Left to Right: Mega, Riddimz, Plain English, DJ Lighter. Photo courtesy of the Man Dem
Canadians are usually painted as polite and accommodating. However, it must be said that it is the British who truly embody the very purest ideas of courtesy and etiquette. I barely clear the last step on a narrow flight of stairs in what looks like an unfinished basement before I’m barraged with pleasantries: “You good bruv?” “You good?” “Fam, you good?” each member of British Man Dem says followed with a handshake that closes out with a one-armed hug. All four members don “RUN BMD” shirts—you read that correctly—while setting up a video recorder and camera stand that sits cozily beside a chest freezer. Within minutes, the sole DJ of this well-branded UK quartet cues up a selection of skeletal 4/4 time signed grime instrumentals before two MCs kick off an impromptu freestyle session: “I make news when I feel like movin, jump on a riddim when I feel like provin’…/ I told man when I want a big man ting, wifey hold that it's a big man ring.” I should note that this is all taking place in a townhouse located in the Toronto suburb of Ajax, Ontario.
B.M.D. is a collective of, well, British artists comprised of MCs Riddimz and Plain English a.k.a. P.E., along with producer(s) Mega and DJ Lighter. “We emphasize… the British part of the man dem,” says Alki Riddimz—one of the two main MCs in the group—with a wide grin evoking the spirit of an impish villain. “All of our common interests are very much British.” B.M.D. throw UK-based dance parties around Toronto that feature grime to garage to house. “Obviously, grime is the frontrunner at the moment with Drake co-signing it but [it comes down] to us trying to bring the British culture to Canada,” says Lighter. The group only formed last year—opening for D Double E for their first gig—but P.E. and Riddimz have been quietly carving out a small but passionate fan base in the city with radio shows and mixtapes for nearly a decade. B.M.D.’s aim to be ambassadors for the UK scene here in Toronto shows some signs of success; a B.M.D. shirt or two could be spotted at Skepta’s most recent show at Danforth Music Hall as Riddimz watched backstage alongside artist Chipmunk and other BBK personnel. They’ve also worked with acts like rising MC Novelist with plans to bring more of their brethren across the border. “I’ve never seen this many UK artists come in such a short span of time,” says Riddimz.
Riddimz was the first arrive in Canada in 1987 as a child by way of Stratford, Manchester after his father got offered a job in Toronto. “My accent isn’t as thick as the other three here,” says Riddimz—before Lighter interjects “You’ve got your own unique language, mate [
].” Riddimz continues: “My mom’s mom was already here and the part of Manchester where I’m from isn’t the safest so it was like, let’s try Canada.” Moving across the pond proved to have its own set of problems. “[Growing up] I wasn’t really into the cultural differences. It was to the point where, because I’m from north of England, they threw me in ESL to speak ‘proper English.’” He’d meet P.E.—who moved here in ‘99— through their college’s soccer team. They bonded over their mutual love of grime and respective MCs within the scene including Kano (“He checks off all the boxes: bars, wordplay, flow, metaphors, everything’s sick about him,” says P.E.); D Double-E (“He’s not the top lyrically but his originality, there’s no one that sounds like him,” says Riddimz); and together with Toronto-based producer DJ Freeza Chin they started the group
. Under the UKC moniker and video freestyles, they hosted their own radio show that aired MC clashes, interviews, and history segments. “That was the only grime radio show in the whole of the country. We had a 10-12PM time slot but we had avid listeners,” says Riddimz.
The show also served as an unlikely stage for then-unknown Toronto rapper named Tre Mission. “That’s a mad story. There’s a famous riddim called the ‘Wooo’ riddim and as a crew, we recorded a track over it. At that time, there was no such thing as a Canadian grime artist so we recorded over the tune and then Tre releases his first!” says P.E. “We were like ‘this kid can spit!’ and he had the accents, [slang] down but he’s not from England. He had to be from America or Canada. We got him on Fusion and we did a set.” Mega would join the fray after meeting P.E. through a recreational football team in Whitby and Lighter would complete the collective a couple years after. “Riddimz and P.E. had already been in the scene for years but being from London, the heart of grime, it was me asking them questions about how our music was received here. They said… it’s a small circle but we could try something in it,” says Lighter. Last year they reintroduced their former radio show after its cancellation in 2011, now called Grime After Grime on online radio station Toronto Radio Project. They also host parties called BUMP, led by P.E. and DJ/producer Marcus Visionary, a staple of the Toronto drum 'n' bass scene, along with Freeza Chin and DJ Lush. “Drake had Kyla on ‘One Dance’, it’s everywhere on the radio but that genre [funky house] is old. In England there’s no scene for that no more so in a way here’s this chance for us to revive it. People here in Canada haven’t seen the transition from funky house to garage, and grime stems from garage. We’re just trying to give them the history of the genre because grime’s been around 15 years,” says P.E.
