Northern Touch at 20: An oral history of the most important rap collaboration in Canadian history
Originally published on Jan. 31, 2018
Every Canadian rap fan will remember hearing this for the first time: "We notorious; ain't nobody can hang with us: Rascalz, Checkmate, Kardinal and Thrust, Choclair coming down with that Northern touch."
One of the most iconic rap songs in Canada, there was no escaping the power of "Northern Touch," a cross-country posse cut that would cement the careers of the artists who had the wherewithal to shout themselves out in the chorus.
Released in 1998 as a single from the Rascalz's album Cash Crop, it went on to become one of the most successful hip-hop songs in Canada at the time, and helped pave the way for artists to come. It reached number 41 on the top singles chart at a time when no other domestic urban song could break through the top 100.
"Northern Touch" helped bridge the gap between Canada's scattered hip-hop scenes, bringing together artists from Ontario and British Columbia, but it also did so much more. For Canadian rap fans, it became an instant anthem, and for young aspiring rappers across the country, it served as both inspiration and an invitation to carve out their own spot. "Northern Touch" went into heavy rotation on radio, the video went to the top of the Much Music countdown, and it was played on BET in the U.S., turning the largely unsigned artists into stars.
Today, it stands as one of the most important rap songs in Canadian music history.
For the 20-year anniversary of its release, the artists and key contributors to the song reflect on its impact, "from the past to the present and the future," for an oral history of "Northern Touch."
Click play above to listen to the segment, produced by Tyrone Callender, or scroll down for an extended written version.
1: The idea that started it all
Sol Guy (manager, the Rascalz): At the time I was also working at BMG Music as the urban marketing manager. Me and a few other people were some of the first ones to get executive positions at record labels to start working on hip hop music.
Craig "Big C" Mannix: I was working at Sony Music Canada. Sony, MCA Universal and BMG were compilation partners with MuchMusic at the time, you know the famous comps, like MuchDance and the alternative comps. I came up with the idea to speak to the people in our strategic marketing division, and we started working on putting this thing together. It was like, 'Hip-hop's big. Why don't we do a hip hop comp?' Because I was at Sony, Sol Guy was at BMG and Mike Zafiris was at MCA Universal, so we were kind of the trifecta behind it. But let's put some original material on there and we decided we wanted to make it a posse cut and we wanted it to encompass Canada east to west. The Rascalz were integrated especially with Sol managing them, and Checkmate and [DJ] Kemo did the beat. I was in charge of calling everybody, putting it together, so to speak.
Sol Guy: I believe "Northern Touch" came out of a desire for identity and to put ourselves on the map for hip-hop in the global context. Anything outside of America at that time was unheard of and then to be Canadian rappers was not only looked down upon from the U.S. standpoint, but even in Canada. We hadn't found our identity yet.
2: The recording process
DJ Kemo: The beat uses a sample from a song by The BT Express called "Everything Good to You Ain't always Good for You." So the beat was originally for an intro on my homie Jay Swing's mixtape, back in what would have been like 1997 I think. Initially it was inspired by "Get the Bozak," an EPMD joint, and I just made the beat for fun and then my man Jay Swing wanted an intro so I think I played them that beat. He was like, "Yo, this is fire. Let's put my boy Checkmate on, his partner on it, and let's put Rascalz on it and just make a little mixtape intro, nothing fancy."
Red1 (the Rascalz): We were the first ones to write our verse. Kemo used to do collabo mixtapes and this was one of them and Jay Swing brought it to us and was like, "We want to you guys on this track." And so I remember writing. It was getting close to the mixtape getting done and I just remember them harassing us to get the verse done. We were at the house one day and I just remember being out by the pool and just writing my verse, real quick, and then recording the song. After that, I just remember Sol saying, "Oh this is dope. We're going to get Kardi and those guys on it."
Sol Guy: It made so much sense to do a posse cut that could include everybody, to make a statement to the world of who we were. And our confidence was at a high level because [the Rascalz] had gone from being independent to getting a record deal to finally get it started to get some notoriety both across the country and around the world. So we were like, "Yeah, let's do this."
Mannix: When we're in the midst of putting the song together a lot of people would be like, "We're feelin' Red1 from the Rascalz but we're not really feelin' his partner," meaning Misfit, and sometimes in the duo groups, there is always one guy that's stronger than the other. And Red1 really stood out. So I remember calling Red1 and having that conversation with him and Red, to his credit, he said, "Hey man, we're a team, we're a group. I understand not being able to give us 16 bars. We're going to share eight." And that's how come the Rascalz did the back and forth in that song.
Sol Guy: Before "Northern Touch" the connection between hip-hop crews and cities in Canada was very separate. We had spent a bit of time coming to Toronto and finally started meeting the Circle, which was, you know, Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, Marvel, YLook and whatnot. This crew that really, ultimately we saw them as our peers. And before that we were kind of looking out into space and we didn't see other people doing what we were doing.
