Vancity calling: how Rascalz made history

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      In the early ’90s, the Vancouver Art Gallery was a central hangout for young hip-hop heads and skateboarders in the city. As Rascalz’s co-founder Red1 remembers it, everyone would play music on their boom boxes and skate around at the landmark on Georgia and Howe. The two cultures, he tells the Straight, meshed together easily.

      “The energy is the same and the expression is almost the same,” Red1 says, on Zoom from Toronto. “You’re doing it on a board, some guys are doing the mic. But the individuality and originality—there was some synergy there.” 

      Skateboarding was what Red1 and Rascalz producer DJ Kemo first connected over when they met at their East Vancouver high school in 1990, their bond solidified soon after through shared interests in hip-hop and its local pockets. Vancouver’s scene had been slowly growing underground. In the late ’80s, Maximus Clean was reportedly the first to broadcast hip-hop in the province through his SFU radio show, Soul Sonic Shocks. On CFRO 102.7, The Krispy Bisket Show, a weekly hip-hop radio program hosted by DJ Kilocee, regularly featured local acts. Emcees like Craig Crush and EQ, a group comprised of the Incredible Ease and Quaze, were the leaders of an exciting pack of emerging artists. 

      UBC played a vital role as a driver, too: there was Sound War, a battle held at the Student Union Building on campus that attracted aspiring rappers, dancers, and graffiti artists from across the Lower Mainland. DJs Jay Swing and Flipout had The Show on CiTR, and later edited the magazine Elements, for which Kemo wrote record reviews.

      “Mixtapes, local college radio, co-op radio, and some showcase-type events—those were our outlets,” Kemo adds, on the line from Vancouver.

      Red1 continues: “Being a young teenager, seeing all that, you wanted to be a part of it.”

      Photo courtesy of Rascalz

      Red1 was also fuelled by what was happening in New York, as hip-hop was blowing up through boroughs from the Bronx to Queens, and would go to sleep at night with his Walkman headphones on as he listened to cassettes of A Tribe Called Quest, EPMD, Run-DMC, and Public Enemy.

      “You know, hearing scratching for the first time and being like, ‘Yo, what’s that?’ It was just this dope new energy, and you related to it and it spoke your language,” he says. 

      Kemo was initially drawn to breakdancing. He recalls how, by the mid-’80s, both the city and the Island had healthy, vibrant scenes. The kids—including legendary Red Dragons skateboarder Rob “Sluggo” Boyse, who got his start as a well-respected dancer and gymnast—were, he describes, “just crazy.”

      It was still a small community and all very locally-based, adds Red1. “Everybody knew everybody. Everybody was helping everybody get in.”

      As the Rascalz assembled, each member embodied multiple aspects of the culture: Misfit and Red1 rhymed, Kemo produced and did graffiti—as did Dedos, part of the infamous AA Crew and frequent Elements cover illustrator, who also breakdanced alongside Zebroc.

      “I think we all really inspired each other,” Kemo says.

      The group mostly hung out at his house after school, where they’d make beats, write raps, and put their music together. They also watched a lot of RapCity, courtesy of Kemo’s brother who’d stay up late to record the MuchMusic specialty show. 

      “We were definitely students of the game,” Red1 says. “Not being in a mega-city like Toronto or New York—or Cali—at the time, we felt so far removed from where things were going on. There wasn’t hip-hop around you 24/7. So, anything you could get your hands on, you really studied. You felt it deep in your soul, in your bones.”

      The Rascalz released their debut album, Really Livin’, independently in 1992, and it got picked up the following year by Sony. Charged with the exhilarating energy of nascent hip-hop innovation and their roster of influences, all masterfully arranged by Kemo, with boom-bap rhythms and the deft and chilled lyrical cadences of Red1 and Misfit, Rascalz crafted something that was heavy-hitting, playful, and totally unique.

      Red1 still remembers the first time he heard Rascalz on Z95.3, which, back then, was the pinnacle of Top 40 radio in Vancouver.

      “I was sitting outside my house and, off our Really Livin’ album, they played one of our songs,” he smiles. “Those are milestone moments where, literally, you felt like, ‘Okay, we made it! Our song’s on Z95.3!’ Or, ‘Okay, we made it, our video’s playing on MuchMusic!’ Because we didn’t know much beyond that. Zed was the top tier thing for the city, Much was the top tier thing for the country. And, you know, we weren’t really thinking past that. That was the end all, be all.” 

      By the time Rascalz released their 1997 sophomore effort, Cash Crop, hip-hop was one of the most popular styles of music in the world—and certainly one of the most commercially successful. That same year saw era-defining releases from acts like Missy Elliott, Puff Daddy, and the Notorious B.I.G., with the posthumous “Mo Money Mo Problems”. But despite being home to prominent artists like Rascalz, Michie Mee, and Maestro Fresh Wes, the Canadian music industry largely ignored its own talent.

      Frustration at such lack of visibility reached a boiling point in 1998, when the Junos named Cash Crop as Best Rap Recording, with the award presented during the non-televised portion of the ceremony. While honoured to be nominated—it exceeded any of their own expectations, Red1 notes—Rascalz refused to accept the award.

      “We felt like hip-hop deserved to be on that main stage and get its due props, just like any other form of music,” Red1 says. “We were not doing that for us because we were just being brats—we really wanted hip-hop to get the platform it deserved. We were doing that to help push the culture along.”  

      The stand Rascalz took against the dismissal shook the industry to its core and forever changed it. The Best Rap Recording category was moved to the Juno’s main ceremony in 1999, which Rascalz won again—this time, for “Northern Touch”, a collaboration with Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, Checkmate, and Thrust. They also performed it live on the broadcast. The song was later added to Cash Crop. Originally, though, it was meant for Kemo and Jay Swing’s mixtape.