Back in Ajax, Stormzy’s “Scary” plays in the background as DJ Lighter starts to close out his set over the stream. Off-camera the rest of the group and I are engaged in a heated debate whether Donae’o’s UK funky house tune “Party Hard” sounds like a soca song or if London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a bigger festival than Caribana (it’s not, guys). Somewhere in between patois-laced insults over our respective countries, the topic of Toronto’s long-standing love for urban UK music comes up. From the aforementioned Tre Mission to Toronto rapper $ha’s recent track “Tings Dem” and even as far back to London rapper and one-time Roc Nation signee K Koke, whose displeasure of snitches, rats, and ‘SPIDER!’ netted him a sold out show in Toronto, the sound resonates deeply here. “Ah man, people ask me about him all the time like, ‘Do you know K Koke?” laughs Mega. “I think, Toronto because it’s so mixed culturally, they do embrace other cultures.” Much of this can also be traced to African and West Indian communities that reside in Toronto and London. The cultures of each are manifested in music through patois and instrumentals. When it comes to the UK, grime directly pulls facets of dancehall and soundclash culture to influence its rhythms as well as lovers rock which is, as P.E. kindly reminds me, a uniquely British genre innovation that combines reggae and R&B. Early ‘90s Toronto rap—for example, the influential Michee Mee’s “Wa mek di man run after she” inflections on “Jamaican Funk Canadian Style"—also emphasizes the similar slang and samples.
Drake recently cribbed these influences to large popularity— so much so that some of our American neighbours have come to believe it’s a dialect he created. Because these influences are borrowed from elsewhere, there is a sense of confusion, especially where Mr. Graham’s recent album Views is concerned, about what is uniquely Torontonian sonically versus what is uniquely British. “When Drake says stuff like ‘you know dem ones there’ that’s ours,” P.E. explains. “I guarantee if you ask him where he got it from he’s [saying] from London. Even with [British TV show]Top Boy… When season two came out he was using the slang on purpose and everyone in England was like ‘Rah, man knows about the slang!’” Riddimz is a bit more diplomatic: “Looking deeper, we’re both born of the Caribbean so the slang is very similar and Torontonians can relate to that. I know people like Kardinal Offishall, he uses that type of slang and funnily enough a lot of people in England know him and will be like 'oh people in Toronto speak like that as well?’” Yet, I’m reminded of their first encounter with Tre Mission and how, despite similar turns of phrase, they were able to spot that he wasn’t from England. “For me, it took me a while to hear the differences,” says Mega. “People would tell me ‘oh she’s from Scarborough’ and I’m like ‘how’d the hell you know that?’ and it took me a while to tell between, say the west end and Scarborough but there is a Toronto slang for sure, it’s slightly different.”
The ardent passion B.M.D. have for their home is clear. This isn’t to say we completely lack that here: national pride has swelled in the last handful of years largely because of our musicians and sports teams. Still, to be Canadian—or at least a Torontonian—is to more or less claim the culture of your parents rather than your actual citizenship. “The funny thing is that everyone’s from somewhere else here. If you ask it’s ‘I’m Trini, I’m this, that’ whereas for us we’d say we’re from England, South London,” P.E. laughs. According to the group, the UK is far more insular and concerned with themselves and embracing their own trends with fashion and music. “We don’t cater to others outside too much because we’re cool with what we’ve got. We have our own scenes,” says P.E. “[Canadians] have open minds, I find, but it’s like they need someone like a Drake to push it,” says Mega.
What keeps B.M.D. in Canada is a continued promise of a fresh start in and out of music. “In London, in terms of jobs and everything, everyone’s on top of each other so there’s no space to do anything. Over here, there’s more equal opportunities. I can name on one hand how many of my friends are doing something constructive back home, whereas over here a bunch of friends all have jobs. So we left partly because of that and it’s been good since,” says P.E. They all nod in agreement. “At the same time, we’re from that country so… it goes deeper than just the money for us, when we hear a tune in the club, it’s memories of us at that age back in England doing whatever. I moved here and these guys had a thing called ‘Toronto funky’ and it was like a rebirth. I get to live this genre again. I want to be skanking or raving, so it’s a love of the music.” The four also have big ambitions for the future: they plan to expand with a debut tape, more events, and a web series to talk about, yes, football with the hope to become global tastemakers who reflect the pride of England. It certainly helps that the grime scene has grown significantly in cities like Montreal—thanks to people like DJ Son Raw—as well as Vancouver. “I told myself the only way I’d last here is if I surround myself with everything English. Any music I listen to, English. Any sport I watch or do, English,” says Riddimz. “When you get a crew that’s only English people, there’s no diversion, you’re only going to get 100 percent English. To surround myself with this, it’s a beautiful thing.”
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