As a child, Noyz recalls having to put his face up to the family stereo to catch an LL Cool J song. “We had this one radio that had two dials: it would go FM and then the entire AM dial was just one Punjabi station,” he says. “So I remember sitting beside that stereo switching it to FM and I‘m sitting next to it and I had it this close to my ear, with the volume as low as possible. These are the kind of things we had to do to listen to ‘English music’ in front of our parents,” he adds with a laugh. The 32-year-old rapper from Brampton occupies an interesting but not uncommon position in Canada’s hip-hop world, one of many seasoned performers still poised to break out into wider recognition. His style, a New York-derived meld of jazzy beats and technical rapping, is unique among modern-day Toronto area artists, who typically favour post-Drake cosmopolitanism or varieties of streaming-friendly trap. He’s also at the vanguard of a still growing scene of artists that can claim origins from Brampton’s enormous immigrant plurality, specifically the South Asian/Desi communities.
Coming of age amidst the late stages of hip-hop’s so-called Golden Age in the late 90s, Noyz started writing his own rhymes while he was in middle school. “I was big into Fugees, Wu-Tang, Puff Daddy, Biggie, Tupac, all that good stuff,” he says. “Hip-hop is still very new to [my parents]. My generation was raised on it, but [my parents] weren’t introduced to hip-hop until they found out we were doing it.” Noyz grew up in a multi-generational Sikh household, and he was raised on 'kirtan,' traditional Indian devotional music that mostly involves religious texts set to song. “Even though pop music wasn’t part of my upbringing, kirtan in itself is written in rhyme and cadences. Rhythm and poetry has been part of this culture for centuries, so I connected a lot of dots to see that,” he points out. “There are a lot of stories in Punjabi and Sikh culture about people standing up for the disenfranchised, and a lot of the hip-hop that I grew up on also follows that same message.”
Noyz’ first forays into rap were through impromptu freestyles at high school house parties and while in university in the late 00s, he got his breakthrough performing a freestyle at a college radio show in Guelph while he was attending York University. Through the show he met with and became aware of other South Asian-Canadian artists in various disciplines, like comedian Jus Reign, rapper Humble the Poet (who Noyz describes as a something of a “conduit” for connecting with other artists), poet Rupi Kaur, and YouTuber Lilly “Superwoman” Singh. The loose collective is notable for operating within Ontario’s Peel Region, consisting of GTA municipalities Brampton, Mississauga, and Caledon.
According to Noyz, he wasn’t confident in the ability for Brampton to be a real scene at first, noting that “there weren’t clubs, there weren’t stages you could go to. My first open mic was at York University. [We had to] take the banquet halls and repurpose them for our own uses.” The lack of resources wasn’t the only obstacle, Noyz faced some confusion about his musical direction at home. While his younger friends and family supported him, (“My first open mic, 90 per cent of the people who came out were my cousins,” he jokes) his older relatives, including his parents, weren’t so much unsupportive as much as they had difficulty grappling with Noyz veering away from South Asian sonic traditions. “I’d have people come up to me after shows like ‘Yeah I like this, but next time, try it with a Punjabi beat.’ Most of the resistance I’ve faced has been within the South Asian community ... I don’t think they’ve seen a lot of South Asian artists not incorporating South Asian instrumentation,” he says.
Through MuchMusic’s RapCity TV series and college radio stations, Noyz became familiar with foundational Canadian hip-hop artists like Kardinal Offishall and Monolith and realized that there was room for him in this world. “The closest experience I found of someone brown, on TV, and rapping was Monolith,” Noyz says “...I was like ‘whoa this is dope as hell’ to them being brown and being on TV but also being from Toronto and being on TV.” Likewise he gained confidence from working with other Punjabi rappers like Sikh Knowledge and the aforementioned Humble the Poet. “I think a lot of [Punjabi artists] have that same background of being suppressed in terms of liking certain things,” Noyz says, “so when one of us finds each other it’s like finding a unicorn. When I met Jus Reign and he introduced me to all these people it was cool, cause we all find something we didn’t even know what we were looking for. I didn’t know there were other Punjabi rappers [before then].”
He’d then go on to record, release, and distribute two solo albums, 2010’s The Shadow Gallery and 2012 full-length Degrees of Freedom, which contained a notable track in “Block 32.” “I did [the song] about the 1984 genocide in Punjab, and one of my friends in England translated it into Punjabi and they showed it to elders in the Punjabi community over there. First of all it was just incredibly humbling, but it was even more humbling to know that the older generation who actually lived through these things had an appreciation for my words as well.” Noyz fought to make music that is, in his words, “straight rap” but still synthesizing elements of Punjabi and Sikh history and culture. Through the efforts of his peers breaking down the content of his words, he even managed to have his parents appreciate his music. “I’d like to say I’m trying to reach that younger version of myself, that kid was too shy, too quiet, inspired by something but doesn’t have the confidence to recognize that within themselves,” he says. Noyz’ just-released EP So Below—a collaboration with fellow Brampton artist Selena Dhillon—exemplifies his sound, with songs like “For All Seasons” riding smooth instrumentals that only recently became fashionable as Gen Z’s meme and study music of choice.
