The West End Cultural Centre’s home is a former church located in the not-quite-gentrified Spence neighbourhood near downtown Winnipeg. The band posters lining the wall confirm the pedigree of the venue: everyone from Montreal’s Planet Smashers to Loudon Wainwright has played here. But the music of Winnipeg’s Most, a three-man native rap crew, is beyond even those eclectic boundaries.
On a recent Wednesday night, Charlie Fettah stomped around the stage, spitting tales of drugs, money and the dangerous allure of both into the microphone held tight against his lips. “The game got a funny way of pulling me back / Try to stay on the right side by making these tracks / Get away from the bad life, pushing it back / But I’m addicted to the fast life, I gotta get stacked.” Fettah and band members Jon-C and Brooklyn sported standard-issue rap gear: gold chains, tattoos, baseball caps turned sideways, oversized pants and T-shirts.
The crowd of about 200 was almost entirely native—young kids, women pushing strollers, entire families and, in particular, teenage girls in crop tops and too much makeup. They bumped to the thick, droning beats and crowded the stage, mouthing the lyrics and shrieking whenever these included the “Northside,” the poor neighbourhood in the city’s north end mythologized on the band’s first album, Northside Connection.
All rap artists worth their gold have a crew, and as the lights went up, Winnipeg’s Most went to work, frisbeeing copies of their CD into the crowd. Their mike cords tangled, the band signed baseball hats, T-shirts and just about anything else thrust at them. This was tame by comparison; at a show not long before, they’d signed chests and foreheads. Someone ripped Fettah’s shirt right off his back.
There is a great, thumping noise emanating out of Winnipeg these days, propelled by a crop of artists bent on telling tales of their rough, windswept city. The city famous for the “Winnipeg Sound” of Neil Young, the Guess Who and a more recent crop of well-regarded indie rock bands is becoming better known for its beats and rhymes than its drums and guitars. There’s another twist: almost all these artists are native.
Winnipeg’s Most, which recently brought home Best Group and Best CD honours from the Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards, has a rabidly devoted fan base. A YouTube video of the band performing its first single has been viewed nearly 440,000 times since last December. Streetz FM, the city’s all-hip-hop station, began broadcasting at about the same time; it has Winnipeg’s Most on heavy rotation, along with native rappers Drezus, Manik and Young Kidd, among others.
Not all of the city’s rappers are native. There’s the Lytics, a four-man brothers-and-a-cousin group whose self-titled EP is a breezy, hook-heavy delight–De La Soul’s Three Feet High And Rising for the parka set. And there are the souled-out breakbeats of Magnum K.I., plus the grouchy nihilism of Pip Skid.
But natives garner the most attention. Rap—specifically, gangster rap—looms large in the city’s native community, which represents about 10 per cent of Winnipeg’s population. Just as rap thrived amidst the racial strife and decrepitude of Los Angeles, Aboriginal rappers have found a muse in Winnipeg, a city with a homicide rate 143 per cent above the national average.
“People feel like there’s something against them all the time, that there’s racism, that the police treat us differently,” says Lorenzo (Leonard Sumner), a hulking rapper originally from the Little Saskatchewan reserve north of the city. “It’s almost like [L.A. gangster rap pioneers] NWA in the early ’90s. That’s Winnipeg now, and instead of black people it’s native people.”
Native rap isn’t new: War Party, the genre’s pioneers, formed in the mid-nineties. What has made it increasingly popular and marketable is the quality of the acts now coming out of the community, as well as the burgeoning promotional muscle to bring bigger shows to the city: promoter Cass Elliott recently arrived from Vancouver, and has since brought in the likes of Pharoahe Monch and the Beatnuts.
“A lot of the early Aboriginal artists were horrible,” says Wab Kinew, a rapper, video director and CBC reporter based in Winnipeg. “They didn’t grow up loving hip hop but wanted to make rap, so the quality wasn’t there. But now the younger generation that has listened to hip hop their whole lives is coming up, and the quality has improved. The street scene found its voice.”
“People have been noticing, There’s really good rap here, maybe I should step my game up, get into a real studio,” says Melissa Spence, Streetz’s program director. “People are taking it a lot more serious now.”
But why Winnipeg? Were you to believe the cliché, it’s because the city is so cold so much of the year that fertile minds have no choice but to stay inside and produce. Perhaps equally important is the city’s isolation, and the rugged do-it-yourself hustle mentality it has engendered. Artists from Burton Cummings to Young Kidd, the half-black, half-native rapper widely considered to be the city’s first bona fide rap superstar, have worn many hats in their early careers: yes, they write and perform, but they do everything else as well.
Take Jon-C, of Winnipeg’s Most: “I record everyone, I mix the vocals, master the beats, do the artwork, the promotion. I built our online network,” says the 30-year-old gravel-voiced frontman, who’s also the brains behind a line of Winnipeg’s Most-branded coffee mugs, calendars and mouse pads.
It’s part of rap’s appeal: at its most basic, it requires little more than a microphone and a downloaded percussion track. “You can go to a drop-in centre with a pair of headphones and make a beat or download a beat,” says Pip Skid, a.k.a. Pat Skene, who teaches a hip-hop course to disadvantaged kids when not rapping about how much the world sucks. “That’s always been what rap is: making something out of nothing. A lot of these kids, the ones who don’t end up dead or going to jail, end up doing something in music.”
The city is dotted with recording studios, one of the more popular of which is located above a Chilean social centre in the north end of the city. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Young Kidd (Frank Fontaine) was in the glassed-in recording area where the air was thick with the smell of weed, rapping lines off his BlackBerry as producer Les Boulanger (a.k.a. Boogey the Beat) played synth and layered it over a sampled organ snippet. He added drums and cymbals and, finally, Kidd’s vocals. The resulting track, Clouds, will likely appear on Kidd’s forthcoming album, Wonderful Winnipeg.
“I just love Winnipeg,” says Boulanger, 22, a marketing major who has produced tracks for many Winnipeg acts as well as American rappers Outlawz. “It’s like we’re all in the same family. It’s a friendly competition going on, and we’re all starting to realize that people are listening to our music.”
But some believe an invisible wall keeps native rappers from being discovered. They have a sizable audience outside their community—Streetz FM was recently voted best radio station by the local alternative newspaper—but there are few non-native faces at their shows. “White people are scared to go,” says Skene. Others blame the “native rap” moniker itself.
“I hate the term ‘native hip hop.’ It pigeonholes us,” says Hellnback (Karmen Omeasoo), a co-founder of War Party and, more recently, Team Rezofficial. At 32, he is one of the scene’s elder statesmen. “I’ve had number one videos on Much Music. Team Rezofficial was nominated for a Juno for Aboriginal artist of the year [in 2009]. I was honoured to be honoured, but at the same time, why weren’t we in the hip-hop category? I hate the idea that I’m ‘good for a native.’ Come on, man.”
He has a point. Hellnback’s delivery is something to behold; he packs every verse with as many syllables as musically possible. On tracks like 2006’s Keep It Movin’, a riff on love, suicide and perseverance set to an uptempo R & B hook, his pace quickens and his anger becomes all the more apparent as the song progresses. “This goes out to the youth from the elders in the form of a song / We losin’ many by the hand, for what we’re doing wrong / We lost the love and the will to carry on,” he raps.
Winnipeg hip hop is certainly better than good; it’s arguably better than much of what is being made anywhere else in Canada—the loudest noise you’ve never heard. Yet.