Checkmate: The Rascalz had been battling in Vancouver and were probably the most popular hip hop act at the time.
Red1: So on that actual song, nobody has a record deal besides ourselves. But we always thought that Kardi, Choclair, Tara Chase, Saukrates, Socrates, Solitair, they were in this crew called the Circle and they would show up at the shows and just slaughter things. And so we were always fans of theirs and it's like, you know, we've gotta get some of the Circle on this track.
There's two great moments where I actually remember, in my head, recording music where I knew instantly a song was a hit. One was when I first heard Kardi's hook on 'Northern Touch.'- Red1 of the Rascalz
Choclair: Going into the summer of '97, I was working at a daycare called Mother of Compassion in Malvern at the back of Mother Teresa high school, and got a call at work from Sol Guy. He told me about this idea that they were doing with the Rascalz and Thrust was going to be on the track as well. This new artists on there by the name of Checkmate, and for you new cats out there, they used to send them big two-inch fat recording tapes, and they were going to mail it over and we were going to go down to a studio just so happened that day. Kardi was with me. It's like, "You want to come?" "Of course."
Kardinal Offishall: Choclair actually had a brief outline of what the hook was.
Choclair: I remember just kind of writing this thing, "We notorious," but I didn't really have all the words for it. And I remember Kardi came and added some words in there as well. We were just like, "Kardi, you should go do the hook," because he had that very explosive style.
Kardi: If you know Choclair you know he's a massive Biggie fan so I'm pretty sure that's how the notorious made it into the hook itself because he loved, I mean we all did, but like, you know, it was over the top. … I was thinking, there's actually no way I'm going to be able to do this joint because I was sneezing that day, but we went in there and knocked it out.
Red1: When we first heard the song, as soon as I heard Kardi's hook I was like, "Wow." There's two great moments where I actually remember, in my head, recording music where I knew instantly a song was a hit. One was when I first heard Kardi's hook on "Northern Touch."
Choclair: Back then everybody wanted to always be the anchor on the track. So me and Thrust literally did paper, rock, scissors to see who would be the last one on the track. And I lost so I ended up being second.
Kardi: I still remember the day because we were in a studio that I had never been to before. Whatever studio that was, I had only been there for that day for that recording. Never before, never after. So for all I know it's the "Northern Touch" studio that they built that day and tore it down because I literally have never been there before or after.
3: The release
Mannix: Song was done. And sure enough at the time the Canadian industry being the way they were and still are in some ways, they didn't see it as viable to do an urban comp, and they canned it and they didn't let us put it out. And this track was dormant for a while. To Sol's credit, he decided to put it out with the Rascalz. It became a single off the album and it just blew up and the rest was history.
Red1: We were on our second album, Cash Crop. We had won a Juno the year before and this was our second release coming back trying to take it to another level. And you know, just trying to gain off that success of our first album and create something special. "Northern Touch" was that special ingredient we needed. So we added it to the album because it wasn't actually on the first original pressing.
Kardi: Choclair, Thrust, Rascalz and Checkmate on one song doesn't really make sense from an A&R perspective. You know what I'm saying? Like Saukrates, who arguably was the biggest artist out of all of us internationally, why wasn't he on the song? Or why wasn't k-os on the song or whatever. That weird little mix and match of artists and energies at the time for whatever reason just worked in Canadian hip-hop history.
Mannix: I don't know anything about Kevin [k-os] being involved but it could have been talked about because at the time Sol Guy was managing him as well. But it's funny, for the years I've known Kevin, he's never mentioned to me that he was earmarked to be on the song or anything like that and I don't know if the idea was to have Jully Black sing a hook or not. I know that was tossed around but I can't remember exactly what happened with that.
Kemo: Around the same time we dropped "Northern Touch" a couple other songs dropped with the same sample, namely "Get at Me Dog" from DMX and "Will they Die for You?" from Mase, and I was like, "Oh man, people are going to jump all over this DMX record."
Thrust: So when DMX came out he was on the same sample, "Northern Touch" was on the same sample, but it was playing in New York. So "Get at Me Dog" was playing and right after it, "Northern Touch." So it was just one of those songs that crossed every border.
Checkmate: I think that open doors, in retrospect, for all the artists that came after, including me. "Northern Touch" for me was a jump off to a career that, you know, I really wasn't considering, just with all the hoopla and all the hype that came with it. … At the time I really felt I was lucky. I really didn't have no business stepping up. But you know what. You get lucky and you get breaks in life.
Red1: We were a group that was just slowly kind of creeping up in popularity in the country, underground-wise. I think we had a national kind of recognition as one of the top hip-hop groups in the country, but I think "Northern Touch" kind of helped us solidify our place at the top.
Kardi: I knew "Northern Touch" was a hit when we went on tour and every single show was sold out from coast to coast. And like these kids were wilin'.
