If you don't know, now you know: Halifax, Nova Scotia is a rap city. From MCJ & Cool G to Hip Club Groove to Buck 65 to Classified to Cam Smith, Halifax has roots in hip-hop that are as old as the genre itself. For the last 30 years, Halifax's unique culture has yielded more than a few nationally recognized and commercially successful artists. More recently, the internet has given artists an international platform. Similar to what is being experienced all over the world, Halifax's diverse and original hip-hop culture is currently thriving.
But Halifax is unique in many ways. A complex racial and social history mixed with a bunch of fucked up governmental policies, crime and violence has given way to a strong arts culture. It's also made hip-hop in Halifax meaningful and perennially relevant. With Questlove's recent props to “instrumental president” Jorun, and a constant stream of releases from new and long-time artists, this seems like the perfect time to re-introduce Halifax hip-hop.
Kool DJ Red Alert Radio Show (1984) – The first tape distributed in Halifax
Much like the Bronx, Harlem and Chicago, Halifax implemented urban renewal plans in the 1960s, a perverse socialist movement that relocated African-Canadians from established settlements to government-subsidized urban ghettos, simultaneously undoing generations of identity and ownership. Ever since, areas such as Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park have suffered from benign neglect, as Michael McGuire writes in his work on early Halifax hip-hop. African-Americans who settled rural areas since the early 1800s were marginalized by default, granted bedrock land that impeded agriculture and growth.
It started in 1984 when local teen Eric “Rico” Melbranche brought tapes from the Bronx back to Halifax's public housing projects. From there, hip-hop was copied and emulated until this form of underground creative expression was infused with Nova Scotian context and style.
Uniacke Square Posse, “Untitled” (1988)
Unlike most other cities, there were and (still are) fewer opportunities for African-Nova Scotians to flourish. Black Nova Scotians in particular represent only 2.3% of the population. Despite decades of gross inequality in matters of law, education and employment, the Black community has been resilient and important to Nova Scotia culture, boasting world-class athletes, activists, poets, filmmakers, producers. The community is next-level influential.
Hip-hop re-invigorated Halifax's north end and connected the marginalized Black community here to marginalized Black communities everywhere. Ciphers went from alleys to bars, and featured acts like Down by Law, The Care Crew, New Beginning, Leather Cap Posse, emerging producer Joseph “Jorun” Serra and a break-dancing collective. Gottingen Street turned into a hip-hop hub. DJ Afrika Bambaata came by in 1985, shocking peeps with scratches. Production at this time was simple; rhymes and themes were Halifax-centric with local beefs and views.
Down by Law, "Modr'n World Thang" (1989)
When New Beginning dissolved in 1988, James McQuaid (MCJ) and Richard Grey (Cool G) took their established personalities to Montreal. Repping Halifax, they were quickly signed to Capitol Records, the first Canadian rap group on a major label. This was a landmark event.
MCJ & Cool G, “Live in Halifax” (1991)
In the early 90s, MCJ & Cool G would return to open for Public Enemy and Maestro Fresh Wes while still promoting local groups. Dozens of DJs and MCs of both genders released original material in this era, and hip-hop was starting its pop culture takeover. By 1994, rap and hip-hop had a huge and commercially viable demographic. Even Tom Green was rapping.
Urban crews were building the downtown Halifax scene while Hip Club Groove was making waves from Truro, a small working-class town in the country. The Groove played rural legions, making fans in far-out audiences before cozying up to Halifax's exploding indie rock scene that was riding "new Seattle" waves made by bands like Sloan, Thrush Hermit and Eric's Trip.
When Hip Club Groove released Trailer Park Hip Hop on Sloan's murderecords, it caused an outpouring of hate. Even though MC Cheklove (Cory Bowles) is definitely Black, Hip Club Groove was accused of being a White group for White audiences, which devalued what HCG was contributing in a wider sense: high-energy performance, classic beats and quirky character.
Hip Club Groove, "Shootin' The Gift" (1994)
Historically, groups and artists who tapped into the White demographic have had greater successes overall, however nuanced and uncomfortable. It’s not a new issue and it’s central to debates within rap culture up to present day. Still, success requires a certain work ethic.
In 1989, rural (Stinkin') Rich Terfry rapped about baseball (he had been scouted by the Yankees) and other White-boy topics not usually explored in hip-hop. Considered weird by some, he hosted The Bassment for 11 years on Halifax’s community radio station, CKDU FM, while he exposed other local acts and producers. He caught Sloan's ear and murderecords released Game Tight in 1994. His style developed and he re-branded as Buck 65, working with artists like Sixtoo, k-os and Sage Francis. He’s been prolific and award-winning over 17 albums, and now has his own CBC show where he continues to promote indie hop-hop acts.
Stinkin’ Rich, "Ten Miles" (1994)
From a rural community near the Halifax airport and inspired by a grittier street style, Classified founded Half Life Records in 1995. Over a decade later, his Maritime identity gave way to a national one. His ninth album, Trial & Error, was one of the best-selling rap records of 2004. One of the hardest working dudes in Canadian hip-hop, his videos are now a regular fixture on Much Music.
Classified, "When I Bust On the Mic" (1995)
Physical copies and records of Halifax’s early hip-hop era are being lost to time. What remains are samples of samples and an incomplete history in various private collections. And by the 2000s, technology changed the game entirely, everywhere. A standard computer was an infinite studio. Production was no longer limited by access, but by creativity.
