If you checked out our weekly publication of Hip Hop events in Toronto, 7 In the 6ix, you would have known about the event “Before The 6ix: Toronto Hip-Hop Albums”. It was a discussion, hosted by Del Cowie where four albums that were critical to the progression of Canadian Hip Hop were explored. This historic event took place at the Toronto Reference Library where a theatre style area was packed with Hip Hop fans of this monumental era.
The date was 1999, it had been ten years since Maestro’s hit track “Let Your Backbone Slide” gained global success, most importantly in the U.S. It was one of the biggest looks that the Canadian Hip Hop scene had from our neighbours south of the border. It was a time where Canada was trying to make an impact on the scene and let the world know what our music sounds like. Independent music labels like Capitol Hill were the ones putting music out because artists weren’t getting signed by major labels from the U.S.
As I mentioned before, there were four albums which dropped that year that helped define the sounds that people knew as Canadian, and Toronto specifically. “Passage Through Time” by Da Grassroots, “Ecology” by Mathematik, “The Underground Tapes” by Saukrates and “Ice Cold” by Choclair. These are some of my favourite albums so it was truly amazing to dig deeper into albums that shaped my development in the world of Hip Hop.
Murr from Da Grassroots, Mathematik, Saukrates, Choclair and Mansa Trotman were there to discuss the music and it’s impact on the culture. DJ Agile took care of the music, playing tracks from each album throughout.
“Passage Through Time” by Da Grassroots was the first album discussed. I have some personal history with this album as I bought this on vinyl 20 years ago and have listened to it countless times. Murr was on stage to breakdown more about this body of work.
The title of the album came from the feeling that the group collectively had of being stuck in time. Label situations caused some of this. It was also representative of the type of music that they were sampling for the album.
The Natives Tongues were a big influence on the group and their sound. Even with these influences from the U.S. and other areas, being from Canada was important to them. They wanted to create music that showcased “our people, our words”.
“Thematics”, “Postal Work” and “Eternal” were played thanks to DJ Agile.
Mathematik’s album “Ecology” was up next. This album opened the outside world up to a higher level of lyricism and an enlightened rhyme style. Previously, flows like this were reserved for the likes of New York emcees. This was something new for outsiders to hear from Canada.
Originality was important to Mathematik when making this album and all of his music. Imitation was never on his mind. Raw Mathematik is what you get here. You can really tell that Hip Hop is at the core of his being. He eats, breathes and sleeps it. “My religion is rap” was one of the things that he said which really solidified in my mind.
He talked about his connection with Bahamadia and how he worked with her on music. With Bahamdia hailing from Philly, this put himself and Toronto on the radar of some of the big names south of the border.
Choclair’s “Ice Cold” was one of the first albums to make a big impact in the U.S. He was the first to get signed to a major label. This was a blessing and a new set of weight on the shoulders of the young emcee. Getting signed helped his career and opened doors, but he had the pressure of the country on him. The music industry, specifically in the U.S., was watching and if the album didn’t do well, they may not come back to Canada looking for talent.
Choclair stated the crew that he was a part of, The Circle, were always making music together which is why there are so many contributions from the collective on the album.
“The Underground Tapes” by Saukrates was the last album that was explored. It was not intended to be an album. It was a collection of music that he made over time that had not been released. The track “Money Or Love” was on the soundtrack for the hit movie “Boiler Room” which not only provided a nice cheque, but gave him and Toronto more notoriety in the industry.
The making of the track “Body Language” with Choclair was broken-down as well. Shockingly, the beat was originally from a pager ringtone and they had to keep calling it back and writing rhymes to it.
It was a one of a kind experience to hear artists breakdown some of my favourite albums in person. Del Cowie really showed the connected web that all of these albums are a part of. They are all significant pieces of this unique time in Toronto where the expression of the art was getting noticed and outside ears were willing to listen. 1999 was a year that birthed a lot of great music that put Toronto in the conversation as a regional force in Hip Hop. The world of Hip Hop was never the same after these four iconic albums dropped.
Shout out to Del Cowie, Murr, Mathematik, Choclair, Saukrates and Mansa Trotman for exploring these historic projects and shedding light on their importance to the culture.