Power Play: Canadian rappers score big with hockey anthems
It’s taken a decade, but the Ottawa Senators have made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals of the NHL Playoffs.
It’s taken a decade, but the Ottawa Senators have made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals of the NHL Playoffs. They currently hold a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series against the Pittsburgh Penguins after winning Game 1 in overtime on Saturday. They’re the only Canadian team left.
Ten years ago yesterday, the Ottawa Senators were taking a 2-0 series lead into Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Buffalo Sabres. They had won two hard fought games in Buffalo and Game 3 was the first to be played at home in the then-named Scotiabank Place. Ottawa would go on to win the game and eventually the series.
But that’s not really what I remember about that game. I’m not even a Sens fan. Go Oilers.
Go Sens Go
What sticks with me the most about Game 3 is the fact that it would mark the Scotiabank Place debut of Belly’s playoff anthem, “Go Sens Go,” and the unprecedented manner in which the city embraced a local rap record.
I covered the story for HipHopCanada at the time.
Keep in mind, this was a few years before Drake began destroying every Canadian hip-hop milestone in sight, and at a time when mainstream ties to the hip-hop scene were still few and far between.
So an Ottawa rapper leading the charge on uniting and elevating a hockey city’s playoff spirits was a big deal; a huge deal. Seeing a massive crowd belt out the song’s lyrics at a pep rally in front of City Hall, followed by controversial Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien looking to Belly for a photo op, was unbelievable.
MySpace was still a social media powerhouse at the time and the “Go Sens Go” stream count racked up on there at an impressive rate. Sens fans were embracing Belly, and the local hip-hop community watched with intrigue as one of their own tapped into an NHL market’s fan base like no one had really been able to do before.
The power the song had accumulated was ground-breaking for post-90’s Ottawa rap and gave hope to artists across the city for what the future might hold.
These were artists that were looking for sustainable careers; a stronger local support system for their genre, and the sincere embrace of the local music industry to solidify their legitimacy.
Belly showed that being from Ottawa was no longer an acceptable crutch to lean on when trying to explain away an unsuccessful rap career.
Sure, the city obviously does not offer as much opportunity as New York or LA, or even Toronto, but you can find some early success here and use it as a means to expand your career further. That’s been proven.
A week before Belly’s big arena debut – back then in 2007 – Kenny B, an on-air personality who Belly shouts out at the beginning of the anthem, debuted the record on one of Ottawa’s most popular radio stations, Hot 89.9 FM, and requests to hear it started coming in at an impressive rate.
“I think that the Belly Sens track was an anomaly in that, even non hip-hop fans wanted to hear it because they were Sens fans,” recalled Race, Hot 89’s current Assistant Program Director and Music Director. “It wasn’t just a hockey anthem – it was an Ottawa anthem and people really just loved it – not to mention it was such a pump up song with the ‘Go Sens Go’ hook.”
Hot 89 was already quite familiar with Belly as they had gotten behind his debut single, the Ginuwine-assisted “Pressure,” as well as Belly’s earlier work with Massari (as the Capital Prophets).
But the Sens anthem took things to a new level.
“I can’t recall a local rap song that has garnered that much attention. Belly is still one of our top requested hip-hop artists,” added Race.
The Hussain-produced “Go Sens Go” was originally released as “Bandwagon,” but after the song was embraced, and the Sens continued to see success, it was rebranded with Senators goalie and hip-hop fan, Ray Emery, thrown on as a guest feature.
The song even caught the interest of national sports media and Sportsnet reached out to Kenny for a word:
“It’s mind boggling for me. I’ve never seen a song grow so fast in my life. It’s been a number 1 song at our radio station; the requests that have come in, like I said, just absolutely incredible.”
Emery and the Sens actually made it to the Stanley Cup Finals that year, but lost to a stacked Anaheim Ducks team who had been largely favoured to win.
It was a tough end to an impressive run for Ottawa’s team, but by the end of the playoffs, Belly had cemented his place as one of the top talents in the city.
