Seeing a tweet about Swollen Members on my Twitter timeline is rare, but for that tweet to be scribed by Drake is worth noting. Vancouver's Swollen Members are comprised of emcees Madchild and Prevail, and producer Rob the Viking. Recently, the trio appeared on Sway in the Morning and on the topic of Canadian hip hop, were prompted a question about Drake, to which they responded with only the highest of compliments. And, since Canadians only have nice things to say about one another, Drake returned the serve.
I feel like I spend a lot of time trying to convince non-Vancouverites that Swollen Members are enigmatic legends. They've never broken into the mainstream, but they've maintained an amazing cult following that allows them to sell out shows across the globe. In 2006, after a slew of albums and tours, they were poised to be Vancouver's hometown heroes on the brink of breaking into the public eye. But then things halted and they faded into our memories, unable to secure the hit that would launch them into superstardom. "Hey, remember that Swollen Members song?" someone would say, scrolling through an iPod at a party. "They were dope, what happened to them?"
Last month, they released their 11th album, Brand New Day, which represents a reflective and introspective journey into the group's storied past experiences that have led them to where they are now. We were thrilled to meet up with Madchild and Rob the Viking in the group's hometown of Vancouver for the story behind the Swollen Members' legacy.
Madchild grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, listening to punk rock and getting into trouble. “I started off as a little skateboarder and I was into punk rock and hardcore. Black Flag, DRI, Wasted Youth, Bad Brains.” Until he made a friend who introduced him to hip-hop and opened his ears up to artists like Grand Master Flash and Whodini. “Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill came out and it changed my life. Drinking Coronas and going to the beach in a ’63 Mercury, that was the shit. Driving in a little Vespa scooter because I wasn’t old enough to have my license. LL Cool J Radio, Licensed to Ill, and Ice-T Rhyme Pays. That was it. I went from punk rock to hip-hop, and there was no looking back.”
But, as is the story for most young Canadians attracted to hip-hop culture, the north doesn't feature the most nourishing community. For Madchild, this was during the time of Hieroglyphics, Del the Funkee Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, and Oakland DJ crews like Mixmaster Mike, Apollo, and Scratch Pickle. It seemed that heading south to San Francisco was the aspiring emcee’s best option to find the culture he was looking for. "It was a really exciting time in the Bay Area, but I was just still a young kid. Homeless, sleeping on pizza boxes for six months, delivering pizza for a dollar an hour, and walking around at night looking up at the windows and thinking I'd give anything to just be sitting with someone in a warm room talking, or playing video games."
Madchild started making records with professional skateboarder Tommy Guerrero of Powell Peralta, which turned into his first release; a 7" called Pressure. After that record, Madchild released another called Pregnant with DJ QBert. Del the Funkee Homosapien caught wind of Mad's music and came from Oakland to meet him. "I was working at the X-Large store which was owned by the Beastie Boys, on Haight St.—still a kid, mind you. A lot of rappers came through back then. But meeting Del, and him coming because he liked my music was such a big deal to me."
It was also at the X-Large store where Madchild met his future bandmate, Prevail, but their chemistry only solidified a little over a year later when they crossed paths at a house party. "It was like 150 kids in this trailer in North Vancouver. We start rapping back and forth. We rapped back and forth for an hour and a half, and I kid you not, for an hour and a half, 150 drunk people were dead quiet listening to us. We knew there was chemistry. We went for a walk right after that and we were like, 'Let's start a group.' Bang. Done. That was it." As for the group's double entendre of a name, "Moka Only was originally supposed to be a part of the group. He came up with the name 'Swollen Members' one night when we went out drinking, partying, and went to Denny's. He came up with it, we laughed and we were like, 'That's actually a pretty dope name, people will probably remember it. Swollen Members.' So we stuck with it. So that was the original Swollen Members."
Early on, Prevail and Madchild were joined by two other members, named Zodak and Easy Roc. They put out a couple 12-inches and Madchild was contacted by “a guy from England" named DJ Vadim. "He was on the label Ninja Turtles at the time. He wanted to fly us out to England and we actually started touring the UK and Europe before we ever toured Canada.” Swollen Members had also dipped their feet into international grounds, having already toured Japan, and completing an American tour prior to a Canadian tour. But it was after this small taste of success that the group found the final ingredient in producer Rob the Viking. Rob recalls, “I grew up on Gabriola Island. As a kid I would listen to heavy metal, Slayer, Metallica, and I started skateboarding. Through skateboarding and being at high school I got into hip-hop music. My mom was a piano teacher and my best buddy’s mom was a piano teacher, so I knew a little bit about music and I relayed that into creating music that was inspired by hip-hop and skateboarding. I just started making beats.”
