As in most musical genres, the independent missionaries of hip hop remain on a different wavelength than the corporate rap music heard on pop radio. While the Top 40 stations broadcast cellophane-new hit singles, underground artists have been working on promoting independent styles, but few break the surface of the indie scene. Certain Canadian cities have strong independent hip hop scenes: Halifax produced several artists who moved on to San Francisco on AntiCon records and also birthed Buck 65, a DJ/Emcee of established reputation on the independent hip hop circuit; K-OS rose up through Toronto’s organic music scene, and his sounds reflect it. The diversity of global hip hop maintains its heartbeat, ensuring that newer styles will constantly emerge. From Canada’s Josh Martinez to Israel’s Dag Nachash, music enthusiasts are consistently exploring new styles of expression and pushing the boundaries of hip hop art forms.
Vancouver has few live, independent hip hop events—“Monday Night Live” at the Lamplighter is one of only three examples of the city’s hip hop culture. Cas, the show’s host, works closely with aspiring rap artists, and while his shows celebrate local performers, they also highlight the lack of home-grown talent. Some acts, like Jay Kin and Emotionz, come from these parts, but Monday Night Live frequently features rappers from places like Halifax and Winnipeg. Vancouver is plagued by a dearth of artists and venues to promote them, and the few nightclubs that will host them often turn beyond the Lower Mainland to fill their line-ups. Cas has a casual attitude on and off stage, and he seems resigned to the struggle of creating and producing the music. Cas has his own independent record label, Camobear Records, which has produced albums by Josh Martinez, and sales are sustaining. “Camobear has produced seven records, each one making enough money to pay for the next, and anyone looking to make money in Vancouver’s local talent, well, they’re wasting their time.”
The organizer of Monday Night Live, Needle Kineval, understand Vancouver’s hip hop scene better than many, and his view takes into account the changes of the past few years. In the 1990s the music was in its infancy, and it quickly accelerated into a very popular form of cultural expression. But at some point, the culture changed. The artists that pioneered the art form were expressing their emotions and their backgrounds. Public Enemy raged against white America with political incisions. NWA and Wu-Tang brought listeners back into Compton and Staten Island to display the criminality and violence prevalent in black urban communities. But by the late 1990s, hip hop had changed from being descriptive to being prescriptive. It no longer told the stories of the artists, but instead provided a framework by which its fans could present themselves. Independent artists cannot become successful by telling fans how to live their lives and what clothes to wear—we have The Source and XXL magazines for that. Instead, artists are forced to present something new that reflects themselves and their beliefs, hoping that it will ring true with those who look beyond magazine ads for designer clothing.
Needle Kineval believes that the MP3 revolution is one of the causes of the decline of live hip hop in Vancouver. “More people could download the music that they wanted, and thus record labels only sold albums to those who were truly committed to the investment they were making in local hip hop.” Monday Night Live was Cas’ and Needle Kineval’s remedy for the situation, even though it was put together mainly for themselves and their own interested parties. Cas describes the event as giving local artists and fans a comfortable place to express and absorb new talent. It has its regulars, but its environment is friendly and transparent. “Vancouver had a lack of live hip hop. So-called hip hop nights in Vancouver are at the clubs, where people want to hear the club tracks from the DJ booth. They just hire a DJ and a mixer to keep the beats, and people dance. Needle Kineval and I wanted to know that we had a live show, a real showcase of the stuff you won’t hear on the radio, you won’t hear on MuchMusic.” The men and women who take the stage at the Lamplighter wouldn’t necessarily be recognized as microphone specialists or turntablists. The music and art they represent is more subtle in its candor, more raw in its criticism, and stripped of vestigial vocals and lyrical excess.
The music and art seen and heard in the underground arena differs from the radio hits; many hip hop fans (“heads”) complain that mainstream hip hop has been on a slow, downhill slide into a standardized formula of drum beats, bass lines and cliché choruses. For those who seek fresh hip hop, they can skip the grocery store and go straight to the tree. The roots aren’t hard to locate, follow an artist’s career and collaborations to their origins, and discover the stages they first appeared upon. I listen to The Roots; The Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson produced a record called True Notes Vol. I; a lyricist named Aceyalone appeared on that record; Aceyalone collaborated with Abstract Rude in a band called Haiku D’Etat; Abstract Rude performed at the Lamplighter; I met Jamil Kemani at that show.
