Super Duty Tough Work's 'golden-era taste, current-era based' hip hop shines a light on Winnipeg 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

(Adam Kelly; Trevor Lyons/CBC)

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 Super Duty Tough Work, a Winnipeg band that's just starting to get some mainstream love for its mix of classic golden age hip-hop, modern jazz arrangements and socially charged lyricism.

Written by Graeme Houssin

To Brendan Grey, frontman and MC of Winnipeg-based group Super Duty Tough Work, hip hop exists beyond a genre: it's a culture and a lifestyle with morals, traditions and responsibilities.

"Essentially, hip hop was birthed out of neglect — deliberate neglect," says Grey. "And so the response was, 'OK, if you're going to neglect us, you're not going to fund us, we're going to make it happen ourselves.' That is an amazing origin story in itself, a testament to resilience and ingenuity."

After almost six years of garnering local acclaim, but little national or international attention, Super Duty Tough Work knows this resilience: the group's long-awaited first album, 2019's Studies in Grey, earned a spot on the 2020 Polaris Music Prize long list, and the group was nominated for 2020 rap & hip-hop artist of the year at the Western Canadian Music Awards.

"We don't have a team behind us, we don't have a machine behind us," says Grey. "It just makes me feel that what we've been doing has been the right thing, and that we've been right all along. Although you shouldn't necessarily need to hear it from others, it is a little gratifying to see that our approach — which doesn't always align with what might be called 'industry standards' — is being appreciated."

Since its inception in 2014, Super Duty Tough Work has reigned as one of Winnipeg's most exciting and prestigious hip-hop outfits, offering audiences a seven-person backing band that blends jazz with Grey's rap delivery — a style he describes as "Public Enemy meets Griselda [Records] and Sampa the Great," and one that's heavily inspired by the '90s East Coast scene.

Even the name Super Duty Tough Work is adopted from a quote by graffiti writer Kase2 in the seminal documentary Style Wars, covering hip-hop culture in early '80s New York.

The ultimate goal of hip hop was to have fun. Peace, love, unity, being creative and keeping kids out of trouble. The resistance was in the gathering and enjoyment.​​​​- Brendan Grey, Super Duty Tough Work

The group's sound, however, stays fully rooted in the present, twisting and mixing classic golden age hip-hop with modern jazz arrangements and socially charged lyricism. The outfit's ethos lies in its commitment to paying homage to the founding principles of hip hop and the art form's original "four elements": "breakdancing, graffiti, MCing and DJing," as Grey explains.

Those principles radiate from Super Duty Tough Work through the group's live performances, recordings, references and tagline: "Golden-era taste, current-era based." The production and backing band are even designed to sound like the drum machines used by golden-era hip-hop artists. "An MPC, or an SP-1200, or whatever," says Grey.

As a result, the band has created a distinct pocket within the Winnipeg music scene: one that's inclusive, and has sold out nearly every local show pre-COVID-19 pandemic.

"The ultimate goal of hip hop was to have fun," says Grey. "Peace, love, unity, being creative and keeping kids out of trouble. The resistance was in the gathering and enjoyment."

'I'm not a Prairie person, I'm not from Winnipeg, but I live here'

After years of keeping several musicians in the backing band on rotation, with different musicians filling in for various performances, Grey settled on the current incarnation of Super Duty Tough Work. The lineup brings together some of Winnipeg's most esteemed musicians: Marisolle Negash on keys and vocals, Gabriela Ocejo on guitar, Ashley Au on bass, Anthony Bryson on trombone, Olivier Macharia and Eamon Sheil on sax, and Kevin Waters on drums.

Grey notes that the band is Winnipeg-based, but does not necessarily consider itself from Winnipeg. Grey himself was born in Ottawa and raised in Germany and Switzerland, and several band members hail from across Canada, the U.S. and South America. The difference is key, he says, as the members' respective upbringings and experiences in their places of origin, combined with their experiences in Winnipeg, shape the band's collective worldview — playing a large role in the content and purpose of their music.

"I'm not a Prairie person, I'm not from Winnipeg, but I live here," says Grey. "The reason that our music sounds the way it sounds is a mixture of my upbringing, the music I was exposed to, the political ideologies and survival tools that I was taught … and then living in Winnipeg, having to continue to navigate and confront issues like racism and inequity, which, frankly, are so in your face in Winnipeg."

Super Duty Tough Work rose to become a pride of its city's music scene, scoring bills on nearly every local festival, all without what Grey now considers a "crucial" piece to the puzzle: a recording.

I was hesitant to put out this record with some of the material on it because I'm speaking pretty candidly, and I think there's some views that some might consider radical ... I know we have, even in Winnipeg, felt the pushback for speaking candidly about certain issues.- Brendan Grey, Super Duty Tough Work

Enter 2019's Studies in Grey, an eight-track LP that showcases the group's signature robust, meticulously arranged jazz sound and Grey's compelling rap delivery, which blends braggadocio with social commentary on racism, inequity, appropriation, police brutality and even the federal government's denial of Indigenous sovereignty. Quotes from legendary musicians, artists and writers — including Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chicago DJ No I.D. — are cut throughout, keeping in line with the hip-hop tradition of sampling and paying respect to those who paved the way. 

And yet, Grey describes the initial reception for the Studies in Grey launch as "underwhelming." Despite its high-calibre lineup and local following, the band saw its debut release mostly pass under the radar of national media and Canada's music industry.

"That's just the way it is; we know what it is," says Grey. "I was hesitant to put out this record with some of the material on it because I'm speaking pretty candidly, and I think there's some views that some might consider radical. I don't, but they might. I know we have, even in Winnipeg, felt the pushback for speaking candidly about certain issues, and in the wider scheme of things, we know how people react to that."

The group's fearlessness in addressing taboo topics is evident from the album's first single, "The Famine," which pairs the hunger and fatigue of chasing success in music with the battle against appropriation and misrepresentation.

"What do middle-class white kids, who live in no proximity to the 'hood, want to consume when it comes to our culture?" ponders American writer Jamilah Lemieux, sampled on "The Famine," discussing the impact white consumers have on what's presented as Black culture in the mainstream.

Yet "FTP" is perhaps the most directly political track on Studies in Grey, sampling J Dilla's 2001 anti-cop anthem "F--k the Police" and highlighting the violence committed by police both internationally and in Winnipeg. But Grey doesn't stop there. Systematic racism and all its accomplices, from the top down, are taken to task on the track:

Neighbourhoods policed, to disparities in your sentence
The law a fraud since inception
The flag red with the same blood her majesty's hands are drenched in
No wonder they get protection from the crown
Code of silence deafening, you better not make a sound
The violence is explicit, from the prime minister down
Tears of reconciliation, with a pipeline through your town?

The first Manitoba hip-hop album to make the Polaris Music Prize long list

2020 provided the industry, and larger audiences, with even more context to understand Studies in Grey: primarily, the continuing international protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"It's always relevant, whether it's on the news or in the general public's conscience or not," says Grey. "Now it just happens to be hyper in their conscience, and when they listen to the record and can see all these ideas that are being discussed more in public than I've ever seen before, frankly … maybe that resonates with them."

"In my opinion — and maybe it's just how I was raised — the social commentary aspect was a huge factor or staple of hip hop, and to me, it still is," he continues. "Even if commercial rap has really become the tool of the systems that we're supposed to be opposing, that doesn't change what the culture is at its foundation."

Nine months after Studies in Grey's release, Super Duty Tough Work received those key nominations from the 2020 Western Canadian Music Awards (alongside an otherwise all-British Columbia-based list including Bdice, Kimmortal, Moka Only and Snotty Nose Rez Kids) and the Polaris Music Prize. The latter marked Studies in Grey as one of 40 albums vying for the designation of album of the year, selected by a jury of 200-plus music industry professionals across Canada. 

Winnipeg is not a metropolis or a cultural hub for Black music. I think that affects the people that are here and the people who come here.​​​​​- Brendan Grey, Super Duty Tough Work

Because the national music industry and larger media institutions initially neglected the album, both nominations came as a surprise to Grey. In the end, Studies in Grey did not make the 2020 Polaris Prize short list; no Manitoba hip-hop album ever has. Super Duty Tough Work is the first hip-hop act from Manitoba to be nominated for the Polaris Prize since the organization's inception in 2006.

And while Winnipeg has no shortage of accomplished hip-hop artists carrying the torch — including 3peat, the Lytics, Charlie Fettah, Len Bowen, Postwar and Myazwe — Grey notes that the national and international hip-hop industry's passing over of Winnipeg is not new.

"Winnipeg is not a metropolis or a cultural hub for Black music," says Grey. "I think that affects the people that are here and the people who come here. The nature of the geography means that people are kind of focused on one or two certain styles of music, and those would be folk or country. Obviously, not anything close to what we're doing."

While social and political commentary are a mainstay of SDTW's hip hop prowess, Grey finds a lot of mainstream rap artists have lost that focus.

"That's just the nature of the game, though," he says. "Things grow and evolve, and when money gets more involved, oftentimes the politics have to be dumbed down to sell to wider audiences. Nothing new."

Racism, inequity, class warfare and poverty — all factors that contributed to the birth of hip hop — are more than prevalent in Winnipeg, named the most racist city in Canada by Maclean's Magazine in 2015 and one of the most policed cities per capita in Canada. This creates what Grey considers the perfect catalyst for a thriving scene. Yet, Grey says, a lack of industry support and outreach to the Winnipeg hip-hop community could be quelling local talent.

The stereotype of the Prairie city as backwards or non-progressive is something Grey works to dismantle and distance himself from within Super Duty Tough Work.

"We're creating what we want to see," says Grey. "We have a very diverse audience — we're onstage, but we also want to see ourselves in the audience, and we do. That is very fulfilling because, essentially, that's who we're making music for."


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