Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch of Dalton Higgins “Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake”. Francesca D’Amico, a PhD student at York University studying the history and development of urban music over the course of the 20th century, hosted the event at Accents Bookstore, where she sat down with Higgins and discussed an array of topics including: Drake, the history of urban music and the music industry in Toronto/Canada, issues of race, ethnicity and class in Toronto; the role of media and record labels, and the current state of hip hop as well as its future in the music industry of Canada. Higgins’ “Far from Over” is much more than a biography of Drake. It is a study of the background cultural conditions in Toronto and the US that helped create the Drake phenomenon.
I was particularly interested in hearing Higgins discuss the hip hop history of Toronto. The Canadian hip hop scene in general is dismissed internationally, making it extremely difficult for artists to get their music out and to the public. This seems to be the over-arching theme of the book. Toronto, just like New York City and Los Angeles has the potential to be an “epicenter”, as Higgins would say, for hip hop and urban music, however the Canadian music industry and radio does little to nothing to support local urban artists. This is one of the things that Higgins discusses with Francesca, when she asks him about the early Hip Hop scene in Toronto and the necessary conditions that paved the way for the Drake phenomenon.
Higgins begins by saying that Canadian success stories are not possible without American support. He argues that hip hop artists in Toronto and the rest of Canada sadly, don’t blow up from Canadian support, but from American fiscal support. A few great examples are brought to the table by Higgins: Michie Mee— first Canadian emcee to sign a record deal with a major American label, Maestro Fresh-Wes was signed to an American label, same goes for Kardinal Ofishall and k-Os. The point Higgins is making here is that all of your favourite Canadian rappers are not getting their support from the Canadian music industry. This is definitely the case for Drake; if not for Lil Wayne and Cash Money Records, would Drake be as popular as he is today? Higgins says no. If Drake were signed to a Canadian label, he wouldn’t have the same support and success he does today. The harsh reality is that the Canadian music industry is not willing to dish out the cash for urban artists. Higgins says if you were to ask Kardinal Ofishall where he gets his fiscal support from, the answer will be Convict Music — Akon.
“It’s other things, it’s not really Toronto that is giving them that support to blow up they way they did” – Dalton Higgins
In “Far From Over” he spends a lot of time debunking the myth that Canada is a “hotbed of urban music” and that it’s going to be the new epicenter for rap music. Look at Raekwon for example: he opened up a record label in Toronto, Ice H20, to “tap into an untapped rap resource and support acts that never seemed to get the right shot at global stardom”.
Higgins also talks about the challenges of getting music heard on the radio. There’s a lot of problems with commercial radio he says, “Canadian commercial radio does very little to nothing, to support black music”. All the Canadian rappers mentioned thus far have horror stories of trying to get airplay – this highlights one of the many issues within the Canadian music industry.
During the discussion, Francesca mentioned that throughout hip hop history, emcees have believed it important to bring attention to their cities and neighborhoods, and in some cases, take on the role of ambassador, as Drake has done (although perhaps unintentionally). Higgins addresses this through his interview with Karidinal Ofishall, which can be found in the book. From Higgins’ interview with Kardinal, he gathered that, for there to be a uniquely Canadian rap movement, you have to rep your hood. Canada is without a doubt a mosaic of different cultures, which sometimes makes it difficult to self-identify. Conflicted identity contributes to one of the issues within the Canadian music scene. For example, I was born and raised in Canada, but identify as being Egyptian. I’m a Torontonian, but I wear a New York Yankees Hat. You see where I’m going with this… so for a uniquely Canadian rap movement to exist, you really have to rep your hood, which I don’t think we Torontonians do, or at least do enough. Although there is a renewed sense of pride and commitment to the city with Raptors gear and 1loveTO merchandise, it’s not enough. Karidinal tells Higgins, rappers are not coming together, or forming coalitions much like in New York, and it has a lot to do with neighborhood-ism and city movements, which is something we have yet to develop in Toronto. Hip Hop is communal, a feeling that we lack in the Canadian music scene.
An evening with Dalton Higgins was definitely enlightening and opened my eyes to the nature and course of hip hop in Toronto. He has uniquely used the life and music of Drake as a means to discuss broader issues in the history of urban music in Canada. Higgins rightly chose Drake as his avenue, for he embodies the “smoke screen” of Canadian rap success.