Sweatshop Union [Interview]
Vancouver, B.C. – Sweatshop Union can be defined as one of Canada’s veteran hip-hop groups sitting at the top of the ranks along with the Rascalz and label mates, Swollen Members. Known to many as ‘politically minded,’ Metty the Dert Merchant, one of the seven group members, insists that it’s just a way of life that happens to shine through in their music:
“I don’t want to be famous; I want to have my family looked after and I want to have respect for making dope music.”
All members hailing from Vancouver, the group was formed in 2000 when 4 acts – Creative Minds, Dirty Circus, Innocent Bystanders and Kyprios – joined forces and became one hell of a hip-hop group. Not your typical rappers, Sweatshop Union has been able to maintain their unparalleled voice since their first album, Local 604 to their most recent album, Water Street. The group has been consistent in their efforts to defy the stereotypes of hip-hop and make dope music throughout the years. What can be most respected about their work is the fact that they keep it real; they haven’t given in to the mainstream to make money.
Having performed on 150-city tours and venturing to the United States where the response has been respectfully high, Sweatshop Union is at it again, just wrapping up a tour across Canada reaching over 100 cities. Not too long ago, HipHopCanada was able to speak with Metty the Dert Merchant with conversation ranging from their new album to the good old days when Common’s Resurrection was his high school soundtrack. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to their music, you’ve been missing out. First, however, you should gain some knowledge from the Dert Merchant himself.
HipHopCanada: Hey, Metty, how are you?
Metty: Good, good, what’s up? How are you doing?
HipHopCanada: I’m good, thanks. How long had you guys been working on the latest album?
Metty: It’s been a minute. This one, we went through a whole lot of transitions in between the last album and this album. The last album, our record label pulled it and we let go of the management we had at the time and we hadn’t really been to the States a lot so around that time we had an opportunity to go with Swollen Members on a 4 month, across States tour. The group hadn’t really done that before. A few of us went on it and the response was just amazing; we were like “holy shit.” We expected nothing but we hit Denver (our first show) and all these kids knew our words! We spent the last two years solely focusing on that [and] getting ready for a new album. Amongst that it was really hard to get an album out but we spent almost two years on the album we just did. We had a hard time clipping shit; it’s a little excessive on the track numbers but we were like, “it’s been so long, we want to put it out!”
HipHopCanada: How many tracks are on the album?
Metty: [Laughing] 23. That’s [with] maybe one intro. You know most people layer it up with interludes and stuff. It’s like to the fucking end of the disc; 73 minutes long.
HipHopCanada: Wow. But that must mean that you guys had a lot of good material.
Metty: Yeah. We had little arguments about whether to clip stuff but we couldn’t find anything we wanted to clip so it all went. [Laughing]
HipHopCanada: On that note, I just want to get a sense of way back when you guys formed Sweatshop – how did you guys decide to come together? It’s not everyday that so many young artists can come together and actually make it work . . .
Metty: Yeah, it’s never been easy but it’s been something that’s just worked. Back then, we all kind of knew each other; it was a small community. In ’98, ’99 in Vancouver it was really the older guard like Rascalz, Swollen Members, Moka [who’d] really been doing their thing since we were kids so we all kind of came up under that. We knew a lot of them from the scene and we were kind of like this generation that was coming up at the time in Vancouver; there was this group called 4th World who were really doing things – really young, all of us still in high school. And then a good chunk of us are from Vancouver Island and the North of Vancouver. Swollen Members is from Vancouver and growing up I knew Mad Child just from being young and being in the hip-hop community. Then on Vancouver Island, the producer for Swollen Members, Rob the Viking, before he was in Swollen we did our first songs with him, we just knew him because some of the guys lived on the island. We actually just found them and listened to them on our last tour and were joking around. From like ’98 when I was 15 I did my first song with Rob from Swollen and then he went into Swollen. So it was this really small, tight knit group; we were just that younger generation coming up next. We also had all our sub groups. Originally we were all working on albums and around ’99, 2000 we were like, “let’s just put a couple of songs together and make it a little crew.” Realistically it was a compilation that just blew the fuck out of control. [Laughing]. Because we were friends it was easier; in a lot of bands you just put dudes together that make music [and] there are a lot of egos and bullshit. We definitely started as friends and that’s kind of been the thread that’s kept us together through all the shit that’s gone down. You’ve got to share your money with that many people!
