“Outside looks like a Weeknd song.”
Clifton Reddick, the founder of Toronto’s ‘Battle of the Beat Makers’, sits in the back area of the Pantages hotel’s bar. The brim of his hat low, looking onto Victoria St. on a wet and windy Wednesday night in February. Traffic is considerably quiet for downtown Toronto, mainly due to the storm that struck earlier that day.
“Toronto’s sound” is reflective of that atmosphere. The production is reminiscent of winter nightlife in the city; the drums are as crisp and brisk as February air, the basslines are dark and slow like late-night cruises and the synth notes slide through your eardrums like sneakers slipping over a patch of ice.
Drake and The Weeknd popularized the sound that has influenced the soundscape of urban music globally. Although they are the faces often associated with this smooth and sexy tone in RnB and hip hop, the credit can be traced back to Toronto producer, Boi-1da. He has become a staple in the global hip hop community, working with the likes of Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne and, of course, Drake as well as opening up the gate for young producers out of Toronto to succeed in an American market.
Boi-1da’s come-up goes back to Clifton Reddick and the Battle of the Beat Makers competition. The platform he provided was for a market that Reddick says was non-existent at the time and was Toronto’s introduction to a young, aspiring producer with an innovative sound. Less than a decade later, he would become one of the most sought after producers in the hip hop industry.
“There were events that catered to DJs, events that catered to rappers, singers, breakdancers. Like every aspect that hip hop has related to them or served them except the producers,” Reddick says, “I kind [of] just basically wanted to offer that, catered to that, something that nobody else was doing. I say often that was wide-open, it was something I could offer and nobody else was doing and there was a market for it and people wanted it.”
Clifton, along with his cousin and a DJ, began plotting for the inaugural Battle of the Beat Makers event in 2004. With his heart set on giving back to his community and the hip hop culture, he worked relentlessly to make this event come to fruition. He worked seven days a week: a nine to five job during the days and then night-shifts until midnight. All the while, he was anticipating the birth of his first daughter.
“Me growing up as a person in hip hop, I just wanted to offer my contribution to it. It’s something that influenced every aspect of my life,” Clifton says.
At the time, the use of Digital Audio Workstations and technology in hip hop was starting to make an impact. Most music producers at the time were using Fruity Loops (now known as FL Studios) to create their beats. The software is still dominant in the production world as many use it including Toronto producer, Eestbound.
Eestbound is an up-and-coming producer from Brampton who recently signed a deal to Wondagurl’s label as her first artist. At only 20-years-old, he produced the platinum-selling single Antidote by Travi$ Scott as well as co-producing Young Thug’s Freaky alongside Wondagurl.
Eestbound’s introduction into music was through creating beats on an iPhone. While he used GarageBand on his 4S, the beats drew influences from trap music and Jahlil Beats. As his familiarity and interest in production grew with the iPhone app, he eventually started using FL Studios on his laptop.
I called him before we met up on a Sunday afternoon. When he picked up his phone, I heard loud, distorted music wafting in the background. Once it stopped, through the ringing in my ears I heard him apologize for his phone being connected to his computer, with the ringtone coming out of his studio monitors. As a guy that grew up in the current technological era, technology surrounds Eestbound in all aspects of life.
Reddick explains that when Battle of the Beat Makers happened in 2005, tension grew between some of the older and the younger producers based on equipment. While crate-digging through vinyls for samples hasn’t died, it’s not as common as it once was. These days, finding a sample is as easy as going on YouTube and dragging it into the production software. That’s what some say may differentiate a producer from a beat programmer.
In an interview with New York radio station Hot 97, legendary producer Timbaland stirred controversy by criticizing the state of production.
“I don’t think we have producers anymore, I think we have great programmers.”
He rationalized this statement by saying that loops comes as a package for ‘producers’ to run through music software. He passed along this message to his protege, Yanni, who explained the sentiment in an interview.
This statement struck a chord in Eestbound whose recent single, Television, samples the interview.
“I feel that technology made people feel like everyone can be a producer and everyone can be an artist,” Eestbound explains, “I feel like just because you can put a whole bunch of kicks and snares and drums and 808’s in a song, now you’re a producer. No, you’re a programmer.”
He admits that while he’s much more familiar using the software now to create these sounds, they are sonically a departure from the initial sounds he generated. He says he was never able to get the sound he was actually looking for.
Boi-1da, Wondagurl as well as Eestbound are three producers out of Toronto that use FL Studios as an instrument – they don’t just use stock sounds and program it onto the software, they blend these sounds. Using Timbaland’s definition, these are three individuals who are genuinely producers.
While they are some of those bringing Toronto’s sound to a larger audience, Boi-1da’s drums have stood out in the hip hop community to the point where he has released two sound kits for producers who are looking to emulate his sound.
“I use technology as an instrument – like how I make my beats – I’m such a perfectionist. I don’t just put a whole bunch of kicks and drums and snares in my shit. I perfect it, I tweak my sound, equalize it,” Eestbound says.
Other than equipment and the advancement of digital audio workstations, the rise of the Internet in the music industry has made things a lot easier for Canadian artists to reach out to American industry professionals.
Mississauga producer Pops, who has produced for the likes of Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Killer Mike, Freddie Gibbs and, of course, Toronto’s own Drake, believes that social media has made these artists more accessible.
