Black History Through Music: Talking with More or Les
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Black History Through Music: Talking with More or Les

Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.

The term “Black History Month” has a scholastic sound to it, like a category on Jeopardy you skip in favour of Celebrity Rhyme Time. Yet there’s a lot to be fascinated with, from Kush to Kentucky from Jim Crow to James Brown, and to tackle the topic it makes sense to look at what excites many people about black culture and history: music. While there are many great black artists who are movie makers, painters, and playwrights, it is the Western musicscape that has been dominated by black styles of music, from rock ‘n’ roll to reggae, from the blues to hip-hop, from jazz to funk, from disco to drum and bass. It has become the most accessible doorway into the world of black experience. This series explores how some Torontonians found music opened that door for them.
Today’s talk is with More or Les, a critically acclaimed rapper with funny, thoughtful, and on-point rhymes.
For the Toronto-born rapper, hip-hop music has been his window to the world, heightening his awareness of various disenfranchised communities and making him think twice about his own lifestyle. Les applauds the contributions of MCs like Mr. Lif from Boston, Ice Cube from Compton, Chuck D from New York, K’Naan from Somalia, and Roots Manuva out of the U.K. have made to the game. By rapping what you know, and sharing with the world what life is like on your block, MCs connect with listeners and inspire them.
It’s not just a straightforward message that Les appreciates, but also the example set by doing it right. “Maestro, Kardinal Offishall, and Saukrates have been inspirational to continue being a rap artist in Canada—to feel that it’s okay to be a Canadian emcee and proud of the heritage. So long as you’re dope,” he says. “I distinctly remember the excitement I felt holding the Father Time b/w Twenty-One Years 12-inch release by Saukrates and Choclair in my parents’ basement, mere hours after I bought it at Play De Record, about to put it on the turntable, eager to hear the whole thing front-to-back. So happy that they included the instrumentals.” Without words, it might not have been knowledge they were dropping on that part of the vinyl, but instrumentals like those became DIY tools for Les and a new generation of MCs and DJs to explore and learn from.

More or Les is inspired by a variety of different musical genres and sounds, pulling from modern rock, barber shop quartets, traditional folk, and even “Swedish cocktail music.” When asked about black music and history, his mind jumps to the American rhythm & blues and the soul music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he doesn’t feel the need to “sound black” in his music. Although through hip-hop “most of the stories have been primarily told by black people,” he makes it clear that he doesn’t think that hip-hop music should come exclusively from black people.
“My main focus is always to create a dope song, the best I can make it. To me, it’s fun to be creative and express my own thoughts, so making sure that goes right is important above all else,” he says. “That said, I tried to take a step forward with my song ‘Sucka Word’ [from the album The Truth About Rap] and purposefully presented something that I wanted people to see as a part of black identity—a black male not only denying the use of the n-word, but letting people know in sharing that detail that it’s okay to express that point of view and be proud of it.” The end of “Sucka Word” features a sample of Public Enemy frontman Chuck D talking about “the n-word,” saying, “It was thrown at us. And then, all of a sudden, us accepting it is like somebody just catching garbage and lovin’ it.”
Next to Chuck D, More or Les finds music with a message from Del the Funky Homosapien, DOOM, and specifically KRS-One (who is so passionate about the message that he founded the Temple of Hip Hop, a place that teaches and archives the music, culture, and political movement known as hip-hop). “He describes a lot of American black inventors and activists on the Boogie Down Productions song ‘You Must Learn (live from Caucus Mountains remix)’. To quote KRS, ‘Madame CJ Walker made the straightening comb, but you won’t known this, if you weren’t shown.’”
More or Les’ new album Brunch (served) with a Vengeance is coming out this summer following this spring’s “Old’s Cool Mixtape” where he goes back in time to spit new raps over remixed classic hip-hop breaks. Watch the video “Pop-N-Chips” by Les and Kils, featuring Ghettosocks and Timbuktu.
Lyrical Postscript: Here’s the rest of KRS-One‘s “You Must Learn.”

“You Must Learn”
It’s calm yet wild the style that I speak
Just deal with facts and you will never get weak in the heart
In fact you’ll start to illuminate
Knowledge to others in a song let me demonstrate
the force of knowledge, knowledge reigned supreme
The ignorant is ripped to smithereens
What do you mean when you say I’m rebellious
Cause I don’t accept everything that you’re telling us
What are you selling us the creator dwell in us
I sit in your unknown class while you’re failing us
I failed your class cause I ain’t with your reasoning
You’re tryin make me you by seasoning
Up my mind with see Jane run
See John walk in a hardcore New York
Come on now, that’s like a chocolate cow
It doesn’t exist no way, no how
It seems to me that in a school that’s ebony
African history should be pumped up steadily, but it’s not
and this has got to stop
See Spot run, run get Spot
Insulting to a Black mentality
A Black way of life or a jet Black family
So I include with one concern, that
You must learn
I believe that if you’re teaching history
Deal with straight up facts no mystery
Teach the student what needs to be taught
Cause Black and White kids both take shorts
When one doesn’t know about the other ones’ culture
Ignorance swoops down like a vulture
Cause you don’t know that you ain’t just a janitor
No one told you about Benjamin Banneker
A brilliant Black man that invented the almanac
Can’t you see where KRS is coming at
With Elie Whitney, Haile Selassie
Granville Woods made the walkie talkie
Lewis Lattimer improved on Edison
Charles Drew did a lot for medicine
Garrett Morgan made the traffic lights
Harriett Tubman freed the slaves at night
Madame CJ Walker made a straightin comb
But you won’t know this is you weren’t shown
The point I’m gettin at it it might be harsh
Is we’re just walkin’ around brainwashed
So what I’m sayin is not to diss em man
We need the 89 school system
One that caters to a Black fratern because
You must learn
Akebulan is the original name
Of Africa now stripped of it’s fame
It’s good to note, that in ancient times
Egyptians developed all sciences of the mind
To the point where they ruled the planet
But Rome, Greece and Persia wasn’t havin’ it
They attacked, and won the war
But it wasn’t enough, they had to get to the core
Cause in that time it was Akebulan
That ruled religion, politics and man
In order to destroy the Egyptian race
They had to wipe the sciences, from off the face of the planet
So they proceeded to ban it
Then replace it with Christianity
And it’s, been that way, all the way to today
Learn what we teach, hear what we say
But here comes the K-the-R-the-S-the-O-the-N-the-E
The BDP and we rhyme intelligently
Let me continue with Theodosyius
A Greek ruler not known to most of us
He in the fourth century A.D.
Calls the Egyptians fools you see
Two years later, Justinian rules
Six A.D., was it for schools
As a result, ignorance had swirled
Over Christian Europe and grateful Roman worlds
This went on for a thousand years
Of ignorance stupidity and tears
Now comes the seventeenth century hardness
Europe, began to come out of it’s darkness
So J.F. Blumenbach, a German
Came out of nowhere and started confirming
White supremacy and men of colors
Before this time, all men were brothers
It was Johann, who went on to say
There are five different colors in the world today
That’s caucasian, malayan, and mongolian
American-indian, and ethiopian
Yes, the ignorance gets scarier
He believed whites were superior
According to his idiotic fountain
The purest whites were from the Caucas mountains
J A Blofener, and H S Chamberlain
Both supported this outrageous racism
This went on to what the master race should be
And why they killed the Jews in Germany
Here is the reason why I’m so concerned
Because you, must, learn

Co-written by Brian McLachlan and Jaclyn Buckley.