His local success would be a sign of things to come as it didn’t take long for him to earn national recognition in the form of a Juno Award and other accolades. He also quietly built up an impressive catalogue of writing credits through his CP Records brand.
All key stepping-stones to where Belly is now: signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation, writing hits for some of the biggest names in music, and touring the world.
Gretzky, Lemieux and Ovechkin
While the hockey and hip-hop connection seemed to work well for Belly and his team, not many artists have followed suit since. The last decade hasn’t produced many similar stories but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Hockey and hip-hop haven’t exactly been joined at the hip. As City Pages noted in a 2015 article titled The 10 Best Rap Lyrics About Hockey, “when it comes to punchlines, Gretzky, Lemieux, and Ovechkin all get less love than Jordan, Bird, and James.”
While it’s not even a contest if you compare it to the amount of basketball references you can find in rap lyrics, there have still been some notable bars paying homage to players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Alex Ovechkin. Bars delivered by names like Fab, Eric Sermon, Cam’ron, and Wale, to name a few.
And of course the hockey fashion influence is undeniable with jerseys being part of various epic moments in hip-hop history. From 2Pac spitting at the camera while rocking a Detroit Red Wings jersey, to the birth of the ONYX hockey team in their classic 1998-video for “React,” – which featured a then relatively unknown 50 Cent in full hockey gear spitting venom from the penalty box – to many more.
In the grand scheme of things, hockey will never compete with basketball, or even football, when it comes to influence on hip-hop music and culture, but Canadian hip-hop artists are increasingly showing off their love for the sport and the teams they support.
So almost as to commemorate the 10-year-anniversary of Belly’s “Go Sens Go,” a gang of Canadian artists coincidentally dropped some big hockey-inspired singles this year, paying homage to different NHL players and teams.
It could be that they were inspired by the return to dominance by Canadian teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Edmonton Oilers, or perhaps just the sheer allure of the new generation of NHL stars, like Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, who both saw songs released in their names.
Whatever the reason, hockey and hip-hop have crossed paths quite a bit this year and even the players themselves have taken notice.
If nothing else, it represents an increase in Canadian rappers wanting to embrace Canadian traditions and cultures into their identities as artists. That’s a far cry from a decade earlier when many Canadian rappers wouldn’t have had a problem omitting their nationalities from their bios. Today, Canadian rappers are as patriotic as they come.
Ottawa’s SVDVM is the artist behind the highly popular “Auston Matthews” single that has received hundreds of thousands of streams to date. Like many others in the Ottawa area, SV is a fan of the Leafs despite the prevalence of the hometown team.
I asked him about mixing hip-hop and hockey, and he spoke on the importance of embracing the Canadian identity:
“A lot of Canadians are still stuck on that 90’s hip-hop which I totally respect, but that’s not what the younger generation is about. I think it’s a Canadian thing and it should happen more often, but a lot of Canadian artists in hip-hop are not trying to embrace the culture or think the world will find it cool.”
In Black Iri$h’s opinion, another Ottawa rapper featured on the SVDVM single along with Xuave, the Canadian identity is something Canadian rappers need to take advantage of.
“At the end of the day hockey is a big part of Canada. I think it’s important to embrace where you come from and take advantage of that. So whether it be hip-hop artist or fashion designers, DJs, I think we all will be more successful being true to who we are.”
Mixing hip-hop and hockey works, it just needs a certain degree of knowledge of both cultures to avoid coming across as cheesy and lacking authenticity. As Steve Keating elegantly described for a 2010 Reuters article, hockey is no joke in Canada:
“Hockey’s place in Canadian culture is closer to religion than a simple sporting pastime, a unifying force in a country of 33 million people that is often split by politics and language.”
But this was certainly the year to see hip-hop and hockey culture mesh so frequently.
Last year, not one Canadian team qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and this season five of the seven teams made the cut. From opening day, it felt like 2016-2017 was slated for a ton of big story lines and the season delivered in spades.
The icing on the cake was Canadian rappers stepped up to provide part of the season’s soundtrack and in turn they’ve found their work immortalized in hockey folklore.