Pops says that in terms of communication, it has helped create opportunities connecting the music industry south of the border, “The internet definitely helps since the emergence of social media and Twitter, it’s made a lot of these people a lot more accessible in terms of some of these A&R’s, and you know label exec[utive]s that might be in New York or L.A.. Before you’d have to travel to see them, whereas now you can hit their e-mail inbox. Most of them have a submissions e-mail.”
“I don’t know if the Internet necessarily help put the spotlight, I think it’s helping enhance the spotlight,” Pops says about Toronto’s scene, “The fact we’ve had a lot of success lately shines light on our industry and news publications and syndications picking up on that. They want to give more shine to the underdogs and be there to find the next big thing, but I feel like it’s been Toronto’s love for the culture and music that has put us in the forefront and now the internet is kind of catching up and realizing that we have talent here.”
October last year, for the first time in Billboard’s history, the top four slots were filled with Canadian and, more specifically, Toronto artists. Drake’s Hotline Bling, The Weeknd’s The Hills & Can’t Feel My Face and Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean? all made their way to the top four and maintained that position for three weeks straight.
While most people embraced Toronto’s sound, there were a few that opposed it. One in particular.
When Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill decided to use Twitter as a platform to air out grievances with Drake regarding the latter’s alleged use of a ghostwriter, it turned out to be arguably one of Meek Mill’s worst career moves.
Drake, on the other hand, proved Meek Mill completely wrong when he dropped the Grammy-nominated diss track, Back to Back. And to rub a bit more salt into Meek Mill’s wound, Drake harnessed the Internet’s cruel but creative power to mock him by using memes of Meek Mill as a backdrop while performing the song.
After Drake dismantled Meek Mill, the whole city of Toronto was using his name as a punchline. Even Councillor Norm Kelly called him out on Twitter.
Despite how big Drake has become, the Internet culture is something Drake owes much of his musical success to and he has embraced its power. His first four mixtapes, including the groundbreaking So Far Gone, all garnered buzz through websites like DatPiff. His introduction to his mentor, Lil Wayne, was made through a connection on MySpace with Jas Prince.
After Drake’s rise to fame, Toronto’s appeal to artists all over Canada grew even larger than before. Toronto is a centre for arts, so naturally artists are finding opportunities within the city to reach wider audiences.
A co-sign from the 6 God himself as well as a bit of a social media following doesn’t hurt a Toronto artist. But even with masses of Twitter followers, the grassroots approach is still necessary. Toronto MC, Crossword, has not only garnered attention from blogs as a rapper, but has also contributed to the Toronto scene as a concert curator, presenter, promoter and tour booker.
“Technology has allowed people to connect with it easier, but it hasn’t reflected the industry,” Crossword tells me over the phone. “It doesn’t substitute for actually, physically being on the ground and, you know, setting up meetings with people. Drake was physically in the States which is a big part of why he got known in the States.”
To Crossword, the Toronto sound belongs to Drake and 40. The low-cut filters and rap-singing style is something that he believes should be credited to OVO. He says that the artists that follow the same style within Toronto are either trying to follow Drake’s or positioning themselves for the 6 God’s co-sign or affiliation. The exceptions being Jazz Cartier and Tory Lanez (although, there were rumors that Lanez claimed to be Drake’s little brother).
“It allows an artist to create an audience specifically for themselves,” says Joël Naga, a manager and marketer for Toronto artists, who believes the same in grassroots building. Hip hop is a culture based on community and to maintain longevity in a fast-paced game, having a loyal fanbase is everything.
While Joël believes social media and the Internet helps, it’s easy to have a hit for a summer then vanish away by the time fall rolls in. Building a following from the ground up is important to maintaining a career.
It’s no doubt that technology has allowed Toronto’s scene to jump further into the American market. For a lot of managers in Toronto, the Internet has allowed them to connect to not only other cities, but also to those within their own city as well.
SmashMouth Entertainment was founded by Brenden Hewko who began with promoting shows before he began managing artists including Prince of the ‘Borough, JiMMY B and RETOX rapper, DillanPonders.
While walking his dog on a grey, overcast in Toronto, Brenden Hewko tells me that he actually met Jimmy B through Twitter while offering $50 to anyone who wanted to hand out flyers for an hour. After working an hour, handing out flyers and collecting his pay, he asked, “Yo how do you pick rappers for your shows?”
The internet connected them, but the initiative that Jimmy B took was what really solidified their connection. Since then, they have expanded through solid Internet releases and playing a relentless number of shows, and building from the ground up.
“There’s Internet artists, and there’s real artists,” Brenden says, “If you look at guys like Jazz Cartier, he obviously used social media and the Internet as his platform but he also made sure he went to the States early, and connected with the right people. He made the jump to the states and started putting in the groundwork.”
Drake’s influence over his career has helped illuminate the city of Toronto. With the help of producers such as Noah ‘40’ Shebib and Boi-1da, he was the first to break through into the American market with the dark ambient sound that reflects Toronto.
Drake and the Weeknd clearly represent Toronto’s position on the world’s platform for urban music. They’ve spawned much of the rising talent out of the city. But who knows, maybe the next Soundcloud rapper to hit a million plays might leave Drizzy’s throne up for grabs. For right now, there isn’t another Toronto rapper – or artist for that matter – that can say a politician has come to their defence during a Twitter beef.