Crook the Kid grew up 20 km from the Arctic Circle. He writes, raps and represents 'the other Canada'
'The people that encompass my entire world could disappear tomorrow, and you probably wouldn't ever know'
Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada, beyond Toronto. This month, we talk to Northwest Territories' rapper and storyteller Crook the Kid who wants to bring the real north to hip-hop.
Place and space are vitally important to many of the best rappers in the world. Crook the Kid, a.k.a. Dylan Jones, upholds that legacy, writing the subarctic North into the hip-hop canon and making visible what the rest of this country does its best to ignore.
Jones, whose mother "comes from Miꞌkmaq and East Coasters and whalers" and whose father is a "rolling stone" grew up in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. Its traditional Dene name is Rádeyı̨lı̨kóé, which roughtly translates as "where the rapids are." It is a village, not a town, Jones says, about 450 people just 20 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, and there is no road. The only all-season access is by air.
Everybody is still in touch with the land and it is beautiful, Jones tells CBC Music via Zoom, but there are dark sides, too. "We're suffering from a lot of addiction and a lot of the compounded effects of residential schools and day schools. A lot of people are hurting quite constantly … we lose a lot of friends to things like suicide and self-harm and addictions."
The village is so remote that "a plane ticket on a five-seater Cessna bush plane out of town costs more than you're gonna make that month. A lot of stuff is out of touch and it can become dismal, but at the same time, we have access to freedom that I don't think most people in Canada even understand exists…. Sometimes I like to think of it as 'the other Canada.' We're so separated from what they're talking about on the news, it's almost like watching a movie every time it comes on. We're the other Canada — that nobody knows about."
Writing 'the other Canada'
But as Crook the Kid, Jones is changing that one verse at a time.
He started writing when he was just 13 years old, and dropped out of high school in Grade 10. Eventually Jones received his GED and with encouragement from his wife, moved to Fort Smith, N.W.T, to pursue a diploma in environmental sciences. All the while, Jones continued exploring his artistry, writing rhymes and performing as Crook the Kid primarily throughout the North.
His big breakthrough "down south" came when he ended up on the mainstage at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest in 2019. Jessie Reyez was supposed to open for headliner Logic but had to cancel. Jones was one of the artists who took Reyez's place, and his set made an impression. The Ottawa Citizen jumped at a chance to cover the then unknown rapper, calling his performance "terrific" and praising Jones' ability to distill the "trauma of his life in a cathartic, rapid-fire style of wordplay."
It's true that Jones' songs are places of processing, but it's not just trauma. His songs hold space for both the beauty and the hardship in his life. Jones raps about everything from death and violence to addiction and self-harm, and joy and love to family and the land. Like on his track "Locals Only," featuring throat singer and musician Tiffany Ayalik (PIQSIQ, Quantum Tangle), the social issues are personal and specific.
The bottles pop, the kettle's on, and his spoon is cooking
See, now my body tells a story, in tattoos and scars of how far
I'm willing to go to reach up and touch these stars
In the face of addiction we are all brothers and sisters
Only some are for the bed or another's no longer with us
But together we can weather the storm or be it endless,
We can watch it pass together through the window of my housing unit
And I know you've been down a long time, and probably used to it
And I know suicide can't be easy because I tried to do it
But I've been blessed with some people in my life that can help me through it
And now I'm better, it's time to move on to something bigger
Believe me when I say that the dark days don't last forever
That raw honesty is a Crook the Kid trademark, and in rapping the truth of his life, Jones has become something of a role model in the north. It's something he takes seriously, particularly as he's seen that his songs have sparked real change in tangible ways. He's writing for himself and his community, and as his songs spill out around the world, so too does awareness of Fort Good Hope and similarly isolated villages.
"I do tend to try and champion where I'm from," Jones admits, "and in saying it, if it wasn't for me doing that, would you ever have known it existed? The people that I love, and that encompassed my entire world for the majority of my life could disappear tomorrow, and you probably wouldn't ever know, right? And see, that doesn't sit right with me. We have our own troubles and our own problems, sure we do, but there's also beautiful things, and great people doing wonderful stuff and a culture that's existed far before any of this music thing could ever have been possible."
That kind of precarity is a function of colonial violence and it's additionally chilling in the context of a global pandemic. Elements of that anxiety and resistance are showing up in Jones' newest Crook the Kid songs.
The weight of it all
"Midnight" finds Jones also grappling with the mounting pressures of representation. He raps about being "scared to lift a pen" because of the pressure to be a role model for youth. On some lines he's chastising himself for building up a persona that's a "poster boy for a broken people," asking rhetorically, "Who am I to try and change things/ just another asshole with opinions." Eventually, he works through this thorny tangle of accountability, reflecting, "We got a lotta love but we down on our luck" and that there's "shit to lose but there's a lot to prove here."