Madchild’s father at the time lived on Gabriola Island, as well. During one of his visits, Madchild met some friends of Rob’s and heard some of his beats. When he found out that Rob was planning a move to Vancouver to go to engineering school, he quickly offered him a spot to stay and work on some music as well as go to school. Rob eventually started making beats for Swollen Members and their signature sound was established.
Shortly after, they kicked off their first Canadian tour, which was sponsored by the skateboarding company, Circa. They drove in a beat up Winnebago, “basically a milk carton on wheels,” Madchild remembers. “There weren’t even flat screen TVs yet, so there was a TV we put on a table that would slide back and forth. But we were playing in places like Montreal and Toronto and murdering it. The clubs were all packed and we were like, ‘We have something here.’”
Life was good for the group. “I was living in a seven bedroom house in West Vancouver that I was renting, with a pool, and things were good. Life was great. We were young and killing it, and we were touring," says Madchild. "We were the hometown heroes. We would pay money to be in a big studio and we would fly all our favourite rappers to Vancouver and set up shows for them.”
The group’s imaginative lyrics gave them an added accessibility, since their words are so otherworldly that they border on science fiction. When asked about the inspiration, Madchild notes, “Prevail reads a lot of books, so he’s like a human encyclopedia, thesaurus, dictionary. I watch a lot of movies. I’m a huge fan of the original Conan the Destroyer, Conan the Barbarian, all that stuff. I just dig that kind of shit. It just sounds cool. The word ‘Warlock’ just sounds fucking sick. ‘Sorceror.’ I look at the power of words and it just so happens that mystical fantasy has produced some awesome sounding words, or to me they sound awesome. That’s all it really is. We didn’t sit there and say ‘Hey let’s be the group that talks about wizards and warlocks.’”
After building up some local buzz, Swollen Members released a record called Lady Venom in 2000. “It went like wildfire,” Madchild remembers. “MuchMusic fully supported it. We ended up winning a MuchMusic Award and we ended up winning our first Juno off of that song and our first album Balance. It was a big upset because everyone thought that Kardinal (Offishal) was going to win because he had that song ("Husslin").”
Apparently Swollen Members had their own Arcade Fire Grammys moment when they won that Juno. “It was a big upset in Toronto. Everyone was like, ‘Who the hell are these Swollen Members guys?’” “They made t-shirts, remember that?” Rob asks Madchild. “Yeah, ‘Swollen who?’ People would walk around wearing those shirts. Maestro Fresh Wes was furious at the time. So that’s what set it off.”
After the Juno win, Swollen Members were living comfortably. Madchild was living in a loft. The label had its own office in the center of Vancouver’s downtown Granville St. area. They had a couple of interns and a distribution deal. “We were a real force to be reckoned with as far as West Coast underground hip-hop,” Madchild says fondly.
The success kept coming. Swollen Members ended up winning four Junos in total, and seven MuchMusic Awards. They went platinum twice and gold twice on top of that, and had countless Top 10 radio hits. But being young and coming from nothing to suddenly hitting major fame comes with its own battles. Madchild in particular admits he did not handle the success properly and began to associate himself with people who weren’t the best influence on him. “I was cocky, I was young, I was arrogant. Basically I thought I was the greatest thing in the world. I got introduced to a group of people called the Hell’s Angels. I always loved gangster movies and I had grown up with gangsters and tough guys. As a smaller dude I always aligned myself with the tough guy. I had this whole ego problem back then when I was young. They [Hell’s Angels] made it feel very special for me, the whole club. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the guys—they’re great guys—but it was a bad lifestyle choice for myself, the group, and the label. And unfortunately, having millions of dollars from nothing, and having jewelry and cars and girls in a very short period of time and at a young age, I was looking for the next thing, and the next thing unfortunately turned into mansion parties and drugs.”
Madchild’s party lifestyle soon spiraled into a very serious drug addiction, which put the group’s ascension to fame in jeopardy at the peak of their success for almost 4 years. “I ended up getting a very bad oxycodone addiction. At one point I owned eleven properties, millions of dollars in the bank. That was 2006. Then, 2010: flat broke, burned through 3.5 million dollars. Had nothing. No vehicle. This close to homeless. All because, by the end of it, I was on 20 oxycodone 80mgs a day. I was intoxicated, inebriated, annihilated, all the way to doing synthetic heroin, floating on a cloud for 4 years. So it was basically time to save my life. And the tough thing about that is when you go through something like that, you don’t just put your own life on hold, you put the group’s life on hold, because I’m this drooling zombie and they’re like, ‘Let’s go do this tour,’ and I don’t show up. It was just—I was a mess.”
