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Michael McKinney understands the cultural importance of Kreayshawn’s “Gucci Gucci.”
Despite writing about rap for over 15 years (fuck), I’ve never published one of these lists because I refuse to believe “Canadian Hip-Hop” is a thing. Montreal Hip-Hop is a thing. Toronto Hip-Hop is a thing. Vancouver Hip-Hop is a thing and as 2022 has proven, there’s quality rap music being made across the country from the Maritimes to BC Reservations. But despite these local scenes thriving and occasionally being in dialog with each other, the overarching concept of “Canadian Hip-Hop” feels like an artificial media construct, imposed from above by a content and culture industry desperately pivoting to rap out of obligation now that their indie rock gravy train has been revealed to contain exhausted ideas and more than one abuser. As such, the records championed within “Canadian Hip-Hop” are often bland, performative exercises in CanCon, and I say: fuck that shit.
Thankfully, the aforementioned regional scenes are producing more quality rap music than ever, despite often being overlooked by media gatekeepers interested in selling content to mainstream audiences. The following list is a small selection of personal favorites, mostly operating in the post-Roc Marci underground and mostly focused on my own city of Montreal. It’s NOT a best of list, but it is a great place to start exploring several scenes’ exciting underground Hip-Hop. If you want to go deeper, I’ll start these recommendations by shouting out DJ Whitesox’s Pôle Hip-Hop radio show (in French) and Pro V’s Northside Hip-Hop archive, both of which go deep into the history of rap music made above the 49th parallel.
To begin, any list discussing Hip-Hop in Canada this year must include Nicholas Craven, the heavyweight producer behind much of Mach-Hommy’s Balens Cho and the entirety of Boldy James’ Fair Exchange No Robbery, along with tracks for everyone from Tha God Fahim to Ransom. Kicking off the year with his own Craven N3 project, the Sud-Ouest resident did more to promote Montreal as a rap-centric city to outsiders than anyone this year, thanks to outstanding collaborations with emcees from Antwerp to Atlanta. While Montreal’s rap scene has been bubbling under the radar for what seems like an eternity, it was Craven who got Boldy to shout out MTL on a record heard worldwide, and that alone would already earn him props over here.
Better yet, Craven wasn’t stingy with his co-signs, shouting out, producing and signal boosting a number of great new Montreal rappers, most notably Mike Shabb and Chung. Shabb has been on the grind in Montreal for a couple of years now, but his style made a quantum leap on 2022 tapes like Sewaside II and Bokleen World, where he combined the high energy delivery most common among Drill rappers to murky, sample-heavy beats usually associated with an older generation of rappers. That might sound simple on paper, but once you hear it, it’s revolutionary, charting a prospective future for this sound among a new generation of emcees. Even more impressively, Shabb is produces most of his own material, making him a double threat with huge potential for the future.
Chung meanwhile, has emerged as Montreal’s leading lady, finding a pocket among the same type of sample-heavy beats as Craven and Shabb, but with an added funk twist and take-no-shit perspective. Her latest album, See You When I See You is relentlessly engaging, attracting attention from local radio and underground outlets like the Cabbages newsletter in equal regards, further planting the flag for Montreal as an up North equivalent to the rugged Hip-Hop made in Buffalo or Rochester.
Had that been the only heat coming out of Montreal this year, it would have already been the city’s strongest showing yet, but 2021’s rookie of the year Skiifall had a quiet but also impactful 12 months – dropping a series of singles with jazz upstarts BADBADNOTGOOD, UK Funky veteran Lil Silva, and on his own – all of which continued to develop his Caribbean-UK-CA fusion of melodic vocals and syncopated beats.
Further underground, Loop Sessions continues to be a vital beatmaking community, not only in Montreal where I regularly participate, but also through expansions to a number of new cities, most recently Los Angeles and London. Notably, LS alum Senz Beats dropped Modus Operandi his long-awaited album with New York MC Lex Boogie From The Bronx. An impeccably arranged slice of underground rap, it’s a must listen and a new gold standard in MTL-NY collabs – plus it includes one hell of an Elucid guest verse. Throw in 222, a vibey beat tape from local luminary Zimba, Peaks and Valleys by exploratory emcee Shem G and new material from turntable collective Turbine, and it’s clear that the Montreal underground is flourishing in a way that would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier.
(Oh, and this guy named Son Raw just dropped The General, his debut single alongside Kingston JA-based emcee Five Steez, available now on all DSPs. I hear it’s pretty damn good, and the album dropping next year is even better.)
As mentioned above, Canada’s various rap scenes aren’t always in dialogue, but there are a few standouts from the ROC that made my radar this year. First, Toronto’s Raz Fresco has always been brilliant, but he truly stood out this year over 10 (!!!) projects ranging from a Nicholas Craven collaboration (Boulangerie) to self-produced material. What strikes me most about Raz this year, incredible work ethic aside, is just how layered his style is, as he combines classic Hip-Hop tropes to post-LA Beat Scene sonics, to his Torontonian Caribbean heritage to newer, post-Marci mixing. On Magnetic, my favorite project of his this year, he even samples UK Grime artist Wiley while continuing to identify with X-Men anti-hero Magneto – and there’s no faster way to my heart than bigging up Grime and pre-MCU Marvel comics.
Also from Toronto, PremRock affiliate, finger drummer extraordinaire and general beat making savant Fresh Kills dropped Disclaimer his solo debut on Urbnet. Balancing out psychedelic instrumentals to full on rap tracks featuring names like Fashawn and Brainorchestra, it’s the type of release that has me wishing I had more time to explore what’s going on beneath Toronto’s surface – more of this, less Tory Lanez please.
Finally, Vancouver may as well be on another planet, but POW readers should already know about Chong Wizard Records, the West Coast boutique label that put out Vegas Vic by noted site veteran Zilla Rocca in 2021. This year, they stepped it up with a whole slew of records – my favorites being Black Keys Wit Melodies by Rahiem Supreme and Ohbliv, and Hundred Year Darkness by AJ Suede and Small Pro. Both skirt the limits of what could be considered Canadian considering all artists involved are American, but hey – it’s some of the best rap music out there.