A new book looks at what hip-hop's "Macolm Gladwellian outlier" means for the genre, and for Toronto.
Local music journalist Dalton Higgins has been watching Drake’s career for years. He first encountered Forest Hill’s most famous son in 2007, when he booked him as part of the Urban Music Association of Canada’s Urban X-Posure showcase. At the time, Aubrey Graham was best known for playing Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation. As an MC, he was virtually unknown. Even so, he made an almost instant impact on Higgins.
“I didn’t know much about him…. I wasn’t particularly excited about him or anything,” Higgins says.
“Then he shows up, and the venue immediately jams up, and it’s all people who are clearly Degrassi fans. They’re not hip-hoppers at all…. And you were just like, ‘Where did these people come from?’ It was an eye-opener.”
It was this long-standing interest in Drake’s career that lead Higgins to write a book about the MC, Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake, The Unofficial Story, which was recently published by ECW Press. Higgins says that he was inspired to write the book in part because Drake is an anomaly in the hip-hop world in so many ways. In some senses, he representes a paradigm shift in the genre.
“He’s like a pop journalist’s wet dream, because his narrative is this fascinating, complex, contradictory story,” says Higgins. “He represents a changing of the guard. The question I wanted to answer was: ‘How does a biracial Jewish kid who grew up in Forest Hill, whose dad is from Memphis, become one of the top handful of rap artists in the world? How in the heck does that happen?’”
He adds that in many ways, Drake’s success marks a change in the hip-hop world order.
“In my last book, Hip-Hop World, I tried to predict where the rap stars of today and tomorrow would come from,” he said. “I argued that they wouldn’t come from the traditional epicentres of hip-hop culture: New York, L.A., the South. I thought it was going to come from a place like Toronto, somewhere that’s off the beaten path for hip-hop. Hip-hop culture is globalized now.”
That said, he’s not sure that Drake’s success will spread to Toronto’s hip-hop scene as a whole. For that to happen, he says, local artists would have to present a more united front.
“When I talked to Kardinal Offishall, who is an artist I greatly respect, I think my opinion kind of mirrored his,” Higgins says. “In order for a Toronto hip-hop movement to emerge and be taken seriously, globally…the artists are going to have to start doing more work together.
“I think there are isolated incidents of success…. But I’m not sure [the artists] all have each other on speed dial. With the indie rock scene in Toronto, all of those artists really supported each other. Emily Haines, Stars, Apostle of Hustle, whoever else. They all talk and work together and are supportive of one another.
“I don’t see as much of that happening [in hip-hop.]”
While Drake may have been an outlier in many ways, Higgins says that it’s possible that artists of his ilk—singer/rapper/actor hybrids who place more value on emotional honesty than street cred—may soon be hip-hop’s new normal.
“There’s this whole rap caricature of coming from the ‘hood and representing a certain ‘hood—even T-Dot, representing a certain neighbourhood,” Higgins says. “[Drake] doesn’t do that. He’s debunked a lot of the mythology around rap music in general.
“He’s a Malcolm Gladwellian outlier…. I think the outlier may become the new mainstream.”