The group’s hope for American success was doused as Madchild’s associations had him banned from the United States for 3 years, during which time the group toured without him. He notes, “We were just sort of accomplishing what we could while I was stuck in Canada for 3 years. I couldn't go to America and that’s where you go to build your career as far as media is concerned. That's where everything is.”
Coinciding with Mad’s ban from entering America, the group maintained a strong refusal to compromise their artistic integrity, which they believe aided in their not fully breaking the American industry. “At that time we didn’t realize the trials and tribulations of trying to be an artist that’s on the radio, and we found out that for us to continue being that type of group, we would have to emulate what was popular whether it was true to our art or not,” Mad says. That’s not to say the group doesn’t feel as though they’ve compromised their idea of art in the past. They recall their album Heavy which came out just as Madchild was “starting to meet the guys that maybe weren’t making the smartest decisions for me." They had just been signed to Virgin Records in LA so they “were trying to make this record that we thought would live up to the expectations of a major label and A&R people,” Madchild says. It “took us out of our element. It was a weird time,” Rob confirms.
Heavy has a single called “Watch This” whose accompanying video illustrates the group’s struggle between their art and what they were hoping people would be receptive to. Filmed in Kelowna, the video is just the group’s members rapping in front of cars and on speedboats surrounded by women in jean skirts. Compared to their earlier videos like “Fuel Injected” and “Lady Venom,” it is very clear they aren’t having fun or living the healthiest of lifestyles.
Meanwhile, as Madchild rapidly succumbed to the temptations of fast success (“I was a mess. Gangsters coming by the house everyday. I wasn’t myself.”), the rest of the group contemplated both the survival of Madchild and Swollen Members as an entity. Rob remembers, “Literally, me and Prevail were looking at each other like, ‘Is he actually going to survive this? Are we going to be able to pull him out of this?’ We were having talks with his family like, ‘What do we do here?’ And he was pretty far gone. It definitely put our lives on hold. We were definitely struggling with that. I was having a baby at the time with my now wife and I was like, ‘I don't even really understand what's happening right now and what am I going to do in the future? Is the group going to survive?’ We had to sort of push him in the right direction, but he had to do it himself. The only way that anyone can come back from that is you have to know in your heart that you're ready to stop. You have to make that decision. That's what we felt and that's what had to happen, and he really did.”
Madchild is now three and a half years sober. “Not without the support of my group or my family,” he adds. “I don’t think I’d be alive without them. I feel like a completely different person.” His associations had him banned from America for three years, during which time the group actually toured without him. “Now, not only am I allowed back into America, I also live in LA.”
Madchild being allowed back in the States came with the opportunity to go on Sway in the Morning, which is what sparked Drake’s tweet about Swollen Members. Mad explains, “We knew that once I would finally get back allowed into America that these opportunities would start arising. We’re just thankful we have an awesome team who could get us these opportunities. Sway was amazing. He’s truly supportive of what we’re doing. He really genuinely cares.”
Swollen Members are currently touring and promoting their 11th album, Brand New Day, which is filled with positivity and a retrospective look at their career brimful of gratitude. “We really look at life and it is a brand new day. We truly don’t feel like we’re getting older, we feel like we’re getting better and more experienced and the great thing about life now is that myself, Rob the Viking, and Prevail can just stop and appreciate things as they happen. Just like this interview, this is an opportunity, this is great and I want to enjoy this experience. Today is a great day and this is a great thing for us,” Madchild shares.
It becomes apparent that they are incredibly grateful for all they’ve gone through, even and especially the negative points, for without those they wouldn’t have gained the perspective they have now. When pressed about one of my favourite lyrics off the song “Heavy Thinkers” from their 2002 album Monsters in the Closet I ask what was going through their heads at that time and how their outlook has changed. Mad reveals, “We had just been going for so long. I love every minute of it now, but at that time it was all very — we very much appreciate this opportunity whereas when we were younger, after doing it for 3 years straight like, ‘I gotta go do another interview, I’m just fucking tired,’ it was just a different time and place in our life. But you have to go through that in order to realize that each day is a gift and each opportunity is a gift. You have to grow as a person and you have to go through that to realize it. And I’m thankful we did realize it. Maybe some people don’t.”
Alysa Lechner is a writer living in Vancouver. She's on Twitter.