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50 Years Of Hip-Hop: The Future (Part 3)

From Drake to Infinity — Where does Canada fit into the bigger picture? 

by Adriel Smiley

The end of the 2000s saw a lot of change for Canadian hip-hop very quickly. Artists like Kardinal Offishall and Choclair emerged into the Canadian mainstream providing even more outlets for hip-hop to be heard. In 2001, after a few failed attempts, FLOW 93.5 premiered in Toronto as the first Canadian Urban Music Station. This, along with the introduction of the Black Entertainment Network (BET), altered the landscape. More places to hear and see hip-hop, and more often.

Once FLOW was on the air, it felt like hip-hop suddenly became more accessible. It was on the radio all the time instead of just a 3-hour slot every other Saturday, and they weren’t only playing Canadian hip-hop. On the other side of the continent, the early 2000s was also the beginning of a new sound rising out of the South, a time that many look back upon as the “ringtone era.” The sound was morphing into something more fun and flashy, the imagery playing up themes of gangsters and the lyrics aggressive. 

DJ Starting From Scratch was working at FLOW during this time and had a front-row seat to the juxtaposition between Canadian  hip-hop and its southern counterpart. The ringtone era was something Canadian hip-hop just didn’t really participate in. The Canadian rappers who received a lot of airplay were almost a completely different genre than the Americans. Starting From Scratch felt the difference.“There wasn’t hip-hop at that time that could compete with that kind of energy,” he says. 

And in some ways, they weren’t trying to. Kevin Brereton aka k-os expanded the parameters sonically, ushering in a mix of rap, pop, and rock into mainstream Canadian music. Unlike anything that would be considered commercial to the casual fan, Saukrates was one of the most respected emcees and producers, with a sound more similar to De La Soul & Special Ed. Scratch considered him an encapsulation of the Canadian sound.

k-os — “Crabbuckit” anyone?

After his breakout feature on “Northern Touch,” Kardinal Offishall became a staple in the early to mid 2000’s. Songs like “Everyday Rudebwoyand “Ol Time Killin” embody his Jamaican background. Whether it’s the reggae-influenced production or the Patois that appears on so many Kardinal’s tracks, he blended the Caribbean influence popularized by Michie Mee more than a decade earlier better than anyone we had seen, causing an even further impact on Toronto, home of one of the largest Jamaican diasporas. 

Kardinal, for many, was setting the precedent of what was possible. How successful, or how famous a Canadian rapper could be. All of this anticipation peaked when he signed with Akon, arguably one of the biggest artists on the planet at the time, in 2007. A year later, the duo put out “Dangerous,” the first single from Kardinal’s fourth album, Not 4 SaleThe production fit right into the mould of rap’s prevalent style during the time. Synth-driven melodies with heavy drums and autotune on the hook—the perfect recipe in 2008.

“Dangerous” was the biggest Canadian rap song of all time when it was released. A true worldwide success, it peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time it felt like there was no telling when a Canadian rapper might have this kind of success again. A large segment of Canadian rappers had not mastered the art of crafting these large party records.

While Kardinal was breaking records, however, one of Canada’s most revered rappers in Shad was fresh off the release of his debut album, The Old Prince Lives At Home. Since then Shad has done more than just rap, including hosting CBC Q and the Emmy Award-winning docuseries Hip-Hop Evolution.

He has vivid memories of that time and the noticeable sonic divide. “Either you were jiggy, which became more ringtone rap, or you were doing something more soulful,” Shad says. 

Shad, like a large set of Canadian rappers, was definitely not in the jiggy category. Even a young Drake, with two mixtapes to his name, was in the soulful category in 2008. That’s just the way things were. Trying to be respected as a lyricist was a prerequisite. The lyrical competitiveness often went unspoken, but it was very real, something that Shad echoes. 

“You scan the landscapes of MCs, and if I can compete on a lyrical level, if I can stand out on a lyrical level, it’s something undeniable,” he says.

Towards the end of the 2010s, two things happened that changed the trajectory of the sound of hip-hop in Canada (and ultimately the world) very quickly. First was the internet. Programs like Limewire helped music lovers access more music than ever before. The walls of regionalism began to break down. The divide between lyrical and conscious rappers and their flashy counterparts was starting to slip away.

Shad in 2018 (Photo: Justin Broadbent)

“Even in the late 2000s it was like, which side are you on?”

— Shad

“Even in the late 2000s it was like, which side are you on?” Shad says. “What are you representing in terms of hip-hop? I think the internet started to collapse that.”

For Canadian hip-hop, this was a game changer. In a country where the music industry has not always supported hip-hop, this helped level the playing field, and the list of things you needed a label for got a lot shorter.

The second thing was Drake. Just a year after “Dangerous” became the most successful Canadian rap song of all time, Drake released “Best I Ever Had.” It peaked at number two on the Hot 100, surpassing Kardi & Akon who had peaked at number five. 

Drake would go on to become a force in the music industry and one of the most popular artists of all time. “Best I Ever Had” and the So Far Gone mixtape sparked a run of hits that continues to this day, and what he did sonically reverberated throughout.

Unlike “Dangerous,” “Best I Ever Had” was a solo record. Drake had no help on the hook, opting to sing it himself, which was unusual in a world where singers like Akon and T-Pain had popularized Auto-Tune usage. A chorus by one of these two was as good as gold when it came to scoring a hit, but something that made Drake unique was his approach as both a rapper and a singer.

Of course, we had seen singers rap before and we had seen rappers carry a tune, but the two largely remained separate. Drake often cites Phonte from Little Brother as his inspiration for being a rapper who sings and does both well.

The natural progression from Auto-Tune’s dominance in the 2000s, rappers started to become more melodic during the  2010s. Regardless of actual singing ability, rappers were attempting to harmonize more in their own hooks. Even the raps themselves took on a more melodic tone. 

Roland Pemberton’s father was a rap DJ in Edmonton at a time when there had not been much rap success anywhere in the country. Roland started rapping at 13, and without there being a hip-hop label infrastructure, he came up battling. Pemberton is better known by his stage name Cadence Weapon, and has since built quite a career for himself, helping to blur genre lines in Canadian hip-hop even further. 

His success is emblematic of the change in what is considered hip-hop. Although he earned his stripes in the most traditional way possible, there is nothing traditional about his sound. 

“The kind of rap I was making, there wasn’t really anybody making anything like that.”

— Cadence Weapon

“When I was first starting on the scene, a lot of rap was horrorcore.” Cadence says about the Edmonton music scene. “The kind of rap I was making, there wasn’t really anybody making anything like that. I’m not really representative of any Edmonton Sound.”

Over the years, hip-hop dispersed into several sub-genres, including production styles that are not native to rap at all. The titillating hi-hats, heavy snares, and scratches were no longer a prerequisite. Cadence Weapon’s production takes after electronic dance music more than anything, but his vocal performance has rap as its home. In 2009, he was named Edmonton’s Poet Laureate, and in 2021 he won the Polaris Music Prize for his fifth album, Parallel World.

Throughout the past decade, Canada has matured as a hip-hop nation, accepting influences from different genres from all over the world. From the popular street sound doing well on the internet and showing a side of Canada many outsiders didn’t know existed to the more contemporary pop/dance rap that often receives critical acclaim in this country, as the genre grows, our understanding grows with it. The question comes up often: What is the Canadian hip-hop sound? 

Following months of reading, conversation, and interviews the answer is that there may not be one. Or, that all of them are. With the decades of hip-hop history in this country still relevant today, all of the current sounds are a part of it and we can’t wait to find out what we hear next.