Calgary is allergic to good rappers. via WikICommons.
Aside from the mountains, the oil, and the mountains of oil money, Calgary's got a lot going for it culturally. That might be a hard thing to believe, particularly for those of you east of the Canadian Shield, but the southern Albertan city has a lot to be proud of, from underground free-jazz and noise shows through two unhinged hardcore scenes (one specializing in drugged-out punk and the other in all-ages friendly post-hardcore and the good kind of emo), forward-thinking electronic labels, world-renowned DJs, some great indie and punk acts and a burgeoning arts scene. One thing Calgary does not have, however, is a notable rap movement—with the exception of one actually promising artist and a couple of others who are charmingly hilarious.
Granted, there is a reputable if small battle rap community, and hip-hop veterans like Dragon Fli Empire do well within their own circle, but the city's yet to produce a rap artist worth exporting.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly why. With such vast urban sprawl, musical communities break off into small, insular clusters meaning they're both isolated and completely self-unaware. Plus, compared to larger metropolitan regions, there's a relative amount of financial stability. No one wants to hear about your struggle to move up from a clerical oil company job to a land administrator oil company job, and “Plateaued in the Upper Middle” doesn't quite have the same ring as “Started From the Bottom.”
Whatever the case may be, the city continues to produce some aggravating, hilarious and downright embarrassing rap songs.
Arguably the loudest voice in the pack is Transit. Though he's actually from Victoria, Transit attempted to create his own city anthem in 2011 with “Calgary.”
Some context: Transit has found a niche in the legions of kids who wear 2005's street wear brands, wave their hands side-to-side in unison and love to talk about “real hip-hop.” He's basically Alberta's answer to Macklemore, though he'd probably boast that he's been in the game longer than Macklemore.
In 2011, he made national news and racked up over half a million YouTube views for a song called “Lights, Camera, Action,” which was a takedown of formulaic radio pop like Katy Perry.
That same year, however, he teamed up with Jann Arden (arguably a much more, and MuchMore, formulaic radio star) to sing the hook on “Calgary,” a song that boasts about all the wrong things, from the city's corniest modern rock bands to its downtown McDonald's location (???) to the sad, insecure chorus of “we are not all cowboys” which, frankly, might actually be a better thing to be at this point. Then Jann Arden sings about how the “scene” in Calgary is expanding. Also, like anyone with a camera and a handful of phone numbers in Calgary can get, there's a Mayor Nenshi cameo. After you watch this, however, you'll realize ol' Nensh just isn't as cool as he once seemed.
The video inspired a thinkpiece from Calgarian expat Mark Teo in the pages of Fast Forward Weekly (the city's alt-weekly, where I also happen to work as music and film editor). Teo cleverly pointed out that having a city anthem doesn't necessarily mean you've achieved greatness, and civic humility might be a better idea than trying to make something happen that really isn't going to happen.
The article was published to some soft praise, and it seemed like it would come and go without any pain. Maybe Transit took the high road—after all, he was so tough on Katy Perry and her ilk that he'd surely understand the valuable cultural conversation Mark was attempting to foster.
Nope. In April of this year, over four months after the piece was originally posted, Transit posted a passive aggressive response to Teo. Titled “Transit in Amsterdam: Response to a Hater,” the clip sees Tran perched up on a cobblestone road in Amsterdam.
He's already repping an Amsterdam snapback, and bragging about how he feels bad for people who're stuck writing behind their desks while people like him are out “living their dreams” (those dreams of which, apparently, mean traveling far, far away from Calgary). Point taken, Transit. Moving on.
Yes, VICE has already spilled some words on the overflow of bad Calgary flood songs (though I'd argue that this one is much worse, and I'm going to keep linking it until you watch it). Ricca Razor Sharp's contribution isn't just bad, however. It's maddeningly inept. It looks and sounds as though he conceived, wrote and recorded the song in less time than most people were taking to read an article about the Calgary flood. It's like slacktivism in song form.
First off, just pause the video at the two-second mark and absorb all of the stickers on that guitar. Primus, the Dead Kennedys, chalkboard writing that reads “you suck.” Is this a bad prop from a television show set in the mid '90s? Did Fox recently purchase That '90s Show, and they're shooting it beside Calgary's tumultuous Bow River?
As the camera zooms out, you'll see that the guitarist (who, despite being more hammy than anything, is named Pastrami), wearing an 'I Am Canadian hockey jersey and looking like an all-around righteous dude. He's even making a cool-guy duckface. Ricca Razor Sharp is wearing a purple t-shirt with an iron-on image of Nenshi on the cover of the (ruthlessly conservative) Calgary Sun and a pleather Calgary Flames hat. Both of them are rocking some discount shades.
