On the face of it, hip-hop is booming in Vancouver. Last year alone, Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay-Z each boasted sell-out dates at Rogers Arena, Fortune Sound Club gave buzzworthy international stars their first local outing, and the long-standing night Hip Hop Karaoke hit its eight-year milestone.
Despite that fervour, says duo So Loki, it’s not easy to survive in the city’s grassroots rap scene.
“When people think of Canada, they think of Toronto,” rapper Sam Lucia tells the Georgia Straight, reached by phone with producer Geoffrey Millar at the group’s Burnaby studio. “And Toronto got Drake, and the Weeknd, and all of OVO in a really big ecosystem. A lot of our friends out there say that people are really fighting over it [the rap scene] now, and that’s great—but it makes it much harder for artists from this side of the country to move and thrive there.
“We don’t have industry professionals here yet in Vancouver, or a solid base of large labels,” he continues. “There’s not a reliable place for funding like on the East Coast from a lot of big companies. There’s tons of talent, but there’s no one to tell kids where to go, especially because everyone is coming from a rock background in the city.”
Rather than viewing Vancouver’s nascent infrastructure as a problem, however, So Loki saw an opportunity. Realizing that the region lacked a specific sound, they set out to mark their musical territory. While Drake’s smooth, introspective lilt spawned a thousand copycats in T.O., the pair looked to what made Vancouver unique—porous genre boundaries, a thriving electronic-music scene, and the scrappiness necessary to persist in the most unaffordable housing market in North America. Creating a muscular, punk-inspired sound crowned by a polished aesthetic, Lucia and Millar aimed to anchor the Vancouver scene.
First came a five-track debut named V, an angsty collection that launched the duo with a much-hyped marketing campaign. Sporting left-field songs released on a rubber USB stick shaped like a black cross, the initial run sold out 26 hours after the announcement. Next, they found modest Soundcloud success with a slew of singles, before settling on the track listing for Shine, their first official full-length album. Ever ambitious, Millar and Lucia were already looking to the future at the hour of its release.
“Shine was the last time that we could do something for ourselves,” Lucia says. “I mean, we really self-indulged on that project. I think it was a lot like graduating high school for us. We knew that we could have fun with it, we could do whatever we want. But once that thing is done, you have to go and level up—not just for you, but for the people around you. You have to punch at something. So Shine was like stretching, and getting it out of us right before you go and exercise. And now we’re on the pushup phase.”
“Pushup” doesn’t just mean self-promotion for So Loki. Always looking to put Vancouver in the spotlight, the pair recognize the value of building a community, and succeeding together. Gathering a collection of local creatives, Millar and Lucia ask others to accelerate their brands alongside their own. Videographers like Lucas Hrubizna and photographer Steve Kim—known as Skimchi—each get a nod from the duo in interviews, and So Loki is attempting to prop up the missing middle in the hip-hop scene with its own label, Owake Records, which serves as a platform for a selection of local musicians.
“There’s so many talented people here,” says Millar. “When we collaborate and work with other artists, we don’t like to send stuff over [for them] to do something with it. We want to have a conversation. I think we’ve found our core team up here in Vancouver. It’s just about chipping away at this wall we’re all up against.”
“Geoff and I are in such a fortunate position, because not only do we have each other, but we’ve been building a team for the past three years just so we could get one thing to work,” says Lucia. “And we have all these kids that are trying to do their album artwork, their production, their writing, their recording, literally everything themselves. And I think it makes it hard to see the scope of everything. Even if you see the scope of everything, it’s hard to get it all done. But one of the upsides is that there is a lot of talent. There are a lot of kids that I think that if they had the right push, they’d be able to take it seriously.”
The pair’s tireless work ethic and endorsement of the local scene are starting to garner national attention. More than 128,000 people have watched the video for the single “Liquid Luck” on YouTube alone, and outlets from Vice’s Noisey to the CBC have penned features about the group. This year, the duo scooped one of the very last MuchFact grants to shoot a well-received video for the track “Athlete’s World”, and convinced hip-hop icon Sway to appear on the single’s cover.
But despite that buzz, it’s near impossible for So Loki and their crew to elevate the Vancouver scene alone. A thriving ecosystem requires managers, labels, promoters, and funding, each focused on plucking raw up-and-comers from back-street ciphers and placing them on an international stage. To attract hip-hop moguls, the Lower Mainland has to be seen as a booming hub for the genre.
That’s where festivals like New West’s Safe & Sound—the group’s next performance date—come in. Few events this year are showcasing a hip-hop lineup as stacked as the Westminster Pier Park event, and have the capability to help define the local landscape. After Lucia and Millar take to the stage, Friday evening will boast a bill with performances from coarse California rapper Vince Staples, uptempo duo LNDN DRGS, and R&B crooner Manila Grey. Saturday will play host to hip-hop superstar Anderson .Paak, radio darling Alina Baraz, and local boy Sonreal, among others. By booking talent that graces the top tiers of world-class festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo, the event is helping to legitimize Vancouver’s rap scene.
“Geoff and I have been talking about it for a while, that we need to see more festivals like this,” says Lucia. “This is what gets all the youth excited, and that’s all that’s important—making the kids happy. This is a thing I think gives the kids the chance to go outside and be excited for it.”
The event represents a milestone for the group, and the chance to fulfill a personal goal. Finally performing on the same stage as Vince Staples—an artist they cite as an influence on their sound—So Loki is positive about the role that big rappers play in helping elevate performers in the local community.
“I think some years ago, he [Staples] ended up coming through and Geoff and I wanted to open the show,” Lucia says. “I remember us not getting it. Now I think we can appreciate the opportunity a bit more, and appreciate what he does.
“I would say that it’s sick that we’re playing the same stage,” he continues. “And it will be even better on the day when he ends up hearing the music.”
So Loki plays the Safe & Sound festival at Westminster Pier Park on August 24.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays