Toronto's Placement in the Up-State New York Hip-Hop Scene
Toronto Hip-Hop: An Extension of Up-State New York
Figure 1 L-R: Daniel Son, 6th Letter
Futurewave, Daniel Son, Asun Eastwood, Lord Juco, Raz Fresco, Finn, DNTE, Falcon Outlaw, Sibbs Roc, Bozack Morris, Saipher Soze, Vic Grimes... If you have been tapped into the underground hip-hop release radar over the past few years; it's likely you are familiar with these names. Hailing from the city of Toronto, this cast of characters has contributed to the soundscapes of up-state New York's triumphing hip-hop enterprise in recent years. What's more impressive, is that unbeknownst to many, Toronto has finally achieved a long-lasting goal; for its artists to be recognized on an equal playing field with New York artists and be respected by hip-hop culture at large - detached from their Canadian identity.
Contextualizing Toronto's Hip-Hop Community in Relation to New York:
Ever since the inception of hip-hop in Toronto, the city has actively fought for acceptance in New York. Perhaps the earliest example of success in this regard is KRS One's introductory co-sign to Michie Mee and L.A. Luv's Elements of Style in 1987; a record which sported the instrumental pallet of the Boogie Down Production's own Scott La Rock,.
Boogie Down Productions is proud to introduce Canada's greatest musically inclined - future rap representative of the rap industry on a whole. A major breakthrough for female emcees everywhere. Her name; Michie Mee. This is BDP reporting live from Canada! - KRS One, Elements of Style.
Figure 2: Michie Mee & LA Luv - Elements of Style 12"
In the 1990s, this effort for acceptance continued its prominence. Artists such as Citizen Kane, Da Grassroots, Da Circle, Crooks of the Round Table, Mathematik, Frankenstein, and others clearly embodied New York's signature boom-bap aesthetic and trips to the Big Apple were frequently made to seek record deals and career opportunities. The talents of these artists were undeniable. Arguably some of the best hip-hop to come out of the mid 90s featured Toronto emcees and producers. However, this fact was rarely known outside of the city of Toronto, the artist community, and the odd devoted hip-hop head that pursued independent music on a global front. Rarely were these Canadian artists successful in obtaining US-based record deals, or US-based collaborations. Even more rare, were instances of American artists paying Canadian talent for collaborations on their records.
In the 2000s, though the efforts largely remained the same, the results did begin to change. Artists such as Kardinall Offishall - who began rapping in the 1990s, saw some commercial success and appeared on albums from Tony Touch, Clipse, DJ Green Lantern, Akon, among others. To a lesser extent, emcees such as K-Os, Belly (Ottawa), Saukrates and Choclair shared a similar fate; however, these artists acted as one-offs, and never allowed Toronto as a community to fully escape the trappings of a Canadian identity.
The most successful Canadian rapper of all time; Drake, too has played his part in this story; transforming Toronto as a landmark within hip-hop's discourse but failing to create a meaningful path for other Toronto emcees to follow. His OVO movement is notable, as is his impact on many Toronto-based artists who have embraced Drake's signature musical aesthetics - however the fact remains that Toronto has not been accepted as equal to New York in any meaningful measure.
Griselda, Up-State New York, and a new hip-hop renaissance:
It's safe to say that readers will be familiar with Griselda's impact on the culture. Since 2015, the Flygod and extended family have been dominating underground hip-hop's weekly release schedule and have since changed the direction of the scene both sonically, as well incorporating business innovations largely non-existent pre-Griselda. Upon Griselda's 2018 signing with Shady Records, this reality was only exacerbated.
Figure 3 Griselda. L-R: Benny the Butcher, Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine
Griselda's rise saw many hip-hop acts within the up-state area come out of the woodworks and receive prominent fandom as well as financial security with their art. From 38 Spesh’s TRUST label, to Rochester’s Da Cloth, to Lord Mobb's; Eto and G4Jag, among others; these artists have thrived in the scene that Griselda has pushed and helped popularize. Despite the due-focus on up-state New York, the sounds of Griselda have far surpassed this geographic region. Artists such as Red Lotus Klan's SCVTTERBRVIN from the West Coast, New York City's Flee Lord, New Orlean's Jameel Na'im X, and a plethora of overseas producers such as Superior (Germany), Giallo Point (Britain) and Big Ghost LTD (Japan), all exist within the same sonic bubble and owe - at least some of their success - to Griselda's imprint.
