Photo Courtesy of Ernie Paniccioli
This story originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
Before there was a Drake, Kardinal Offishal was the poster boy for Toronto's rap scene. Before Kardinal Offishal, Maestro Fresh Wes held that title. But it was Michie Mee, the first Canadian MC to sign to a major record label in the U.S., who helped inspire a slew of artists—including Maestro Fresh Wes who would later emerge with his classic “Let Your Backbone Slide” single.
On the mic, perhaps because of her frequent visits to her aunt’s house to hip-hop’s birthplace in the Bronx, Michie could assume the persona of a New York-bred MC, but could also effortlessly slip into to chatting like a dancehall DJ tapping into her Jamaican heritage. Recently, Drake drew a mixed reaction for his use of a West Indian-tinged accent in his short film Jungle, the film released as a visual complement to If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. But history has a way of repeating itself, as Michie Mee can attest to. “We really wanted to bring the dancehall element which was [with] a Jamaican accent,” says Michie Mee reflecting on her emergence on to the hip-hop scene back in 1985.
“Being in Canada I was even criticized at one point that my accent wasn’t heavy Jamaican enough when we first started.” Blending her own heritage with her contemporary influences, Michie Mee’s urge to add dancehall elements was honed and unwittingly mentored by direct contact through pivotal and influential figures in West Indian and hip-hop culture. The legendary Miss Lou, MC Lyte and KRS-One are just a few of the people that had direct effects on the life and music of Michie Mee.
Born in Jamaica, Michie Mee grew up with a father who worked in the entertainment industry and had a connection to one of the country’s most famous performers, Louise Bennett, popularly known as Miss Lou. Bennett’s cultural impact in ushering Jamaican folklore to the forefront in her own native country and around the world was immeasurable. Her poetry and performances prioritized Jamaica’s patois and cultural oral traditions gaining international acclaim before her 2006 death in Toronto at the age of 86. Bennett’s voice was often heard on radio and she also hosted a popular children’s television show in Jamaica called Ring Ding. “I was on the Miss Lou show and I was a Ring Ding girl,” says Michie Mee. “I’m an original Ring Ding girl. My father was one of the producers on that show and he was a promoter but he also would help with the Miss Lou show, so I was an original Ring Ding girl.”
Seeing Bennett’s proud mastery of Jamaican oral culture must have had an effect on a young Michie Mee and this was further underlined when she moved to Toronto and saw transplanted Jamaican poet Lillian Allen at her school. Allen was an influential figure in Toronto’s dub poetry scene and went on to win Best Reggae Recording at the Junos in 1987 and 1988 and currently teaches creative writing at OCAD. “Lillian Allen came to my [Brookhaven Avenue] public school when I first came from Jamaica,” says Michie Mee. “And I’d seen her do this whole expression of just singing and poetry and the whole thing and it inspired me so much that I wanted to write, I wanted to write in the accent.” While Michie Mee had seen and experienced Miss Lou in Jamaica, seeing Lillian Allen perform in Canada had a particularly motivating effect. “She was one of the first people I had seen with my own eyes who would come to the school and was a black woman that was doing a cultural movement,” says Michie Mee. “I didn’t even think that was possible in this country so she definitely influenced.”
Another important mentor for Michie Mee at this time was Itah Sadu a community worker, author—currently the co-owner of the A Different Booklist bookstore near Bathurst and Bloor—who taught classes in Toronto’s Flemingdon Park neighborhood where Michie would travel from her home in the Martha Eatonway apartment buildings, around the corner from the Brookhaven Avenue school she attended near Jane Street. It was while she was living in this neighborhood that Michie first became exposed to the culture bringing graffiti, b-boying, DJing and MCing together brewing in New York—pioneered by Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc—and that happened when she saw the 1984 film Beat Street. “That’s what planted the seed,” says Michie Mee. “A busload of us from Martha Eatonway and everybody in that hood will remember that. [We saw] Beat Street and it changed everything. And that’s when I was like ‘That’s what I’m gonna do. That’s what I’m gonna do.’ We got to see that we weren’t alone. We were right.”
