Small scene, positive messages

In a city known for indie rock and cowboys, an emerging community of hip-hop artists and fans are slowly making themselves heard, not only due to their talent, but also through a focus on positive energy. Sean-Paul Boynton spends a weekend discovering the hopes, difficulties, and determination of the Calgary hip-hop scene. 

“HOLD IT DOWN!”

The crowd is starting to settle, the various voices dying to a whisper, yet the room is filled with a buzzing anticipation.

The source of the command is about to give his introductory remarks to a camerawoman, until someone in the back cracks a joke and the room starts to ripple with laughter.

“I SAID HOLD IT DOWN!!”

The jokester turns down his head sheepishly, and the room is finally silent.

The silence is important. In the middle of the massive Distillery concert hall, two rappers are about to battle each other using nothing but their wits and shared gift of crafting rhymes off the top of their heads – in other words, freestyling. There are no microphones, no beat to keep time. There must be silence.

The rappers are inside a makeshift cage crafted with metal gates, along with a multitude of supporters, five judges, a host, the camerawoman and a photographer. Outside the cage, there are more than 200 people, equal parts male and female, trying to catch a glimpse of the action. Everyone knows each other, exchanging easy and appreciative handshakes and hugs and smiles.

I stand inside the cage, attempting to get a good vantage point and trying to make sense of everything around me. Is this the local hip-hop community I’ve been searching for? What rock have I been living under that has prevented me from being witness to this scene? Why have I not heard of this?

Before I can find the answers, the camerawoman counts down from three to two to one to action, and it begins.

***

The day before the rap battle, I’m in the home of local rapper Juan “Don Juan” Ramirez, who’s set to take part in the event. Ramirez is a regular participant with King of the Dot, the Toronto-based battle rap league that’s putting on tomorrow’s Frost Bite show. Footage of his battles has gotten high ratings on the league’s YouTube page.

“There is so much amazing talent in this city that is still not recognized and it’s kind of hard to take, because when you go to these King of the Dot battles, it’s all concentrated in one room and it’s incredible,” he says.

Born in the small Guatemalan town of Panajachel, Ramirez fled the country with his mother and brother at the age of two due to the political and domestic turmoil of the time. He still remembers running across the border into the United States in the dead of night. In 1991, after a year seeking refuge in a California church, Ramirez and his family moved to Calgary.

Now 23, Ramirez exerts a positive energy that appears to have been hard won. He makes cryptic references to his past that suggest he was involved in gangs and even drug dealing, with his early music containing allusions to the gang lifestyle and aggressive threats of violence that are common in what’s known as gangsta rap. His outlook recently changed after what he calls “a huge wake up call.”

“I experienced a lot of violence, both as a victim and a perpetrator and I was heading in the wrong direction,” he re- members. “And then my brother was involved in a car accident that almost killed him. I had to think about what I was doing and why I was doing it and also look at what I was doing with my music.”

Since then, Ramirez’s music has moved towards what he calls “a more personal and holistic style,” and he says the change has brought him greater success. His base of supporters has grown and he has left the gang lifestyle behind him. But what qualifies as “successful” for a rapper in a city more known for cowboys and, more recently, indie rock than hip-hop? Smiling knowingly, he agrees with my skepticism.

“In Calgary, you can say, ‘I’m a musician, I play in a rock band,’ and people will go [enthusiastically], ‘Oh yeah?’ But if you tell people you’re a rapper, it’s like [cautiously and almost condescendingly], ‘Oh…yeah?’ No one expects to find any hip-hop here, especially local hip-hop, and when I meet people it’s almost like they’re saying, ‘What are you doing in Calgary?’ We’re not a hip-hop city.”

He looks at me and flashes a smile that immediately broadcasts his optimism and his determination: “At least not yet. But we can get there.”

***

Earlier in the day, Joa “Black Mamba” Miranda is sharing his own struggles as a rapper in a city not known for hip-hop. We’re driving through downtown and although we don’t mention it, I know we both see the same sight as we pass by one music club after another: marquees announcing upcoming shows for rock band after rock band, with no name that could be recognized as being a rapper or even a DJ. When we walk past the Distillery later, not one poster for the Frost Bite event can be seen.

Like Ramirez, Miranda’s journey to Calgary was long and arduous. Born in the south central African country of Angola, Miranda and his sisters were sent to South Africa by their parents in 1995, just before he turned 16, to escape the Angolan civil war. After completing high school in 2000, Miranda found himself moving in quick succession to the United States, Toronto, then Hamilton, before finally coming to Calgary in 2007. Here, he met Edivaldo “Eddy Mayor” Dasilva, also from Angola, and later Congo-born Orphee “MC Budidi” Landa. The A-Squad Boyz — short for Afro-Canadian Squad — was born.