As previously mentioned, the impact of Griselda has amounted to more than simple stylistic innovations that have permeated throughout the scene. With Westside Gunn's heavy reliance on hype-beast culture and his insistence on treating physical product (both in the form of merch and physical media) as collectible art-pieces - the way of playing the game has drastically altered from the previous generation. By producing small runs - with the guarantee of selling out - Griselda has single handily made the purchase of a cassette, or vinyl record an investment with a near guarantee of market inflation if the consumer is lucky enough to secure an order before the inevitable sell-out. As the artists grow in popularity, these runs become larger and larger, while continuing to produce less than the market demands. The latest installment of Westside Gunn's Hitler Wears Hermes series (#8 Side B) was released earlier in 2022 with over 5,000 copies pressed, priced on average at over 100 dollars per unit, and sold out in under five minutes. This sort of dominance has created an atmosphere where Conway can confidently - and truthfully - claim,
"I do your streaming numbers with the vinyl and the CD."
Though others in the scene lack the demand that Griselda has curated, this model of high-priced, ultra-limited vinyl, has proven to work for others that fall into the same sonic template that Griselda has developed. For fans of Griselda's sound, participating in this subcultural economy is exciting and worthwhile - even if the products are not exclusively derived from Griselda's main roster. Those who associate with Griselda either through mutual connections - geographic proximity - or sonic template - have been able to follow Griselda's business models with similar - yet scaled down - success.
The Modern Toronto Connection:
Although Toronto is not the only Canadian city contributing sounds to this movement - it is by far the most dominant Canadian city on the scene. An artist such as Nicholas Craven in Montreal - may be arguably more prominent with production credits for Mach Hommy, Tha God Fahim, Your Old Droog, Ransom, among others - but he has unfortunately been the sole representative for his city within this new rap renaissance. Toronto on the other hand has - in a few short years - curated a scene of rappers, producers, and DJs so synonymous with Griselda's sound that the city has arguably become an extension of the up-state New York region.
It makes sense. Toronto - a mere two-hour drive from Buffalo, is the closest metropolis city to the Griselda capital; with New York City being more than three times the distance away. Those that occupy the Niagara region such as G4 Jag and Jamal Gasol, are in fact even closer to the screwface capital. So how has Toronto broken from its past to be accepted as peers south of the border?
It's pretty simple; it's Griselda. This is my opinion on the hustler mindset. Seeing early - [Griselda] dropping - and they weren't big yet - they'd drop 1000 [units] and they're selling out right away. Like that's not enough? So now, this genre also creates a lot of music. One project a year? That's nothing. You can't do that in our genre. Now you look at Griselda and it's like 'oh shit, these guys are collecting that bag.' And that math isn't hard to do, that there's money to be made. - Asun Eastwood, interview with author.
It is important to recognize the diversity of Toronto's hip-hop scene; and the varying origin stories that occupy the community. Some artists, such as DNTE and Bozack Morris, have been long standing members of the Toronto hip-hop community - with DNTE (previously known as Al Sham) dropping his Street Visions album in 1999 with his partner KP, and Bozack Morris occupying Toronto's airwaves as a DJ for multiple decades. Raz Fresco, a younger cat on the scene, had signed a deal with New York's Duck Down Records in 2014 and appeared on Buckshot's Backpack Travels that same year. Daniel Son; arguably one of the most prominent in the scene today; began rapping in 2015 with his Brown Bag Money (BBM) click and quickly began collaborating and building relationships with artists such as Rome Streetz, Estee Nack, Al.Divino, among others. The Belizean born Asun Eastwood immigrated to Canada at a young age and began his run of releases in 2017 with projects such as Nimbus and Hollywood Briggs. And Lord Juco has occupied a distinct market with his soccer-themed run of projects with Californian Cousin Feo as the duo Death at the Derby.
Despite this complexity, there is most certainly a strengthened community of hip-hop artists within Toronto. Nearly all these artists actively collaborate with one another - and have combined their skillsets to help one another grow and succeed in this hip-hop environment. This has become more evident with labels such as Gold Era which house a large collective of Toronto producers such as Sibbs Roc, Finn and Slang Hughes. A brief look at their webstore will see full album collaborations with Daniel Son, Asun Eastwood, Family Gang Black, Saipher Soze, Lord Juco as well as a plethora of peers originating from the United States.
Figure 4: L-R: Finn, Futurewave, Sibbs Roc
The collaborations with their United States brethren are important. Unlike previous generations of Toronto emcees, that found it difficult to seek mutual respect with their New York counterparts - this new community is often inseparable from upstate New York. Not only do you see New York artists featured on their track listings (a feat that remains achievable by simply buying guest verses from well-respected rappers), but credible New York artists as well as overseas producers will actively feature Toronto artists within their own creations. Daniel Son for example has been featured on 38 Spesh's 1994, Rome Streetz Street Pharmacy, Estee Nack and Superiors' BALADAS, Buckwild's Music is My Religion, Al.Divino's SUNRAW, and Flee Lord's Lucky 13 just to name a few. Futurewave; one of the scenes most active producers; has full length projects with a variety of well-respected heavyweights in the up-state New York community; including Mooch, Rigz, Rome Streetz, Al.Divino as well as the most recently released MR.TEN08 with Griselda's own Boldy James.
