DJ Shub creates a powwow for our times

He blends traditional First Nations drumming and singing with electronic dance music

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      DJ Shub’s powwow sounds are still spinning in new directions. At his home studio in Fort Erie, Ontario, Dan General—DJ Shub, as he’s known on-stage—is preparing for a long summer on the road. He’s working on new music and fine-tuning the set he’ll be playing at Vancouver’s Drum Is Calling Festival, one of many shows he’s booked across B.C. this summer. And in a tidbit of personal news, Shub tells the Straight over the phone that he just got verified on Twitter.

      “It’s this weird thing I didn’t know happened,” Shub says. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re verified, don’t you know what that means?’ I had no idea.”

      While it may seem trivial, Shub has every right to be proud. The blue checkmark represents another step for the Mohawk musician on his steady climb to mainstream recognition—a journey that includes a Juno Award in 2014 with his former group A Tribe Called Red, the release of his solo EP PowWowStep in 2016, and a MuchMusic video award nomination for his first music video, “Indomitable”.

      DJ Shub, "Indomitable" ft. Northern Cree Singers

      All significant milestones, considering that Shub and his peers had to invent a term, powwow-step, to describe the genre of music they were making. Powwow-step combines elements of traditional powwow sounds, dubstep, electronic dance music, and, of course, the impressive technical skills that Shub’s been honing since he started as a battle DJ in his teenage years.

      “We really didn’t know what to call it,” says Shub with a laugh. “In the early days we were doing a lot of powwow and dubstep, so we kinda just gave it the name. But now it’s evolved into this thing that spans all genres of music. And I always tell people, powwow-step is still young. And it’s got so much room to grow, so I’m excited to see where it’s gonna go.”

      Shub is doing his part to facilitate that growth by elevating other Indigenous artists. Every track on his album features the names of the drum groups he samples, so fans can check out the sounds of Northern Cree or Black Lodge.

      And Shub’s been surprised at how often listeners have thanked him for exposing them to powwow artists. For many, it’s a genre they haven’t heard much about, or that they conceptualize as firmly rooted in the past—a perception Shub is working hard to change.

      “A lot of people ask me ‘Hey, did you get, like, old recordings?’ ” says Shub. “And I’m like, ‘No, these powwow drummers and singers, they’re talking about recent stuff and they’re coming out with new things.’ ”

      So far, Shub has mostly worked with traditional Plains drumming, the sound most people associate with powwow. But he’s currently diversifying his samples to showcase the unique particularities of powwow across other First Nations.

      “There’s thousands of differences in cultures around Turtle Island. Every nation has their own type of singing and dancing ceremonies and whatnot,” says Shub. “My next project that I’m working on is called the Smoke Dance Project, that’s very particular to where I’m from, Six Nations of Mohawk. And that is just a perfect example of how unique certain nations are. I love the fact that I get to show people something that they’ve never seen before, and how beautiful the culture can be and how cool it can be.”

      Exposure to Shub’s music has been eye-opening for Canadian audiences, but Shub says the culture shock was even stronger when he toured Europe with A Tribe Called Red a few years back.

      “They obviously really don’t know the history of the music, you know?” says Shub. “They’re taught how a lot of people are taught, the bare essentials of Native culture. So they were shocked and surprised when we did Q&As over there and we had to tell them ‘Yeah, Canada hasn’t really treated our people that good.’ They have this portrayal of Canada being this nicest country in the world or whatever, and I said, ‘Well, I mean, it can be. But it’s got a bad history.’ ”

      People may not have understood the history of the music, but performancewise, Shub says it didn’t make a difference—audiences knew what to do.

      “We played a lot of gigs and people really didn’t understand what was going on. They just knew to dance.”

      Shub says he’s looking forward to bringing his skills to Vancouver next Saturday (July 29) for Drum Is Calling. He’s conscious of the sensitivity surrounding a festival that’s scheduled in response to Canada 150, but says he can’t pass up an opportunity to perform for people who are willing to learn about Indigenous culture.

      “If I get the chance to express my culture and show people the music, and get people to take in some information that they weren’t expecting, I’m gonna take it, instead of just being negative about it,” says Shub. “I look at it as not really celebrating the last 150 years, but I’m looking forward to the next 150 years.”

      Politics aside, a chance to collaborate with all-stars and friends like Buffy Sainte-Marie, Kinnie Starr, and George Leach is a dream come true for Shub. He’s a bit shocked that he’s making a living as a DJ, after leaving a well-paying job to join A Tribe Called Red.

      “It was one of those scary moments when it’s like, ‘Do you live your life comfortably, or do you take a risk and chance it?’ ” says Shub. “But I think it worked out good.”

      That might be an understatement. And even though Shub is exposing many people to powwow for the first time, he’s making music that people instinctively respond to.

      “It’s a familiar sound for people, kind of—when they hear it, they get it right away,” Shub says. “And it’s good to see people are reacting. They’re going crazy for it.”

      DJ Shub plays the Drum Is Calling Festival at Larwill Park next Saturday (July 29).