HipHopCanada: So starting back then, what had you guys envisioned for Sweatshop Union as far as your place in the hip-hop scene?
Metty: Back then we were young and the industry was totally different. Back then we just wanted the most people to hear our music and, yeah we wanted loot, but that wasn’t our main thing. Canada’s really deceiving in a way like that because there’s no middle ground. In America, you’re either a pop hit and you see your shit everywhere and you’re fucking paid . . . but also in America there’s this underground where you actually can feed yourself and do it because there are that many more people. In Canada there’s no middle ground so it’s like if you’re getting the resources of big shit, the money isn’t there with it. So everyone’s under this assumption that, “you guys must be paid,” but there’s only so many places to play in Canada and [only] so much money. If that’s your only goal, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Only a couple of people have done it like K-os, Kardi, Swollen…
HipHopCanada: And still, look how long it took Kardi . . .
Metty: And I love his shit, his shit’s awesome but it took him down in the States connecting with huge people to make anything work. Which is part of our motives to go to the States because…there’s a lot more chance for middle ground and underground music to exist there. Here, underground means broke and ghetto and no one cares and no one pays attention to it where as there it’s like underground turned into atmosphere living legends. Those underground [artists] are paid and they don’t need that over ground exposure. After going through all of that and realizing that we don’t want to be pop artists, we like hip-hop and we’re in it for the hip-hop, when we got to the States it was like, “oh, these guys aren’t here because they saw a video on Much,” they’re not a Top 40 kind of crowd; they’re a hip-hop crowd. The only reason they knew of us was through hip-hop shit and knowing hip-hop albums and digging. America helped bring out the hip-hop in what we’re doing again and that’s why this next album is really a hip-hop album. As far as our vision and what we want – we want to exist as a hip-hop group that doesn’t have to do anything to compromise what its vision is which is to be a fucking dope ass hip-hop group. We’d rather the respect and the support of hip-hop fans as opposed to the unforgiving Much On Demand/TRL kind of crowd. They’ll love you for the wrong reasons and move on.
HipHopCanada: Exactly. And conforming to mainstream must be tempting and probably would generate more record sales but how did you guys manage to stay true to what you do?
Metty: You know what it is? The more you get along, the less appealing it is to do that because for us, we didn’t turn into the Black Eyed Peas so if you’re not reaching that kind of status, what’s the point? We were unhappy with that, unfortunately the situation that our old management was under also worked with radio promotion companies so his total goal was to get us to have these radio singles which we tried to do without compromising the integrity of the music. We all feel like it took a walk down that path and were unhappy with it and that’s when we dropped the management and tried out being a hip-hop group again in the States. Being up for a Juno and getting video play kind of encourages you to keep following that direction. As long as you don’t give a fuck about that and you’re doing it and people can support it then that’s what’s up. I don’t want to be famous; I want to have my family looked after and I want to have respect for making dope music. We’re carrying on the tradition a few people are sticking to which is providing the world with good music and not doing it for the loot so they can have a single and bounce out of the mainstream.
HipHopCanada: Considering you guys are veterans of the Canadian hip-hop scene because, let’s face it – not everyone can go on a 100 city tour successfully – where do you think up and coming artists fall off when it comes to staying relevant and being able to tour?
Metty: I thinking it’s viewing your perimeters too much. Some people try and conquer the city but it ‘s not really about that. There’s a lot of shit in Vancouver and I love Vancouver and we rep hard but in our reality, we make music that has appeal to people we don’t even know. America is where everyone in the world tries to make it and that’s the hardest place so it’s like if we’re actually getting good response from them, we feel a lot better. Canada’s a really sickle place; they don’t love you until the rest of the world does and a lot of artists would agree to that. Some artists have been doing it so long and it’s hard to keep doing it. Even for us it’s really hard and we’ve been doing this for eight years. Some of us have kids and are getting married. My life’s taken a drastic change this year but that’s all part of it. I’m actually probably going to be moving down to California and meeting up with the group to do these shows but that’s almost like how it is for everything; you’ve got to think outside your own backyard. In Canada, straight up, there isn’t enough to keep artists just being Canadian artists and supporting that because you’ll just flop. We have wicked resources here but it’s totally math; there’s not enough people in this country. Look at the difference between a gold record in Canada and gold record in the States – hundreds of thousands of a difference. You can have a platinum record and that doesn’t mean shit, you can still be broke. In the States, you should have a fat ass cheque because you sold a million records. It’s crazy.
