Underground no more:

By Justin Lee

"Hip-hop is not my life, but it has been a large part of it. There have been times I’ve loved it more than any woman. There have been times I hated it with the viciousness usually reserved for a cheating lover."

So says Nelson George in his 1998 critically-acclaimed expose, Hip Hop America.

George’s love/hate relationship with hip-hop is something to which I can strongly relate to, since the first time I heard Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" back in grade six. Hip-hop is more than just a genre of music, it’s a powerful movement, much like the soul movement of the ’70s. In my opinion, hip-hop is the most powerful form of musical expression today. Over the last two-and-a half decades, hip-hop has risen from the depths of the underground, with Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa in the late ’70s and early ’80s, to the forefront of popular music and culture today.

In Canada alone, hip-hop has consistently been at the top of record sales for the past three years and is a prevalent force in the music industry. Canadians buy hip-hop, so industry heads should have more than enough sense to sign more Canadian urban music artists to their labels, right? Well, no, it’s not that simple… is it? Why is there no single city in Canada that has a commercial urban music radio station? And why is it the number of Canadian hip-hop artists signed to major labels can be counted on the fingers of one hand? For all of those readers who are mumbling something about there not being any decent Canadian rap artists, you need to wake up and recognize the skills Canadian MCs possess. Canadian hip-hop has been on the down-low over the last decade and, with the exception of chart-toppers Maestro, Michie Mee and the Dream Warriors, Canadian hip-hop has always been underground.

Looking at the stats, successful artists were well-marketed and promoted, but without the backing of a major label, this is almost impossible. Unsigned hypes like Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Da Grassroots, and Monolith must rely on street-buzz, mixtapes and doing shows, in order to get their names out there. It took Toronto’s Choclair–who recently achieved gold-status in Canada for his debut album, Ice Cold– five years of networking and promoting to become one of the handful of Canadian MCs with a major label deal. Even Choclair grew tired of waiting to be signed to a major label and in 1996, started his own independent label, Knee Deep. Other strong independent labels have followed: Figure iv (Kardinal Offishall), Capitol Hill (Saukrates), Lockdown Entertainment (Infinte) and One Rock Records (Monolith).

In order for the Canadian hip-hop scene to grow, a greater infrastructure needs to be established. Without commercial urban radio and no urban music departments within major labels, the Canadian hip-hop industry will remain stagnant. Currently only MuchMusic has prevailed in recognizing commercial urban music radio through playing Canadian hip-hop videos by the Rascalz and Saukrates in heavy rotation. But it is also the responsibility of the fans; Canadian hip-hop heads should take the time to find out about our homegrown talent. When I compare Kardinal or Monolith with some of the American MCs at the top of Billboard and Soundscan charts, there’s no contest–hands-down, Kardinal and Monolith represent true hip-hop to the fullest.

Another important aspect in elevating Canada’s hip-hop scene lies within our individual provinces and regions. There must be strong communication between scenes. Calgary has a strong hip-hop following but there needs to be a tighter structure within our city. Local artists like Nupanella, Cloak & Dagger and the Heaven Earth Guild along with DJs such as Astro and Spinicillan are helping to put Calgary on the Canadian hip-hop map. Additionally, there is a strong breaking and graffiti scene here, but without the proper outlets to promote these art forms, it will fail to rise above the current underground level.

But as always, the final question in the music industry is, "Will it sell?" In the case of Canadian hip-hop, with the proper promotion behind it, there is no doubt in my mind. A prime example is Choclair and Virgin Music Canada’s endless support in creating an awareness with Canadian fans. Hopefully, this will be a turning-point in the future of Canadian hip-hop, and industry heads will realize that Canadian artists can sell to the substantial Canadian market.  

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