"When I first started this, I was kind of blown away by the support that I got and the brotherhood and the fellowship that I found," Jones says. "But as it developed and as, like you said, I wanted to become someone who spoke on behalf of the people where I'm from — I don't want to sound like the dude from Spider Man [laughs] but then there comes this responsibility. You get more worried and you 'lens' things, you rewrite lines and stuff that normally you would have said something freely, but you don't. You want to make sure you say the right things and you want to make sure that your message is getting across in a way that it's reaching everybody. And as you learn, and you have more of society's issues placed upon you, I don't know, it did change, it grew up on me, without me even seeing it."
The new songs are, production-wise, leap years beyond where Crook the Kid started out. Jones is collaborating with his friend, David "Boa" Quintero, a Colombian-born, Ottawa-based DJ and producer. "He's killer," Jones says.
The pair bonded over growing up in remote regions, a shared "spatial separation," according to Jones, that oriented them both toward music as a path to betterment. "I'm no saint, but everybody's fixing something within themselves. And I feel like he was on that same sort of doing-it-for-the-right-reasons path. And his instrumentals are sick."
Before hooking up with Quintero, Jones had been recording music on about $300 worth of equipment, including the price of the computer. Jones had already had at least one business relationship in the music industry go sideways, and he had to buy back every song on his debut album — $500 a track, one at a time, 12 songs in total. But he did it, and he says he's reaffirmed what kind of artist he wants to be and with whom he wants to collaborate.
"I've never met somebody as good as him [Quintero], in real life anyway, at making instrumentals," Jones says. "Having somebody like that down south who has knowledge and access to — we'll just call it a studio, let's start there — knowing somebody who has that is absolutely vital. And that's kind of one of the most difficult parts about being an artist and staying in the Northwest Territories is that it's so hard to get anything done. I mean, one of the videos I sent you guys today took four-and-a-half hours to load up. It's three minutes long. It's not like it's not a bad thing. It's just a workaround."
The collaboration between Jones and Quintero is paying off. Crook the Kid's new single, "Phoenix," is an explosive track, and Jones' delivery is all fire, no smoke, burning with intensity and purpose.
My girl told me I could be anything that I wanted
She said just as long as you listen and always be honest
One day you'll have the world in your hands and make the right choices
Who's to say the end is all that we're here for
This is legacy shit building a legend
I know these words have power I built em to be weapons.
Moving the music and his message forward
Jones wants to push himself further as a musician, but there's tension in the autobiographical. As many marginalized artists know, certain stories are told over and over and over again and become "universal," while other stories are told twice and called repetitive. Jones doesn't explicitly call out this double standard, but it seems to be tugging at his subconscious as he considers how his writing has evolved.
"I'm not trying to repeat the same things that I said before, but I am trying to continue pushing the message, the realness of the life that we face up here," Jones says. "I'm also trying to do it in such a way that people want to hear it. I don't want to appear to come from a point where there's just anger showing or just some mad guy. I want to be able to do this the right way. And not from a token experience or token point of view; I want to produce an industry quality and an industry standard product, but at the same time, hold my values in place so that we can move our music forward."
Jones is also choosing to work with a new, independent, online record label called One North. "You got to support the people where you're from," Jones says. "I can't just keep leaving to do a big show somewhere else. We have to build our own capacity to some extent. It might not be much to a big city like Van, or Toronto, or Ottawa, but it's a big deal for us and for the future Northern artists."
This whole thing just came from needing to speak out, you know? Before you eventually bottle too much shit up and can't take it anymore.- Crook the Kid
The plan, for now, is a loose release schedule of tracks every few weeks, testing out different platforms and strategies. There's no real marketing plan or anything like that. "There's none of that here. Like, the only sign you'll see around here is 'Wing night Wednesday,'" Jones says with a laugh.
It's too soon to say if Crook the Kid will grow into a world-renowned rapper, shining an even bigger spotlight on Fort Good Hope and Fort Smith. But Jones isn't looking for that kind of notoriety, nor is he looking for riches or mansions or fancy rides. He still can't quite believe he's meeting this moment, that he's come this far already.
"To be honest. I didn't think we'd be doing this," Jones says, gesturing to indicate this interview with CBC Music. "You know, it just started as a dude — you build up this bravado thing, I guess, growing up in sort of a tough place and you don't talk. If you feel bad, you don't tell anybody. You don't tell anybody anything 'cause the guy next to you probably had it worse. This whole thing just came from needing to speak out, you know? Before you eventually bottle too much shit up and can't take it anymore. And it's gone from that to this, to us speaking now, and I don't know what happens [next]."
Jones pauses and laughs. "I don't have no concept of money. You wouldn't even want a fancy car because it's dirt roads and gravel."