Curtis Santiago

Outside the Ritz Hotel in London, Curtis Santiago is having a hard time staying focused. "Sorry, man," he says, interrupting our call, "but have you been to London? Have you seen the girls here? Damn!" Before the Edmonton native gets too carried away, I steer him back to the topic at hand: his ascendant career. After all, Santiago isn't in London to ogle girls but to accompany DJ Vinyl Ritchie for shows at some of England's best nightclubs, including the 3,000-capacity Fabric.

All week long, Brits have been catching a glimpse of the Vancouver-based tandem that appears every Saturday in this city at Shine, where the pair have been nurturing their tag-team act for the past year. Regular visitors to the Gastown bar will recognize Santiago as one of the best freestylers in town, as he spits conscious rhymes in a style reminiscent of golden-era greats like A Tribe Called Quest.

According to Santiago, time spent fronting Edmonton's soul-oriented Hi-Phoniqs in the late 1990s prepared him for any live environment imaginable. "Being in that band taught me absolutely everything I know about performing," says the vocalist, his focus returning to our conversation. "Here we are, a soul band from Alberta, and we're playing rocker bars in Thunder Bay for a roomful of bikers. Once you've done that, you can do anything."

In 2002, Santiago left the Hi-Phoniqs, moving westward to break into Vancouver's music industry. In his brief time in B.C., Santiago has made deep inroads, earning the Galaxie Rising Star award at 2003's NewMusicWest and cutting his solo debut, Portrait of an Artist. Santiago, bearing the influence of '90s-era rap and '70s-vintage soul, is that rarest of local performers, a man whose rhyming skills are matched by his confident tenor leads. Once the frontman in a teenage a cappella group, the bespectacled entertainer comes off like a Maple Leaf version of OutKast's André 3000, a man who can spit fire and ice in equal measure.

Like Dre, Santiago cuts an outlandish sartorial figure, with his red-plastic-framed eyeglasses and flashy jackets giving him the air of the coolest professor on campus. "Getting on the mike dressed the way I do, cats will immediately doubt me," he explains. "They'll be like, 'Come on, now. Who's this joker?' But as soon as I start rhyming, they'll recognize my skills."

If there's a theme running through Santiago's career--from Thunder Bay biker bars to West Coast freestyle sessions--it's of the artist as an outsider who wins over doubters with his endearing stage presence. As for his fashion sense, the former Albertan is among the leaders of hip-hop's new breed, and urban clothiers like Triple 5 Soul and Ecko are starting to sell blazers like the ones Perry Como once wore. In a rap world flipped upside down, Curtis Santiago may soon find himself sitting on top.

"I hate this stereotype of people in this genre having to wear baggy track suits and stuff like that," he says. "It's great to see hip-hop cats going chichi now, but it's also forcing me to start doing something different because I've been into that style for quite a while. Whether it's clothes or freestyling, I'm always trying to stay one step ahead of the game."