Thursday, 9 March 2017

Canada's Hip Hop Archive celebrates Jamaican-Canadian Pioneers

By Neil Armstrong

DJ Butcher of Montreal, Quebec.             Photo contributed

Eekwol of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.     Photo contributed

Leon 'Eklipz' Robinson of Hamilton, Ontario.       Photo contributed

DJ Grumps -- Mark Campbell, Founding Director of Northside Hip Hop Archive.  Photo contributed

A project to celebrate Canadian hip hop, the pioneers of it, and to develop more diverse curriculum resources for students and teachers – “I Was There,” part of the Northside Hip Hop (NSHH) Archive – is embarking on a tour which will recognize the accomplishments of those instrumental in the early development of hip hop in the country.

Starting in Montreal on March 9, events will also be held in Saskatoon, Hamilton and Toronto. The four pioneers being celebrated are: Indigenous artist Eekwol (Lindsay Knight) of Saskatoon, DJ Butcher T of Montreal, Leon ‘Eklipz’ Robinson of Hamilton, and DJ Ron Nelson of Toronto – the last three are Jamaicans.

Each city’s unique event pays homage to their community of hip hop artists digitizing artifacts and oral histories to be added to the existing archival content on to encourage future generations to preserve and promote Canadian culture.

Mark Campbell, founding director of NSHH, Canada's first national hip hop archive, says the idea for the project arose from the first Tdot Pioneers exhibition he did in 2010.

“A lot of the elders in the Hip Hop community, the guys that are 45+ or the guys that were 50+, they were reminiscing about all these different events and the common thread was always, ‘O yeah, yeah, I was there, I was there.’ And it was like a moment of exuberant joy in which they’re just remembering these different times of different concerts and what not,” says Campbell, who is of Jamaican descent and an adjunct professor at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University and a former Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Regina's Department of Fine Arts in Saskatchewan. 

Campbell said what he wanted to do was to find a way to involve the actual pioneers of hip hop in the archives in a way that honoured their experiences and their struggles.

“With this project, basically what we’ve done is in four cities across Canada, we’ve found folks that have been doing hip hop since at least 20 years and has had a major impact on their cities. We’re publicly celebrating their achievements and then asking them to talk about what’s in their personal archives, so we’re going to digitize some flyers from different cities, and some radio shows, and some other images and get them to talk about archiving and their experience in hip hop culture,” said Campbell who is a scholar, DJ and advocate of the arts, with more than a decade of radio experience. 

DJ Butcher T is a host and DJ on "Club 980" on CKGM, Canada's first hip hop radio program. In 1992, he began "Butcher T's Noon Time Cuts" on CKUT, a show he continues to host today.

Butcher T will be honoured in Montreal with musical tributes by a new generation of hip hop artists, including Nomadic Massive, Narcy and Strange Foots.

In Saskatoon on March 11, the archive will shine a spotlight on Aboriginal women in hip hop whose resilience and brilliance resonate throughout their rhymes. 

Emcee, Eekwol, an award-winning hip hop artist originally from Muskoday First Nation, has represented hip hop culture over the past nineteen years. 

She will lead a panel discussion on Aboriginal women in hip hop and headline the performances for the night alongside T-Rhyme and mRae Grooves.

In Hamilton, a city historically known for its large manufacturing industry and steel factories, the “I Was There!” art exhibition on March 24 honours Eklipz. 

As founder of Hamilton’s Concrete Canvas hip hop festival, owner of the Boom Spot and host on CFMU’s Live ‘N Direct, Eklipz has been central to the growth of hip hop in the city. 

NSHH Archive’s celebration in Hamilton will consist of a solo exhibition of Eklipz’s visual art and a screening of his first documentary film, “I Was There! Steelcity Hip Hop Respective.”

In Toronto, a hip hop radio symposium organized by the Allan Slaight Radio Institute at Ryerson University honours DJ Ron Nelson from the “Fantastic Voyage” program aired on CKLN 88.1. who started his career in the mid 1980s.

“The Fantastic Voyage” was highly influential in promoting and developing many of Canada's early hip hop stars, including Maestro and Michie Mee. 

“Without DJ Ron Nelson, we would have had no Maestro, no Michie Mee and possibly no Drake or Kardinal Offishal. ‘The Fantastic Voyage’ show and all the concerts and events Ron Nelson organized laid the foundation to make a hip hop community and industry possible in Toronto,” says Campbell.

On March 31, hip hop radio show hosts, from both community and commercial radio shows, will discuss their experiences of carrying on the legacy Ron Nelson began.

“The idea is we want to produce more content that would allow for more diverse curriculum resources and better ways for cataloguing the history of racialized people on the margins within this country. Not as people that are experiencing whatever we’re experiencing with oppression, racialization and all that, but as cultural innovators, celebrating them as people that have contributed to making Canadian culture better across the board,” said Campbell.