Thrust: And word-for-word, city-to-city, town-to-town, that was the energy man.
4: The video
Choclair: And then we get the call that they're going to shoot the video and Little X is going to shoot it. So that after the video comes out, a friend of mine from Winnipeg called me, I guess they just started playing it on Much Music, and they're like, "That video was dope. The song is heavy, too." Then me now working at the daycare, "Yo Choclair works here!" and I'm signing autographs while I'm watching this kid spit up his lunch all over the playground and having to change him. I left my job as a daycare teacher. That was like when I really started to realize that this song was kind of a big deal.
Kardi: When we went on the road it was exciting to have the video on and all of that stuff because it's like, at that time, I believe that was one of the first, at least for our generation, to get onto BET. I remember traveling to the States and people recognizing us, just from that video, which was super dope.
Checkmate: When "Northern Touch" blew up, I remember feeling surprised. I was just a guest on this song and Rascalz asked me to do something that people in this city seemed to be extremely proud of. More than just our core fan base, it seemed to enter the public lexicon.
Kardi: We had always been dope in my eyes but I think that was the first time that the figurative mirror is being held up and the people got to see this energy coming from where we live.
5: The Junos
Sol Guy: So the Rascalz's "Northern Touch" performance on the Junos in 1999 was incredibly important, because a year earlier we had won the Juno for the best rap recording in our hometown of Vancouver and we actually turned down the Juno. We had a big record at the time. We asked if we could perform on the show and they wouldn't let us. We're from Vancouver, and the award show was in our city. We were brash young men and we thought it was our right to perform on that stage, and I still believe that it should have been done. We had an inkling that we might win and we were prepared. So we went into the press room and we really stunned the press and the Juno Committee and the music industry by turning down our Juno.
Red1: We didn't know it was going to be such a big deal. We just thought they'll probably be mad at us and never really invite us back, and we thought our label would be mad at us. You know we were just like, "Whatever man." There was no room for reggae or for anything that had to do anything with urban music; it was just straight country music, rock, and, you know, children's theme music and stuff like that. So we felt like, "Yo, there was kind of a bit of a disrespect." … We felt like it was more important to just kind of show that we weren't here begging for nothing. We were here representing what was and still is like the most popular form of music.
Sol Guy: It's only in hindsight that you have perspective where you may be able to see the whole, but we were too brash and thought if we couldn't accomplish anything we wanted to do and if there was no space in the industry, we're going to kick a hole in it and make space for ourselves.
Kardi: It was important because I think it was the first time that awareness was brought about to the Canadian people, like the mainstream Canadian audience, because they were especially, in 1998, '99, very unaware.
Sol Guy: I know that that had a lot to do with the industry paying more attention and then when the song came out and it was getting more airplay and going to number one. Cash Crop, our album, then went gold and we found ourselves the next year being invited back to the Junos and performing with Kardi, Thrust, Checkmate and Choclair.
Red1: And that was the first time that they actually had a hip hop group perform live on stage and hand out the award during the televised portion of the show.
6: The aftermath
Kemo: "Northern Touch" and its stake in Canadian hip-hop history was, for our generation, it was one of the biggest songs. As Seth Rogen said in his interview with Nardwuar, for Canadian hip-hop, it's our "Stairway to Heaven."
Checkmate: Well the impact "Northern Touch" had on the Vancouver hip-hop scene was cataclysmic. There's no there's no other word for it really. … When "Northern Touch" came out there was a certain validation that came with it. … We were getting recognized on the street. We were getting congratulated by people we didn't know.
Mannix: You know I think it was probably the most successful song at that moment, at that point, since Maestro's "Let Your Backbone Slide," which was so many years before that. So to know that we created a hit. And I think it became a Canadian anthem at this point, a hip-hop Canadian anthem. The thing I think it showed the most was Canadian pride and Canadian talent and announced that Canadian hip-hop is here and it's here to stay.
Checkmate: "Northern Touch" is probably one of the biggest songs, easily, in the course of the short history of Canadian hip-hop. I mean, just for the fact that the song itself broke all kinds of glass ceilings. Smashed them. It was a hit, you know what I'm saying? It was a number one MuchMusic video. It's an iconic song.
Sol: "Northern Touch" was a seminal moment, and you can draw a direct line from that song to the success we're seeing today in Canadian music. It's a seminal moment because Canadian music didn't look like us at that time. Canada is changing so much, and we were second generation immigrant kids who were coming up from all over the world who didn't look like the average Canadian, but we saw that it was a changing face. I want to think that "Northern Touch" was a calling card to all those young people out there who were emerging who are now the faces and the leaders of the nation in different spaces, not just arts and culture, but across the board. I'm really proud to be a part of it and those things happen rarely. So here we are 20 years later and it's fun to be telling this story.
— Interviews and production by Tyrone Callender; words by Jesse Kinos-Goodin