HipHopCanada: From your first album, Local 604, to your upcoming album, how do you feel Sweatshop Union has progressed?
Metty: It’s kind of weird because we run in to this all the time and we can never understand it with critics and our fans of the music; our favourite album is our last one [United We Fall]…We have a lot of people tell us [they] really like Natural Progression. It’s really funny, we were somewhere and were eating at an AppleBee’s and the waiter comes up and he’s like, “are you guys from Sweatshop Union?” and we’re like, “yeah,” and he goes, “I don’t mean to overstep my boundaries but the first two albums, I loved them, your last one, not really.” [Laughing] We hear that fairly often but to us it’s like our shit; that best defines us. Our first two albums, which could be the reason why people even like it, is [because] we were really young and we didn’t have much direction with it. We felt a lot of things politically and it isn’t even that deep, it’s not like we’re on some “save Darfur’ and we didn’t have songs about particular things but it was a general feeling of ‘this shit’s not good enough.” I think that came out in the music a lot. We change as people, we’re not working a job where we have that same feeling; we’re working dealing with the devils of the industry and money and consumption and greed and fucking worrying what people think of you. To me I think the music is more personal and this new record has a lot of personal songs on it, things that I think a lot of people are feeling and going through. Musically, I definitely think we get better as the years go by. This new album, I really, really love it. Even the last one I really like. The first two, they’re old to me; I’m like “listen to how I sound.” We did all of those albums when we were freshly 20 and now we’re all 26, 27, 28 so it’s a different world.
HipHopCanada: Being politically and socially aware in your music, do you feel there are cons to being labelled as such a group?
Metty: Far too much. Totally. Honestly, it’s almost like we hate that tag on us because everyone that doesn’t like us just simply sums us up as, “they think they’re on some political shit and they’re not doing shit they’re just rappers.” And it’s true – we’re rappers and we spend all our time on the road touring and doing that but you have a choice to sit there and talk shit about whatever because that’s what everyone’s feeling or you can say something and use you time and open your mind and your heart. A lot of us think about what goes on and that comes out in our writing. I’m not going to waste someone’s time talking about how much better an MC . . . how many rappers rap about MCs? Fuck that. This is what I’m doing and this is where I’m at. In the new single we have called “Oh My” it’s a song for everyone that doesn’t need to listen to a song about someone selling a lot of crack to make their life feel better. That’s the reality for a lot of people but for a lot of people it’s not and they’re looking for something to get them going through when they have whack shit happening in their life. A lot of us have issues like dealing with life, family, general concerns, religion, trying to be a righteous person in regards to trying to be positive and care about other people. These sound like easy and cliché things to say but at the end of the day, that’s where I’m at. I give a fuck about my city, I give a fuck about my family and my kids; all those things matter to me and are worth rapping about. I don’t really care about how much money someone else has because I have kids [who] e-mail me and thank me and tell me that they were in some ugly shit or on drugs and my music helped and made them feel like they’re not alone. We don’t have time to be in Green Peace and out there, that’s cool that they’re doing that but we’re doing [things] our way. Our job is to spend most of time on the road or making music, what we do within those boundaries is up to us and that’s why we try our hardest to be real people and make music for real people; not the fake ass images that everyone wants people to believe they are.
HipHopCanada: And do you feel that sometimes artists put on a façade when it comes to being politically and socially aware?
Metty: It’s not cool to be broke and compassionate. We get along really well with a lot of groups and they’re surprised. We clown a lot, we joke, we like to have fun. We don’t sit and sulk on how bad the world is; we try to make it better. People come to our shows and have fun and thank us and pay money to come and escape the bullshit of the world. It doesn’t mean they’re just blindly ignoring it like everyone else but you can celebrate the fact that you’re aware of this. I’ve seen comments against us saying, “oh, they think they know shit, they’re not offering solutions.” No, we’re not but that’s not our role. Our music says you can be cool, you can be yourself, you can have fun and you don’t have to be ignorant and at the same time make the most of what you’ve got. I’m just not going to trip on people. If someone’s a hard ass or a knucklehead, they feed off of certain things they want people to react to. Fuck that. I can control my world, I can make the people around me happy and I’m doing to best job I can. That’s being political and righteous and caring about all that; it starts at home, it starts in your family.
