“I think that a lot of people want there to be a Toronto sound,” asserts Matthew Progress in his coolly gruff, yet nonchalant near-whisper. We meet at a condo in the heart of downtown, and his profile creates a silhouette against the wall of windows that overlooks over the city’s sprawling west end. “What they’ve done is find one sound that’s happening in Toronto, and decided that that’s the sound of the city. On a level, that offends me, because I’m born and raised here, and Toronto has actually had many eras of urban music.” It’s one of the first points he raises.
In recent years, it’s become difficult to talk about the urban music that bleeds out of the city without speculating some sort of tie to OVO. It seemed, until recently, that the camp’s sonic fingerprints had the city’s emerging talent in a chokehold—but things are changing, and creatives like Matthew Progress are at the forefront of a new legion of urban artists who are intentionally adopting a more chameleonic approach to their craft.
In place of the sinister, trap-tinged hip-hop that has dominated the city’s musical narrative is a sound that plucks from more diverse and international influences. Progress has forged a distinct breed of churning lyricism whose laid-back flows are set against notes of dancehall, grime, and garage, leaving his body of work aligning more closely with electronic artists like Delroy Edwards or Galcher Lustwerk than Drake. “I don’t know that cities even have sounds in 2018”, Progress digresses. “I think people use the digital realm to find their tribe, and that tribe is international. There isn’t a regional sound anymore.”
Born in the late 80s and having lived in Toronto for all his 30-odd years of life, he’s seen the many transformations that the city’s musical landscape has undergone. Referring to the era of The Circle, Progress poignantly articulates how artists like Kardinal Offishal, Saukrates, and Jully Black made for a more cohesive urban scene than today’s disjointed collective, which is more hinged on persona and social media presence rather than craft and experience.
Although Progress now focuses on his lyricism when he works with producers, he recalls how he would play everything from drums to trombone as a kid, then in high school freestyling in cyphers or boomboxes that may have been brought to school. “I was obsessed with Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt, and Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, but then I also fucked with Daft Punk and The Prodigy,” he tells. “Got invited to a dingy basement studio at 17, been recording ever since.”
It’s these varied interests in music alone that begin to suggest a pattern of curiosity across Progress’ lifetime. Although he pursued a formal education in social work, Matthew was born a natural storyteller and cites film and visual media as his first loves. He won’t put together a demo without considering the visuals, whether that’s “a way of dressing, a way of speaking, a scent, or a look, or a colour palette that goes with a particular song.”
While he’s always studied film on his own time, he’s always loved performance art and loved the idea of social disruption, hopeful that his latest EP, Slumber Magic War, is capable of the same for his audience. “That’s why I have a sort of an obsession with people like televangelists or motivational speakers”, he admits. “People who are able to step in front of big groups of people and use the power of positive manipulation to get a response.” His latest release is no exception.
In an era where one medium by itself is “the least important it’s ever been”, the recording artist explains that focusing on one angle of your craft will leave your audience lacking context. “It needs other mediums to tell the full story,” he contends. For this reason, Progress takes an interdisciplinary approach to any project he tackles—in particular with what inspired his latest EP. “I’ll never put out a project that doesn’t have a whole planet and society attached to it,” he muses coyly and turns his gaze to his glass of bourbon neat. “For this EP, I’ve created an alternative society or a cult, and that is the story of this EP.”
Despite Slumber Magic War being only three songs in length, the recordings were parsed from over 60 demos. This is what makes Progress particularly interesting as an artist—he’s capable of acknowledging the different influences in his music, and goes on to fluidly move between them, avoiding any commitments to expectations or niches. “I very much just create—I interrogate my insides, and use that as a starting point,” he tells. “Even with the electronic thing, it just happens to be the vibe that makes sense and I’m into it right now, but I have almost a whole project of soul music and a bunch of other genres too.”
With Dan Only as the core producer on Slumber Magic War, he’s also got demos that he’s been working on with Toronto electronic producer, Nautiluss, where the pair are leaning into electro-dancehall. It’s through the diversity in his collaborators and personal taste that Progress accumulates the intercontinental influences that make cameos across his music. “I have something for everybody. If a country music jamboree hit me up to play a festival, I would take the opportunity,” he jokes, emanating natural charisma. “I’ll stand in front of a bunch of 60 year olds in cowboy hats and play this music and see what they think about it.”
With records like “Sip Test”—the opening track on his latest EP—Progress breaks the fourth wall between himself and the listener by incorporating a Cannonball Adderley sample into the production. The track ironically opens reading, “What we’re going to do now what has nothing to do with an arranged piece of music”, before immediately cutting into the house-y shuffle that follows. In the same way that his music here seems to offer a greater message than itself, Progress seems to offer a new perspective on what Toronto’s urban music scene holds. His refreshing sound is a blatant rejection of any stereotypes, which makes it the perfect embodiment of Progress’ interdisciplinary and intentionally disruptive approach to his craft.
“I’m not really concerned with how I fit into pre-existing templates, or concerned with how I can shape those templates to work with what I’m doing,” Progress remarks, with a distinct glint in his eye as he says it. “I look at not being able to fit in any particular genre space as an asset. I like the idea of initial resistance from people, or platforms, and then winning those over.”
Corinne Przybyslawski is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter .