How Vince the Messenger is helping build Charlottetown's hip-hop scene

CBC Music’s Beyond the 6 series takes a closer look at burgeoning hip-hop scenes across Canada.

CBC Music’s Beyond the 6 series takes a closer look at burgeoning hip-hop scenes across Canada

'It's a challenge though because P.E.I. is a place where there's potential for hip hop, but there isn't a lot of infrastructure for hip hop to really thrive.' — Vince the Messenger (Courtesy of artist/Harvey Barrison/Flickr)

Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada. Toronto is widely known as the country's hip-hop capital (and a central spot for music in general), but many cities and communities east to west, north to south, have long had highly successful underground hip-hop scenes or are now developing their own. This month, we talk to Vince the Messenger, a Charlottetown rapper who's helping foster a hip-hop scene on the Island.

"When you think P.E.I., you don't think hip hop. But at the same time I kind of like that because it gives people less of an expectation when they see me."

Vince the Messenger, given name Daniel Butterfield, jokes that he can probably count on two hands the number of hip-hop artists in his home city of Charlottetown. But the rapper isn't deterred by his less-than-expected home base — it can actually work in his favour. 

"It's like, OK, here's a rap artist [from Charlottetown], what's this going to be like? It might perk their ear up a little bit more than if I was a rapper from New York or a rapper from Los Angeles — they might have an idea of what to expect already before listening to me."

Editor's note: explicit language.

While his influences vary in era, Vince the Messenger's moody, boom-bap sound is unquestionably that of the future, much of it built with fellow Islander and producer Niimo, referencing golden-era hip hop and carrying layers of personal-is-political lyricism that is timeless.

Butterfield was born in Toronto and moved to Charlottetown with his mom and brother when he was three years old. His dad was a musician in Toronto, playing guitar and drums in various bands around the city, and instilled a love of music in Butterfield early on. "We would record random little songs over cassette tapes," he says. "I would write lyrics and be singing and stuff just as a means of fun creation, nothing too serious or anything."

Butterfield's nursery-rhyme lyrics would steer him away from his dad's rock music to hip hop in his early teens, jump started by listening to and emulating artists like 50 Cent (music he latched onto after borrowing it from his brother), and soon moving to music from Tupac, Lil Wayne, Drake and Kanye West. He started seriously pursuing music in 2018, releasing his debut album, Self Sabotage, in April of that year, and winning the 2019 Music P.E.I. Award for urban recording of the year for the project.

My head don't rest until it's peace for my people/ we up on pedestals and still ain't your equal/ and all them privileges see through, must I point out the evils?- Vince the Messenger, "Mood"

"I just decided, you know, if I'm really going to be happy with myself going forward, I need to give this a bit more of a solid chance," he explains, of naming and creating his debut project. "So that's where the idea of self sabotage came from, because to me, l feel like if I'm not doing what I think is necessary for my happiness and whatever, then in a way I'm sabotaging myself. And that's just one way to interpret it —there's a lot of different messages within that you could take from it."

Produced by Niimo, whose given name is Cedric Gallant (and whose rap name is Marquis & the Squid), Self Sabotage has a multitude of themes, but the ones that stand out first are those of embracing your power, and perseverance under oppression. The closing track, "Blacked Out," is clever in its titular wordplay, while simultaneously rousing and heartbreaking at its chorus: 

Black coat blowing in the wind motherf--ker 
Imma win, asking when 
Black boy stand against wind
Like the whole world don't wanna see him win
Cashed out, trying to see them ends
Counting M's, how it ends 
Blacked out, all against his will
Like the whole world wanna see him killed motherf--ker.

It's a set of themes that carry over to Vince's March 2020 EP, Nowhere 2 Grow, recorded in a one-week span — compared to the nearly nine months spent on his debut — and written, performed and produced by the rapper. Released a month after Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery was killed by a white, retired police officer in Georgia, and two months before the police killing of Black artist George Floyd that would spur the current protests across the world, Vince the Messenger's songs are direct and poignant. 

From "Mood," the second track from the EP: 

My head don't rest until it's peace for my people 
We up on pedestals and still ain't your equal 
And all them privileges see through, must I point out the evils?

The track's penultimate line: "Activism ain't a mood."

