“When I was a kid and I started doing this, I thought I invented hip hop. And then when I began to leave my little world, where it was all happening in my bedroom in Mount Uniake, and I discovered that there were some other people out there doing something kind of like what I was doing it came as a shock.”
That’s CBC Radio 2 host Rich “Buck 65” Terfry from his recent appearance on Q with the CBC’s crown jewel, Jian Ghomeshi.
For decades the venerable public broadcaster and hip hop music have been co-existing, but neither has paid the other much attention. CBC’s lack of hipness, or “downness,” isn’t so surprising when you consider the hoopla that rang out a few years back because Radio 2 changed formats and fired the CBC orchestra. Traditionally the purview of classical music aficionados who will gladly tune in to a fifteen-hour long Wagner opera, the CBC has been branching out of late to reflect the diversity of the country’s tastes rather than dictating them from on high.
As part of that ongoing effort, this month is officially “Hip Hop Month” at the CBC. No, they’re not going totally gangbusters and giving Nardwuar control of the whole place. But the broadcaster is featuring lots of hip hop related programming, blogging, and interactive historical time-lining across all platforms (press release speak for radio, TV, and online). The whole thing culminates in a “Hip Hop Summit” next week, which includes a Canadian hip hop star-studded concert and, so as not to stray too far form CBC-esque erudition, a series of panel discussions.
Torontoist sat down with one of the project’s main content managers, Dalton Higgins, to find out more about Canadian hip hop and why the CBC has a responsibility to show it off.
Torontoist:Can you describe how you think of hip hop exactly?
Dalton Higgins: Hip hop is a lifestyle, a culture, a community. It’s reflected in how you dress and how you speak. It’s this all-encompassing thing that has dominated my life for the last twenty-plus years, and will continue to dominate my life.
One of the things that’s always appealed to me about hip hop is that it’s a protest music. If something sucks terribly, like let’s say the TTC—they keep raising fares, and I take public transit, so that sucks terribly—you’re always going to find somebody in the rap tradition rapping about that, bashing the TTC on YouTube. And people celebrating the TTC as well.
[Ed.: He’s totally right.]
So, yeah, that’s what appeals to me about hip hop—it’s very timely, it’s very topical. And rappers keep their fingers on the pulse. That’s what rappers do better than anybody.
Is the form essentially revolutionary?
Absolutely. At its core, at its root, even when it seems to be silly and trite, it’s still talking about the here and now. Whereas other musical cultures, let’s say classical music, it’s wonderful—Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart—sure it’s wonderful sonically, but those music scenes seem a bit stuck in a time warp. That’s a very old, very homogenous kind of community. It’s not diverse and open, which is what I see in the hip hop generation.
The culture is from a time and place, and the birth of hip hop culture is tied to a very specific time and place—South Bronx in the ’70s—so how has it taken hold globally? What is it about hip hop that has allowed it to pop up in other places, like Canada?
With hip hop we need to talk about access. If you want to partake in the world of opera or classical music, sometimes it means you’d have to study at the Royal Conservatory. It’s a very costly venture that not everybody can afford.
But hip hop is very DIY and low-cost. It’s just about words, crafting brilliant wordplay. Rhyme schemes, metaphors, similes, iambic pentameter, all the geeky stuff you learn about in English class. You don’t need any money to do that.
I’ve travelled a lot, and what I’ve found is youth in different parts of Europe—Spain, France, Germany—to Latin America—Cuba or Guyana, most young people are not so obsessed with indie rock and things that are popular here, in Toronto. It’s hip hop that’s the vehicle they’re using most often.
Where is it strong in Canada?
One of the areas where it’s really rising up is the First Nations communities, given Canada’s torrid history, its treatment of original peoples. There’s a lot to talk about, like about residential schools. It’s a horrible history which has still not been remedied at all. There’s certainly areas where the oppression still is quite harsh and open and in your face.