Coming from homelands of violent unrest, Miranda and the A-Squad Boyz were soon faced with a different kind of war: one between hip-hop artists and Calgary promoters.

“We were knocking on every door, talking to anyone we could, trying to get something booked and it was hard,” remembers 32-year-old Miranda. “It was anything we could do to try and find a way in.”

Things started to pick up, enough at least that people began talking. For Miranda, however, something more had to happen.

“We just got tired of chasing people down. I thought to myself, what if I could organize my own events, invite other artists down, pay them out of my own pocket … do it all myself?”

Miranda went about learning the skills of event organization and self-promotion, and it was then that he truly understood the nature of the scene.

“I’ve found much more success once I started doing it on my own,” he says. “We’ve been able to reach a level in the scene that not many others have, simply through doing things our own way, on our own terms.”

Those terms, besides taking event planning and promotion into their own hands, include the A-Squad Boyz’ unnerving stance against violence, alcoholism and drugs. Their music is also built on positivity and their events strive to create what Miranda calls “simply a safe, fun, positive environment built on love for the music and for each other.” But as he says, it’s hard to keep what he calls “the troublemakers” out of the way.

“We were putting on an event at Lord Nelson’s [Bar] and we were rocking it and everyone was having a great time,” he remembers. “Then this drunk guy starts hitting on some girl, who wants nothing to do with him, but he keeps persisting. Then her boyfriend steps in and tries to get him away calmly, but this guy just goes nuts and starts a fight. The whole night, everyone’s good time, was ruined because of one guy.

“The next thing you know, you’re hearing about how [the fight] was because it was ‘a black event,’ when it was just one guy being negative. It’s hard to keep away that negative energy, whether it be the troublemakers or the stigmas.”

This past summer, Miranda and Dasilva fully realized how hard it could be to avoid that negative energy, when group member Landa was found murdered on the side of a road outside Okotoks. The details of the crime are murky and no suspects have been found. Despite the shocking loss to the group, Miranda and Dasilva continue to soldier on in creating music together, determined to maintain positivity in the face of senseless violence.

“Orphee used to say, ‘We aren’t just a hip-hop group,’” says Miranda, visibly struggling to hold back tears despite his calm smile. “We are a family, and we have always tried to take care of each other no matter what. There’s so much more for us to accomplish, and we’re doing this not just for Orphee, but also for the city in general; to push it towards a positive community and bring people together and hopefully be recognized for that.”

As we continue to walk down Stephen Avenue, Miranda continually diverts attention from himself to the community at large. He’s made it to a higher level than most of his peers, yet his disposition is humble. In a way, it has to be.

“Just because we’re making noise in the scene, doesn’t mean we are necessarily known to the average person here,” he says. “There’s still a long way to go. I’d like to have my own venue one of these days and maybe my own promotion outfit that can put on even bigger and better shows. People tell us we’ve made it, but I don’t think we have.”

He stops to rub his hands against the autumn chill and takes the opportunity to change his tune.

“There I go being negative,” he smiles knowingly. “You can’t be like that in this town.”

***

As I meet more and more members of the community, I begin to realize how important focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative is to them, not just because it sets the music itself apart from the typical gangsta tendencies of mainstream hip-hop, but also as a survival mechanism for the scene as a whole. I get this sense when I sit down with the members of veteran Calgary hip-hop group Dragon Fli Empire outside the CJSW radio station at the University of Calgary, a day after the rap battle.

A born and raised Calgarian, Adam Hicks, better known as DJ Cosm, hosts a hip-hop show on CJSW every Sunday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. that focuses on Canadian talent. On this particular night, he rattles off a list of hip-hop shows coming to town in the near future that appears to be enormous. Not that these are all local artists, but still, if this much hip-hop is coming to Calgary, why is it still so relatively unpopular?

“It’s a tight-knit community that talks to itself,” says Hicks, “because it doesn’t want anything negative or damaging to enter into it, which I understand absolutely.”

While this strategy has helped make the majority of hip-hop shows here a positive experience for those who take part, it does little to help the scene gain ubiquity.

“There have been countless times, even to this day, where people will come up to us and ask where we’re from, even if it’s a local show,” laughs Tarik “Teekay” Robinson, the Dragon Fli Empire MC who has called Calgary home since moving from Halifax at the age of one. “But honestly, if it means that we’re opening people’s eyes to what’s going on in their city, I don’t mind repeating myself.”

Robinson and Hicks also talk about the importance of positivity within the community, and a listen to the 10-year-old group’s music reveals that the duo can almost be regarded as trailblazers in that respect. Robinson’s refusal to stoop to the level of violent stereotypes in his lyrics, coupled with the bright backdrops supplied by Hicks, have set the stage for relatively younger acts to follow suit. For Robinson, their approach simply makes sense.