At the time, Michie Mee was hanging out following the Sunshine Sound Crew in Toronto, watching mic wielder Brother Different control the crowds at their parties. “I had a crew called Sidekick crew and we set it off to dancehall music,” says Michie Mee. “I loved dancehall, but I was hip-hop.” Although much of her attention was actually on competing as a track and field runner, Michie Mee was eventually persuaded to get serious about rapping by K-4ce, the MC known for creating the phrase "T-dot." “K-4ce had a big influence on me wanting to rap,” says Michie Mee. “Ivan Berry had a big influence on me being expressly Jamaican because I would hide it. He told me to rap how I talk. And they were all older than me. I was the baby of the crew. I’m 12, 13 [years old] and these are big guys. But I could pass for 15.”
Tweaking her birth name of Michelle to Michie to mirror her idol, Doug E. Fresh’s stage moniker, she initially started rapping because of it’s battling element. “When I started I only wanted to battle,” says Michie Mee. “[Toronto promoter and Fantastic Voyage show DJ] Ron Nelson was having a battle and I was writing raps with my friends and we wanted to enter the competition.” Michie Mee did eventually participate in a battle with New York MC Sugar Love, dismantling the MC with her distinctive style. “That was the one [battle] where I said. ‘You’re American? Eh, gyal I’m a Jamaican’ and the Concert Hall [crowd] didn’t let me finish the rest. And she was like, ‘How many of y’all think that this bitch [referring to Michie Mee] should win? And Concert Hall was like [makes crowd noise]. That’s my highlight.” While she battled often, that was Michie’s biggest battle. Contrary to some stories, she never battled Roxanne Shante. However, she did have other connections to other prominent New York hip-hop figures. Having been a frequent visitor to New York since she was a child she had became familiar with two people over the years who would be at the rec centre near her aunt’s house in the Bronx who would turn out to be hip-hop legends in their own right. “I didn’t know they were going to be icons,” says Michie Mee. “But there were a whole bunch of icons up there.”
Recognizing them from her aunt’s neighborhood, Michie Mee would rhyme for Scott La Rock and KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions outside a seminal Manhattan hip-hop venue. “At Latin Quarter, I was convincing Scott La Rock and KRS-One that I rapped and that there was rap music coming from Canada,” says Michie Mee. ‘There ain’t no hip-hop in Canada’” says Michie Mee adopting a gruff masculine tone to represent their response. “Yes there is,” says Michie mimicking her retort. “And off I went. Rapping. And then they said. ‘She speaks funny.’ I was speaking funny with my Jamaican accent, but I’m Canadian at the time. When they heard Canadian you might as well be Jamaican.” Evidently, Michie Mee impressed the duo enough to eventually record with them. After her first forays into recording songs “I’m Not Afraid” with a live band at an Eglinton and Oakwood studio and the four-track demo of “Dangerous” that nodded to the Conroy Smith reggae track of the same name, Michie eventually recorded with the duo who would become known as Boogie Down Productions. Michie and L.A. Luv recorded the songs “Run for Cover” and “Elements of Style.” The latter track featured KRS-One, fresh off the release of the seminal Criminal Minded introducing Michie Mee as ‘Canada’s greatest musically inclined intellectual representative.’ Signing off on the intro over Taana Gardner’s infamous “Heartbeat” break, KRS-One declared “This is BDP recording live from Canada.”
“They were produced by the great Scott La Rock and KRS-One had a hand in it,” says Michie Mee discussing the tracks. “Scott La Rock mainly did the producing. And we went to the studio in Hamilton with some rock guys who were on acid and didn’t care what we did in there. So we sat there and we wrote and recorded.” The songs were featured on the 1987 Break’n Out compilation, featuring acts managed by Berry and songs produced by Boogie Down Productions. Shortly afterwards, Scott La Rock was shot dead in New York. After his death, Michie eventually connected with First Priority Records, home to artists such as Audio Two, Positive K and MC Lyte. Michie and L.A. Luv would contribute two songs to the 1988 The First Priority Music Family: Basement Flavor compilation. In hip-hop’s early days with the spirit of competition, female MCs were sometimes pitted against each other, so the context of MC Lyte’s opening declaratory line on her labelmate’s track “We are women. Hear us roar!” after the patois exchange between Michie Mee and King Lu (who would later form the Dream Warriors) is particularly significant. “She had static with [rap artist] Antoinette so it was very big of them,” says Michie Mee. “First Priority had known we had worked with Boogie Down Productions. [First Priority label head] Nat [Robinson] and Ivan [Berry] had dealings and Lyte had the demo tape and said that she’d love to come to Canada and we recorded “Victory Is Calling” right here at Wellesley Studios in Toronto.”