Here’s a look at some of the songs making an impact on and off the ice.
SVDVM, Xuave, Black Iri$h
“Hit ’em with the 4 like Auston Matthews.”
Rookie sensation Auston Matthews was undeniably the biggest story coming into the new season and he exceeded expectations almost immediately. He was expected to impress, but no one was thinking he’d come out swinging the way he did.
In his opening game, against the Senators no less, the new Maple Leafs franchise centre would score 4 goals and become the first player in the modern era of the NHL (starting in 1943-44) to do so in their debut.
The Leafs lost the game 5-4, but Matthews made it clear he was official and the young Leafs squad was not to be taken lightly. His 4-goal performance dominated the narrative in the hockey world for what seemed like days on end, and helped push his jersey to the top spot in sales for essentially the entire season. He was inspiring to watch.
And SVDVM, a Leafs fan like many others in Ottawa, found inspiration after seeing his 4-goal performance first hand.
“I make anthems. After witnessing a 19-year-old break a record in the NHL, I think it was right to make a record about it. I heard the beat first, as I was trying to write a song, the first thing that came to mind was Auston Matthews and the rest is history.”
Between the self-directed video and original upload to SoundCloud back in January, “Auston Matthews” has received upwards of 300K streams with numbers still climbing at a respectable rate. Not to mention streams on other outlets like Spotify.
But that’s not even the best aspect of things for the single when it comes to overall visibility. The song’s lyrics have found their way into the vernacular of the massive hockey community on reddit, as well as social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram, with the chorus taking on meme-like form. It’s not uncommon to see comments like “Hit em with the (object) like (name)” as a reference to SVDVM’s original “Hit em with the 4 like Auston Matthews” chorus line.
Whether you like the song or not, you can’t deny that it’s made an impact, and if you mention the lyric to a young internet savvy hockey fan, there’s a good chance they’ll have some understanding of what you’re referring to.
A couple of weeks ago, during Game 2 of the Sens’ series against the New York Rangers, Ottawa forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau netted the overtime winner and his fourth of the night to give his team a 2-0 lead in the series. It look literally seconds for the “Hit em with the 4 like…” tweets to appear and we’ll see more of the same the next time a player gets 4 goals. A young rapper achieving that degree of influence is impressive; especially when it’s from one of the first song’s they’ve released.
— marco (@clouts89) April 29, 2017
Pageau hittin em with the 4 like Austin Mathews
— Aaron Petten (@PettMyC) April 29, 2017
Matthews and Maple Leafs fans will be playing and referencing this song for years to come and that’s a great look for the artists behind it.
And it needs to be noted that the single is fully on Matthews’ radar, as well as other Leafs players like budding star Mitch Marner.
Aside from young forward liking SVDVM’s post on Instagram, Matthews acknowledged seeing the video in a February media scrum and gave some insight into his view of it.
“I saw it a couple of weeks ago when it came out. Pretty cool to have a song named after you.”
After the video’s release, Matthews couldn’t avoid seeing it:
“I just was getting tagged a lot, and it just kind of showed up… saw it on my phone. A couple of friends from home… the guys were asking if I saw it. That’s kinda the first time I heard about it, and that it was kind of a big deal blowing up. Good for those guys, pretty catchy song I guess.”
And he’s hearing it regularly:
“It was pretty funny. Mitch starts playing the song now when we drive to the rink and he thinks it’s hilarious, but it’s pretty cool.”
All-in-all, it received coverage from mainstream sports media like Sportsnet, TSN, CBC and other outlets, and gave SVDVM, Xuave and Iri$h a large platform to discuss their musical plans and ambitions.
“I’m currently working on my second EP a follow up of the first one COLDNADA. Which I suggest you guys to go check out,” said SVDVM. “The ‘Matthews’ record is going to be on this project, thinking of calling it COLDNADA VALLEY. It’s like part 2 of the first one.”
