How TOBi made 'history for the culture' with his star-studded video for '24 (Toronto Remix)'
Featuring Shad, Haviah Mighty, Jazz Cartier and Ejji Smith, the release is exactly what the rapper hoped for
"I felt like Toronto needed that posse cut record, you know?"
Toronto rapper TOBi's on the phone from his home, thinking back to the last time his hometown released a collaborative song and video on the scale of 1998's "Northern Touch," released by hip-hop veterans Rascalz and featuring Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Thrust and Choclair. The closest he can come is "100 Strong Arm," from more than a decade ago.
So when TOBi celebrated the one-year anniversary of his debut album, Still, with a deluxe reissue on May 1, titled Still+, he reached out to fellow rappers Shad, Haviah Mighty, Jazz Cartier and guitarist Ejji Smith for a stacked remix and video for his song "24."
"24 (Toronto Remix)" is a powerful, celebratory statement video, filmed in the Sherbourne and Port Lands areas and put together by a highly local crew. With a grant from the MVP Project, a joint initiative between the Prism Prize and RBCxMusic, TOBi and director Kit Weyman teamed up to pull off a high-budget feat for a low-budget reality, filmed on the coldest winter day Toronto saw in 2020. (In a serendipitous turn, Weyman works for production house Popp Rok, belonging to Director X, who counts "Northern Touch" as one of his first videos.)
CBC Music recently talked to TOBi, Shad, Haviah Mighty, Ejji Smith, Jazz Cartier, Weyman, and producers Carina Mak and Nate Burland to find out how this star-studded video came together — and what it meant to everyone involved. Below, an oral history of "24 (Toronto Remix)."
Update: The original version of this story, published on May 15, didn't have Shad's quotes. They were added on May 19.
Editor's note: all interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
TOBi: I wanted to create a moment. And I think it's gonna set a precedent — if not now, in the future — to show that artists can come together and put this talent together and make something special in the city.
Weyman: For me, the vision was so clear ... to give us an opportunity to create a really special visual for a really special kind of collaboration. I wrote a treatment for the Prism Prize, and I always like to try and shoot the highest — and then I wrote that [treatment] and we got it. Then I turned to Carina and Nate and said how can we do this? How is this possible?
TOBi: For me, I wanted to get across my personal power. I think the way we framed the characters in the video, we showed our unique individuality and we also showed ourselves in dignifying ways.
Weyman: TOBi and I were definitely the most [in conversation] in terms of conceptualizing. I had conversations with everyone on the phone. So it was me pitching the idea to them, and then them adjusting. I think for a song like this, it's important that everyone is part of that collaborative process.
TOBi: I respect [Haviah Mighty, Shad and Jazz Cartier] as MCs and I knew that they would be able to tell their perspective on a song in their own unique way. I've always loved those posse cuts, because every rapper is challenging the other one, you know? It's a challenge, the showmanship, the competitive aspect.
The odds were against us for this video, to be honest.- TOBi
Haviah: I went in the studio with Shad and TOBi and we knocked out those verses that day [in September 2019]. And then later, Jazz jumped on the track. And then I was later asked if I'd be down to be in the video and I was like yeah of course, you know.
Shad: That was so nice for me just getting to be around [TOBi and Haviah], they're both so talented and on their way to doing amazing things. Hearing that Jazz and Ejji were gonna be on it too just confirmed for me that this was gonna be a special track.
Jazz Cartier: TOBi reached out and told me about the idea. After hearing how passionate he was it was a no-brainer, honestly.
Weyman and Mak wanted to wait until April to do the shoot, but were pressed to do it in February — "literally the worst month of the year here," as Weyman called it. Admittedly, if they had waited until April, the video wouldn't exist due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
TOBi: The odds were against us for this video, to be honest. Let's talk about the weather constraints. You know, on the weekend of the shoot, it was freezing. I almost passed out on set, on the first day, actually.
Weyman: We were shooting on literally — not as a metaphor, we actually were shooting on the coldest day of the year. It was -23 or something. And then the next day getting hit with a blizzard, which made it to the footage and added a whole other level, which was cool. People pay thousands of dollars to have fake snow and Mother Nature gave it to us.
TOBi: And then let's talk about the scheduling of four full-time artists, and they're touring — to get everybody in for that weekend was a challenge. But I think everybody was so dialled-in on the mission and the moment that this video would be for the city, that it transcended all the other stuff, and we carried that to the finish line.
Energy was our currency for this. You know? People showed up because they believed in the idea and the content.- Kit Weyman, director
Mak: We pulled all our favours from our vendors because everybody did understand it was a very community-oriented project. Everyone came through, our vendors and everybody helping out and pulling favours and people understanding that, you know, there is a bigger story to tell in terms of showing Toronto in a new light, showing how unified the city can really be.
Weyman: The amount of troubleshooting to create this was pretty phenomenal.
Mak: We pulled off a $50,000 video for a fraction of the cost.
Weyman: Energy was our currency for this. You know? People showed up because they believed in the idea and the content.