“I think the fact that I do what some call ‘positive hip-hop’ helps in a city like Calgary, as it bridges the gap to exposure in the greater music community,” he says. “Some people are put off by aggressive language and because Calgary’s hip-hop community is so small, it seems like you can only become a bigger artist if you are accepted inside and outside of that circle.”

***

Could that inter-connectivity explain why the Distillery, the headquarters of the Calgary Beer Core collective of local hardcore punk and metal artists and fans, be playing host to a battle rap event? I keep waiting to witness a condescending look from one of the staff members towards the festivities, but it’s all smiles and accommodating attitudes. Has the theme of positivity already made an impact? Can everyone really get along?

“I SAID HOLD IT DOWN!”

No time for questions. The battle is about to begin.

“Don Juan” Ramirez is in the ring for the first battle of the day, facing off against another local rapper, Wizeguy, who is filling in at the last minute for an Ottawa rapper who failed to catch his plane. They both stare at one another intently, sizing their opponent up. The tension is palpable.

Host Zach “Sketch Menace” Wilcox, local battle rap champion and King of the Dot Calgary division president, asks each rapper to introduce themselves to the camera. Ramirez speaks kind, graceful words about how the community “is about love” and that he’s here to have fun. Then Wilcox gives the first shot to Ramirez and the rapper’s face immediately changes. This is war.

Ramirez lays into Wizeguy with a commanding first verse that’s interrupted by loud, rumbling “Oooohs” from the crowd. His barrage of insults is far from the positive approach he and other artists alluded to, yet the people love it. Could this idea of positivity be futile?

Wizeguy is clearly tired and, as he admits, “stoned out of my mind,” and his rhymes are weak and unrehearsed, yet he’s able to win some favour with his humour and self-deprecation. Ramirez lays into his foe even harder for the second round, with Wizeguy struggling to match his energy and inventiveness.

It’s at the end of the three-round battle that Ramirez presents a final devastating blow, filled with intricate internal rhymes that drop like small grenades through his now barking, growling delivery:

See, I been like you, man, I felt it deeper inside
I couldn’t sleep at night, dragged into the deepest divide
Deceit combined with grief is like a thief when he hides
He takes your pride like a shadow then it creeps in the night
The difference between you and I is the fear in your eyes
You need to try and clear your mind ‘til it’s clear as the sky
So from the Red Mile to Pit Street, right now to this week
Your shit’s weak so flow like the Saint Laurence up shit’s creek
Take you high and hang you off the mountain face of Mist Peak
‘Til you hit the ground so hard it drives your body down six feet
And when I’m done, ain’t nobody here will have heard of you
Funny how you said you wouldn’t die here
‘Cause I just fucking murdered you 

The crowd goes nuts; this battle is over. After a brief off-camera deliberation amongst the judges, Wilcox announces Ramirez as the winner. In the midst of the cheering, Ramirez steps over to Wizeguy and they embrace. It’s a genuine moment of paradox: these two local artists, who minutes earlier were shooting gratuitous, deeply personal insults at one another, are revealed to be somewhat like friends, or at least to have respect for each other. Is this aggression all for show?

After two more battles, Wilcox calls for an intermission. I’m able to get him away from the crowd and I ask him the same question.

“All these artists know each other and respect each other, but battle rapping as an art form has to ignore that and go straight for the gut,” says the born-and-bred Calgarian. “You have to one-up each other with insults, but these guys really don’t mean it. Outside the ring, they’re equals and often friends. It’s just a way to test your abilities; there’s no animosity between winners or losers. It’s fun.”

As a tattooed, longhaired Distillery busboy passes by us, I ask what Wilcox thinks about the hip-hop community finding a place in the city.

“The fact that we’re being hosted by what’s considered a metal club is not lost on me,” says Wilcox. “It means we’re being accepted not as a totally different scene or entity, but as Calgary musicians who are just as hungry as they are. That’s huge, that’s positive.”

I ask him where the Calgary hip-hop community can go from here and although he says the same thing as everyone else — “Nowhere but up” — I question his optimism and wonder if the community can do anything to get to the next level.

“It’s not about what the community can do anymore,” he says. “We’re here to stay. The people who want to check it out have to ask around, go on the web, visit the King of the Dot website or the Hip Hop Canada website and just join in. There’s always something happening; it’s just a matter of finding it.”

I want to ask more, but it’s too late. Wilcox has a show to host.

The beats being spun by the DJ slowly fade out, the crowd is starting to huddle around again, and it’s now that I can see how large this turnout really is. If this many people in the city are plugged in to what’s going on in the scene, imagine how many more wish to be. But could the scene’s focus on positivity prevent it from promoting to those people on the fringes, dying to get in? Could the fear of negative energy be a negative attitude in itself?

“HOLD IT DOWN!”

The answer is right here. This community is living, breathing, excited beyond compare, and constantly growing. There’s no time for questions. It’s about to begin.

Originally published January 2012