After dropping the video for “24 Bandz,” which had over 20K views in less than a week, Black Iri$h says his main focus is getting his project completed and released:
“I’ve been doing a lot of shows but I’m putting everything on hold until I finish my EP/album. I really want to get a whole project out that people will love. But for now, look out for the ’24 Bandz’ house remix with UK producer, Beave, and Futurism [Records], releasing next week.”
And Xuave was pushing promotions of his Glum EP, which Kira covered for us at the top of the year.
“I just released my GLUM EP which is kind of like a prelude to the Ego Birth 2 EP I’m going to have coming out soon along with a couple of music videos. We have a lot of things coming soon for RBLx, SV is working on a lot of new music. He’s gonna have something crazy coming too.”
“City of Champions. Yeah we bring it back again. Parade coming back through, might need another statue.”
If you know anything about hockey then you likely need no introduction to Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid. After being donned with “generational talent” status by the hockey community, the Canadian Super Promise has spent his first two NHL seasons proving he’s worth every bit of that title, and then some.
On Tuesday, March 28, 2017, after missing the playoffs for an NHL-leading 11 years straight, the Oilers beat the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 to punch their ticket to the post-season.
As Wayne from Oilers Nation put it, “Connor McDavid arrived like a bolt from the heavens and has dragged this franchise back to respectability in record time.”
The Oilers were the most improved NHL team from the previous season, and McDavid lead the charge each step of the way – winning the Art Ross Trophy race as the league’s top point scorer and currently the favourite to win the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player most valuable to his team.
To commemorate the Oilers clinching a playoff berth, recording artist (and former Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton), Rollie Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon released a track paying homage to the Oiler’s captain.
“Connor McDavid” was co-produced by Gibbs and Pemberton, and so far it’s received over 40K streams to date on SoundCloud, with thousands more on Spotify. The song is mostly about the young superstar but the lyrics also shout-out other members of the team.
Pemberton told Sportsnet that the reaction from fans has been incredible.
“It’s been unbelievable so far. The fans have been really vocal on Twitter about how excited they are about the song. I felt like it would resonate with people, but it’s definitely been wilder than I anticipated. The mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, retweeted it. So many people from the media have covered it, it just feels like it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
And from there, it really has. Much like SVDVM’s “Auston Matthews” anthem, Connor McDavid got word of the Cadence Weapon single and spoke about the song on Hockey Night In Canada’s “After Hours” segment.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard it. A few of my buddies were texting me from back home saying give it a listen but I hadn’t listen to it yet.” Adding, “it’s nice.”
After an era of darkness, suffering through an endless barrage of jabs as the joke of hockey, McDavid turned on the light and Edmontonians – Pemberton included – were inspired.
It turns out he had actually been sitting on the “Connor McDavid” single for several months, but considering when he finally pulled the trigger on its release, that was probably for the best.
“Last November. I was back in Edmonton to play a show, and I got to see the excitement around the new stadium and the team firsthand. McDavid’s winning play was so infectious; everyone was hyped up by it. I wanted to harness that energy in a song. I wanted to write something that a fan could blast in their truck on the way to a game. I have a history of writing songs about Edmonton, such as ‘Oliver Square,’ so I felt like if anyone was going to write an Oilers anthem, it should be me.”
Pemberton has never shied away from his Canadian identity, or his love for his city. But Lil Wayne is also partly responsible for his decision to mix hockey and hip-hop. Sportsnet asked him about his favourite sports-themed rap record and Pemberton’s response revealed the connection:
“’Kobe Bryant’ by Lil Wayne. It definitely influenced ’Connor McDavid.’ I love how Wayne’s sports fandom shines through with how specific and obscure his references are, such as, ‘Catch me at the game sittin’ next to Goldstein.’”
The Oilers sadly saw their season come to an end last week, after impressively making it to the Western Conference Semifinals. That being said, most pundits didn’t even think they’d qualify for the playoffs, let alone make it as far as they did, and excitement is already brewing for what next year may hold.
One thing is for sure, McDavid will still be “skating on your whole team” as the Oilers look to improve on a successful season.
P.K. Subban / Say I
Wasiu / Saukrates ft. OB O’Brien
“Cross the blue line on attack / P.K. Subban for the children.”