"The Black Lives Matter thing isn't anything new," says Butterfield, who attended a Black Lives Matter protest a few days before this interview, noting that it "was pretty crazy for Charlottetown because it was an incredible turnout." 

"So of course, it's going to be something that's affected me or something that I've written about," he continues. "I do write from a pretty personal place and things of that nature. But the timing is pretty crazy. Now that is happening, it's like I have so many pieces in my music that you can kind of fit to this scenario. And it just has me reflecting on things even more."

A new generation of P.E.I. hip hop

Butterfield and Gallant have been friends since high school, and Gallant credits Butterfield for getting him into music originally, with Butterfield's creative drive pushing Gallant to make his own beats. After two years of creating in parallel — Gallant eventually setting up a home studio to record other artists on the Island — they teamed up for Self Sabotage, their first project together.

"It was mostly the style of hip hop and the lyricism that he had," Gallant explains, of what drew him to Butterfield. "It was really just the way he presents himself and the voice that he has, I think it's really incredible and I wanted to give him a platform and just help him polish that as much as I could."

Both Butterfield and Gallant talk about a new generation of musicians coming out of P.E.I., one that includes them (both 22), BT Flow (22) and Charlottetown rapper Lxvndr (27), and a roster of talent that comes to the Island through Holland College's School of Performing Arts — the same students who inspired Butterfield to produce, mix and write his Nowhere 2 Grow EP on his own after a session with them and Niimo. 

"They can pick up an instrument one second, they can get on the microphone the next, and then they're behind the laptop tweaking parameters on the mixer," says Butterfield. "So they kind of just do everything themselves and they're multi-disciplined. I find I get a lot of inspiration being around people like that."

The scene support also comes through in live shows. Vince the Messenger and Niimo have been putting on shows since their debut project, and they often share their stage space with up-and-coming artists like themselves.

"We usually throw all of our shows as our own collective and we throw other artists from P.E.I. that haven't had too many shows yet on to our bills and stuff. So, yes, it's kind of like a building stage," says Gallant.

It's a challenge though because P.E.I. is a place where there's potential for hip hop, but there isn't a lot of infrastructure for hip hop to really thrive.- Daniel Butterfield, a.k.a. Vince the Messenger

"It still feels like people are figuring things out around here," he adds. "It's a little bit like a mixed pot of a bunch of artists who have a like-minded vision rather than a sound. It's more like people want to build up a scene here; people want people to show up to shows."

"It's a challenge though because P.E.I. is a place where there's potential for hip hop, but there isn't a lot of infrastructure for hip hop to really thrive," says Butterfield. Gallant says the tight-knit new generation doesn't have much of a link to the hip-hop artists who've come before them. And creating something new on which to build a career takes time.

"Charlottetown's music scene, and especially the hip-hop scene has such a low ceiling," says Butterfield. "And it's felt like this pretty early on. It feels like we've already kind of reached the ceiling or we're pretty close to touching it, just in comparison to other places — like I know if I were in Toronto, I'd have a lot more work to do to get to Toronto's ceiling…. But at the same time, it's like we are also behind the wheel of Charlottetown's hip-hop scene, so in a way, we can kind of dictate how high that ceiling is."

"I think it's going to be really interesting in a few more years, whenever more music is out, [and the artists] have built their brands and platforms a lot stronger," says Gallant.

Pushing against that Charlottetown ceiling isn't easy, though. For a province that people still often — incorrectly — equate to "fiddles and guitars and things like that," rap isn't always welcome. At a summer series put on by the restaurant where Butterfield also works, it was Vince the Messenger's turn onstage and after two or three songs into his set, he was shut down. One of the other restaurant owners who shared the stage space complained that the music was "too abrasive, or something like that."

"It was shocking at first because I didn't understand why," remembers Butterfield. "But I guess some people aren't ready to accept hip hop or they're not — could have been a bit of a racist kind of tinge to it, too, because any other act that happened down there, it was fine. But as soon as a hip hop act was up, it was too much for some people."

Butterfield adds that his shows usually go well — often filling up the small venue Baba's Lounge, which is a regular venue for him — and this summer show experience threw him off a bit. But for the most part, he says his experiences have been much more positive.

"I know not everyone is going to like it, but there's people who are here for it," he says. "So I want to cater to the people who are going to stick around."