Who is Wolf Castle? Meet the socially conscious Mi'kmaw rapper crafting undeniable hooks

His most recent EP is the final instalment of a 4-part project where the rapper discovered who he wanted to be.

His most recent EP is the final instalment of a 4-part project where the rapper discovered who he wanted to be

It was hard at first to find venues and places to do rap | Wolf Castle | Beyond the 6

1 year ago
Duration 4:51
Wolf Castle is this month's feature for Beyond the 6.

Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series that highlights hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada, beyond Toronto. This month, we talk to Pabineau First Nation rapper Wolf Castle about his latest album, Da Vinci's Inquest, what he wrestled with to release his latest four-EP project.

Tristan Grant is a blaze of ambition. A few weeks ago, the Mi'kmaw rapper, a.k.a. Wolf Castle, from Pabineau First Nation in New Brunswick won his first Music New Brunswick Awards after years of award nominations. He jokes about this over Zoom with CBC Music, but his pride is evident. 

"I just had a big dream, and I never forget that."

The dream was to do hip hop full time. In his mid-20s now, he's been making music since he was 11, and focusing on hip hop since he was 15, releasing two full-length albums under his own name before adopting the moniker Wolf Castle. 

Two more full-length albums followed, and this year, Grant released Da Vinci's Inquest, the final instalment of his most recent four-EP project, titled the Da Vinci Chronicles. Inquest lands as a coming-into-his-own record, Grant's delivery and writing confident and sharp over beats and instrumentation that combine to be both imaginative and nostalgic. A socially conscious rapper who also prides in being catchy and fun, Grant sounds like he's right where he wants to be.

But despite his dream, work ethic and prolific output, Grant has wrestled with his place in hip hop, and whether he really wanted to dedicate himself to it. Da Vinci's Inquest is the last piece in the puzzle that he's been working out.

'Just make your own beats'

Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. were Grant's main gateways into rap — "I just understood it. It felt like, kind of where I was in my life and growing up on the reserve and being native, too, it just totally resonated with me" — but they weren't his introduction to hip hop. His mom, a filmmaker, was also a rapper, as well as his uncle, who often collaborates with Grant now under the name Raphael de la Rez. 

Originally, Grant didn't know anyone who was really into the production side of rap, and he was worried about the legality of samples — he wanted to be able to sell and perform his music.

"And my mom actually just said, 'Just make your own beats. Like, what are you doing?'" So he did, teaching himself how to play the piano, use a drum machine, and cut up samples. On the lyric-writing side, his uncle heavily informed his approach. 

"He taught me how to record myself and write songs and not be precious about it," says Grant. "Just write write write write write. Let's have fun. Let's do it." (Today, Grant is working on making all of this more accessible to local Indigenous musicians: he has partnered with Music New Brunswick to launch the NB Indigenous Artist Development grant, sponsored by the rapper.)

Another family member would come into play once Tristan Grant turned into Wolf Castle: his cousin, Talon the Rez Kid Wonder, who Grant calls his "secret sauce" of mastering, mixing and production. But it wasn't until his teenage years ended that Wolf Castle took over.

'I can explore parts of myself that maybe I wouldn't'

Grant says there's no grand story behind the name Wolf Castle — he was making an account on Reddit and thought the two words looked good together — but on his 20th birthday he shifted to making music under the new moniker.

"It gives me this sense that I can explore parts of myself that maybe I wouldn't do if I was just myself, even though it is me," he says, stressing that the work he creates is still very much attached to who he is.

The Da Vinci Chronicles are deeply personal, encompassing the EPs Next Life (2019), D4rk Sid3 (2019), Gold Rush (2020) and Da Vinci's Inquest. Grant started working on the project when he graduated university (major: theatre; minor: art history), and was trying to decide whether he really wanted to commit to music full time.

"If you want to be a musician, this is your f--king time, you know?" he told himself. "Now or never, bro. And what that gave me, was an existential crisis," he concludes, laughing. "Where I was asking myself, 'Why the hell do I even want to be an artist at all?' ... and I just started asking myself all these questions to reassess, like, is this really what you want to do with your life?"

He took those questions to the Da Vinci Chronicles, using "over-the-top Kanye levels of brash and crude and crazy" on the first EP, Next Life, while starting to explore the historical concept of Da Vinci's mythos of a Renaissance man, and how that related to Grant's ambition.

"I was trying to be the best at everything or be the greatest or aspire to that," he says. "And the question was, 'What does that even mean?' … I was kind of relating to myself as Da Vinci when I was being kind of in it for the wrong reasons. And then the Inquest is like I'm killing off that part of myself. So then when that's gone, who's Tristan? Who is Wolf Castle when that's gone?"

Grant says that who he is and where he's from is at the heart of probably "every song" he's ever written, including one of the standouts from Da Vinci's Inquest, "Welfman," which is a reclamation of the derogatory term "welf," short for "welfare."

Wolf Castle | Welfman | Beyond the 6

1 year ago
Duration 3:44
Wolf Castle performs 'Welfman' for CBC Music's Beyond the 6

"When I was in middle school that used to be an insult," says Grant. His mom and other family members were on welfare. "There was shame and guilt associated with that, and a lot of people's financial situations are totally out of their control."

Over a creeping beat, Grant raps:

From a rez with a plastic chandelier 
Thrifted dressing better than your peers
Life harder than it might appear
From the slums born it don't play fair

"All of this is to say like, OK, I grew up on the rez. I grew up First Nations. Everything that comes with that, I've had to deal with it, and I still deal with it. And I want to be somebody that comes from that environment and that lifestyle and celebrates it because I was very ashamed of it for most of my life."

The closing track on Inquest, "Top Dog," speaks to that celebration. It clocks in at nearly six minutes, with a single, Succession-esque piano sample running under features from fellow Mi'kmaw rappers Flacko Finesse and Shift from tha 902, as well as family members and collaborators Raphael de la Rez and Talon the Rez Kid.

"I thought the best way to end this whole thing would be to not think about the audience, not think about what people want, because the most authentic thing you can do is just make a song for yourself and something you would love," Grant says. "And I love really long rap posse cuts with like 50 people on it."

So, who is Tristan Grant? He's a socially conscious Mi'kmaw rapper who uplifts community and, as Wolf Castle, crafts killer hooks and earworms while interrogating and deconstructing the status quo.

"I just have this thing inside of me that wants to fight against all of that oppression and show the world like they're not going to keep us down," says Grant. "We're going to keep going. And maybe I could have become an environmentalist or an activist in some other way. But this is what I'm good at. So this is the way I'm doing it."