Photos courtesy of Drezus
Alone in the Oregon Coast wilderness, Jeremiah Manitopyes sat in a dark cave, waiting for a vision to appear. Despite his large frame and tough upbringing, he was scared of the ocean that lay in front of him; growing up on the plains of rural Canada, he had never seen it before. The vastness of it—how alive it looked—was overwhelming. Famished and on edge, he peered out onto the water, glowing in the moonlight, in search of who he was meant to be.
He was sent there by a healer—a figure his tribe, the Plains Cree, had sought for generations for spiritual guidance. The mystic woman, an elder in the Native community, had told him to wait in the cave, with no food and only a beat-up sleeping bag, for a sign. It was an emergency vision quest, thrown together due to extreme circumstances: Only a few weeks earlier Manitopyes had tried to kill himself, downing a bag of coke and fifth of whiskey to try to numb his brain enough to slit his own throat. He was found by strangers in a puddle of cash and drugs, passed out on the side of the road. His cancer-afflicted grandmother, who was originally supposed to make the journey to Oregon from Saskatchewan in the hopes of healing her sickness, put him on the plane in her place.
But the quest didn’t yield results. Manitopyes, only 18 at the time, wasn’t receptive to the process, instead grumbling to the healer, who checked on him everyday. She tried to convince him that she sensed he carried the spirit inside of a chief, Piapot, who began his life as a horse thief but would go on to become a legend in Cree folklore for leading his people away from the settlers who invaded their land in the 1800s. She told him he would one day do something similar.
He didn’t buy it.
“I was still a punk,” he says. “I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.”
It would take him 14 years, multiple jail stints and another attempt on his life (this time by someone else) to figure it out. Now, at age 32, he takes Piapot everywhere he goes; the chief is tatted on his left arm, resting proudly next to his smudged stab wounds and aged scars. Like the Cree leader later in life, Manitopyes is no longer a thief, but rather someone guiding his people through his words, fulfilling his destiny of becoming a chief one bar at a time as the rapper Drezus.
Since a teenager, when he earned the nickname “Biggie” for his chubby stature and ability to freestyle, Drezus has been winning people over with his rap skills. In the 00s, he landed a deal with EMI as part of the group Team Rezofficial, whose single “Lonely” topped MuchMusic’s countdown (basically Canada’s version of TRL) for four weeks. More recently, his 2013 album Red Winter has received multiple prizes from Native organizations, and videos for the songs “Red Winter” and “Warpath” have racked up around a hundred thousand views each on YouTube. Yet even as Drezus achieves these successes, he faces a larger question of whether he can be seen as more than a niche artist—or if that’s even something he needs to do.
Only once you listen to its lyrics closely do you realize that “Warpath,” Drezus’s latest single, is about his Native heritage. At first take, it comes off like a more standard trap anthem, complete with stuttering 808 drums, a thudding bass line and Drezus’s baritone bark. Drezus can sell this sound—after all, he spent much of his career making tough gangster rap that reflected his life in the streets selling drugs.
But “Warpath” tells a different story than its sound lets on. Its lyrics revolve around spiritualism and overcoming adversity, with lines like, “They left our people broken, but homie don’t play the possum.” And its video shows Drezus channeling his Cree forefathers by standing in front of a tipi in colored buckskins and traditional warrior paint and pounding on a drum made of birch wood. Both the song and video, he says, were meant to give hope to Native men, who often struggle with self-confidence and get into crime as a result.
“I just wanted to be like, ‘Yo be strong. We don’t have to be selling dope or stabbing people. We have a bigger fight to take on.”
Much of Drezus’s music finds him touching on similar themes, and he’s aware that people might only be listening because of his heritage. Rapping in face paint comes with the risk of being branded as a novelty—Native MC rather than just MC. But Drezus is versatile, singing on hooks in his heavy huff of a voice in a way that shows he has an ear for melodies. Lyrically, he feels like he’s being truer to himself than ever. Songs like “Free Pt.2” and “The Sequel,” both off his recently released Indian Summer album, show him rhyming fiercely about the problems he faced growing up without a father and in poverty.
“For a minute, I thought was good at that hustler stuff… now I’m speaking straight from the heart,” he tells me.
Growing up, Drezus hated guitars in his music. That’s because his absent father, a traveling country singer on the “red circuit,” (shows on reservations and in Native communities) would only play rock records when he decided to show his face around the house. As a result, Drez instead gravitated toward groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A. and—perhaps his biggest influence—Ice Cube, who all made music that was sonically vicious and hard hitting.
“It just felt like some gangster shit,” he remembers.
He related to it because he was living a similar lifestyle, guzzling 40s of malt liquor and getting wrapped up in the drug game (only years later did he realize that Cube and N.W.A. had a message behind their music). He was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which he describes as a “hood in the middle of nowhere.” His mother moved him away from the small town and his gangbanging cousins as a child after a violent incident at a party involving his aunt’s boyfriend left two men dead.
She took him to Calgary, an oil-rich and predominately white town, but the move did little to deter him from getting involved with a rough crew he formed with other Native kids. It also didn’t prevent him from adopting the same vice most of his family had struggled with for generations: alcoholism. The liquor, he claims, made him feel more confident about himself, but it was one of the main contributing factors that eventually led him to try to take his own life.
