Can hip hop be a sustainable career for Canadian rappers?
On Sunday night in Regina, the five Juno Award nominees for rap recording of the year will strut down a red carpet, perhaps high on champagne and adrenaline. At about the same time in Toronto, Derek Christoff will sit at home to watch the awards broadcast.
Maybe you recognize Christoff better by his rap moniker, D-Sisive. A multiple Juno nominee, he threw in the towel late last year, complaining of (among other things) a hurting bank account. His most recent work, the album Jonestown 3: The Dream is Over, will be eligible for the 2014 Juno Awards, but he now has mixed feelings about the musical honour.
Despite having three nominations under his belt, he's been unable to make being a Canadian rapper a sustainable career.
"It's such a great thing to be nominated," Christoff said. "It's like taking a vacation in Las Vegas. You can go there with $5000 in your pocket, but be realistic -- expect the sad plane ride home."
He expresses some of these sentiments in songs off Jonestown 3, like in his track Pajama Pants.
"Wouldn't it be nice if I were younger?" he raps.
"Rewind a couple years and find hunger/Now I stick another candle in the cake/another year without an album to my name/Barefoot in pajama pants staring at a young Derek/held in my father's hands, framed, beside my three Juno nomination plaques..."
Faith, authenticity and independence
Other rappers have had similar experiences, but there are many opinions why the Canadian hip hop scene can be difficult place to make a living.
For instance, in 1994, the four Toronto teens who performed as Too Bad To Be True won the best rap recording Juno for the group's one and only hit, One Track Mind. If you've never heard of the quartet, it's probably because their media exposure was limited to a couple of lines in the November 12, 1994 issue of Billboard Magazine.
No one knows where they are now, but DJ Ron Nelson, an authority on Canadian hip hop, has an idea why Too Bad To Be True disappeared.
Rappers SonReal and Rich Kidd chose the indie route for their album The Closers.
"That project or effort by the artists got no respect. It was a manufactured effort by a record label. It was an attempt to cash in on the little boy-band clique," he said. "They didn't have a life and they didn't have any performance history."
Even Too Bad To Be True didn't believed in their own music, according to Toronto rapper Rich Kidd, whose shares a mutual acquaintance with Lyric J, a member of the group.
"Sometimes an artist gets turned off by the game," said Rich Kidd. "They want to go in one direction, the label wants to go another. The label can stifle creativity and wreck the artist's aura."
He and his Vancouver musical partner SonReal are first-time Juno nominees in Regina this weekend for their album The Closers. Their rivals for the rap recording Juno include JD Era, Madchild and veteran Maestro Fresh Wes.
Rich Kidd and SonReal chose the independent route, steering clear of major labels.
"We went to Los Angeles to create something timeless. We came out with The Closers. We're going to go out [again] with the same mindset. The Juno's just another milestone," SonReal said.
Still, the two remain honest about the financial realities of life as a Canadian rapper.
"As for the money, I made some after the nomination ... $100," jokes Rich Kidd.
One problem he thinks Juno organizers can work on is proper recognition for the hip hop genre.
"If you guys care about hip hop, you'd get stuff right. You shouldn't amalgamate both singles and albums [into one rap recording category]. It's these kind of things that confuse people," Kidd says.
The jumbled category means that single records compete against full-length albums. When Halifax rapper Classified's catchy hit single Inner Ninja (featuring David Myles) is chosen to compete against a group of albums, does it mean that the rest of his album wasn't as noteworthy?
For D-Sisive fans, don't lose heart just yet. The rapper seems to have had second thoughts about leaving the game, saying he's resurrected himself. He's apparently back in the studio, working on new music with Juno-winning producer and Swollen Members alum Rob The Viking.
-- By Peter Marrack
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