He said all of the people that are being celebrated are all racialized, majority are Jamaicans.

“The idea is that let’s put you in the spotlight, not because you made a lot of money or not because you’re rich or famous or powerful but because you’re a creator and your innovation has bettered Canadian culture across the board.”

The political part of it, said Campbell, is that “we need to see our folks celebrated while they’re alive and appreciated for what they’ve done, and then the next generation needs to know about them if we’re going to make it sustainable. We need to tell the story and the best way to tell the story is in the classroom with teachers always looking for new resources.”

The NSHH founding director said if he had hip hop in the classroom when he was growing up he would probably have much better grades.

“If I could actually learn about Canadians hip hop stuff that’s about me and about my city it would really matter. I Was There project really comes out of my desire to honour those that came before and to raise the public discourse on how we celebrate people that make Canada better – racialized young people that make Canada better.”

Campbell said they have hired a couple teachers from Ontario and Saskatchewan who will write teacher lesson plans and teacher resource guides that are aligned with their provincial curriculum.

He noted that as Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial there will lots of stories being told about Canada’s history “and how it’s so great, and this and that, and we’re still going to be left on the margins.”

The Ryerson professor said now there is no way to “leave us on the margins” if the kids coming up in school know about the history of Canadian hip hop.

Campbell said what they did not realize when they were putting together the NSHH is that deejays who participated in mix-offs organized by CHRY 105.5 FM years ago went on to battle in world championships and represented Canada.

The first place he started with this project was at CHRY but there are no records left, he said. “Those events inside Jane and Finch Mall and the Metro Mix-Off and everything Alok [Sharma] was doing, it built the capacity of these deejays to compete worldwide and enhance Canada’s brand on the international stage as a cultural community and a hip hop community.”

He said a kid from Mississauga, DJ Dopey, who would have been young at the time when DJ Grouch, he and others were doing Metro Mix-offs ended up winning the DMC World Championship in 2003.

“All of that is connected back to just CHRY doing its thing in the community. We can’t tell that story yet so part of my desire is to make sure everyone that’s paying attention understands that when we do these little tiny things that seem like they’re not big budget or huge scale they have long-term impacts that are positive to many people that are involved.”

Campbell said there are hip hop pioneers right across Canada, like Odario Williams of Winnipeg, organizer of a hip hop festival for about 10 years and people would drive from Toronto to perform there.

“That kind of cultural infrastructure that he was building in Winnipeg, there’s no narrative of how much it contributed to the culture of Winnipeg and how much Winnipeg has benefitted as city.”

There is also DJ Rudeboy in Ottawa, a breakdancer who catalogues everything well and lots of pioneers all across the country that “I haven’t had the privilege of meeting yet,” says Campbell.

He also mentioned Edmonton-born rapper, Cadence Weapon, who is based in Montreal now but whose late father was a radio show host in Edmonton in the 80s bringing hip hop to the airwaves. 

“There’s a bunch of people so when they start talking about Justin Bieber and Drake and The Weeknd and how well we’re doing on the music scene worldwide, there’s a bunch of people that built that infrastructure that are still alive that we need to celebrate,” said Campbell. 

He said the other part of this project is watching people get excited about someone valuing what they’ve done.

“Since I started this project at least four guys have died and all of their stories are gone. But when I was talking to them and they were alive and I’m telling them what we’re doing they’re like, ‘thank you, thank you for, you know my parents were telling me I shouldn’t do this and thank you for validating that I contributed to the culture.’ It made them feel good that they had value. That’s the part that you won’t find in the newspapers and that’s the most important part.”

Campbell said back in the days, Nicky Davis, now manager of program development at CBC Radio, and his brother had a soundcrew, Imagination crew, that was based in Mississauga and they would drive into Toronto.

“All of those stories Nicky is a great guy to tell because it demonstrates that not only do we have a vibrant culture but like one of my follow-up projects is about Jamaican sound systems…that’s going to come out when these guys talk, about how those kinds of innovation and culture contribute to what these guys end up doing in Canada and making a life out of this.”

Campbell said there is a huge story to be told about the impact of Jamaican culture in the diaspora and how Canada benefits kind of, sort of residual benefit from these guys being so committed to some of these radio shows for 25 and 30 years for free and everyone else benefits from it.

Speaking of the impact of hip hop and Canada’s Indigenous peoples, having attended some events in Regina, Campbell said, “Hip Hop for native kids now is major. It’s a major source of consciousness. If you really wanted to hear good hip hop you got to go to the reserves. It sounds like 1988, it sounds like people have a social critique.”

Northside Hip Hop Archive is a digital collection of Canadian hip hop history and culture.

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