P.K. Subban is a household name in Canada and holds his own share of media allure when it comes to NHL superstars.
After being traded to the Nashville Predators from the Montréal Canadiens in the offseason, Subban has quickly (and unsurprisingly) become a fan favourite in the southern market and is currently leading the team’s charge against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals.
While Montréal’s return in the Subban trade was nothing to scoff at – Shea Weber is an elite defenseman – some Montréal fans are wondering if that would be their team one round away from the Stanley Cup Finals had they kept Subban in the fold.
And that’s not to say that Montréal fans haven’t embraced Weber, it’s just that many of them are still openly showing their love for Subban and all that he did for the city. They haven’t fully come to terms with his departure. A popular Montréal sports bar even changed their name from Chez Serge to Chez Subban, and jerseys with the Toronto-native’s name are still seen across the city.
If you look at what he did for the Montréal, beyond just being a great hockey player, you can understand the city’s affinity for the 28-year-old hip-hop fan. Among other charitable acts, he donated $10 million dollars to a Montréal hospital.
But after a disappointing season in 2015-2016, the notoriously harsh and passionate local media were quick to point to Subban as one of the main culprits. Many fans took exception to this, including Montréal recording artist, Wasiu.
“The Canadiens had a bad season, and local media pointed the finger at P.K. It’s funny though, because he’s the best player and we all know he isn’t the problem. Same way when there’s violence that occurs at a club or in general, the thinking is to go check on the black people first because they look like they ‘fit the description’—even if they weren’t the ones to start any problems.”
Wasiu was inspired by Subban – he was putting on for the city like the Habs defensemen and could relate to the unjust treatment he felt he was receiving.
“In many ways I feel like P.K. and instead of making a song talking about racism, I made a song celebrating him. People are going to have to accept that the face of a white, French city is a black man—whether they like it or not.”
The Noah Barer and Cavewek-produced song was heard over 150K times on YouTube, including by Subban himself. Local TV host Fred Bastien asked him about it last May, revealing through a video on Twitter that Subban had approved:
“I’ve heard it. Pretty cool beat, I like it.”
— Fred Bastien 4rest (@fred_bf) May 26, 2016
Of course, Subban was no stranger to being the muse for a Canadian rapper’s art.
Back in 2011, Toronto legend Saukrates released the Subban-inspired “Say I,” as part of a Nike’s “Always: On” campaign which featured four different athletes. “Say I” featured OB O’Brien of OVO and served as the audio to the campaign’s P.K. Subban-themed commercial.
Saukrates spoke with NHL and freelance music writer, Luke Fox, about the opportunity:
“That was for a Nike U.S. campaign called Always: On. They were featuring four athletes and doing a song for each athlete. My photographer, Patrick Nichols, and my manager at the time, Chase, put it together. They figured me and P.K. would be a perfect combo, because I grew up playing hockey and I’m a fan of PK and what he’s done in the NHL. The stars aligned for me to get that opportunity, and we kicked ass. Ours was the best part of the whole campaign.”
But it was more than just an opportunity to promote himself and earn a pay cheque. Saukrates, like many Canadian hip-hop heads, was a huge hockey fan and had been following Subban’s career for quite some time:
“To shoot the video and go meet P.K. was great. In our household, we were familiar with him since his junior career but had never met him,” explained Saukrates.
“Being a black family that grew up playing hockey, it’s rare to see black folks step into the NHL and make noise like that, so we really had that pride going.”
And he wasn’t kidding. If you’re looking for reasons why hockey and basketball don’t have the same ties to hip-hop, even in Canada, look at the lack of non-white representation in hockey as one of them.
Willie O’Ree, the first black NHL player, debuted for the Boston Bruins in 1958. There are now roughly 30 active black National Hockey League players. That’s players with at least a game under their belt, currently playing in the big league or on a farm team.
It’s certainly not a lot, but it’s a lot more than a decade or two ago and that’s partly thanks to Subban, and other talented gems like Wayne Simmonds and Jarome Iginla, becoming faces for the sport. The reasons for why there is a lack of non-white representation is an entire debate on its own, but the NHL has been steadily trending in the direction of more diversity.
Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goaltender whose parents came from Barbados, spoke with the Globe and Mail on how new arrivals to Canada could be turned off by hockey:
“I don’t think our sport truly reflects Canadian society. From my own experience, your parents immigrate here and they turn the television on, and they don’t hear a name that sounds familiar, or a face that looks familiar. In that case, you are losing kids right off the bat.”
And while this veers away from discussing the Canadian hip-hop scene’s growing ties to hockey – that’s an essay on its own – it does speak to the reasons why Canadian hip-hop hasn’t embraced the Canadian pastime the way some might expect.
Wasiu certainly embraced his inner-hockey fan with “P.K. Subban,” but mainly used the song as a platform to comment on the change in times and standards:
“This song is lowkey about empowerment and flossing black power by bigging up all of Subban’s work. He donated $10 million to the Montréal Children’s Hospital, and they built an atrium in his name. The kids love him. Sorry white people, but a black guy represents you—after this song, I hope he’s the first person people think of when they think of Montréal.”
All In / 25 & Always
“This is it, this is all I know/ this is everybody yelling out Go Sens Go!”
An article about Canadian hip-hop and hockey wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the way the Ottawa Senators have continued to support the local scene.
You might say the team was already pushing the envelope back in 2007 by embracing a Canadian rap record the way they did, but now the team has even more ties to hip-hop.
While Belly’s “Go Sens Go” didn’t have much of a shelf-life after the season was over – the song references players that were no longer on the team the next season – the Sens now have a new Ottawa artist holding down the team’s musical voice.
Peter Joynt, aka The Joynt, first got the Ottawa Senators’ attention back in 2012 after the rapper released a song in support the team’s regular season. After their incredible run to clinch a playoff berth, he added a verse and re-packaged the song as the “Sens Playoff Mix.”
Since then, Joynt has gone on to record several more Ottawa Senators-themed anthems, including songs officially commissioned by the team. That’s right; we’ve gone from feeling amazed at the thought of an NHL team embracing a Canadian rapper’s song, to teams actually hiring them outright.
The latest song Joynt released with the Sens is the Rey Topol-produced “All In (Sens 2017 Playoff Stinger)” which features cuts from Ottawa’s own DJ So Nice. The track is now played between stoppages at Sens’ home playoff games at the Canadian Tire Centre.
Over the years, Joynt has seen several of his anthems played during Sens games, including the self-produced “Ready For More,” which came out in 2013, another self-produced record called “This Is It (Go Sens Go)” which came out before the 2015-2016 season, and “Squad Like This,” which came out just before this current season got under way.
He also started 2017 with “25 & Always,” a song the Sens asked him to write to commemorate the organization’s 25th year in the league. The track was released during the team’s January 7th game against the Washington Captials, and Joynt was invited to perform live during one of the game’s intermissions.
The Joynt has essentially become the Ottawa Senators’ resident rapper. He’s received a ton of local media coverage and continues to establish himself as one of Ottawa’s most prominent rap artists.
Back when Belly’s “Go Sens Go” was at the peak of its popularity, I mistakenly figured that playing the song during a game would be the height of the Senators involvement with Canadian hip-hop. But they’ve taken that experience and built on it tenfold, with no signs of slowing down.
At this point, people will be expecting a song from The Joynt in time for the start of the next regular season, or perhaps – if team can pull it off this year – a tune to commemorate their first Stanley Cup win in 25 years.
One can only hope. As I stated earlier, I’m no Sens fan, but they are the only Canadian organization left to cheer for and it would be nice to see a Canadian team win the cup again.
Game 2 is tonight inside Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena. Whether history is to repeat itself or not, the Sens will head back to Ottawa for Game 3 on Wednesday where – much like Belly’s “Go Sens Go” anthem – Canadian hip-hop will play loudly, serving as part of the soundtrack to Ottawa’s ultimate quest for glory.
Written by Jesse Plunkett for HipHopCanada