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Has Canadian hip-hop truly “arrived”? [Article]

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In the last two and a half years, we have seen a positive ascension of Canadian hip-hop music to mainstream status. The first major crossover artist we “Bare Witness” to was Choclair with his gold debut Ice Cold selling just over 63,000 units. Choclair’s signing and subsequent success in 2000 saw the major labels open their eyes to members of his crew, The Circle and other long standing crews like Ghetto Concept and conscious emcee k-os.

Has Canadian hip-hop truly arrived?

Fast forward to 2002 and we have underground crusaders turn mainstream poster boys Swollen Members who, after shocking the unsuspecting Toronto centric hip-hop community with their upset of Kardinal Offishall for Best Rap Recording at the JUNOs in 2001, have exploded like napalm. Swollen Members and their counterpart Moka Only have bombarded video outlets like MuchMusic and newly born MTV Canada with their two hypnotic singles from their second LP Bad Dreams already scoring numerous Much Music Video Awards including Best Independent Video. They dominate mainstream radio stations like Vancouver’s The Beat, Toronto’s Kiss 92.5, Flow 93.5 and the instrumental for their latest single “Take It Home” can even be heard backing radio commercials on all news radio station 680 News. All without mentioning the gold and climbing status of Bad Dreams. To date Bad Dreams has sold over 70,000 units.

So Canadian hip-hop has arrived! Or has it? With all the success Swollen Members are having, Choclair’s past success and all the home grown signings one would think so. However, Canadian hip-hop music still has a few more connecting flights to take before it’s true arrival.

Kardinal Offishall, one of the marquee talents on the Canadian hip-hop scene, released his major label debut Fire Starter Vol. I: Quest For Fire in April of 2001 followed by a May release date in the US. The album was well received critically, gaining a 3 ½ Mic rating in the internationally respected Source Magazine among others. Kardi’s sure fire party stating single lit up air waves across Canada and North America gaining spins on outlets like Hot 97 NYC, Flow 93.5, Much Music and BET. The Toronto native had everyone from NBA upstart Elton Brand to Timbaland and Busta Rhymes singing his praises. Kardinal even followed this up with a remix to his second single “Ole’ Time Killin’” which featured Busta Rhymes. But, locally this only translated to sales of over 25, 000 units sold as of last month. Fellow Circle emcee Choclair has also seen disappointing sales of his second LP Memoirs of Blake Savage, but his hot new single “Skunk” featuring Kurupt will help push sales of the funk laden LP.

k-os who recently released his debut full length Exit is another well respected local emcee who landed himself a major label deal with EMI Canada and Capitol Records south of the boarder. His catchy single “Heaven Only Knows” has gained heavy rotation on commercial radio and video outlets across Canada while Canadian media publications have done nothing but praise the eclectic emcee’s material. Rexdale’s long-time thug representatives Ghetto Concept also recently blessed the masses with their major label debut Ghetto Concept Presents… The 7Bills All-Stars. GC’s first single “Too Much” and the follow-up single, featuring the butter smooth vocals of long time local crooners In Essence, “Rest In Peace” have both attained strong rotation across Canada on video and radio outlets. But k-os and Ghetto Concept both have experienced lacklustre sales support from the Canuck audience.

Three years ago lack of major label support would have been to blame for the numbers. That’s no longer an issue. Not to mention we now have our own urban music radio outlets across Canada in many key markets. So what’s the problem? The talent is there, the major label support is there and the media outlets are in place.

The problem could lie in the Canadian divisions of the five major labels not yet gaining a full understanding of how to deal with hip-hop music. After years of ignoring the market, this genre is now new territory for these labels who have now opened urban music departments. Evidence of this can be found in the low sales figures of an artist like Jay-Z in Canada. Jay-Z’s biggest selling album to date Hard Knock Life which sold over five million in the US only sold just over 190,000 units in Canada. Whereas a new pop artist like Nelly Furtado only sold some two million albums in the US but sells over 350,000 units in Canada.

Swollen Members by contrast have remained independent choosing to distribute and market their second LP with the help of Nettwerk Records. Despite Nettwerk Records being a traditionally rock oriented label, Swollen’s self run Battle Axe Records and Nettwerk Records have been able to foster an ill sales record remaining among Canada’s top 100 selling albums for 31 weeks. Obviously, Battle Axe and Nettwerk Records were able to recognize where Swollen Members core market was while capitalising on their mainstream acceptance to ensure success.

Canada’s major labels don’t seem to be ready for the surge in popularity hip-hop music is receiving. While major labels in the US false started on Southern hip-hop, visionaries like Master P and Cash Money Records made themselves a fortune. They stuck to doing their brand of music while understanding the needs and wants of their consumer and selling thousands of records before ever signing with a major label. However, there aren’t many experienced, financially stable and willing independent labels in Canada ready to pick-up what the majors pass on. Young Canadian hip-hop talents are constantly being forced to take lumps trying to open doors for themselves while industry gate keepers hold their grip on the new media outlets available. Sure there are organisations like VideoFACT and FACTOR who provide money to unsigned talent. But not everyone can get a grant or loan especially when VideoFACT is open to signed artists and the sheer number of Factor Loan applicants make it impossible for everyone to get a piece of the pie.

With all the great up and coming Canadian talent being displayed here on the internet, in the local clubs and hustling their way onto college radio stations, talented business minded Canadians who love hip-hop music need to take notice. It is now the time for young entrepreneurs to start investing their time and money into marketing and promoting all this new talent. The business infrastructure within the Canadian hip-hop community is severely under developed. Not everyone can be a rapper or producer but there is space for some new Personal Management Companies, Public Relations Firms and Urban Radio and Music Video promoters. There is a need for people who understand the likes and dislikes of a Canadian hip-hop consumer, understands where and how to reach that consumer and relate to their everyday struggle.

Heads need to recognize, there is a lot of money to be made within our community while keeping the integrity of the music intact. All it takes is a few progressive minded heads to see the vision of innovative Canadian bred hip-hop music becoming the “Next Big Thing” a reality.

Do yourself a favour and pick-up all the aforementioned emcees albums they are well worth the 20 bones and pay very close attention to the Canadian emcees featured on HipHopCanada.com, they will be your next stars.

Written by Adonijah for HipHopCanada

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