By Mathieu Evong
April 2, 2014
It may not be what people think of when they think of music in the Maritimes, but there it was.
Bass drums boomed from large black speakers set in the middle of King Square Park. They could be heard from blocks away.
There was no stage, but wooden boards were set on the ground in front of a large tent. The boards were covered in spray paint, spelling out the initials P.E.I. in bold blue letters. The initials HHA for Hip Hop Association were written underneath in red.
On the boards, a man in a loose-fitted white shirt and jeans stood with a microphone.
“Been visually impaired, since the age of two. What else should I be, well just be you.”
Mike Dow, who goes by the stage name Mike Dow Baby, or MDB, was the legally blind host for Hip Hop in the Park on June 29 of last year. The revenue from the event went towards the CNIB, a charity dedicated to supporting the visually impaired. They raised $225 by the end of the night.
In the tent, a DJ stood in front of a laptop, turntables and a mixing board. A sample of a squeaky voice repeated the phrase “I’m a blind man.”
As a blind hip hop artist, he felt he was a good spokesperson for the fundraiser, Dow said in an interview.
“In hip hop as a community, I think we’re looked at the wrong way, so I think it’s important as the hip hop community that we give back,” he said.
The event was a good opportunity to show hip hop in a positive light, he said.
“I love coming down to any community and showing we’re not so bad.”
Michael McGuire, a Halifax-based rapper and producer who goes by the alias Hermit of the Woods, was performing at Hunter’s Ale House in Charlottetown for the ECMAs on April 4 this year. He ended his half hour set with a slam poem.
“See we built this city on weird rap and ingenuity. Home studio fluency and a few new acts of truancy.”
It wasn’t exactly traditional Maritime fiddle music.
Halifax has hosted a wide variety of hip hop artists over the years, but it was “weird” alternative rap like Buck 65 and true traditional boom-bap like Classified that really helped establish the Halifax scene, said McGuire in an interview.
McGuire himself worked with a live orchestra last year
“It kind of fit in with what I was doing,” said McGuire.
The hip hop from Halifax was a change from the city’s traditional music scene of Gaelic and Celtic tradition, said McGuire, who teaches the History of Rock and Roll and Music and Culture at Mount St. Vincent University.
“Back in the 60s, there was a conscious decision to take (the Halifax music scene) back to Celtic tradition,” he said.
But young people tend to gravitate towards music that’s different and rebellious, said McGuire.
“Unless you’re from Mabou or something.”
McGuire was an 11-year-old kid in 1989 walking through a grocery store when he came across cassette tapes by Run-DMC and the Fat Boys.
The Run-DMC cassette Tougher than Leather showed three men in black clothes, black hats and white Adidas sneakers in front of a sky blue backdrop.
“This is something of my generation,” he thought.
When he played the tapes, it was unlike anything he heard before, said McGuire.
“I grew up on the top 40s from the 50s, and Weird Al.”
Mark Conrad’s older brother had introduced him to metal at a young age. He began listening to bands like Kiss, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple and became a bigger fan of the genre after hearing Metallica in 1984.
It was the “heaviness” of the music that attracted him, said Conrad in an interview.
He started his current band, Rapid Alloy, in high school, and came up with the name by flipping to a random page of the dictionary and reading “rapid.” Then he flipped to another page and read the word “alloy.”
There’s a type of person who enjoys metal music, said Conrad. It’s not for most.
“It’s not a popular music,” he said.
In his home of Halifax, every type of music is represented, he said.
“There’s a lot of good bands in Halifax.”
Conrad hopes for a record deal. His plan with his upcoming album is to compose different types of music as well as metal to show an array of skills and attract a bigger audience.
“I’ve written acoustic bass songs before,” he said. “I like all types of music.”
Last June, a crowd gathered in King Square Park to watch the performers, emcees, DJs and break-dancers. Graffiti writers stood boards against trees and spray-painted designs on them.
If you stood close enough, you could smell the burning beef being cooked on a barbecue next to the tent. Jeff Gallant, also known as a local rapper named 20/20 Vision, stood with a man in black clothing, cooking and serving hotdogs and burgers.
Gallant created the P.E.I. Hip Hop Association in 2012. Later that year, he helped organize the first annual Hip Hop in the Park in Charlottetown.
