It's an early September evening and hip-hop outfit So Loki are playing a block party in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Sam Lucia, So Loki's frontman, is on stage, hunched over, mic in hand. He's asked for the music to stop so he can address the crowd. His voice is coarse from playing a show earlier in the weekend and it keeps cracking. Geoffrey Millar, the group's producer, throws in a stray synth chord during the interlude, turning Lucia's speech into a sermon. Lucia then introduces a track from their debut album, slated for release the next day. "This thing is the future that might just put Vancouver music on the map, because you know nobody takes anything from here seriously, because sometimes we don't," he says. It's a challenge and a call to action. He calls the crowd to the front of the stage, and by the end of the song, there's a mass around them, pulsing to the music.
Shedding the old sound carried over from the 90s, a new leftfield hip hop is emerging in Vancouver, pulling from fresh influences with an unflagging work ethic and a confident aggression. With no trends or gatekeepers, Vancouver hip hop doesn't have much to lose. It's become more porous, absorbing influences from the city's heavily electronic and experimental musical climate and So Loki are one of the few who sit center in Vancouver's nascent hip hop scene. They've already made a name for themselves opening for underground rappers like Mick Jenkins, Le1f, and Bishop Nehru and their debut physical release V, self-released on their own Owake Records, sold out its first run in 26 hours.
V was recorded in an unfinished, grey suburban basement, recounts Millar. "It's a very angsty, punk album. It felt like I wanted it to hit more. So Loki is just a product of its environment, literally the space we make the music in." Over the past few years, Vancouver has been caught in a real estate bubble—property speculation has intensified gentrification and made it a challenge to live in the city as an artist. "I sell watches and sunglasses at an entry to luxury price range," says Lucia, talking about his day job in the city. "I sell watches to dicks; people that think they're the shit, all day and that [resentment] definitely comes across in the music." Unlike the bottle-popping Degrassi-rap of a city that's made it, Vancouver's up-and-coming hip hop is darker and more uncomfortable. The production tends to sound industrial and highly synthetic, with skewed vocal filters and heavy distortion. But there's little in terms of unified community here largely because the city is too unaffordable for artists to get together in any definite way. "Most of the people we know can barely make rent. They might be a well-known musician, or have a pretty good job, but they still can't afford it," Lucia explains. "We all know that there's money here and none of us are getting it."
So Loki's origins are typical of Vancouver, which is made up predominantly of transplants and outsiders. Lucia moved out from Edmonton ("'cause fuck the prairies"), Millar is from Vancouver's suburbs and has a background playing in punk bands, although he'd been making electronic music when a friend introduced him to Lucia. From the beginning it was improvisational, Millar and Lucia laid down a track in their first session together, as well as coming up with a couple of loops. "Usually if it's a good track it'll write itself the whole day," says Lucia. After a little less than a month of working together, they sat down for sushi and decided on a name for the project. Since then, the bonds between them—built on mutual trust and shared dissatisfaction—have become deep. Their experimental style bears the influence of Vancouver's New Forms festival, which showcases experimental, noise, and ambient artists. Their performances take cues from punk and hardcore."Hip-hop acts aren't gripping a lot of the time. It's not that energy that you want to go and fight the whole front row with," Lucia tells me. "Very early on we made a pact that we'd have a killer live show because I think that's what's missing."
Vancouver's unaffordability is a limitation, but it's also become part of the duo's sound. Their music is warring with Vancouver, and itself, pushing the duo to make the music weirder and more combative. Process-wise, Lucia and Millar work collaboratively with call and response, each one upping the ante as they go back and forth. The frustration and harshness of the music, "it's a truer reflection of where we're at," stresses Millar. Stripped down to a thin backing track and mangled vocals, the aggression of So Loki's live sets have garnered them respect. "People want something a bit heavier here, a bit closer to the chest," adds Lucia. The problem isn't a lack of artists but that among the rising sound, there isn't commitment. Commitment to a sound, and risk-taking generally, is hard to justify in a city where you can't make the rent for your shoebox apartment. "We're all just throwing hail marys and seeing what lands," remarks Lucia. Without a unified community that can support itself, Vancouver hip hop is stunted. Venues like Fortune Sound Club, Harbour Event Centre and the Cobalt are less willing to curate local acts because fans have less disposable income. One regular practice is to fly in trending rappers. get them to play a song or two and then pose for photos. "If you're paying 10 000 for someone to come host a Friday night, shoot me in my dick because that's the dumbest thing," says Lucia.
Still, Vancouver's emergent hip-hop scene is racially, sonically, and gender diverse, heralded by artists like Brevner and Tommy Genesis, who So Loki have played with on several occasions; collectives like Chapel Sound; bold artists like Horsepowar, who mines Bollywood samples; newbies like Scope and BBNO$; internet famous DJs like Rhi Blossom; and experimental electronic label 1080p, whose cassette runs inspired So Loki to release a physical copy of V as a vacuum sealed USB stick. Tommy Genesis, for her part, has emphasised a lack of connection to Vancouver, something that resonates with So Loki. "Tommy is smart. We talked about this too—we don't want this album to give the feeling that we're staying here, that we're never going to break the boundaries of Vancouver" Lucia points out. "But it's dumb to say that there's nothing to be gained from putting a city on your back. I think if you do it for the right reasons and especially if you stick out like a sore thumb, you can make it work. We modeled our album art after the East Van cross, and at least we didn't model it off that horrid fucking steam clock."
Josh Gabert-Doyon is a writer based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter.
Ivanna Besenovsky is a photographer based in Vancouver. Follow her on Tumblr.