Photo by Jake Kivanc

Swag-Rap Duo CMDWN Make Songs of Ice and Fire

"The youth just fucked with us before we made music. We were CMDWN before we made music."

Nov 20 2017, 8:00pm

Photo by Jake Kivanc

Ca$tro Guapo and FIJI, the polarizing fire and ice trap personalities behind CMDWN, remember the beginning of their journey vividly. Their night had ended like many others had before, turning up into the early hours of the next morning—a denouement to their week-long partying spell. They had received a message from a friend telling them that fellow Toronto rapper Derek Wise had invited them to go to the studio at the Palace. “I didn’t want to go… I was making every excuse possible. I told Ca$tro I had to go babysit my sister. And they just kind of strong armed me. They were like, ‘No you’re coming with us,’”says FIJI. Ca$tro interrupts, laughing, as his turquoise-tinged dreads peek out under his hood. “I was like, ‘If I’m going you’re going!’”

“It’s kind of legendary because the first song we ever recorded was “We Are Not” in the Palace,” FIJI continues: “The Palace was where the Get Home Safe guys all lived and they threw the craziest parties. It was a little bit before our time downtown, but we kind of were a part of that whole scene as it was ending. I guess that’s kind of how we formed. I remember actually, [XO Creative Director] La Mar [Taylor] was downstairs, Derek [Wise] was in the room. It was almost kind of like nerve-wracking that it was our first time recording music in front of people that were already making music and were popping. But it just happened.” Music, however, was still not something they had taken seriously at that point. “We never talked about music. That was never a thing, it didn’t exist. If we talked about music it was what we liked to listen to,” says Ca$tro.

But now it is their reality. The two have just returned from Los Angeles, going full tilt on their music career. “You have to sacrifice something. You know what I’m saying? My mom wanted me to go to school. And I’m like, ‘Just let me kind of live my life. I don’t wanna regret not doing these things,’” says Ca$tro, recalling his decision to leave old life behind in Atlanta for a new one in Toronto. “[Some people] are living their parents dream and that fucked you over in the end. I’m glad I never did that.”

Ca$tro and FIJI threw parties—lots of them—occasionally in art galleries and, more frequently, in low budget motels. “We threw these parties based off our popularity. I didn’t think that was going to lead to anything. Our first party, we threw at an art gallery on Queen St. West—that’s shut down now. It had 800 people. Or 700 people. The youth just fucked with us before we made music. We were CMDWN before we made music,” says FIJI.

Since first becoming friends, the two always had an undeniable energy about them that drew people in—an element that would eventually become intrinsic to garnering their local success. “We just vibed with each other, we had similar interests and common hobbies and stuff.” A 22-year-old FIJI explains of meeting 20-year-old Atlanta native, Ca$tro at a clothing store’s closing party in 2014. The two quickly became inseparable, moving into a grimy one bedroom apartment on top of a bar at Waldon Park, which housed five of their friends at one point. “That’s where that whole party downtown scene started,” says FIJI. Ca$tro corrects: “That’s where the lifestyle started.”

The “lifestyle” Ca$tro is referring to is the certain, unspoken narrative that forges a common denominator with many of the artists emerging from the underground hip-hop scene in Toronto. Like a succession of storybook sequels, respectively imagining them as the main characters in a fairytale taking place on the Queen Street West. It is here where long nights of partying binges bleed into hazy early mornings—affording a new day to do it all over again. It is here where creatives collide and collaborate; where established collectives have formed and continue to form. Many artists draw inspiration from a uniquely “Toronto brand” of dark glamour that marks this street.

“When we made “We Are Not,” we were throwing those parties. Our DJ Teo would play it. The reaction of people was what led us to actually drop the music. ‘Cause people were fucking with the songs, and they knew the lyrics,” FIJI says. “People would come to our parties just to listen to unreleased music. After the reaction to that song we were like, fuck, maybe we should make more music. It was literally a hobby, and something we thought was just fun.”

These days, the priorities in their lives have certainly turned tables, as the duo traded in the wildness of their party lifestyle to work seriously on their burgeoning music careers. They’ve channelled their ability to curate a vibe to putting on memorable shows for fans that re-envision their old parties and re-manifest that same energy. They’ve penetrated the scene’s “glass ceiling” and evolved their cult-like hyper-local following into one that has transcended Toronto.

“It just fit like, this shit is a fucking vibe. I don’t know how to explain it. Anybody that comes to Toronto and leave, they feel like they instantly remember that electrifying feeling that the city and the scene gave them,” Ca$tro explains, wistfully. It is clear that he is engulfed by the feelings he eludes to himself. “Like the people, the culture. It’s like... the music, only compliments it. It’s the icing on the cake. Everytime I listen, it just brings me back to looking at the city, looking at the lights. The potential, the money, the creativity.”

Andrea Gambardella is a writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.