Influences and audiences broadened. Clubs and bars opened doors to DJs of all genres, and sub-genres of rap expanded. You could find gangster rap, conscious rap, slow jams, break-beats, you name it. Then in 2001, Trailer Park Boys premiered on Showcase. The weed, booze and chicken-fingered comedy starred Hip Club Groove's Cory Bowles and Jonathan Torrens as J-Roc, the every-White-wannabe-rapper. TPB became internationally loved and notorious. It painted realistic portraits of Nova Scotia’s deep-seated social dysfunction.
J ROC, "It Could Happen to You” (2003)
TPB also articulated a lot of truths about Halifax hip-hop. It centralized the relationship between poverty and identity. Most of Nova Scotia is categorically poor and hip-hop was an avenue for expressions of both racial struggle and class struggle. Beyond politics, hip-hop was just straight-up enjoyable, and attractive for its challenges of writing original rhymes or customizing and personalizing popular styles and beats. Trailer Park Boys originated from a real love of hip-hop: it’s an art that offered cultural richness in the absence of material prosperity.
By 2005, a number of DJs in the Backburner Collective were creating alternative jams using old-school record collections. Jesse Dangerously, Wordburglar and at least 19 others were connecting with KRS-One and creating a golden-era renaissance. Ghettosocks came out of this movement and has since skyrocketed to national recognition. He left Halifax to make a new album, For You Pretty Things.
Ghettosocks, “Stolen Kicks” (2009)
In the last few years, the Halifax Pop Explosion has pumped up its rap and hip-hop acts and the Halifax Jazz Festival consistently programs funk and soul. Maritime promoters are throwing back to mixed bills, too. Last year, New Brunswick indie-rock festival, SappyFest, invited Halifax's Weirdo Click and Brooklyn's The Underachievers to play as the first hip-hop bookings ever. It's renewed a trend that goes back to the murderecords scene, and it shows that Halifax audiences are interested in many styles of music. Fan amalgamation is a pretty smooth move, in terms of widening the reach. In 2013, hip-hop acts and indie bands came together for shows, and many artists are making their live performances a major focus.
Weirdo Click, Rap-Rock Show/Party Footage (2012)
As local fans continue to catch on, the Internet has given Halifax's hip-hop community a huge platform and means of collaboration. Quake Matthews teamed up with Freeway and RS Smooth, KAYO (originally from St. Lucia) connects with Halifax’s Caribbean community and there is a strong economy for beats. Artists getting noticed lately are the DJs and rappers taking the greatest advantage of the internet’s infinite possibility. Producer Ryan Hemsworth (you know Heemy) started his incredibly stellar career from a Halifax laptop. Electro-duo Purity Ring called Halifax home for years and now Danny Brown’s about them. Last winter, Halifax’s multi-instrumental act, The Caravan, released a political rap that went viral. We are all connected and the implications are exciting. Even I’m getting re-tweeted by Da Brat.
The Caravan, "What Up Steve?" (2013)
When Dartmouth's Pat Stay was named two-time battle rap champion of Canada, we all felt like champions. His was a slow rise in a rough scene, but battle and insult freestyle is appreciable because it adds drama, importance and gravity, all while being funny.
King of the Dot Rap Battle, Pat Stay (2013)
Right now, the most energy is coming from artists who squad up and join organizations like the East Coast Music Association and Music Nova Scotia, which offer strong networks and award-granting systems. This year’s Canadian Music Week in Toronto is stacked with Halifax acts. To take it nationally, you need all the help you can get. There are hundreds of underground rappers who have different approaches, ambitions and less reach. But in terms of mainstream music, all artists who are still in Halifax are still very much underground.
Hopscotch Halifax Cipher (2013), Part 1 of 3
With a history of possibility, Halifax hip-hop is bringing the best game it has. The CBC’s Cam Smith (son of Leather Cap Posse's Paul Smith) produces beats for himself and a crew that includes Jay Mayne, Alfie, Weirdo Click, club-thug Thrillah and more. PsycThaPrince and RellzInYaGirl are phenomenons.
Jay Mayne, "Pound Cake" (2013)
The pro-style extends to the stage and other genres in hip-hop. International touring group Three Sheet started playing with a band, which raised the bar and value of live performance. Now, many rappers collaborate with live instruments: Weirdo Click hits up The Wayo and Cam Smith hustles with Neon Dreams. R&B, too: JRDN is another Much Music regular, and our girls Nicole Ariana, Samm Splash and REALEYEZ are vibing and getting on tracks. Halifax has always been a supportive and encouraging foundation from which to get your shit started.
Nicole Ariana ft. XXX CLVR, “Everytime” (2013)
What originated as an expression of social individuality for Nova Scotia’s Black community has come to represent and (in some ways) unify an entire province over three generations and people of many ethnicities. Halifax has kept up with technical production: early four-track samples led to 808s and MIDIs and then all-out professional home studios. Local beefs faded over time in the interests of community, and artists from this remote coastal city have added distinct flows and unique perspectives to the larger world movement.
In the last few years alone, Halifax has been blessed with visits from De La Soul, GZA, Raekwon, Lunice, The Wailers, El-P and Killer Mike, and just went totally nuts for Pusha T.
Pusha T live at The Marquee (2014)
Halifax is a rap city but it’s also more than that. It’s a music city, it’s an art city. It’s a cool fucking city, even with its flaws. As acts from different genres share audiences and as artists leverage the internet as a means to influence, Halifax is poised to compete in the hip-hop game on an international level. Artists here belong to struggles and histories that are relatable to many, but are experienced by few. That’s why we’ve stayed true. These are our stories and our skills, and Halifax is only getting better at sharing them.
Adria Young is a writer living in Halifax who knows everything about the Maritimes.