HipHopCanada: Exactly. If everyone focused on the smaller things then gradually we’d see a huge difference.
Metty: Everyone’s a part in a big machine so it’s contagious. That to me is a lot more realistic than saying we’re going to change the world; nah, we’re going to change ourselves. Don’t be so quick to hate on everyone else’s shit. I don’t hate on anyone doing better than me. A lot of groups may hate on some success that we get but at the end of the day, any group that came before us made it happen for us. They took the hit. If there was no successful hip-hop in Canada, we probably wouldn’t get factor grants and things like that which can help to bring the next generation up.
HipHopCanada: Those grants really help Canadian artists . . .
Metty: Hell yeah. Everyone’s scared because of the industry and no one’s selling CDs but I think now it has a better chance because people are going to be making some dope music.
HipHopCanada: Hopefully everyone gets that memo.
Metty: I already think so. Honestly, I couldn’t even listen to rap for like three years. Now I pay attention to what comes out and I check for other stuff. I don’t blame someone else for making rap whack, which I used to.
HipHopCanada: Yeah, everyone will have their own fan base regardless of their music style.
Metty: Yeah! Imagine if we were all fucking conscious rappers; it would suck too. I’d want to hear gangster rap once in a while. I grew up on Ghetto Boys and NWA but when everyone’s trying to do that, especially those who aren’t living that, that’s when it becomes whack.
HipHopCanada: I remember reading in an interview you saying that you don’t try to be politically aware, it’s just a way of life for you and that’s why your music is so real.
Metty: People feel uncomfortable if they can’t classify something in a one word sentence. Whether it’s what race someone is, how much money they come from; it’s just so much easier to say this person’s this or this person’s that. How whack would Sweatshop Union be if we just talked about bitches and money? But at the same time it’s just as tired to be the group that’s against all that! That’s what fucks with me. I don’t want to just be that group I have songs where I’ll talk shit but that doesn’t mean that that’s what I’m about. I’m not a pussy like, “Oh, we’ve got to be nice and get along,” it’s not true. At the same time, we choose to use our form not to waste time just talking about shit like that. I’d rather encourage someone [and say] they’re all good if they’re holding down a whack job, at least they’re paying for their kid and being a good dad. Someone who works at a tire store, busting their ass all day and is taking care of their kids, I respect that. Not someone who’s trying to front like they have more money than they do.
HipHopCanada: So when all is said and done, regardless of the misconceptions people may have and boxes they may put you in, what message does Sweatshop Union want to leave their listeners with after hearing your music?
Metty: Classic hip-hop. The same feeling that, no matter what Nas does, that feeling you get when you hear Illmatic, no matter what position De La is in, they still have all those albums for me. I don’t want shit but to keep being in a position where I can make music that people like. You make music to be heard [and] as much as it is all for me when I’m making it because it’s therapeutic and enjoyable, I want people to like my shit. There’s albums I’ve heard recently that have given me that feeling. I’d love to be a De La Soul. They may not be on a fucking billboard but their fans love and respect them. Already we have people who will say that our first two albums are their high school soundtrack. Everyone has that. Mine was Resurrection by Common. That makes me feel good. That’s more than having a hot single and getting bumped away the next week.
HipHopCanada: Rappers always seem to mention that Canada doesn’t love its own until every one else does. How do you feel about that?
Metty: It’s sucks but you can bitch about it or you can drive around it. Canada will come around. It took the Beatles to coming to America to blow up. No one cared about The Beatles when they were still in England but when they went to America and blew up England loved them. That’s how it goes. It’s only news when it’s international. And because in Canada we haven’t been visible very much people assume that we broke up or something but no. We did over 150 shows last year.
HipHopCanada: Well, thank you for the great interview. Is there anything else you wanted to comment on?
Metty: No, it was good to have some actual questions from someone who cares about what they’re doing [Laughing]
HipHopCanada: [Laughing] Thank you. If you’re doing something you ought to love it, right?
Metty: Ain’t no half steppin’. And everyone should listen to more Big Daddy Kane.
Written by Chantle Beeso for HipHopCanada