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Meet Toronto's Roney, Toronto's Gangster Rap Wunderkind

At 18, Roney has managed to become the hottest rapper in the Toronto streets. But can he turn his hype into a deal? We profiled him to find out.

Welcome to Polson Pier in Toronto. It's an industrial seaport that's famous for its amazing view of the metropolis skyline and the fact that it houses The Sound Academy, the largest indoor concert venue in the city outside of the modern coliseums known as the Air Canada Center and The Skydome, both of which sit across the lake in the downtown core. This venue holds 5,000 people and will be packed in a few hours with die-hard fans all waiting to see Redman and Method Man take the stage to perform their greatest hits. The show will also act as a milestone for Roney, the 18 year-old gangster rapper with an palpable buzz that supercharges the city's youth. Tonight will be the first time Roney performs live.

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In his music videos—which have racked up hundreds of thousands of views over the course of months, Roney can be seen looking menacingly into the camera, sneering and pulling imaginary triggers as he's surrounded by hoardes of his peers. Everyone featured in these videos is from one of two regions: Regent Park or Parma Court. Regent is tucked into the eastern corner of downtown while Parma is located more to the north, but they both share the notorious designation of being some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Toronto. A quick foray into the YouTube videos that artists from Regent and Parma produce shows off a grimy lifestyle with a gang of youth stationed outside of community housing, waving both blue and red bandannas and proving that these are not regions that you'd like to walk through alone after the sun sets.

So imagine my surprise when the taxicab that pulled up to the Sound Academy that afternoon carried a solitary teenager, dressed in a dark blue outfit that coordinated perfectly with his St. Louis Blues fitted. The hat sat atop Roney's slight, pubescent frame and covered both his tight braids and the devilish smirk that would go on to accidentally spread across his face as he guided me through his first ever soundcheck and concert appearance.

Although this is technically his first showing, Roney was scheduled to perform twice in the past but fate kept that from occurring. The first possible show was called off due to a disagreement with the venue that stemmed from the fact that he was too young to even appear at the club (Roney's 19th birthday will be in October). The second show never happened because he ended up arriving past the scheduled time, a problem that was caused because the people that Roney was depending on got him there late. He's learned from these mistakes now, as evident by his solo cab ride to the venue, but he's obviously wary of having too many voices in his ear. "Every single day there's someone telling me what to do with my career" Roney tells me sullenly.

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At best, Roney's music can be described as being primal or raw. At worst, it can be categorized as uninteresting or seemingly unfinished. But taking both his age and social conditions into consideration is necessary to truly understand why Roney's music is resonating with such force within the city. It's music that sounds like it's being made from a desperate place by a desperate person—desperate for credibility, popularity, or simply having his voice heard in an area that's congested with noise. Since almost anyone can have a rap career in 2013, Roney needs to set himself apart from the pack. He does this by rapping about the street life from the point of view of a soldier on the ground, recounting and celebrating his wins while mourning and remembering the losses. These battle-tales are told in a deliberate pacing, accented with the same delivery a grime rapper would use and punctuated with Roney's "Baom Baom" ad-lib.

Roney's family hails from Jamaica originally and a quick foray into his music shows a heavy Grime influence. One of his major musical influences is K Koke, a white rapper from the UK who was raised in Stonebridge, an area with very prominent Jamaican roots. His other biggest musical influences? Meek Mill—a rapper that Roney credits for keeping believable gangsta rap afloat—and dance-hall sensation Vybz Kartel. "Before I started getting back into the studio I was listening to a lot of K Koke and a lot of Vybz Kartel. I came up with a flow based on a tweaked version of what I was hearing and ran with that."

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So how does one fall into becoming a successful local rapper? For Roney it began early. "I started in Grade 4 at a hip-hop literacy program where we would go after school and just read about hip-hop. It was in Regent Park and we would learn to write tracks. I did that for about three years up until Grade 7. I got back into it three years after that in Grade 10, when I started doing it for fun, put out a video, and then all of a sudden people I never talked to started asking me when the new track is coming out." In addition to helping him find an audience, the hip-hop literacy class also taught Roney about what successful rappers had gone through in order to achieve their dream, including the two artists he would be opening up for later that night. "We studied all those old guys like Redman, Method Man, Jay-Z, everyone from way back. That's when I found out that rap is more than just rhyming words and coming up with a slick rhyme, it involves stuff like counting bars, which I learned there as well."