“We didn’t have as many guys,” he said in an interview.
Rain prevented many people from coming to the show that year, but the artists performed anyways.
There were twice as many people at last year’s show, said Gallant.
The event helped give artists a place to perform and showcase their skills, but it was mostly about helping the community, he said.
“No one’s really worried about giving the performance of their life.”
Hip Hop in the Park was created in 2012 by Adjust the Facts producer/DJ Mark Valiquette, who goes by the stage name DJ AllyCat, and Practical Academics producer/DJ Dan Bingley, who goes by the stage name Rob Banks.
The two had been making hip hop music out of their houses for 10 years prior to the second annual Hip Hop in the Park.
Two years ago they set out to find a place for their own studio, as well as a hang out spot for hip hop artists in the area.
“We wanted a spot where everyone can go,” said Valiquette.
They found one last summer and cleaned up the place with other P.E.I. hip hop artists, painting walls and sweeping floors.
Artists in the area had been using the space, the Roots – Arts space and Venue, for recording and mixing vocals, but with only a computer, mixing board and microphone set-up, the booth was never finished.
“Once the booth is in there, it makes you look more professional,” said Valiquette.
Musicians in the area had also been using the bottom part of the venue for performances, but Valiquette hopes the venue would be used for a variety of other activities as well.
Local hip hop artist Tyler Carmody hopes to use the space to hold workshops to teach mentally handicapped children to express themselves through hip hop music, said Valiquette.
“There’s a growing hip hop community here. It’s not as popular as country or bluegrass, but it’s growing,” said Valiquette in a later interview.
It’s not as if the more traditional Maritime music scene is going anywhere.
Bluegrass musician Alan Jeffries won an ECMA for roots/traditional solo recording of the year earlier this month with his album Coffee ‘til Midnight. Before that he played in the David Myles Band and he plans to continue in the future.
“The real goal is to play music,” said Jeffries.
Although he no longer lives in Halifax, it’s great so many musicians there are making music outside of the city’s traditional styles, said Jeffries.
“Now that I’m not living in Halifax, I think I’m appreciating it more.”
It seems the general public is listening to a wider variety of music than before, said Jeffries. This is certainly true in Halifax.
“There’s no stipulation for what you listen to.”
While other genres are growing in popularity, Halifax’s musical traditions won’t entirely fade away any time in the city’s history, said Jeffries.
“I think it goes in cycles, in bumps of popularity.”
In late March, the Roots – Arts space and Venue was faced with the threat of shutting down.
Christopher Chisholm, a young boy on the Island diagnosed with juvenile nephronophthisis last Christmas, contacted Bingley about using the Roots as the home-base for his new charity, Journey of Hope, which aims to help people with similar diseases to Chisholm’s.
On March 29,Valiquette, Bingley and Chisholm put on a fundraiser to raise the money needed to keep the space open, but only raised $110. Another fundraiser for the building was expected to take place on April 12, but never went through.
Valiquette and Bingley moved their things from the space and gave the $110 to Chisholm for his new foundation.
Back in King Square Park, a man in black shorts and a white T-shirt was speaking with Valiquette in the tent. Then the music stopped and the man stepped towards the crowd. The number 1973 was printed on the front of his black hat.
“Hip hop can be anything you want it to be,” said the man, Justin Robichaud, who raps under the alias Ju-B. “Hip hop, we know, has evolved.”
It can continue to evolve in the future, he said.
“We gotta keep it real, but at the same time, we gotta keep it right,” said Robichaud. “In closing, hip hop isn’t a fad, it will be here forever.”
A short poem followed.
“Like Herc said, ‘this is for the heads.’ Dead Prez – ‘it’s bigger than hip hop.’”
The DJ began playing music. Robichaud entered the crowd and instantly joined a conversation with friends.
Nova Scotia rapper Kyle Mischiek grew up around Celtic music and culture.
“Everyone plays the fiddle, everyone plays the guitar and piano and they all do the jigs and everything at every family gathering,” said Mischiek in an interview after a sound check at Hunter’s Ale House. He was getting ready to play a set there later that night for the 2014 ECMAs.