TOBi: The final scene where there's the guy doing doughnuts in the back, in the snow, you know, that scene is important to us because that's a very close friend of mine and his brother actually passed away in that area. So it was memorable for all of us, the energy really took us to the finish line, for real.
Haviah: I mean, the video is absolutely incredible. I sensed, even just from [behind-the-scenes] footage on set and looking at what was happening, I just had a lot of faith in the team when I was on set as well.
TOBi: When I wrote the song initially, it was to counter negative stereotypes and tropes that have been put on Black men, Black youth. And that was my counter to it. So in the visual, that's why we have Haviah looking like a star, looking like a badass, a queen, you know? And then we got Shad showing his mentorship with the younger version of him, a song that he could look up to. We got Jazz in his element, with the flowers in the church, just looking sanctified. And I'm in the end, just top down in the wintertime, no f--ks given. So I wanted to present that to the world: personal power.
Shad: I heard the album version of "24" and I understood the message and the feeling in the song very well. It was speaking to things I've talked about it my own music — I was reminded specifically of a song called "Brother" that actually I wrote when I was 24, too. So I wanted to give my experience and perspective on the same topic but from where I'm at now. I think where my verse ended up is a reflection on how things haven't changed much for us. Black youth still have to navigate all these complicated dynamics and not enough of us make it.
Weyman: TOBi comes at it from a place of growing up as a Black man in Toronto, so it's like me as a collaborator, but as a white dude, I have to come at it from a place of questions, right? I'm channeling TOBi's vision in a way, and channeling what's shared with the music from my friends and collaborators and from friends' experiences throughout.
Jazz Cartier: I look at my perspective as a street angel in a way. Somebody who isn't perfect and has vices but isn't blind to the chaos in front of him. I actually did two verses and the other one I tapped into it a bit more but I love how concise this one was.
I'm in the end, just top down in the wintertime, no f--ks given. So I wanted to present that to the world: personal power.- TOBi
Weyman: I looked at a lot of Kendrick stuff when he was bringing out his last album, Damn. A lot of Jonas Lindstroem, a lot of Hype Williams. I love the idea of keeping everything to a push and a pull, so either pushing in toward something or pulling away from something and keeping that momentum. The first time I heard ["24 (Toronto Remix)"], the chorus for me is what really drove it, the whole "Still ridin' still ridin'," [starts snapping his fingers] there's a pace to the song where it just doesn't stop, and that's the hustle that we have to live in.
Smith, who has worked with TOBi for about three years now, first performed "24" live for TOBi's premier show at Toronto's Velvet Underground in 2019, and the song's live energy with Smith's guitar was undeniable. When it came time for the remix, Smith says it was a "no-brainer" to add those guitar elements — and to be a feature on the song instead of a session player.
Smith: When it came time to finalize the song, I worked with close friend and partner-in-crime Kit Weyman. He has a strong music background and had a specific energy in mind for the music video that would be driven by the sonic integrity of the song, which the guitar contributed heavily to. We went back and forth with TOBi and management, trying to fill in the gaps where we wanted to hear guitar flourishes and the way that it was mixed into the song. To be honest, at a certain point everyone was getting frustrated — because Kit was so specific about what he wanted to hear and see and wasn't satisfied until the guitar was perfect. I'm glad we stuck to it. We didn't just want the guitar to be a vague element in the background of the production, especially if I was a feature, not a sessionist. I thank Kit for pushing this idea because it is what makes the track what it is. Especially for a hip-hop song: it exhibits a lot of guitar rock elements, which is rarely pulled off effectively.
TOBi: [When I wrote "24"] I was meditating on statistics for Black men. And I was thinking about the fact that I wrote that song when I was 24 and to think about somebody like [activist] Fred Hampton, he passed at 21, he had done so much. It was this powerful thing for me to reflect on and meditate on because I felt like their legacy still lives on to this day and I want my legacy to continue to live on. And all the other artists in there [in the video], I know they want their legacy to continue to live on. So it's bigger. It's bigger than us as artists right now. So I wanted to add that other verse. I was just pissed, I was just angry in my first iteration of the song, but in the second iteration this new verse, I felt rejuvenated, you know? I felt like I had energy. I just wanted to show that resilience for anybody listening.
We had such an opportunity to dig into people's experiences, but then trying to flip that on their head.- Kit Weyman, director
Haviah: Mainly what I would call the hook element of the song, "Freedom, I just want to get in her arms tonight" — that, I think, drove what I wanted to write about, focusing on the things that impact people like myself and people that look like myself … and talking about dealing with the legal system, dealing with the jail system…. The main inspiration was those lyrics in I guess what would be considered the chorus? It just speaks volumes, even the way that it was recorded, the way that background vocals kind of come in to reinforce the freedom aspect. Just a desire that everyone would have, to feel freedom as an individual — that's a standard human emotion that we all want to feel and we all want to have in our lives.
Weyman: We had such an opportunity to dig into people's experiences, but then trying to flip that on their head. So for example, there's a scene of Haviah sitting on top of the cop car; there's a scene where one of our dancers is in the front seat of the cop car. You see Haviah in the beginning, she's hidden by a hood — she looks like she's maybe homeless, maybe begging for change — and then she throws off that hood and she reveals that she's actually this ferocious rapper who's coming for you no matter what. And how that is in everybody, you know? How that potential to flip these scenarios, and to flip the narrative is available for everyone if they come and take it.
Haviah: I thought it was cool [the cop car]. Just my rebellious nature was like, that's cool, I've never done that [laughs]. But also, the side of me that wants to ensure that I'm presenting visuals that I want to put out there, I think for me, how I was positioned on the police car was important. And I wanted to not evoke an angry or incite-a-riot sort of energy, that that wasn't the intention from the verse…. I didn't want to be smashing the windshield or jumping on it.... Just the ability to sit and rap the verse on top of the car, I thought that was the perfect way to showcase that.
I think it's a strong testament to how talented the city is and the message that we have as individuals. When we come together the impact is much bigger than us.- Jazz Cartier
Smith: Basically we wanted my section and presence to interweave through [all the artists] and to represent "the musician" in a more grand sense (a 360 approach). I'm first seen as a busker in more street attire, almost unnoticed. But, as we get closer to my solo, my attire evolves. The next time I'm seen I'm much more lavishly dressed, like a "rockstar." There's a quick shot of me in front of a church, which shows me in a more divine light — almost religious, a light which musicians are often perceived in. But, also the historical significance of music to sacred practices. For my actual section I present my third outfit, which is more of a "soldier of love" look, the righteous musician with a message and almost royal elements. I'm seen in a military-style jacket with black pants and shoes. The dancers surround me holding flowers and bring out a more tribal/warrior energy. Another common timeless theme of the musician: music as a tool for change and activism.
Weyman: We can't say enough about the dancers and the energy they provided. They're mostly [from] Scarborough and Brampton. They're mostly friends of Alim Sabir, our director of photography. And they all dance together at Underground [Dance Centre]. So they all have a really great camaraderie and a really great dynamic already. So it was natural — you can see how much fun they're having in every shot. It's just what they do.
Jazz: I think it's a strong testament to how talented the city is and the message that we have as individuals. When we come together the impact is much bigger than us.
Weyman: Toronto's a teenager. That's how I look at it, is that we are really establishing ourselves on the world stage. And we're blessed to be a part of that happening. My mission is to build that mythology to a place where we see our city in a different light. And I think right now the world sees Toronto in a new light because of the music that we've been able to create. And I want to create visuals that expand our imagination of what our city could be.
TOBi: I just want everybody watching the video. If anybody watching the video has an uncomfortable feeling toward any scene or any image, you know, I think they should check themselves first and see why they're having that reaction. And also not just take it at face value, really listen to the words and listen to what people are saying because if it wasn't real, it wouldn't be reiterated so much.
I think it was a phenomenon. Especially given the times we're in right now, everything in the news and the general feeling of unrest. We're giving a voice to that emotion.- Ejji Smith
"24 (Toronto Remix)" came out the same week the video of Ahmaud Arbery's killing surfaced, leading to the arrests of retired police officer Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, the two white men who shot and killed Arbery, who was Black, while he was jogging through their neighbourhood.
Haviah: At first I didn't even notice the parallels. And then I listened to it as I was watching [the Ahmaud Arbery video] … and when I heard "Freedom, I just want to get in her arms tonight" — that part always grabbed me from the beginning. And I think that's what reminded me that all these things you heard about today, these things that you spoke about on your own social media, that relates to this song, and you guys wrote this song in September or whatever, in 2019. And it is wild how my verse, Shad's verse, every verse on the record, the whole energy of the track, the video, the interpretation. It all really speaks to the disgusting, vile nature of the individual that you saw in that video and the divide.
Smith: I think everybody shares the same feeling that I felt when I played those original guitar parts all the way to what Tobi, Haviah, Jazz and Shad ended up expressing. I think it was a phenomenon. Especially given the times we're in right now, everything in the news and the general feeling of unrest. We're giving a voice to that emotion.
I think we definitely made history for the culture.- TOBi
Haviah: So you know, of course, we're talking about this very interesting divide. That some people would see this video and think very different things about it. And I think the conversation needs to continue to be had, because as we put out the video, that happened, you know? Which means the issues that we're speaking to, they're not new and they're not over and they are present.... And I hope that TOBi's video, this collaboration that we did [will] add to that conversation in fighting for justice.
TOBi: I think we definitely made history for the culture. I don't think there's been a video like this to come out of Toronto in, you know, 10, 15 years. So I'm happy. I feel fulfilled. I'm excited the response has been awesome. The feedback has been awesome. People who are taking it in, they feel powerful. They feel strong. And that's the feeling that I wanted to convey. At the end of the day, I think that people, especially now during COVID and during the pandemic, I feel like there are so many parts of society that are being exposed. For example, you know, the Black population being disproportionately affected by COVID, and people of colour. It's just exposing the social inequalities in different areas. Health care, finance, mental health care as well. So I think this video, it stimulates that part of our collective consciousness to fight for justice.
Shad: It's all inspiring to me. The content is real and heavy but the overall vibe to me is positive, even exciting. I know TOBi wanted to create a moment with this and it feels like he really did it.