And certainly in racialized communities, to include the black community. So a lot of young black men that I mentor and hang out with, they’re feeling the oppression raw and stark still. So rap is a protest vehicle to talk about things like, “This isn’t fair. Why can’t I get a frickin’ job? ‘Cause I’m a black guy?”
It’s an attractive form of expression for disenfranchised communities.
It is, it is. But the crazy thing about hip hop, is on the one hand it is the “voice of the voiceless,” but the beautiful thing about it versus other genres is, whatever your political or social convictions there is a scene there for you. If you’re gay/lesbian, there’s a homo hop scene that’s quite large.
If you’re hard-core and you like gratuitous violence, there’s this so-called gangster rap shit.
If you’re into environmental issues, you know.
If you’re say, Jewish and into Yiddish culture, there’s this guy out of Montreal, Socalled, and he blends ages old klezmer music tradition with contemporary hip hop.
So whatever your interests, your race, your culture, your religion, there’s something for you in hip hop. It’s the most all-encompassing music by far.
It seems well suited to the perpetual challenge of CBC programming then. It’s so diverse, and it’s made up of so many individual communities. Is part of the goal of the Hip Hop Summit to expose people who are not aware of any of the music? And what are the challenges when there are so many factions?
I think one of the reasons the CBC brought me on board is I have this broad, over-arching umbrella vision of the culture. And like I said in my book Hip Hop World, “it’s a hip hop world and you’re just living in it.”
[Typical CBC listeners] don’t see how much rap music and hip hop culture have infiltrated and impacted all of popular culture, from the shows they watch to the clothes they wear.
And the CBC, as a public broadcaster, it’s part of their duty and responsibility to tap into music constituencies across formats, across Radio One, 2, 3, and television.
This project is an opportunity to educate Canadians about how long this music form has been happening here.
Let me give you an example. You know how people say T-Dot? A lot of people say T-Dot. It’s a rapper that coined that term, a guy named K-Force. Now you hear people on CTV, CityNews saying, “Yeah, the T-Dot,” and a rapper came up with it. Everybody uses it, but they don’t know the roots of it. A rapper!
And look at who’s hosting the Juno awards: Drake, a rapper! Whereas before it was disenfranchised communities and all that, it’s now grown up and left various aspects of the hood.
Only in hip hop could you have a guy who’s writing some of the most poignant rhymes, who’s part black, part Jewish, and grew up in Forest Hill. That’s hip hop. Hip hop is filled with contradictions; it’s very complex. And Drake comes to symbolize that. He grew up in Forest Hill. He’s just a regular dude. And now he’s like the number one rapper in North America—well, next to Jay-Z.
How important is radio to the hip hop community?
Radio is hugely important, because radio is one of those things when we talk about access. So you can just flip open your laptop and listen to Radio 3. I do it all the time.
And before, you know, MTV or MuchMusic or any big media cared about rap music, community radio is where you heard hip hop. It was on the radio. In Toronto, it was on Ryerson’s CKLN, CIUT at U of T, and also CHRY up at York, that’s where all hip hop heads heard rap. Going back to the ’80s, that’s the only place you could hear rap. You weren’t hearing it on CHUM FM.
Do you think rappers have a responsibility to reflect their realities?
Some of the best rap does that. But what non-hip hoppers need to see more is the diversity of voices. Do people like to get drunk and party and have fun? Sure they do, across genres. But commercial broadcasters only show one slice of rap culture, the heterosexual male who scores as many hot women as he can, fast cars, and all that. Bling.
There are a gazillion rappers that are rapping about environmental issues, that are rapping about how awful sexism is, how racism is crappy, but they don’t get the time of day.
A week-long series of interviews, concerts, and profiles begins March 28 across all three CBC radio networks. Radio 3 will live broadcast the Hip Hop Summit concert—featuring k-os, Kardinal Offishall, Shad, Saukrates, Classified, Maestro and many more—on March 29. And head down to the broadcast centre on April 1 for a free day-long celebration of all things hip hop including panel discussions, a fashion market, visual art displays, dancing, beatboxing, turntabling, and more. Torontoist will be at all that too, in case you can’t be.