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Edmonton ex-pat Rollie Pemberton sums up the current musical zeitgeist in a terrific new documentary called Northern Beats, all about the long history — and uphill battle — of Canadian hip hop.
“I came on the scene in a pre-Drake environment,” smiles Polaris-Prize-winning Pemberton — aka Cadence Weapon — early in the doc. “Now everybody wants to be from Canada.”
The high-energy, 45-minute film, which airs 9 p.m. Wednesday on CBC, is the third episode in an eight-part series called Black Life: Untold Stories.
This epic documentary project spotlights the struggles and triumphs of famous and lesser-known Black Canadians, and their often understated and intentionally erased contributions to Canada over the past 400 years.
Each Black Life episode has its own visionary director, taking on topics like politics, culture, contemporary issues, art, sports and music.
With multiple points of view and brilliant editing, Montreal’s Will Prosper managed to present a long and complicated musical history containing thousands of artists stretching back to the late ’70s into something easily digestible and with a narrative point.
“We started off trying to do a documentary about the history of Black music in Canada,” the director explains, noting this quickly became impossible in 45 minutes.
“So we decided to just follow hip hop and the rise of hip hop in Canada, because we have Drake, one of the biggest artists in the world.
“But even that felt impossible to do,” Prosper laughs, “because you have all the different regions with all the different stories.
“We did 21 interviews, with way over 50 hours of footage. It was like a dagger in the back,” he says of footage and interviews that ended up cut.
But Northern Beats is honestly a triumph, focusing on three main threads: our hip hop pioneers; the various innovative scenes evolving across the country; and how little enthusiasm there was for this now world-dominating music in Canada early on … and what that cost us.
Examples of historical anti-hip hop resistance include the CRTC denying applications for a commercial urban radio station for a decade — though this didn’t stop college and community stations from elevating hip hop from the underground.
“My dad Teddy Pemberton had a college radio called The Black Experience in Sound that was on the radio for over 20 years in Edmonton,” his son Rollie explains in the doc, illustrated with shots of the old CJSR studio.
“It’s always been challenging for us to have our own voice”
Former MuchMusic VJ Master T talks about community airplay in the show. “It became very important because we didn’t have mainstream radio for Black music, as popular as Black music has been in this county,” he says. “It’s always been challenging for us to have our own voice.”
“We were starving as a culture,” adds DJ and musicologist Ron Nelson, aka the “godfather of Toronto hip hop,” who provides a massive amount of history in the episode. “We wanted something and we deserved to get it and we could feel it.”
Nelson’s hip hop radio show Fantastic Voyage Program had tens of thousands of listeners in Toronto, Buffalo and New York state, and breakout Maestro Fresh Wes describes how he came and played on it in 1982 when he was just 15.
“That right there changed my life,” says Maestro in the doc.
Maestro inarguably changed the face of Canadian music with his 1989 hit Let Your Backbone Slide, which broke onto the American Billboard charts and earned the first Canadian gold single for a rapper.
“He was this stylistic force,” says Pemberton, “and was able to break through really early on and really show that it was a legitimate thing to be a Canadian rapper.”
Jamaican-born Toronto MC Michie Mee — who played the Junos in Edmonton in March — also deservedly gets a lot of Northern Beats’ airtime.
“She got our instant respect because she was young, female and she was kickin’ it lyrically,” says Nelson. “We all saw right away that she had what it took, she had that stardom flavour to her.”
Contemporary R&B artist Jully Black testifies. “She paved the way. Come on! Putting the (Jamaican) dialogue in the music? I have to give her a salute.”
“We really didn’t know we were making history like that,” says Michie Mee on camera. “We were representing our interpretation of the hip hop culture and putting our own spin on it.”
Another passionate interview subject, Mark V. Campbell is assistant prof of Music and Culture at U of T and notes an important thing. “She didn’t believe that Canada was inferior to the United States.”
One of the ways this very idea was flexed was when Nelson staged an international rap battle in Toronto in 1987, at which Mee shone.
“You had to be a little smartass trying to outwrestle lyrically your opponent,” laughs the rapper.
“What did Canada lose by not supporting this first generation of hip hop artists?”
Rascalz are also featured heavily in Northern Beats — with a great segment on the collective turning down its 1998 Best Rap Group Juno because the urban music awards were given out before the broadcast — with zero Black acts performing.
In contrast with MuchMusic VJs Michael Williams and Master T, cringe-worthy moments of stiff, white TV interviewers abound, linking hip hop to hate, poverty, violence and crime.
“You can look at the way the media always brushed away hip hop,” notes Prosper. “They were looking for any reason not to talk about it and associating it with violence. But it was the music people were playing in their cars and in the clubs.
“I think (corporate media) lost a whole generation. And when you pushed people away, they went to other platforms.”
One of the main messages of the doc is that with less industry support compared to, say, metal or country music, hip hop artists looked elsewhere, like the innovative Dream Warriors breaking out with big hits in the UK like My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style.
“What did Canada lose by not supporting this first generation of hip hop artists?” Campbell asks in the film. “We lost the ability to build the infrastructure to support artists like Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara, Drake, The Weeknd.
“Their infrastructure is not in Canada. They’re topping the charts, they’re touring the world, and none of their benefits are really coming back to this country.”
Still, as Rascalz’s Red1 notes, “The No. 1 rapper in the world is a Canadian. Not even just rapper, the No. 1 artist in the world is Canadian.”
“We’re making our own history right now,” agrees Maestro.
Black Life: Untold Stories is part of that history being made.
The series runs 9 p.m. Wednesdays and is available to watch at gem.cbc.ca.
“Every single episode has a different director and brings a different energy and emotion,” says Prosper.
“I’m glad to be part of it.”
Black Life: Untold Stories Ep. 3: Northern Beats
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: CBC TV and streaming on gem.cbc.ca