Jamil Kemani, 20, had done art and graphic design throughout high school, and after he graduated, he moved from Abbotsford to Vancouver. A desire for new venues for his creative output led him down an entrepreneurial path. Fusing his graphic talents with his love of hip hop, he put together Dialect Urban Forum, a cooperative of artists and vocalists with the common goal of uniting their talents and presenting positive messages in their art form. Vancouver is flooded with local designers and artists, from jewelry to organic clothing, to art galleries and basement production studios. In this market sector, Jamil has found a niche. He focuses on hip hop-styled apparel, aimed at outfitting the music’s listeners with an image that reflects their tastes and opinions. The imagery is darkly creative, exciting, and political. One shirt by Dialect Urban Forum displays dark-suited, masked mercenaries and features lyrics penned by Aysha, a songwriter/spoken-word poet and member of the Forum. Jamil explained that the words were an attack on the rationale behind the invasion of Iraq. Dialect Urban Forum has already produced several lines of graphic art and t-shirt prints, and the minds behind the forum are working to procure opportunities and connections with various distributors in Vancouver. Obtusely, the market for this type of gear is fused to the lacklustre dynamic of the local hip hop scene. To compensate and correct, Jamil and his colleagues are currently working to promote themselves and other local artists beyond the realm of clothing and business.
Dialect Urban Forum, newborn though it is, has already undergone changes. It remains a clothing company, but has moved towards hip hop promotion, and may morph again into a record label. It aims to use clothing as a billboard, specifically using art to inspire ‘organic strength’ in Vancouver’s hip hop scene. Jamil has produced a variety of men’s and women’s shirts featuring print designs by the artists of the Forum and lyrics from the writers and emcees affiliated with the company. The shirts are printed by American Apparel, certified to be sweatshop-free. In the eyes of the Forum’s founder, people should be awakened by shirts featuring fresh designs and poetic content. Dialect Urban Forum only makes a five-dollar profit off each sale. One dollar of five goes back to the artists and emcees who write the lyrics printed on the shirt. Jamil sees this as an “artistic grant,” with twenty percent of the company’s profits going back to artists to help them pay for their studio time and production costs.
The internet and word of mouth are the information networks that Dialect Urban Forum relies on, twin legs that will carry it into public awareness. Jamil works to raise the Forum’s profile on Vancouver’s streets and information highways. “Look at San Francisco,” he says. “The crowd there fully got behind hip hop as an art form, and the scene produced AntiCon. Even in the Yukon, my sister moved up to Whitehorse, and the community fully supported the youth in celebrating their art and music.” But breaking into hip hop art and culture in Vancouver is like trying to unscrew a bolt with your bare fingers. “People in Vancouver see hip hop, they like hip hop, but they don’t buy hip hop,” he explained. There are a few outlets for hip hop culture in Vancouver, and the store Dipped Urban Hookups is now carrying a few of the Forum’s lines. As well, Dialect’s catalogue can be accessed at www.dialecturbanforum.com.
Dialect Urban Forum wants to corner an emerging fashion trend. “Music sets trends in fashion,” and Jamil predicts the new trend will be ‘conscious hip hop.’ Back in the Sixties and Seventies artists like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix helped solidify the peace sign as a comprehensive symbol of a movement and a generation. “Wearing a dove’s footprint on a tie-died shirt became both a fashion and a political statement,” Jamil explains to me. He believes that hip hop is primed to take the lead in new social and political fashion, and that socially conscious hip hop is on the rise. Sean Coombs’ campaign to Vote or Die, while marred by the glamour and gratuity typical of P-Diddy, encouraged political participation among hip hop listeners. Eminem’s Mosh video/single hit the charts right around election time, and was one of the strongest attacks on the Bush administration last year by a popular musician. Perhaps, now that hip hop has passed through a generation (its stars are now fathers and mothers), the artists are thinking beyond their immediate wealth and opulence. Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, and Eminem have all entered parenthood, and Jamil thinks that they are thinking first about the country their children are growing up in. If the leadership of hip hop is leaning in a more conscious direction, and a growing number of poets and amateur turntable DJs putting their work online and making their own mixtapes, then Dialect Urban Forum has a chance at contributing to the new movement.
As hip hop culture continues to mature, it is being refreshed from the grassroots level by motivated actors like Jamil, Cas, and Needle Kineval. They weave themselves into the fabric of the culture because they love the music, and they recognize that they can’t keep feeding off the industry without re-contributing. So to the gentlemen with the Sean John t-shirts: the improvisational creativity of urban artists in remaking the event calendars of their locales—that’s hip hop; the capitalization of activists upon prevalent political trends through innovative problem-solving—that’s hip hop; the use of art and music to overcome—that’s inseparable from hip hop. It’s difficult to do, and both Dialect Urban Forum’s conscious ideology and Monday Night Live’s local promotions may be grains of sand in the great task of tipping the scales of hip hop towards a more valuable, less disposable product, not to mention an art.