As the YouTube description explains, this video was filmed and edited on an iPhone, meaning they're at least sort of aware of the clip's rough-around-the-edges quality. A good pair of performers would've transcended that, surely, and it's incredible what real rappers can do with a stripped-down freestyle.
Instead, atop a goofy guitar run that is exactly what your dad would play if you asked him to play you a rap song on the acoustic guitar (guaranteed), Razor Sharp offers up some razor dull lines about Jarome Iginla (yawn), another shout out to Nenshi (who's really big with this particular crew of rap hacks) and a boast that even though Sled Island was cancelled, the (horse-slaughtering, occasionally racist, definitely debauched) Calgary Stampede won't face a similar fate. Plus, they needlessly switch locations for the video on multiple occasions, offering up Godard-like jumpcuts with much worse source material. Then, after Ricca does his tough guy “no more” thing with his arms, some onlookers offer up some petty cheering.
It's no secret that there's plenty of money in Calgary's oil-rich economy, which perfectly explains why so many eastern Canadians head west to soak up some of the riches. Local rapper b-Ravenous has sadly deleted much of his internet presence, and I'm so disappointed. You really need to experience the goofy turntable scratches that popped up all over the place while navigating his Flash-heavy site, and the video for “Leaving Nova Scotia,” his ode to Calgary riches, is incredible.
There's a small taste of it at the start of this low-budget Shaw TV interview documenting the rapper's meteoric rise:
Like Ricca Razor Sharp, b-Ravenous and his crew are all about discounted hockey jerseys and questionable headwear, this time with cheapo cowboy hats. Unfortunately, most of the song is cut off. Even on his MySpace, the song is only available in a 30-second snippet, as if the bluesy acoustic guitar and wailing organ would have you racing over to iTunes to pick up his Outta The East EP.
Fortunately, it has survived on his CBC Radio 3 profile (complete with one of the worst photographs I've ever seen, a mish-mash of Photoshop filters that almost recall the visual effects from Repo Man).
The song's all about moving west to Cowtown (gross), the home of famous hockey players like Theo Fleurry (who, it's worth mentioning, sings in this video that I'm sharing for the third time), where they promise to swing the vote away from the conservatives, fatten their pockets and living large, at least until they pay off their student loans. It's funny how much they praise Calgary's promise in the song considering that the refrain is built on the phrase “it's a shame that we're leaving Nova Scotia.” Sounds more like an admission of failure than a brag rap.
Of course, much of the oil money flowing around is spent sipping beers on many of Calgary's patios, the most famous of which is unquestionably the Ship and Anchor. They're packed year round, and practically printing money by offering up brewskies and the occasional punk show to their vast clientele. Rapper Bloodpaw (John Byskal, formerly a drummer for this transcendently awful band) resembles a Calgary archetype in himself, rocking a massive beard, stretched lobes, deep Vs, cheap beers and weed, like a combination between a metalcore fanatic and someone who internalized Fubar without any ironic detachment. That's not to say he doesn't have a sense of humour—he's fucking convinced that he's hilarious on “Ship Rap,” a five-minute ode to the bar that has essentially ruined it.
Bloodpaw “wrote, recorded and half-assidly [sic] produced” the song as a tribute to the bar, and it comes across like a bad “hipster” parody that a third-rate Lonely Island knock-off might've created in 2007 to get their sketch group off the ground. The lyrics, which are on display on the video's YouTube link, include lines like “It's the Ship and Anchor and I sit for a bit / And then I jot in my notebook, it's hipster shit” and “Baggy toques sitting back on some heads / Skinny jeans, scene 'zines and people with dreads.”
The video sees Bloodpaw walking around 17th Avenue, gawking at people whose jeans are slightly skinnier and hair slightly more coiffed, then aggressively groping breasts at the Ship & Anchor. Some goon thought it'd be cute to tattoo a ship on one knee and an anchor on the other, so they show that a bunch. Then there are the prerequisite shots of Nenshi's Peace Bridge (also featured here, just saying).
At five minutes long, the song causes sensory overload of civic embarrassment, and whenever I watch it (which I've done half a dozen times), I start looking at apartment prices and job listings in other cities. I've seen happy, smiling people fall to bleak silence, and ruined entire parties, just by putting this video on. It's that powerful in its wretchedness.
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