This embracement of Toronto's hip-hop community is a new phenomenon. Sure, artists like Drake have achieved one-off success in mainstream hip-hop circuits, but Toronto's hip-hop scene as a whole has never been able to compete on equal footing within hip-hop culture until now. In addition to the artist support, fans have likewise embraced Toronto's talent in a major way. Through the adoption of Griselda's hype-beast model of merchandising, the Toronto hip-hop community has succeeded to ride the wave of Griselda's extended family. One look at Futurewave's WAV.GOD storefront will cement this reality. Futurewave's last major output with Rome Streetz Razors' Edge had multiple variants of vinyl, totalling over 1,000 units produced (between both the WAV.GOD online store as well as the German vinyl distributor Vinyl Digital), and sold out within a 24-hour period. These pieces of wax were priced between 60 to 150 dollars per unit, creating significant financial incentive for each album release.
Perhaps the most interesting decision made by this artist community lies within their own constructed identity. Unlike generations that came before them, or the Canadian hip-hop community at large - the artists mentioned in this article rarely portray a distinctly Canadian identity. The themes in their music are generalized, rarely devoting song topics to Canadian topics of interest. Their social media bio's rarely mention Canada. Stylistically - although original - do mimic that of a New York sound. And they refrain from collaborating with those who do hold more transparent Canadian identities. In my encounters with hip-hop heads - often fans of these artists will be oblivious to the fact that they reside in Toronto, mistakenly believing that artists such as Daniel Son or Lord Juco are from New York. This dynamic has separated the scene in question from the Canadian hip-hop community more broadly. Canada has had a rich history of hip-hop with labels such as Battle Axe Records, URBNET, Hand'Solo Records, Peanuts and Corn, Side Road Records, Clothes Horse Records, etc. however these artists have acted as family and kin to one another and portray clearly and distinct Canadian identities. There is simply no mistaking an artist such as Moka Only's nationality. In an interview I conducted with Bozack Morris he claimed:
Hip-hop is like this high school shit where people sit at the table and if you're not at the table - you might go to the same school - but if you're not at the same table - people don't acknowledge it. I think that's just what it is. It sucks because I know all those dudes. I know all the people that are in this kind of "Canadian-Toronto" ecosystem and I have seen how much they embrace each other. I don't really care to sit at their table. I just want to make the music that I make. [...] It's funny how when people talk about "Who's from Toronto?" they don't mention anyone in our scene. The quote on quote "Toronto" hip-hop, they aren't mentioning us. They aren't mentioning Daniel Son or Futurewave, and those motherfuckers are putting up numbers. They are eating off this shit more than a lot of these other motherfuckers that ARE getting the props. - Bozack Morris, interview with author.
Figure 5: L-R: Lord Juco, Futurewave, Daniel Son
Toronto is at a unique place in its own history regarding hip-hop culture. For the first time, Toronto hip-hop artists have successfully blended in with a dominant hip-hop culture. These are not one-off cases such as Drake, or the occasional appearance of Kardinall Offishall on a top 40 billboard hit. This is an onslaught of artists who have commanded respect and received it from hip-hop at large. They do not prioritize their region when forming their identity, and they represent a sound that is becoming more and more associated with upstate New York. I argue that the scene comprised of Buffalo, Rochester, and Niagara Falls, must also include Toronto as an active participant in the scenes sound and success in recent years.
About The Author:
Alex Kuchma is an award-winning oral historian focused on the history of hip-hop in Canada. With over ten years of experience as a music journalist, Kuchma has conducted nearly a thousand interviews with hip-hop artists and members of the broader hip-hop community. In 2021, Kuchma authored the dissertation 'It's Underground Shit Fool!': The DIY Ethos of the Vancouver Island Hip-Hop Community, 1980-2000. The dissertation examined the creative and innovative techniques that the hip-hop community on Vancouver Island practiced and how the community created a distinctly unique experience for which artists could thrive. His current work through the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University examines Toronto's hip-hop community throughout the years and the social capital that individuals of the Toronto hip-hop community have garnered with New York state hip-hop scenes. Kuchma is currently working on a general audience book which will use oral histories to convey the story of Canada's participation in hip-hop culture.
Fig. 1: Daniel Son x 6th Letter photo by Lucas Espinola (https://www.instagram.com/lucas_espinola/)
Fig. 2: Michie Mee x L.A. Luv (https://www.discogs.com/release/463959-Michie-Mee-and-L-A-Luv-Elements-Of-Style)
Fig. 3: Benny The Butcher x Westside Gunn x Conway The Machine (Robert LeBlanc)
Fig. 4: Finn x Futurewave x Sibbs Roc (https://www.instagram.com/p/CTushDyl6Fl/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link)
Fig. 5: Lord Juco x Futurewave x Daniel Son (https://www.instagram.com/p/CQ6xPyrrJYk/)