Currently, there is a sizable group of South Asian artists making waves from across Canada and ready to be appreciated by their cultural groups (see: producer Chin Injeti, Vivek Shraya, and the meteoric rise of Rexdale’s Nav). Even so, the artistic impact of a would-be hotbed like Brampton is hamstrung by the persistent lack of infrastructure in the Greater Toronto Area. “There isn’t much opportunity to do a rap show in Peel Region because there aren’t venues that have stages, even for a rock show,” says Noyz, who also says that he’s probably played more times in the USA than in Canada, and considers the American response to rap more enthusiastic than here. He also suggests that the indifference towards rap comes from Toronto being out of touch and not recognizing its own. “It takes a lot of advocacy to convince the people who have held [arts & culture] positions for a long time, who are disconnected from the hip-hop generation, that they don’t understand what hip-hop is and that they have a fear of it. They don’t want to show it on these mainstream stages. You look at an artist like Rupi Kaur, she put out a book in 2014 and she was still performing at the Rose Theatre in 2017. An artist who is that big, on the NYT Bestsellers list, and it took the city that long to realize ‘oh wait there’s something going on here.’” He cites a Globe and Mail article about Brampton’s racialized “ghetto” misnomer as proof of the prejudices that still exist about communities that diverge from white Canadiana.
So with no venues and outright indifference towards the music, how is there a scene in the first place? How do local artists like Dhillon, Kyle Wildfern, and Derin Falana go from bedroom artists to known names? “The community exists because there’s nothing else here,” explains Noyz. “Nothing happens at night so people gave themselves something to do and somewhere to go, like the studio or with your homie to jam. There is a scene as far as there are artists releasing music and artists performing, but it’s all done out of town. There’s nothing to do here, but we’re still going to make something of it.” He has hope that Brampton’s demographics can allow for real change. “People from our generation are growing and getting to the position where they can get [administrative] jobs. The average age of a Brampton citizen is around 32 but the people who are in positions of power don’t represent that age group. They’re detached from it, it’s out of their field of view.” To demonstrate, he points out that rising Toronto rap group The Sorority played Mississauga’s public New Year’s concert this year but that veteran Can-rocker Tom Cochrane played Brampton’s 2018 Canada Day celebrations. “No shade to Tom Cochrane,” Noyz laughs, “But if you grew up on hip-hop in Peel you’re not going to really be interested in his show.”
As far as his own position goes, Noyz feels he’s occupying a few career stages at once. “I’m one of the old guys, I think. If we can pass some of that knowledge back [to younger artists], why not?” But he’s also readying his long-gestating project Lo-Fi Glory with producer Dusty Loops for a February release, as well as a project with friend and rapper B Magic under the Movin’ Cool group name and another release collabing with an unnamed UK producer. Outside of music, Noyz tells me he’s going to write a book about his father’s emigration from Punjab to Canada. “He grew up in the middle of nowhere in a house made out of mud,” he says. “How did he go from there to here? A lot of elders in our community haven’t told their stories, so I want to preserve that, more so as a record for myself and family but I think it’s a just a really interesting story to tell.” Add to that an increased public presence through a viral freestyle video by 40oz Heroes and an appearance in an MLS documentary about Brampton, and the future that Noyz has made for himself is looking pretty bright.
“It’s really cool that people are paying attention to Brampton because for a long time people didn’t,” he says. “I think it’s the Drake effect. That wave of him and the Weeknd has risen and now we’re seeing the ships in these other areas are rising. The resources to match the talent still aren’t here. Until then, we’re gonna keep doing what we’re doing. When we talk to other South Asian artists they ask what’s going on in Toronto, but it’s really just Brampton and Mississauga.”
Noyz notes that this close-knit feeling might be part and parcel with his culture. “You’re from where you’re from, you just have to embrace it,” he says. “A lot of Punjabi people, we take ownership of our village. That’s how micro-level it is. [Punjabis] in Canada will stop you in the street and ask ‘hey, what village are you from?’ That’s a cool thing, that… we take a lot of pride in that little sliver of region where we’re from and I think that carried over to here. Brampton’s our village.”
Phil is on Twitter.