The Doc Project

Making hip hop in the Prairies may be tough, but Super Duty Tough Work is ready for their breakout

Winnipeg hip-hop act Super Duty Tough Work has enjoyed local success and critical acclaim, but frontman Brendan Kinley says it’s been challenging to find national support. However, with the rise of BLM, their politically charged party tunes are more relevant than ever.

‘No one is really checking for the hip hop music that’s coming out of Winnipeg,’ says frontman Brendan Kinley

Brendan Kinley of Super Duty Tough Work. (Woven Masters)

When Brendan Kinley and his bandmates took the stage at a recent outdoor fundraising concert for Justice 4 Black Lives in Winnipeg, the audience cheered and whooped, and people moved in closer towards the stage in anticipation — or, at least, as close as they could, while still physically distancing.

"This is the act you've all been waiting for," the emcee announced to a crowd of about 200 people. "Everybody give it up for Super Duty Tough Work!" 

"Winnipeg has been very good to us and good to me," Kinley, the band's frontman, said a week after the show. "I don't know that we would see the same success had we been trying to do this the way that we're doing it in any other city."

Super Duty Tough Work formed in 2014 in Winnipeg. A seven-piece ensemble of horns, drums, bass, guitar and keys, they describe their sound as "golden-era taste, current-era based."

While they've found success with fans in Winnipeg, as well as critical acclaim — they were longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize this past summer — that support hasn't helped them reach a wider, national audience. 

Winnipeg, MB's Super Duty Tough Work. (Adam Kelly)

Kinley says being a hip-hop artist in the Canadian Prairies hasn't been easy. 

"From a Canadian industry standpoint and even beyond that, like no one is really checking for the hip-hop music that's coming out of Winnipeg," said Kinley. "Not seriously. That's almost an oxymoron in their opinion."

On the cusp of national success

It's not just hip-hop artists who struggle to find their place on the national stage. While it's true that Winnipeg is known for having a thriving music scene, turning out musicians like William Prince, Begonia, Neil Young and the Guess Who, the city lacks some of the connections and resources bigger cities enjoy.

Since Winnipeg isn't a metropolis full of industry people like Toronto or Vancouver, local talent often find it challenging to move beyond local support to national success.

Brendan Kinley onstage in September 2020 with Super Duty Tough Work. (Travis Ross)

So it came as a bit of a surprise to Kinley and the rest of the band when in June they were nominated to be on the longlist for the Polaris Music Prize, the prestigious Canadian national award that recognizes artists who produce music albums of distinction.

"Frankly, it's quite validating," said Kinley.

After they were nominated, he saw an increase in engagement with their music, and they started selling more albums through Bandcamp. There were also non-stop congratulatory messages and texts and phone calls that rolled in.

"It was dope. It feels nice to be supported," says Kinley.

Music for the BLM movement

In a year that is on track to be Canada's worst year for police killings and when the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining prominence, Super Duty Tough Work's message certainly resonates. Their lyrics contain searing social commentary, calling out appropriation and violence in the criminal justice system, and memorializing murdered Indigenous women.

At the recent concert in Winnipeg where they performed, they were raising money for Justice 4 Black Lives, a group of community organizers raising awareness about police violence and advocating for the defunding, dismantling and abolishing of the police.

Super Duty Tough Work, performing in Winnipeg in September 2020. (Travis Ross)

Their song FTP — a nod to the original F--k tha Police by N.W.A. –– echoes similar awareness building that Black Lives Matter groups have been doing across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

"They got me on the edge and all they tryna do is push me," raps Kinley in FTP. "As they celebrate acquittals of my killers and my bullies. But we won't break or bleed. Bury us cause we seeds."

Each song is layered and complex, dropping names of people like Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man who was shot and killed at close range by Gerald Stanley, a Saskatchewan farmer, and Cindy Gladue, a mother of three whose sex work was used as evidence to acquit the man accused of killing her. 

Kinley says that a few times after a concert, someone has approached him to tell him they hadn't heard about Colten Boushie or one of the other people referenced in their songs.

"I hope that [the music] resonates with the listener or listeners," said Kinley. "And that they can see themselves or their experiences or, you know, ideas that they may have or agree with that aren't necessarily always in the forefront of the mainstream conversation."

While Kinley was disappointed that the band did not end up making the Polaris shortlist, he says he didn't get into making music for the accolades.

"In theory, you're not doing it for [awards and recognition], but at the same time, so many people gauge your value on whether you have those things or not," says Kinley. 

"So you start to want them, because they validate you in the minds of other people that are making choices that could help you or provide opportunities."

Kinley won't allow this letdown to slow the group's progress. Super Duty Tough Work plans to continue making meaningful music that speaks to the moment.

"...[W]e just should not care and just make music, because that's what we love to do."

(Meghan Mast/CBC)

About the Producer

Meghan Mast is a multimedia journalist who has covered agriculture, politics, hydro, health and the climate crisis. Her work has appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, the Globe and Mail and The Tyee.

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe. Special thanks to Ty Harper for his advisement.