He's one of Toronto's first great hip hop radio stars — and also one of its last
Ron Nelson shares tales from his pioneering past and reveals why Drake keeps his faith in radio alive
Over the past month, the Northside Hip Hop Archive has hosted a series of cross-country events celebrating Canadian pioneers of the genre. It's called "I Was There," and after stops in Montreal, Saskatoon and Hamilton, the four-city tour culminates today in Toronto, where they'll honour the work of DJ, radio personality, concert promoter and professor Ron Nelson.
Commonly known as the godfather of Toronto hip hop, Nelson created one of Canada's first hip hop shows in 1983. Called Fantastic Voyage, it aired on Ryerson's now-defunct community radio station CKLN until 1988 — the first in a string of hip hop radio shows that included The Real Frequency and Mixtape Massacre. They all played on Saturday afternoons, and until CKLN's closure in 2011, the day was synonymous with hip hop on the airwaves.
Radio is a great opportunity for people to make a difference in the world.- Ron Nelson
It's hard to overstate the importance of community radio when talking about the history of Canadian hip hop culture. Dr. Mark Campbell is the director of the Northside Hip Hop Archive, and when we spoke earlier this week, he reminded me that while hip hop (or "urban") shows on commercial radio often fall victim to the whims of market-driven mandates, community radio shows endure. Masters at Work and Butcher T's NoonTime Cuts in Montreal and The Masterplan Show in Toronto have been on the air since the late '80s and early '90s.
"These radio shows have been sites where several community members congregate to hear new music, hang out and build relationships," Campbell told me over email. "Community radio in Canada has allowed for hip hop communities to be built and sustained and for commercial markets to be set up to capitalize on the community development work."
I spoke with Nelson about his community radio roots earlier this week. We discussed his journey into hip hop culture and the challenges of being a pioneer. Plus, he shared his thoughts on the future of radio — thanks to artists like Drake, it might be ready for a comeback.
You introduced so many to hip hop culture, but how were you introduced?
I've been a DJ since high school days. That's where I first used the "Fantastic Voyage" name — the name of my DJ crew was called Fantastic Voyage. That was in '81/'82. When I started doing school dances and enjoying the art of mixing music, it's because I started playing funk music as a DJ, before the radio part even started. I found that when I listened to the funk, I had an attraction to the rapping element.
Once I started playing rap music, all of a sudden I went from being nobody to somebody.- Ron Nelson
When I went to Ryerson and took it to the radio I found that musical taste to be kind of dominant, so I kept playing music that ended up being a little more rap or a little more hip hop, [though] the term "hip hop" wasn't that "in" at the time.
I saw RUN DMC and that pretty well changed me. I saw the Fat Boys. Once I started playing rap music, all of a sudden I went from being nobody to somebody in the sense that it was like magnets. They just came to CKLN and wanted to hear more. I was naïve. I was innocent. It's not like I lived by this b-boy code and I was this hardcore hip hop person. I was just a DJ who was attracted to this new style of music, and because I had the job at the radio station, people came to me and it gravitated from there. That's the honest truth. It was almost by fluke. I would say I was called to do this.
The shows where you saw those rap acts — were they south of the border or here?
It was both. They used to have something called Rap Fest that happened in Buffalo and back then before we had any urban commercial radio stations, everybody listened to WBLK 93.7. Being close to America was a bonus because those shows didn't come to Canada. But when you went there and you saw, you were just transformed. You were hooked.
Rap sold itself through a lot of live touring. When there were no videos and radio stations weren't embracing it because they just thought it was another form of black music, rap had to fight its way to get respect. It's only because it's become this multi-billion dollar industry in the end why it's got this respect. I was just caught up and it was the most exciting thing.
What was an average episode of Fantastic Voyage like?
First of all, we're dealing with records. There's no CD. There's no Serato. You basically had to bring down a couple of milk crates that you stole from Beckers, and every Saturday from initially 1 to 3, then 1 to 4, I would go down there with a lot of new music that I bought from the record stores. It would be a combination of hip hop and hardcore funk.
There'd be different characters that would be a regular part of the show. There was this guy named Funky Chicken. He was the one that gave me my "Mix Master Ron" name. That's when I got an identity. He was the first person to put jingles in my head. That was my Flava Flav of the Fantastic Voyage program.
Then the rappers and the MCs came down. The Michie Mee's and the Rumble's. People kept calling in and eventually it became popularized. There's a lot of stories about people having to park their cars on railroad tracks in order to even get the signal. Eventually the show became a promotional tool for some of the concerts that I started to bring to town. That was a natural transition. I don't think I could have [had] success with those concerts if the radio station [wasn't] cemented as a significant part of the whole city's movement.
