Photo courtesy of Mike Farkas
Guelph, Ontario is known for having an artsy hippie culture, but you don’t have to dig too deep to find its rising hip-hop scene. The city’s hipster reputation rang true as I passed a woman with dreadlocks drinking a dark red liquid from a mason jar on my way to R-Evolution Media Studio to interview Robert Gruenbauer, commonly known as Robbie G in rap circles.
The 27-year-old has making music for about 10 years, performing on stages stages and touring for the past seven. Robbie has come a long way since he first cut his teeth in the industry, increasing his performance schedule exponentially. “Early days, just starting out, we did like 4-12 shows in the first couple years,” says Robbie. “And then after that it started picking up, doing like 20 or 40 shows. Now I’m doing anywhere between 80-100 shows a year.”
To date, he has nearly 400 shows under his belt and continues to work, continually increasing his show output each year. Over the years, Robbie has performed all across the world, including Canada, the Netherlands, and France. Robbie’s accomplishments have pushed him to the forefront of Guelph’s hip-hop scene, and whether he’s performing or giving other artists a platform to showcase their talents, he produces positive results. Robbie knows the ins and outs of the music business, and is well aware that the key to success is to reach headliner status, touring consistently, and to build up your core fan base “because that’s the only way to have longevity in this business.” He also runs a music studio (R-Evolution Media Studio), a promotions company that puts on 50-plus events per year, and a radio show on CFRU 93.3FM that broadcasts from the University of Guelph.
His latest album, Stay Grounded, reached listeners ears back in September. Robbie completed a 28-show tour in the fall to promote the record, which featured artists like Joell Ortiz, Saukrates and Classified.
Robbie remains humble despite his success, and respects his elders in the local rap scene, namely Optikz and Noah23. Both artists have been inspirational for him. In 2016, he plans on releasing four new albums and will be touring heavily. “Everything’s going up on this incline, views are getting higher, more people are getting on that mailing list, more people are showing up to the shows,” says Robbie. “So as long as I don’t stop, the sky’s the limit.”
Noisey: Did you aspire to become a rapper at a young age?
Robbie G: I think it was around 15 or 16 years old. I’d never thought about it before, I was big into sports. I listened to hip-hop music, but I never really started getting into hip-hop until about high school. And one of my friends wrote a rap and brought it in and showed it to me, and I was like, ‘This is amazing, I can totally do this!’ And I started writing some songs and it was a great therapeutic way to get whatever was on my mind, or on my chest, off it. And then I learned that it was also a way that I could help other people out. So I got right into it.
Do you remember the first paid show you ever did?
Yes, I do remember the first time I ever got paid for a show. It was a promoter out in London. It’s a girl, she lives near the Sarnia/Strathroy area, but she brought me out for this battle event that she was running. She just found me on YouTube, saw some of my videos and said she wanted to book me. I think it was like 50 or 75 bucks, and I went out there, there weren’t many people there, but my dad and my little sister came out for the show, which was pretty cool. Every single person who was there ended up buying some merch from me, like a CD or something. So I ended up getting a decent amount of money off it for my first show, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool that some random person just wanted to book me and put money in my pocket.’ So, yeah, I kept doing it.
When you first decided to make a full-time commitment to your music career, were you confident that you would be able to make it in the industry?
Not really. It’s things like these, being able to get interviewed by Noisey that make me think, ‘Oh, maybe this might work.’ But even just hearing the fans tell me, ‘keep doing it,’ people buying CDs, doing more shows. I’m starting to get the sense that I can make it in this industry. You’re nervous at first, if you’re gonna make money. You’ve lost money sometimes going on the road. So now I’m finally getting to a point where I’m making money at it and finding different avenues to make music. So running the studio here in Guelph, doing the promotions, putting on shows for other artists that come through. And then selling my own music. So finding different ways that are still in my vain, what I love doing, which is being a part of the music scene, but finding ways to make money off it and make a living.
Were there any Guelph hip-hop artists that paved the way for you?
Definitely. It’s funny that you ask that question because literally yesterday I ran into one guy that was a huge inspiration to me when I was growing up, I’d never met him in my life, his name’s Optikz. He did a track with Classified, and it was all over the radio, it was called “Coming From The Cold.” And I remember hearing it on 91.5 The Beat and being like, ‘This guy’s amazing.’ He had proper photoshoots done and everything, and I’m like, ‘This guy is where I wanna be at.’ Yeah, he influenced me, inspired me a lot, and it was crazy because last night I got a chance to meet him. I just ran into him on the streets and he was congratulating me on the success that I’ve gotten, just bigging me up for holding Guelph down. And it’s crazy because I looked up to him so much as a kid, as a veteran in the scene. And now to be at that point where I’m making a contribution to this city and to hip-hop as a whole, myself, it’s huge.
So him and then also another artist in Guelph I can’t forget, Noah23. He’s done a lot of work for this scene, he’s toured all over and he inspired me a lot early on to get grinding on it. And then everybody in this city who’s in the scene right now inspires me. People like Molly Gruesome, she’s phenomenal, The Woodlawn Warriors, who I brought on tour with me out east, CDiss, Eh Vee. Bunch of people in the hip-hop scene here in Guelph that really hold it down and inspire me.
