Friday, March 25, 2016

Toronto Hip Hop 1989-1996

Dream Warriors, Parkdale, April 1991

IT'S HARD TO BE A MUSICIAN IN MY HOMETOWN. It's not like there's no audience here - the biggest city in the country has more than enough people to fill everything from a tiny club to a community centre to a stadium, all on one night. And it's not like you can't get attention - with much of the national media and almost every major record company renting office space here, if you're worth noticing, someone will let you know.

The problem is more than just numbers. Once you have a following, it's likely that your fans will always find a way to turn out, whether it's a few people in a cafe or a full house at Massey Hall. You can keep playing for those people over and over for years, and their kind words and occasional dollars will keep you going on a sort of life support, long after you've lost momentum.

But the worst part is that even if you're the cover story in the weekend arts section or signed to the Canadian branch of some multinational entertainment company, it doesn't take long for coverage to look like hype, and for the A&R rep who signed you to either lose their job or move up to the big league in New York or London (if they're lucky.) That album that got four stars in NOW will eventually get remaindered, and you might find it in the buck-a-disc bin at your favorite used record shop.

I've seen it happen. Many times.

Michie Mee & L.A. Luv, Toronto, 1989

At the end of the '80s, just as hip hop had finally staked its claim on the airwaves all over the world, Toronto produced a handful of rappers and DJs and - most importantly - a local audience that made it hard to ignore. Mainstream radio plugged its ears, but thanks to college radio and disc jockeys like Ron Nelson, a scene grew up, with a distinctly local sound that drew on the Caribbean roots of many of the scene's performers and fans.

I was sent to photograph Michelle McCulloch - aka Michie Mee - and her DJ L.A. Luv (Phillip Gayle) by a music industry publication; she'd already signed a deal with a U.S. label though her debut album wouldn't come out for almost two years. We met in Grange Park behind the Art Gallery; she was articulate, well-mannered and pretty, and I remember thinking that it was typical of Canada to break into the hip hop market with such an affable artist.

Maestro Fresh Wes, video shoot, Toronto, April 1990

Wesley Williams - Maestro Fresh Wes - was the other major front in Toronto's hip hop scene. He'd already released an album when my best friend from high school invited me to come along to the set of the music video he was shooting for the record's second single, "Drop the Needle." "Positivity" was already emerging as a major trend in hip hop, and the Toronto scene embraced it big time - Wes wore evening dress on his record sleeves and cultivated a serious, dignified image.

There might have been a scene and an audience and plenty of momentum, but radio was still ignoring local hip hop and black music in general. In 1991 rap and R&B musicians banded together under the name Dance Appeal to record a single, "Can't Repress the Cause," pleading for their share of airtime. This was probably the reason I was assigned to shoot a "family portrait" of the local scene for another music trade publication.

Toronto hip hop "family portrait," May 1991

I set up my backdrop in a courtyard at Ryerson Polytechnic, a downtown community college, but found that there were too many subjects to fit neatly in the black square I'd rolled out. Michie and Wes are here, along with the Dream Warriors, Thrust and HDV. (I reached out to Michie and Thrust to help me ID everyone in this shot but never heard back from them.) It's not a great photo but it might be a valuable document - a snapshot of a scene coming together, if only to protest their exclusion.

At around the same time the Bar B Q became a regular feature in downtown clubs - a night where hip hop artists and fans (the distinction was never clear) would get together to freestyle and dance to records. I was sent along by yet another music publication - there were once quite a few in Toronto; what did I tell you about no shortage of media or attention? - and spent the night shooting away at the Rivoli on Queen West with my Nikon and a flash mounted with a big reflector.

Bar B Q, Rivoli club, Toronto, May 1991

Hoping to get something different from the usual flash-lit shots in a club, I cross-processed my film to get big colours and a lot of contrast. Obviously I also slipped into default mode for this sort of shooting, which meant channeling Larry Fink and Lee Friedlander. Looking at these shots for the first time in twenty-five years, what strikes me is how mixed the crowd is - it has to be remembered that a big part of what brought hip hop into the mainstream at the turn of the '90s was a huge audience of white suburban kids.

Toronto hip hop looked set to go big time in 1991, or at least that's how it seemed to me when I set up a big shoot at my studio with the Dream Warriors, Their first album, And Now The Legacy Begins, had just been released and I was doing double duty - shooting a cover story for NOW and a feature for SPIN in New York. I filled about a dozen rolls, many of them cross-processed like the shot at the top of this piece.

Dream Warriors, Parkdale, April 1991

Desperate to get something unique, I also shot a couple of rolls of Konica infrared 120 film without the deep red filter, which made for some subtle colour shifts that rendered their black t-shirts in medium gray. As the shot above proves, I was also keen to get something that echoed Richard Avedon's cover for Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends.

As I said before, though, momentum doesn't last, and I found it hard to watch local hip hop artists struggling against the local brand of entropy over the next few years, especially since I'd already spent years watching my friends in bands struggling against the same obstacles. The local rock and hip hop scenes seemed to find common cause eventually, and Michie Mee would join a collective of indie rock musicians going under the moniker Raggadeath.

Thrust, Parkdale, 1996

After a frenzy of shooting local hip hop, it would be a few years before my next assignment. Christopher France is an MC who goes by Thrust, and while he was in my "family portrait" and appears several times in my Bar B Q crowd shots, he didn't get an album out until 1996, at which point NOW hired me to shoot him for the cover.

I did a lot of "flash and burn" motion blur shots for the cover, but opted for something more formal and composed for the inside, which included this frame, of which I've always been quite proud - it sums up the sort of clean, careful, introspective look I was always aiming for in the heyday of my '90s shooting. (He brought the mic prop, by the way.)

Two years later, Thrust would appear with Choclair, Checkmate and Kardinal Offishall on the Rascalz' "Northern Touch" single, which was a kind of bookend to "Can't Repress the Cause" celebrating how local hip hop had survived the years of industry and media indifference that followed that brief period of activity and interest.

Nowadays, after the success of K'naan and especially Drake, we like to pretend that Toronto has always fostered its hop hop scene, but everyone knows it's just a polite story we tell to make ourselves feel good - one of many, to be honest. Michie Mee and Maestro are still around, though they both branched out into acting in films and TV.

The Dream Warriors broke up after releasing their last album in 2002, though they reunited for a '90s tribute night five years ago, when the Junos - the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys - held a series of concerts celebrating the award's 40th anniversary. At the time, though, King Lou - aka Louis Robinson - gave an interview to the Toronto Star where he was honest about his group's relationship to the sort of back-patting that the Junos dispensed:
"For me, personally, the Junos never really seemed like something that kind of furthered what I was doing."
Thrust is still at it as well, teaching at a technical school for music and recording. I think they all would have liked it if Toronto's newfound reputation as a major centre of hip hop had arrived just a few years earlier, but this is a city that really hates making anything happen too easily. Just ask us about our subway.




  1. Yo Rick Johnbronski here, nice pic s. But don t you think you forgot to tell people who brought you in ? #BBQ #SocanHipHopPicture Get at me son....

    1. Johnbronski! I was thinking about you the other day as I was putting this up - some pix of you on the Bar B Q contacts. Great to hear from you, and yes, thanks for getting me into the Rivoli event.

    2. Get at me, via instgram as kareem_everlasting. Our past is big time for people to connect the dots. Pun intended. Way to many people claiming to be there. Without explaining how they got there.
      I actual have a desposible shot of the me organizing the group shot. Which was for a Socan black music thing at the time.
      Get at me and I help you sort your pic's. LOL

  2. Great and legendary piece. Thank you so much.