After a while, he started writing his own rhymes and recording them on dubbed cassette tapes on his ghetto blaster. His big break came at age 17, when he snuck into a Jamaican club in downtown Calgary and convinced the DJ to let him get on the mic.
“In front of 300 Jamaicans, I started busting, and they were like, ‘What the fuck? Who is this guy?’” he says. “But they couldn’t deny the flow.”
Later on, he was invited to record in a studio by War Party, a moderately successful Native hip-hop group in the 90s, after he ran into them at a different club in Calgary and impressed them with a 20-minute freestyle. When it came time to lay down a track, though, the group was stunned by his lyrics; rather than talking about the problems of his people, he was spitting bars about robbing and slanging on the street.
“He would spit and write about the life he was living at the time, which was pretty wild,” says the group’s producer Big Stomp, who still works with Drezus. “I (eventually) got to see with my own eyes that the experiences he was writing about weren't fiction.”
Stomp knew from right off the bat that Drezus was a diamond in the rough; most MCs he worked with had trouble landing on the beat on their first try of a song, but Drezus always nailed it immediately. Stomp invited Drezus to start Rezofficial, which included other former members of War Party. Throughout the 2000s, they would go on to release two nationally distributed albums through EMI and build a significant buzz in Canada. Their big showcase was supposed to take place in 2010, when they were booked to play a concert in association with the opening ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.
But Drezus never made it. He instead watched it from a jail cell in Winnipeg, where he had landed after his second distribution charge in a span of five years. His dream of making it big was gone, and suddenly he was just another lost Native boy from the prairie, confused of his identity and locked up for the foreseeable future.
The true defining moment of Drezus’s life came in 2012, shortly after he was released from the drug rehab center he agreed to attend as part of a deal to avoid jail time. While there, he took a cultural course, taught by an elder, who reopened his eyes to his ancestry. He learned Native songs, how to harvest crops, and even how to make a traditional drum (he made the one seen in the “Warpath” video). He finally started caring about who he was as a person, not as a figure on the street.
But just like when he came back from his vision quest when he was 18, he didn’t think to apply these things to his everyday life, so he had to learn the hard way. Not long after being released, he robbed some guys in Winnipeg. Their crew eventually caught up to him, snatched his jewelry and beat the shit out of him, stomping him out. It was only then, when he sat in the house he was renting, pondering whether to retaliate, that he decided he was done with this life forever.
“I had two choices: The choice to retaliate, which meant at least someone losing their life…or getting the fuck out of there,” he says. “It was a real ‘man-up’ moment.”
Still battered and bruised, he returned to Calgary, where he found his waiting family, including a young son who he had never spent time with (he also has another son in New Mexico by a different mother). One of the first things Drezus did with his son was go to the library, where they checked out a book on Chief Piapot. They made an agreement then that they would care more about their family’s history, and it would be something that they would do together. They started getting involved in the protest against Bill C-45, a bill by the Canadian government that has since passed, making significant changes to land and environmental protection acts in ways that many local Natives consider to be a violation of their treaty rights. At rallies with his son on his shoulders, Drezus banged on the drum he made at the treatment center, standing hand-in-hand with his people, and he suddenly felt empowered.
“I started feeling a connection with the people, and I was like, ‘Yo, this is who I was supposed to be,’” he says. “It was only a month after I left Winnipeg, so it’s kind of like I jumped right into the fire—another fire—but a positive one.”
The fire gave him a new perspective on life, and it also changed his music. He recorded his 2013 record, Red Winter, during the rallies and decided he would make it his goal to motivate his people to do something positive with their lives, using his own experiences as cautionary tales. Winter has since earned extensive praise and led government agencies like the Calgary Youth Offender Center to ask Drezus to visit and speak to its Native population about his story.
“We got Crips. We got projects—native housing is the same idea,” he says, noting the role his visits play. “These kids just want somebody to identify with.”
Erin Bailey, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth in Washington D.C., agrees. The organization’s staff—many of which are familiar with Drezus’s music, she says—often ask the kids they work with what they’re listening to, and it’s almost always the same: hip-hop. She’s quick to point out that many Native youth groups around the country use the genre as a way to get its troubled members off the street.
“Hip hop specifically often comes up… with Native American youth on reservations and in urban Indian communities,“ she says. “The music can help in inspiring them.”
And that’s exactly what Drez says he’s doing with his music. Still, he recognizes that songs like “Warpath” aren’t going to be played on the radio. If he wants to continue to make it big, it’ll have to come from a different sound, one not so rooted in the culture he’s embraced. It’s a dilemma not uncommon in hip-hop—sell out or be stuck in the underground. However, it’s an especially tough dilemma for Drez, as he finally just figured out his identity as both as an MC and a person.
That person is different than the one that sat in the cave in Oregon. Sometimes, the crowds at his shows give him the same feeling the ocean did, he says—big, new and scary. But he’s no longer lost or confused; the fear is instead rooted in excitement. He believes he’s fulfilling his destiny, and like Chief Piapot, he’s leading his people, whether they’re Native, white, poor or rich, to peace.
“People look at me for guidance now,” he says. “I’m exactly where I should be.”
Correction: A previous version suggested that Drezus carried a gun on a daily basis and that he was stabbed repeatedly in Winnipeg. He did not regularly carry a gun, and he was beaten up but not stabbed in the Winnipeg incident. The artlce has been updated accordingly.
Reed Jackson is always on a vision quest. Follow Reed Jackson on Twitter.