You’ve been able to earn a living as a rapper while remaining in Guelph. Why have you chosen to stay in Guelph, as opposed to moving to a bigger Canadian city or the U.S.?
I feel comfortable here, I love it here, it’s my hometown. This is a niche, a place that I found. There was nobody doing hip-hop shows here before when I started out. And it’s an open market, there’s nobody here really doing it, so there’s not much competition for other people putting on hip-hop shows. I can do what I want every single weekend, setting up different events and then also running all the B market areas around here. Being in Ontario, being in Guelph I have six to seven/eight markets all around the area: London, Sarnia, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Oshawa, Barrie, Mississauga. I have all these little pockets that I can do shows in, so I just keep running that circuit, and I think it’s a blessing to be out here. Plus, I was listening to this interview that Drake was doing the other day, and he’s like, ‘We crushed the whole stigma of you having to move to New York, or going to The States to make it.’ People like The Weeknd, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Drake, they all made it from where they were at, and they’re just showing people that you don’t have to be in some mecca. You don’t have to be in LA to make it, you don’t have to be living in New York to make it, you can be at your own spot and still make it. You travel around, tour and have your home base. Home base is Guelph for me right now. It doesn’t mean it will be this way forever, but I love this city and I’m staying here for now.
Could you tell me a bit about your promotions company?
Yeah, it’s called R-Evolution Media. We put on shows, events, help out artists that are touring. So anytime that an artist is coming around Ontario, generally we’d be able to book them a show here in Guelph. It’s a good foundation, started here in Guelph, just doing shows here and then expanded, and started seeing that we can use this formula in all these other cities, help artists, give them a platform, a chance for them to perform. And that’s the biggest thing for me, I’m an artist and when I was growing up, first starting, nobody else was out there and able to give me a chance, really. The few guys that did, I’m so appreciative of them for giving me a chance and I wanna emulate that as well with the new guys coming up and always remember to think about the locals, and to think about the guy on the come up. Because that first guy that’s just doing his first show or his fifth show or his tenth show, could end up being the next this or the next that. He could end up being one of the biggest grinders and become the next biggest artist in Canada, and he wouldn’t have gotten that way unless he had those platforms and chances to be able to perform. So that’s the big foundation of our company, just giving artists a chance to perform and helping them out.
As a rapper, do you think you have an advantage living in a city like Guelph, as opposed to Toronto, which has a saturated market?
100 percent! If I had moved to Toronto and become a Toronto artist, I would be swallowed up. I still represent Toronto a lot and I talk about it in my music, because I’m there pretty much weekly. Always doing business meetings, working with producers there, doing shows and stuff. So Toronto’s close to my heart, just as much as Guelph is, but there’s not really many artists in this city that are doing it to the level and degree that I am. So people in this city recognize that as ‘this is the guy to look up to, and the guy to beat.’ And if I was in Toronto, there’s so many other people to compete with. But at the same time, I don’t wanna get caught up in that mentality, ‘like I’m the best of this market,’ because I’m competing with myself everyday, I’m competing with every single other artist that’s out there, and I wanna make sure that my stuff’s just up to par with their music, if not better.
You dropped a new album back in September titled Stay Grounded. How has the album been received and how did your tour go?
The tour was incredible. Best tour that I’ve ever done. I was breaking records with people in attendance, merch sales, CD sales, everything. The response has been great from people. Getting simple messages saying, ‘This song affected me in a certain way.’ The whole concept of the album is talk about things that other people are too scared to talk about. So there’s a lot of stuff on there about violence against women, anti-bullying messages, talking about money and how people are always focused on that, there’s better things to be focused on in life. There’s a formula to making a hit with a lot of tracks nowadays, and it’s talking about this, this and this. And I’m trying to talk about the things that people aren’t talking about. I think it’s been received really well, the feedback that people have been giving me has been great. I got some good reviews and I’m super blessed, I think it’s my best project that’s out right now and I’m looking forward to the next one. There were some big name artists featured on the album, such as Joell Ortiz, Saukrates and Classified. How did you link up with those guys?
That track came about through a friend named D.O., he’s an artist from the Toronto area that’s been really influential on my career. He helped me out early on. He actually came to my high school to perform when I was just starting. One of the first times I ever performed was at that high school in front of like 2,000 of my classmates, which was really cool. And that was because of him coming around and he linked up the track, he’s friends with Classified, his whole album was produced by him, the last album that he just did. So he got the beat from him, he had Saukrates on the chorus already and he wanted to get a feature from Joell, and at that time I was touring with Joell Ortiz. So I was able to link it up to get him in the studio and lay down his vocals. And just because I’m like that, I’m eager, I wrote a verse to it and just submitted it to D, I was just like, ‘I got inspired, I like the beat. See what you think about it.’ And he’s like, ‘This is awesome! I wanna use it, put a whole track together. I’m gonna get Famous on it and you can use it for your album.’ I got all those big names on it, and that’s all thanks to D. So big shout outs to him.
Have you done any shows in the U.S.?
Not yet, because I can’t cross the border. I’m still dealing with some charges from when I was younger, and I was incarcerated for a while. I think in about a year or two I can. I’ve had offers to go down there and different gigs in New York, Detroit and stuff like that, and Miami now. So hopefully in a year or so I’ll be heading down there.
Ian McBride is a writer from Ontario. Follow him on Twitter.