MC latches up words with unerring confidence, raising great expectations for his solo debut, whenever it comes.

Alas, such expectations are too rarely raised in consideration of Vancouver's hip-hop community, but there's hope yet for our sleepy city, as suggested by those gifted locals who made our cover (Concise, Kaboom, Kyprios, and Curtis Santiago) and those who did not (Ashes, Birdapres, Caspian, Factor, Kia Kadiri, Lady Precise, and Ty-C, among others).

Such an estimation was confirmed for me on a recent excursion to East Van's Butchershop Floor, a space where a gaggle of tragic hipsters had gathered to watch a band of art-school ironists skewer rock 'n' roll conventions. Revolted by a surfeit of sarcasm, I stepped outside, where a trio of teenagers calling themselves Main Offenders were peddling copies of their debut EP (The Upper Hand) for $10 to passersby. At one point, a stranger toting an accordion stepped up and started playing a riff, over which MO's beatboxer ILL-Literate laid a drum pattern, inviting his mate Aspire to spit a freestyle. Over the next two minutes, the spindly teenager hurtled passionately along, wowing a dozen onlookers with his spur-of-the-moment rhymes. If it's always darkest before the dawn, Aspire's astounding improv suggested that the sun may soon rise on Vancouver hip-hop. And as for The Upper Hand, it was worth every penny.