Does Roney have a gameplan for his future? Kinda. "I'm trying to expand as much as possible. I just keep putting out music steadily and try my hardest and hope for the best." There's been interest in his art. Roney's Don't Sleep mixtape series has become almost like a label for the young rapper. "When I'm in the hood people always joke with me like, 'Why are you sleeping? I thought you don't sleep'. But I chose that name for my tapes because when most dudes from the hood make album names they always choose come long shit, and I just wanted to keep it simple. It started off meaning 'Don't Sleep On Me,' but it's gone both ways since and I just went with it." And the tape's popularity has even earned Roney local celebrity status to the point where he gets recognized around town. "At Wonderland, I had girls coming up to me asking my girlfriend if it was okay that they take a picture with me. Just the other day I was at my house and I needed to park my dirtbike, but the shortcut to get to the garage ran through this old lady's yard through her new grass. So I was preparing to go around when a bunch of little kids shows up and crowded around me saying, 'Hey, Roney, do you want me to come open the gate up for you?'" This run-in with the youth isn't too uncommon according to Roney, who says that his key demographic is white fans, as well as startlingly young kids. "There are 5 or 6 year olds that don't know the alphabet yet but they know all my lines."

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"I ask myself all the time, where did these fans all come from" Roney says as we wait in the backstage area before his soundcheck, his feet kicked up as he browses through his phone. If he's nervous to take the stage, he doesn't show it, choosing to devote his energy to asking questions in person while delivering directions to his friends on the phone simultaneously. "When I dropped my first two videos I didn't even have Twitter yet. Now it's gotten to the point where a rack of views a day on YouTube is nothing to me. In fact, I get mad if I don't get that." But in spite of his viral success, Roney is still agitated when he compares himself to the local climate. "The only thing that makes me want to quit rap is when I see big rappers come to Toronto, then I look at the bill and see that the artists opening for these rappers have been releasing videos for two years and my newest video has more views than their old shit. It make me wonder, 'Why are these guys getting everything?' The opening gigs, the features, all that. Even a guy like Big Lean, who gets one or two thousand views on his video still manages to get all the features." Upon further examination, Big Lean's video with Chief Keef has amassed roughly 880,000 views, but there's no way to tell whether the popularity was caused by a devoted Toronto following or thanks to the Keef feature.

Speaking of Keef, Roney has often been compared to the youngster from Chicago. Of Keef, Roney says, "We rap differently. We're both popular though, so I understand." But in addition to their similar age, popularity and gunshot ad-libs, Roney and Keef are both rapping about—and glorifying, some would say—violence. "People always tell me I have to stop rapping about that stuff" Roney says. "But the way I look at it is, actual rappers are still rhyming about the streets, they just add other stuff in there. Since I don't have cars and jewels and Maybachs I can't rap about that right now." Since he's from the toughest areas of the city you'd be hard pressed to call his rhymes an outright lie, and as we continue to talk he mentions in passing that his recording career is funded by his career of being an "entrepreneur" or "street pharmacist."

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As we wait in the back room, Chopz, the promoter who organized Roney's first appearance alerts us that Roney is needed to do soundcheck. Chopz is an older gentleman wearing a complete Lacoste outfit with matching white durag. He has whisper-thin hairs growing from his chin and stands in front of the stage with an athletic build as we wait for Roney to complete his first-ever stage set. Chopz also acts as the manager for the other Parma court artists on the bill tonight, Skrillz and Big Cheese, and we end up talking about what makes Roney so popular. "He's hungry as fuck" replies Chopz. "He never stops, his work ethic is amazing. He's coming from an area that all eyes are on and he's able to stay hot week after week without losing the people's attention. There are a lot of young guys rapping, but Roney is appealing because he talks about real shit. You can see it in his videos, you can see it in his eyes when he raps. He's an old soul." Although Roney is typically associated with Parma Court, he identifies more with Regent Park, the area where he learned about hip-hop. He's only been in Parma Court for four years, but that hasn't stopped him from working with people like Chopz. Or rather, it hasn't stopped people like Chopz from working with Roney.

There's a hiccup regarding Roney's actual stage time later that night. Although everyone was supposed to get the same amount of time on stage, Chopz artists get a majority of it with Roney only being able to do a couple of his songs, a problem that Roney attributes to the fact that those artists readily put Chopz's Parma Court logo on their videos and promo material, while Roney prefers not to. "I get frustrated because of industry BS like this" says Roney who hints at the silver lining. "I get caught up in it and get really pissed, so I go home and write crazy tracks because of it."

What does Roney have in store for the following years? To put it simply, "I want to get signed." Although he's aware that he has the raw talent, Roney knows that it can only take him so far. "My only problem is that I need a better manager. Because right now, my friend is my manager, and he doesn't take it very seriously. I want to be a rapper, I'm serious about it, and I need the people around me to be serious too." Roney plans to release two more installments of Don't Sleep and an official album by 2015. Time will tell whether or not Roney gets a deal, but he was born in 1994. Time's on his side.

Slava Pastuk is a Toronto resident and rap enthusiast. He's on Twitter - @SlavaP