He sometimes covered his ears as a child when Celtic music was played, but not anymore, he said.
“I’ve learned to appreciate that lifestyle and that type of music.”
A piece of green flannel hangs from his waist while he performs on stage.
“That’s why I wear this little Celtic-y thingy on my pants,” he said of the flannel piece.
Mischiek first discovered the process of making music three years ago. He began paying more attention to the instruments and production of songs.
Then he started recording for fun and submitted his work to local contests. In 2012, Mischiek won Cape Breton’s Next Best Thing talent search. He was 16.
Winning created new opportunities for him, said Mischiek.
“Once you say you want to do something, you just follow whatever happens next.”
Next was meeting songwriter Gordie Sampson, who taught Mischiek some of the fundamentals of song writing.
“In regards to industry people, I would hold him as one of my top mentors.”
Since winning the Next Big Thing talent search, Mischiek has released two studio EPs. Today, he is the first client of TMG entertainment and is in a three-song deal with the new company.
“We’ve recorded much more than that thus far, so it’s going to get to a process where we narrow it down, or maybe something different.”
There weren’t many challenges to being accepted in his region, said Mischiek.
“My first single, We are an Island, was so accessible to everyone in that area,” said Mischiek. “Everyone in my immediate area loved it.”
The few challenges he did face were small. When the song came out, someone told Mischiek it had been done before.
“The challenge was to not care, but that was easy.”
In the park, hip hop music on the radio and television makes people hesitant towards the genre, said Robichaud in an interview after his speech.
“When you think hip hop, you think guns, drugs, violence, abuse to women,” he said. “People hear hip hop and say, ‘I want nothing to do with that.'”
Breakdancing, graffiti writing, DJing and emceeing are the four elements of hip hop culture, said Robichaud.
“This is the first time I’ve been to this kind of event. This is the first event I’ve been to that involves all four elements going at the same time.”
Asked what made him want to be a rapper, Robichaud’s smile faded.
“I’m an emcee,” he said.
What’s the difference?
“I’m an emcee, I’m also a poet,” he said. “A rapper raps. He goes on stage and he’ll just do songs that rhyme. There’s no message.”
As an emcee, his job is to educate, said Robichaud.
“I’m performing for the crowd.”
He makes it a conscious effort to explain hip hop culture, said Robichaud.
“Some people don’t appreciate that.”
There’s an expectation of familiarity in the bluegrass genre, said Jeffries. His ECMA award-winning album had many cover songs for this reason.
“Some people say my music isn’t really bluegrass,” said Jeffries. “Some people’s opinion is that it’s not bluegrass if they don’t play a specific banjo.”
Nobody says this directly to him but people allude to it, said Jeffries.
“It doesn’t happen to me a lot, but I know that it does happen, a lot more than it should.”
Spell “culture” with a “k” in any article, said Robichaud, in the tradition of an organization called The Temple of Hip Hop Kulture, started by a conscious rapper KRS-One, a figure in the culture since the 1980s. Robichaud left briefly and came back with a document called The Hip Hop Declaration of Peace.
When you sign up to the Temple of Hip Hop, you can use the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace for anything you want, he said.
KRS-One gave a speech at the University of Kings College in Halifax. McGuire attended.
“If I want to hear rap that sounds like the Bronx, I’m from the Bronx,” said KRS-One.
If he wants to hear rap that sounds like Halifax, he’ll listen to rap from Halifax, he said.
He never had difficulty sounding like a hip hop artist from Halifax, McGuire said.
“I sampled pipes and fiddles from the Scotia Tattoo.”
The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo is a musical performance that brings together military bands and display teams to perform in Halifax each year.
Sampling from it wasn’t an attempt to sound like an artist from Halifax, but it had that effect, said McGuire.
“I sampled it because, why not?”
Halifax’s unique culture should be promoted in new music, he said.
“The fiddles and kilts identity is what we became known for.”
Robichaud spoke to the crowd a second time at King Square Park.
“The drum is our companion.”
Drums engage the listener, said Robichaud.
“We are inspired by drums. James Brown,” he said. “We dance to the drums.”
Music started playing. A group of break-dancers took turns dancing on the wooden boards in front of the crowd. Children watched from the front row, attempting handstands.