Canadian hip hop developed much more slowly than the rock music scene. Although Canada had hip hop artists right from the early days of the scene, the infrastructure simply wasn’t there to get their music to the record-buying public. Even Toronto — Canada’s largest city and one of its most multicultural — had difficulty getting an urban music station on the radio airwaves until 2000. As a result, if a Canadian hip-hop artist could get signed, it was very difficult for them to get exposure, even if their videos were played on Much Music.
Last modified on Sunday, 22 January 2012 10:44
Devon, Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors did manage, for a brief time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, to break through to mainstream pop. Maestro’s first chart hit, “Let Your Backbone Slide”, was the first Canadian rap single to break into the Top 40, and remains as of 2005 the best-selling Canadian rap single of all time. Other notable rap singles of this era include Maestro’s “Drop the Needle”, Devon’s “Mr. Metro”, Dream Warriors’ “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” and “Wash Your Face in My Sink”, and Kish’s “I Rhyme the World in 80 Days”.
Rap also began to surface in Canadian mainstream pop in the early ‘90s. Rapper Frankie Fudge performed a rap break in Céline Dion’s 1990 single “Unison” and appeared in her video. Female r&b duo Love and Sas performed rap in their 1991 single “I Don’t Need Yo’ Kiss”.
In 1991, Milestone Radio applied to the CRTC for an urban station in Toronto, which would have been the first such station in Canada, but that application was denied in favour of a country music station (something which Toronto already had on its radio dial).
The decision was controversial, and hurt the Canadian hip hop scene considerably. Only one Canadian rapper, Michie Mee, made an appearance on the national pop charts between 1991 and 1998 — and even she only managed it by partnering with the hard rock band Raggadeath. Snow, who had a hit in 1993 with “Informer”, is sometimes mistakenly labelled a rapper, but in fact his style was more accurately described as dancehall (a style of reggae) than as hip-hop. As well, Tom Green’s band Organized Rhyme had some success on MuchMusic with “Check the O.R.”, but did not receive widespread radio airplay.
It should be noted that many American hip hop artists were popular in Canada, and that Black Canadian musicians such as Infidels, Deborah Cox and The Philosopher Kings had notable successes in the pop and rock genres. But for Canadian hip-hoppers, by and large the door was closed.
That began to change in 1996, when several pivotal events occurred in close succession: first, Urban Music Association of Canada was formed to build the domestic and international profile of Canadian urban music. The following year, Dubmatique broke through as the first Quebec rap band to top the francophone pop charts, and a controversy erupted in Toronto when Milestone was again passed over for an urban radio station. Instead, the CBC was awarded 99.1 to move its existing Radio One station from the AM band — and, ominously, this was believed at the time to be the last available FM frequency in the city.
Most importantly, however, the Vancouver hip hop band Rascalz gathered an all-star crew of emerging Canadian rappers to record “Northern Touch”, a galvanizing statement of purpose for Canadian hip-hoppers which was released as a single in 1998, beating the odds to become the first Canadian hip hop hit since 1991.
Later that year, Rascalz refused the Juno Award for Best Rap Recording, citing that the award was presented during the non-televised portion of the ceremony along with the technical awards. Stung by the allegation of racism, the Junos moved the Rap award to the main ceremony the following year. Also in 1998, Maestro Fresh Wes, now known simply as Maestro, broke his own hit jinx, with “Stick to Your Vision” becoming his first chart hit in seven years.
Hip-hop and trip-hop acts such as Esthero, Choclair, Saukrates and Kardinal Offishall were also beginning to make waves in the press, as the Rascalz controversy and Maestro’s comeback renewed attention on Canadian hip-hop.
In the same year, the CBC’s Toronto station completed its move to FM. Because the FM frequency offered better broadcast coverage, the CBC found that it was able to surrender two repeater transmitters serving communities outside of the city.
In 2000, the CRTC awarded one of the frequencies to Milestone, on the company’s third attempt. That same year, the CBC created and aired Drop the Beat, a television series about hip hop music and culture.
Finally, in 2001, CFXJ (Flow 93.5) debuted as Canada’s first urban music station. Urban stations quickly followed in several other Canadian cities, as well, and for the first time, Canadian hip-hop artists had a network of radio outlets for their music. (The other frequency was awarded to Aboriginal Voices for a station to serve First Nations communities.) Swollen Members, Nelly Furtado, Mc Son, K-OS, and Bu. (The other frequency was awarded to Aboriginal Voices for a station to serve First Nations communities.)