In the midst of it, did you recognize that what you were doing was pioneering?
Absolutely not. I was probably one of the most criticized persons when I was doing what I was doing. It was a difficult fight for me to keep doing it and to be given the motivation.
Who was not supporting you? What does that mean exactly?
When you're in rap music, there's a lot of battling that happens — I think because I was one of the first radio DJs to be outspoken, not just to play the music but to say how it is. They didn't always wish you good luck. It was a fight.
Plus there were a lot of gangs who terrorized me back then too. Regent Park and Flemingdon Park and Jane and Finch, they had a lot of bad boys back then — and when you are the promoter, you have to stand on the front line of these shows that you do. There weren't any security companies back then. Back then you have to hire security one by one, and when the gangs used to come to the shows as the promoter you're standing there with the security at the front. I'll tell you, there were some scary moments, some things that I've seen back in the days that make you say, "Wow, I'm glad I survived it all." Today's a whole different kind of situation.
We sometimes tell the stories of pioneers and their successes without creating room to talk about the very real stress that comes with the role. What were some of the challenges that you faced?
I didn't see it as challenging or stressful at all. That's what defines being driven. It was the most exciting thing. It was the boy becoming the man. When I went to Ryerson, I applied to the radio station the very first day. I don't know why everyone doesn't do that if they want to take Radio and Television. You have a radio station at your university. It started from there and one of the things I must say is that one of the little things that helped me to get through the door is my parents bought into my passion.
I said, 'Mom, I want to do the first rap concert tour in the history of Canada.'- Ron Nelson
At one point I said, "I need a loan." My parents are blue collar working parents. We're not rich at all. They were able to go to the bank and secure a $75,000 loan [...] and I was able to keep doing shows for a while being a small concert promoter. I would basically get up every day and get on the phone, work out of my bedroom, work out of my car — survive as a student who loved what he was doing.
It was exciting but that $75,000, that took me years to pay back, man. That's how much I didn't understand money. At one point I brought $50,000 back [to the bank] because I'd just done Run DMC, Public Enemy and EPMD at Varsity Arena and it was the first rap concert ever to be brought to Canada. That's why I'd borrowed the money. I said, "Mom, I want to do the first rap concert tour in the history of Canada." After I did it, I went back to the bank and said, "Here. I want to pay back the money," and they wouldn't take it! They said, "What are you doing?"
When I figured out I have all this money now, what am I gonna do with it? That's when I decided I'm gonna put it towards a recording studio that became one of the first hip hop recording studios in Toronto. Little did I know that it would be. I bought a house. That's where Beat Factory and I had a recording studio, in the basement of my house. Because of that, I was able to latch onto a piece of Canadian history because that's where the Dream Warriors' first album was made and it was the highest selling Canadian hip hop album from the old-school era. It was the first one to go through the door.
Last week Drake premiered his latest album (or playlist) on OVO Radio and it felt like my entire Twitter timeline was listening live and participating in this "event." What are your thoughts on the future of radio in hip hop culture in Toronto?
I think radio is dead. I think I was one of the last radio stars even though I was on a community radio station. But just like video killed the radio star, social media and apps such as Spotify and Apple Music and Google Play, they've all killed the significance of radio having the power to determine what people play and who has the No. 1 song and what sells and what doesn't sell.
I believe that radio will make a comeback, though, just like vinyl is making a comeback, but there needs to be more of a radical shift in the ideology especially of Canadian radio.
I think radio is dead. I think I was one of the last radio stars even though I was on a community radio station.- Ron Nelson
I think that hip hop has a great opportunity to help radio in its comeback. Drake, he is the king. We have an artist who has not been guilty of being politically incorrect despite his fame and fortune. He's had good taste in everything that he's incorporated, everything that he's done. In terms of Canadian identities, we couldn't ask for anything better than to be associated with Drake. There is potential in the future for things to fix itself.
Why do you still have faith in the possibility of radio?
I think radio is a great opportunity for people to make a difference in the world. You can only listen to your own music so much. People may not realize that. Sometimes you want to hear what other people have to say or what other people have to play. As we get mature in life and the older we get, the more we want to listen to talk radio. That's what my opinion is. I listen to a lot of talk radio now because I have a need for a certain intellect. I don't always want to listen to what 16, 17-year-old rappers are saying. That's their lives but I'm 54 years old. In the future, if the ideology shifts a little bit then you can bring back the radio star.