How T.O. became a hip hop hotbed
Before Forest Hill’s Drake and downtowner Melanie Fiona were nominated for this year’s Grammys, Toronto’s legion of hip hop pioneers blazed some serious musical trails
Clockwise from top: Snow, Choclair, Michie Mee, Wes Williams a.k.a. Maestro Fresh Wes
At this month’s Grammys, two of the leading Toronto contenders are Forest Hill phenom Drake and Melanie Fiona. Both have a good chance to win, and both are products of the city’s burgeoning hip hop scene.
But Toronto wasn’t always such fertile creative ground for young hip hop artists. It took a few breakout artists to pay their dues and break new ground.
One of the early innovators was Maestro Fresh Wes, whose mega-hit “Let Your Backbone Slide” is still shaking cabooses on iPod playlists from the Bridle Path to Burlington. Wes, now in his 40s and pursuing an acting career, is considered the grandfather of Canadian hip hop, and his album Symphony in Full Effect is still the top-selling hip hop record of all time.
Michie Mee (Michelle McCullock) was the first prominent female rapper in the city to garner significant acclaim. A dynamic performer and lyricist, Mee hit the stage running back in 1985 when she performed with legendary American hip hop icons Boogie Down Productions at a concert in Toronto, and she went on to become the first Canadian rapper to be signed to an American record label. Her debut album, Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style, sold 60,000 copies in the U.S., and she was nominated for a Juno Award.
The Dream Warriors (Louis Robinson and Frank Allert), with roots in Willowdale and Jane-Finch, were a pioneering hip hop group in the early ’90s then managed to achieve early crossover success with their popular song “My Definition.” Part of the so-called “golden era” of hip hop, Dream Warriors demonstrated hip hop could be more than just posturing and bluster through their intelligent, progressive lyrics.
Other pioneers include reggae-style rapper Snow with his worldwide smash hit “Informer,” as well as Choclair and Kardinal Offishall.
Of special note, Dream Warriors and Michie Mee both hit the stage as part of a special pre–Juno Awards concert on Feb. 5 at the Horseshoe Tavern. Go to junoawards.ca for info. And watch Drake and Fiona at the Grammys on Feb. 13.