A Guide to Toronto's Dark, Emotional Hip-Hop Sound
"There is raw feeling here, as well as laptop wizardry that few can touch."
Artwork by John Garrison
In 2015, Toronto rapper Sean Leon said in a now-deleted tweet that his city was making “the best music in the world” and that no one could tell him differently. He may have had a point. In 2017, Toronto’s hip-hop has a distinct enough approach and sonic character that it’s had a sizable influence on even the unbreachable realm of America. It’s tough to imagine someone like Bryson Tiller or 6LACK making as much of an impact without the moody foundation Toronto has set. That sound has been described by many as “nocturnal,” “murky,” and “shadowy,” since Toronto rap beats are often closer to doom metal or dark ambient music than anything club-friendly. It’s a wonder it’s even appealing at all, but as any dungeon master in a tabletop game can tell you, dark places contain rewarding secrets, and that also applies to the swampy morass that Toronto producers and artists help to create together.
It wasn’t always so unified. Aside from the use of Caribbean slang, Toronto rap was largely indebted to the regional styles of New York up until the late aughts. It never created a unique dance subgenre like Chicago did with juke, New Orleans did with bounce, or Baltimore did with Bmore club, so much like its communities, the city was fragmented between different approaches. Neo-soul, pop-rap, and jiggy era approximations all passed through Toronto airwaves before the OVO/XO alliance effectively decimated that sometimes hesitant past in the memory of the casual rap listener. To them, Toronto is “Marvins Room,” it is “Come and See Me.” More than those songs, though, it may be House of Balloons. As the Weeknd himself said in a 2013 Complex interview, his is the sound that made the city.
That whole hook [of Drake’s “Practice”] was me. That’s probably the only song I wrote for Take Care. The rest of it was just shit I was going to have for [ House of Balloons]. He really wanted to incorporate my sound, which was inspired by his sound. It’s not like, “Oh, I had the ‘new sound.’” It was just easier for him to relate to me, because it was his sound with an edge. It was that Toronto sound. So yeah, you’re right. I feel like I could have been that for his album.
So yeah, it’s just icy, detached sensuality that’s easy to replicate, right? Just slap a low-pass filter on your beat a la 40, and have your artist vacillate between singing and rapping. It’s not quite that simple, though. Through a set of distinct elements, the modern definition of the Toronto Sound communicates a sense of cool but also intense emotion that other regional scenes can’t imitate.
Most “trap” styled rap beats move at a steady clip of 120 to 150 beats per minute. This seems pretty fast, but remember that thanks to that prevalent half-time measure (the snares hit on the 3 instead of the 2 and the 4), these end up feeling like 60 to 75 BPM instead. It may be because of Houston’s chopped-and-screwed music that Torontonian producers decided to take things slower than most. It could also, again, be the result of “Marvins Room” and its crawling spite. Wherever the impetus came from, it left a mark. For an easy example, Drake’s “Days in the East” is at an already molasses-like 95 BPM, which can be further halved into a truly glacial tempo of 47.5 BPM. The song loses all sense of momentum and just hangs there, hi-hats spinning off into the abyss with only spare kick drums and a whip-crack snare to anchor them. It’s into this amorphous void that Drake chooses to pour his heart out, rather than onto a surface one can at least groove to. It pulls in the listener like quicksand, and that bottomless pit can be terrifying or sexy, depending on the particular approach the artist chooses to take.
Aside from this admittedly trendy slowness, Toronto’s audio trademark is its unimpeachable low end. Whereas Atlanta uses 808s as bouncy, discreet basslines, the methods used by our producers differ entirely. As demonstrated and maybe best defined by WondaGurl and Eestbound, Toronto 808s are often run through blocky digital distortion, hitting with a savage crunch rather than a lively “boom.” As if that’s not chaotic enough, Eestbound in particular pitch-bends his 808s, causing them to slip and slide uncontrollably like in Travis Scott’s “Antidote.” The resulting sound has often drawn comparisons to 90s industrial music and electronica, but it’s especially reminiscent of Massive Attack on 1998’s metallic Mezzanine. Sean Leon took that lineage to its logical endpoint by incorporating wailing rock guitars, but even he may have just been honing on what the Weeknd introduced in early tracks like “Wicked Games.” Combined with their low tempos, Toronto rap beats can feel oppressive and mechanical, and some artists choose to double down on that. Though he’s not Torontonian, Night Lovell’s cold delivery makes him a Canadian 21 Savage of sorts, and the piledriving production of “Concept Nothing” only amplifies that chilliness. It’s only thanks to one more element that the Toronto sound has a place commercially.
The roots of Toronto rap, much like those of UK grime, lie in reggae and other Caribbean musical genres. Whereas the funk and disco roots of American hip-hop focus on atonal call-and-response; by contrast, there’s a natural emphasis on languid melody in Toronto, which means even the hardest songs can have mournful, even lovelorn vocal expressions. Filtered through more American sources like the extravagant melismas of 90s R&B like Jodeci, those affectations can lose some of their Caribbean character. For an example of how this context can be lost, one only needs to look once again at Abel Tesfaye, who cites Ethiopian ballads as an influence but was saddled with Michael Jackson comparisons (which he welcomed anyways). With the resurgence of dancehall in the mainstream, Torontonian artists probably feel more confident in claiming the music of their respective diasporic groups. Thus, we have Big Lean practically toasting on many of his songs, while Derek Wise coasts serenely over the sludgy “When We See You.” Again, Drake more or less pioneered this juxtaposition of light melody on dark beats on Take Care, but the following generations perfected that divide by lacing jagged, robotic instrumentals with flashes of humanity. They also made the Caribbean connection more explicit. After all, classic ska and roots reggae was often in a minor key, relating stories of squalor and hard living much like hip-hop eventually did. A beautifully sung, catchy melody doesn’t always mean “happy.”
It’s through this amalgam that the Toronto Sound is more than just a series of “dark, slow, moody” boxes for American producers to check off. There is raw feeling here, as well as laptop wizardry that few can touch. This fairly academic look can only go so far, however. The Toronto Sound is a vibe, a feeling, and picking apart what makes it unique can’t possibly get to its core appeal. That’s up to the individual listener. Whether they’re drawn to the aggression or they enjoy sinking into its plush shadows, there’s a lot to explore and to love. And that’s not even counting the many non-OVO-derived directions with which one can attack this very broad sound. Toronto rap is relatively young, but youth only means there’s room to grow.
Phil is the Noisey Canada Staff Writer. Follow him on Twitter .