Beyond the female bonding the track also represented a boon for the then embryonic hip-hop scene in Toronto and Canada. “We really wanted to say that between the borders, without saying the borders, no matter what we had each other’s back and ‘We are women. Hear us roar!’ was her intro to me. It was just bringing the sisters of hip-hop [together] before we knew we had to be comrades to survive in the game. We were really just connecting the dots and it was more of a border thing too. It was Canada and the U.S. connecting and helping build the genre of hip-hop here in Canada.” Michie Mee’s co-signing by prominent artists such as Boogie Down Productions and MC Lyte, further established her in her own right and “On This Mic” another song from the Basement Flavor compilation would prove to be a particularly important song in Michie Mee’s catalogue. Starting off with the simple, yet impactful line “People here I am/And here I am people,” Michie Mee begins to authoritatively articulate her identity over the next five minutes. “Three verses plus a reggae verse. I rap forever,” she admits. “There was no format. There was no rules.” Given the song’s eschewing of conventional song structure, it’s arguably the most representative and unbridled definition of Michie Mee’s microphone style and lyrical content. “I was just speaking and rapping and when I was finished telling you who the hell I was that was the end of the song,” she says. “After I banged the head on the hard concrete, telling you that good things grow in Ontario.” Although it was initially meant to be a rhyme constructed for a battle, the 1988 single song proved to be influential on her subsequent recordings. “It was just the battle era. It was letting people know that I’m here. I’m Michie Mee, lick a gyal ‘pon the hard concrete. I was really expressing who I was 100%. … “On This Mic” was my introduction. It’s my get everything off my chest, I’m here I’m a battle girl, people here I am. The body of it is the same formula I follow today, with just a little piece of reggae. That’s a perfect skeleton or the template of what Michie was. “On This Mic” describes me.”
Clearly, it won the respect of her contemporary MCs. So when Queen Latifah wanted to feature prominent female MCs to appear in the video for “Ladies First” featuring Monie Love from her 1989 debut All Hail The Queen, Michie Mee was on the list. Although Michie "busted her ass" to get to the video shoot in New York and back home to Toronto on the same day for her brief appearance, the enduring message it underlined was a growing sisterhood among the MCs. “It was the in thing to do, for the women to bring the women into the game,” says Michie Mee. “And in that video was Ms. Melodie and Trouble from L.A. It was the first time you could see Shelly Thunder, you could see the women that were from the Midwest and from L.A. come with the Brooklyn and the Canadian and the English girls. “Ladies First” is the only video that actually has all the women from all the different territories together if you look closely in that lineup. And it’s never been done again.”
For Michie it underlined the journey she had taken from being mentored and inspired by female role models and to be considered among the best MCs in the genre accepted on her own terms. She’d pointedly reaffirm her style later with the title track of her debut album “Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style.” In the song and its accompanying video, she directly addresses the cognitive dissonance people would encounter when they process her dancehall style of dress and her b-girl rhyming prowess as two things that could not co-exist and channels it to her advantage. “It made sense to me, but not to the world,” says Michie Mee reflecting back on those early days. “I knew that I was rapping, I knew I was dressed like dancehall, and I knew that I wanted to say, ‘I’m a Jamaican.’ But I didn’t know if I wanted to do it and meanwhile everyone was cursing me out. So, in the face of that, all I could do was become Michie Mee.”
Del F. Cowie is a writer living in Toronto - @vibesandstuff