      Kemo made the beat, inspired by EPMD’s “Get the Bozak”, which sampled a funk-soul track by the BT Express called “Everything Good to You Ain’t Always Good for You”. Red1 and Misfit wrote their verses, as did Checkmate. Then, the group’s manager, Sol Guy, suggested they invite some colleagues from Toronto and make it a posse cut.

      “According to Kardinal,” Red1 remembers, “they were all in the studio—we weren’t there, we were in Vancouver this time—and they were all trying to figure out what the hook was. And Choclair, he was a big fan of Biggie. So he was just like, ‘We notorious! Ain’t nobody can bang with us!’ And then they were like, ‘Rascalz, Checkmate, Kardinal, and Thrust! Choclair comin’ down with the Northern Touch!’ And then Kardi said, ‘I’m gonna lay out the hook,’ those guys laid down their verses, and the rest is history.”

      “Northern Touch”, which speaks to Canadian hip-hop’s resilience, was groundbreaking. In heavy rotation on MuchMusic and radio across North America, it was the first Canadian hip-hop song to ever reach the Top 100, climbing to No. 41. It also deepened the connection between Vancouver and Toronto’s scenes.

      “Everybody really liked and respected everyone for their talent and for what they were doing,” Red1 says. “You had this community, because it was hip-hop and not everybody was doing it, and you had that in common.” 

      Now, “Northern Touch” endures as one of the most important songs in Canadian music history. During OVO Fest last summer, which featured Rascalz on a star-studded lineup, Drake introduced the song as the country’s real national anthem.

      “It was just cool to see,” Red1 smiles. “People really took to that song. Most people don’t even think that’s a Rascalz song, they think it’s just a song with a bunch of Canadian artists on it. And, to me, that’s even dope, you know what I’m saying? ’Cause that’s really what it is. It’s our song, but it’s not our song. It’s everybody’s song. And it’s a Canadian hip-hop anthem.”

      After “Northern Touch”, hip-hop finally began to receive the recognition and respect it long deserved in Canada. There was a significant rise in urban radio stations around the country, the first being Toronto’s Flow 93.5. Vancouver’s the Beat 94.5, launched in early 2002, was the second. Flipout and Jay Swing both had gigs there. The Beat helped give a larger platform to local artists, while also being the place where international acts would do interviews when their tours landed in the city.

      “It was flourishing,” Red1 recalls. “Hip-hop, it was growing. And being there when there was none of this going on, to see it all happening in front of you, it was just, again, so exciting and so energizing.”

      Rascalz continued to drop hits, like “Can’t Relate”, “Crazy World”, “Movie Star”, and “Top of the World”—the latter, one of their most loved, featuring k-os and Barrington Levy (who, Red1 recalls, came into the studio, took a drag of a cigarette, and recorded his whole part in one take). Over the “Dance Hall Rock” via R. Dean Taylor’s “Indiana Wants Me” sample, Levy sings out the nickname for Vancouver the group coined: Vancity.

      Red1 remembers all the times Rascalz would perform in Toronto, which everyone called T-Dot. So, one day, they decided to give Vancouver a tag of its own.

      “There was no other Vancity nothing—and no one referred to Vancouver as Vancity, and I didn’t get it from the bank,” he laughs. “It just came. These days, when I see Vancity all over the place and I hear people call it Vancity, I just sit back and smile like a proud papa.”

      Over the next few years, artists like Swollen Members—another landmark Vancouver crew—and Moka Only helped to push the local scene out even further, as did hard-hustling DJs: Kemo is the producer behind some of Canada’s biggest hip-hop hits, including Kardinal Offishall’s “Dangerous” and, alongside Concise, Swollen Members’ “Fuel Injected”.

      If there is a Vancouver sound, Red1 considers, maybe it’s not really having one. “A lot of people now, they make music and a lot of it is premeditated. They’re trying to do a certain thing or trying to come up with a certain sound. But I think that was a cool part about us: we were always trying to find something different or something weird like that. We weren’t trying to emulate nothing as far as like, that’s a hit, let’s make our version of that. It was more like, let’s try to make some dope shit that don’t sound like nobody, that is super original.”

      It's an attitude that’s remained with the local hip-hop scene, which, today, is home to a diverse range of young artists like Teon Gibbs, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, NADUH, and Boslen—who features Rascalz on his 2021 song, “Note to the City”. Red1 thinks his hometown is in good hands. A lot of folks are caught up with what’s going on in Toronto, he says, but one of the best parts about being an artist in Vancouver is the firewall of the northwest: it allows for creatives to experiment with their craft without being surrounded by outside noise.

      A generation-spanning lineup performs at the second annual Black Culture Celebration this month, which honours the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Rascalz are headlining with the “Northern Touch” crew—including Offishall, Choclair, and Checkmate—and Maestro Fresh Wes is taking the stage, too. It’s set to be a historic day for the city, and one that celebrates Vancouver’s legacy and future in hip-hop.

      It also prompts Red1 to remember one of the key moments where it all began for him.

      “If there was anybody in Canada that really made me feel like, yo, you could do this, it was Maestro. He’d always show so much love and support, and just watching him do his thing always brings me back to the first time we met. He pulled up to our high school, to John Oliver, on his first tour when ‘Backbone Slide’ was the biggest thing in the world, and took the time to say what’s up and talk to me.”

      Red1 smiles. “I got nothing but love and respect for all those guys.”

      Photo courtesy of Rascalz

      Rascalz perform at Sunset Beach Park on June 17 as part of Black Culture Celebration.