One of the biggest complaints that Toronto hip hop artists have is that they are ignored by local media, and, for the most part, they’re right. Drop the Needle hopes to help remedy this by checking in with some of the city’s finest artists each month to see what’s up.
Photo by Mark Kasumovic.
Since 1997, PHATT al has been dropping records and rocking crowds in Toronto. Back then, he was part of Tallisman’s crew UNIT-e, which included Louwop, Troubadour, Potion, and some girl named Nelly Furtado. While he admits that early in his career he wasn’t working as hard as he could, PHATT al has definitely got his hustle on. He’s been involved with the Cryptik Souls Crew back when they were affiliated with Len. He’s also been in Raggadeth and Punjabi by Nature.
After spending a few years in LA working with Divine Styler’s Scheme Team crew, PHATT al has been back in the city for the past couple of years. His party funk band God Made Me Funky released their sophomore record, Enter The Beat this week. They’ll be playing a CD release show this Friday at the Opera House. He’s also started an old-school hip hop duo with Andy T called King Latifah. Somehow he also finds time to record solo albums and continues to work with Scheme Team. While PHATT al may seem excessively busy, he has things in perspective. “I’m one of a handful of the lucky few who even have the ability of making a living as an MC in Canada,” he says.
Torontoist: What do you love about hip hop?
PHATT al: You know, what I love about is hip hop is the fact that it’s never stagnant. It forever changes. It’s kind of like a forest. Every once in a while, lightning will strike somewhere and it’s going to burn out all of the old growth. And that old growth will allow new fresh trees and MCs to grow and I think that’s a really important thing in any artistic endeavor or any culture. It constantly makes room for new and innovative ideas to come into fruition. If you are an old tree in that forest, you can still grow with the new saplings. The thing I love about hip hop is its ability to adapt and change.
If you were stranded on an island and could only take one hip hop album or song with you, what would it be?
The album would be Ice Cube’s Death Certificate. That was the album that really showed me that I could say almost anything and from an extremely honest place. It was really during the Golden Age of hip hop, a lot of wicked records came out and bands that were so stylized but were still saying something. And the song would be It’s Tricky by Run-DMC.
What is your opinion of Toronto’s hip hop community?
Every time I’ve come back to Toronto, I’ve always tried to stress the fact that in hip hop, crews will take you further. When you have a solid crew, like back in the day we had the Circle and if you look at the members of the Circle, most of those members have gone on to meet a lot of success as Canadian hip hop artists and such—Saukrates, Choclair, Kardinal, Jully Black, Solitair, Ro Dolla and even my crew (UNIT-e), we’re all still doing it and doing it on different levels and such but getting the job done.
So when you really and truly look at it, we need a Wu-Tang Clan. You need to be in an N.W.A. You need to be in a crew that’s going to support you as an artist and will help you grow. And hopefully, when your crew splits up and does what it needs to do individually, there’s still that support. I do find that right now in Toronto, individuals are going for there’s, which I have no problem with. If all you do is hustle, just hustle. But at the end of the day, it just creates this fragmented, non-linear, non-cohesive feeling to the scene that you’re part of. If you guys are together, you’re not going to fall separately apart.
Toronto’s a notoriously tough crowd at hip hop shows. As a person that’s played in the city, what’s been your experience?
The funny thing is that Toronto’s known as the screwface capital of the country. It’s that overwhelming feeling of “impress us,” because if you go to Nanaimo and all of these little towns, they’re more receptive to what you’re doing because they’re like, “yeah, we don’t get hip hop shows all of the time.” But I find that if you really put the time into doing a good show, Toronto people will respond. Out of my career, I think I’ve only had two bad shows in Toronto because I really take the time out to make sure that my show is really tight. Even people like Kardi and the whole Circle, those guys put on really good shows and they have been doing that for a very, very long time.
I heard you say something about NuFunkTonia in a CBC interview. What is NuFunkTonia?
I live and love the ability to grow and change and that’s the amalgamation of hip hop. Whenever I change bands and whatever style of music that they play, I can always bring it back to hip hop. P Funk, R&B and jazz being the base of hip hop has always had that improv, that ability to pull from different mediums and grow. With God Made Me Funky, the style of music that we’re doing is called nu-funk because it’s not just defined as classic 70’s funk. When you add those raw hip hop elements and add jazz elements, it becomes a new extension of what it was. So you do have a basis of funk and when you add all of these new elements to it, you call it nu-funk.
So in the grand tradition of Parliament and the Mothership, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, and KC and the Sunshine Band, where we take you with what we’re doing is to NuFunkTonia. It kind of goes back to the idea that when you put on a show, the show isn’t just come stand around and watch us play. The show is enter our house of nu funk and become a part of that house. We call it NuFunkTonia. Welcome to NuFunkTonia and get on down. When you leave, you’re going to get back to the real world and tell all of those people about your experience and bring them to NuFunkTonia whenever you’re ready to rock.
Rap is a probably the music genre that’s most reliant on words. If you could make any book required reading in highschool, what would it be?
It would be The Catcher in the Rye. [Laughs.] I’m not in the greatest company with the people that love the book. Apparently it’s the number one book that serial killers and assassins turn to in regards to quoting out of their favourite book. In reading that book, it’s so much about one’s inability to face one’s own self on a lot of levels—our own innate fears and desires and our own inability to deal with who we are and therefore to deal with other people. You have to deal with the phony in you before you can deal with the phony in somebody else. It’s so easy to see somebody for what they are but when you look at yourself and give yourself an honest appraisal, what are the phony things that you do? What’s false about you and can you change that? Can you handle that?
I read this book about this kid from the 50’s and I can identify with the dude, because as an artist you’re constantly questioning yourself—is what I’m doing real? Do I really identify with it or am I just making a fantastic story for the sake of making a fantastic story? You’re constantly in a state of questioning your art, who you are as a person, and how you’re trying to grow and I really think that The Catcher in the Rye helps a person identify with the person who is going through those feelings.
I read it every year because it’s always interesting to me the new nuances I find in the book and how I relate it to how I’m living and shit.