Urban Music | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Urban Music

No one can say exactly when it happened or by what process, but sometime in the middle of the last decade, “Black music” suddenly turned into "urban music." This, of course, didn't mark the first time the genre had been re-christened. In 1982, Billboard magazine's Soul chart was renamed Black, and eight years later was recast as rhythm & blues.
Drake performing at the Oslo Spektrum, 2014. Image: CC flickr/Tom \u00d8verlie, NRK P3.\r\n

A catch-all phrase for "hip-hop" and contemporary rhythm & blues ("R&B"), urban music helps sell clothes, sneakers and a lifestyle. For example, rap legend Roxanne Shante sold Sprite on TV, Sean "P-Diddy" Combs graced the covers of GQ and Fortune, Levi's sponsored Lauryn Hill's hugely successful tour in 1999, and GAP ads feature breakdancers. A quick glance at the lists of music poll winners — including names like Justin Timberlake, Nelly, Eminem, and Mariah Carey — proves that not only is urban today's dominant pop genre, but that you don't have to be Black to be considered an urban music artist.

American Beginnings

Urban's influence is now worldwide, but its foundation is set in American Black musical culture and the major events that set the course of its rapid evolution for the most part occurred in the US.

Considering that urban embraces two distinct styles, hip-hop (or "rap") and R&B, it helps to examine the roots of these two styles and their development into billion-dollar industries. In 1973, six years before The Fatback Band from New York recorded "King Tim III (The Personality Jock)," hip hop was born at a "back to school" block party hosted by 16 year old Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell, in the recreation room of 1520 Sedgewick Avenue in the South Bronx, New York. DJ Kool Herc, who's widely considered the music's founding father, emceed over the instrumental parts of records — called breaks.

Throughout the early 1970s, Black and Puerto Rican youth, who had been denied access to dance clubs, created their own recreational spaces by organizing block parties where deejays used street lamp electricity to power their equipment. Hip hop found its creativity in its social conditions; the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway resulted in the forced relocation of 60,000 white working-class Bronx residents, the explosion of government housing, rapid economic deterioration and under-employment. South Bronx residents faced tremendous setbacks as slum landlords were cited as engaging in acts of arson to collect on fraudulent insurance scams, leaving many South Bronx residents homeless and living in poverty. While The Fatback Band may have cut the first rap record, they didn't have the first commercially successful recording. That honour belongs to New Jersey's The Sugar Hill Gang, who recorded the now classic "Rapper's Delight" in 1979.

Long-time observers of the scene say that two critical albums released in 1986 helped rap break out of the underground and into the public consciousness. Raising Hell by Run-DMC and Licensed to Ill by the Beastie Boys both mixed hardcore rap and rock and bristled with a rebellious attitude that appealed to young, middle North America and served as an appetizer for an army of groups that followed.

Groups like Salt-n-Pepa brought a sexiness to the music, Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince injected a dose of humour, Public Enemy brought a militant Black nationalism into the mix, and N.W.A. introduced the gangsta rap sub-genre with its 1989 debut album, Straight Outta Compton. Also helping to commercialize rap were solo acts like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. The last decade of the 20th century saw rap take a turn toward celebrating materialism and nihilism, but it also did some soul-searching, especially after superstars like 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G. were shot to death.

R&B, the other parent of urban music, has a history that is richer than the music it's so closely associated with today. It evolved out of jump blues in the late 1940s and early 50s and included a wide variety of styles like gospel, jazz and blues. Artists like Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard personified this style that became Rhythm & Blues. This genre then evolved into Soul and Funk, with regional variations depending on in which city recordings were produced: there was the highly orchestrated Philly sound, the gritty Stax sound from Memphis, and the highly infectious Motown sound from Detroit.

Red Robinson and Little Richard, 1957.
Image: Red Robinson Collection.\r\n

Many argue that the music being called R&B today pales in comparison to its antecedents mainly because it is producer-driven, lacks the gritty soul of classic R&B, and "it all sounds the same." The most radical change that R&B experienced, however, happened in the late 80s when a young producer from the Bronx, Teddy Riley, began fusing hip-hop with R&B and came up with "New Jack Swing." Not only did Riley help artists like Bell Biv DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Al B. Sure!, Keith Sweat and Michael Jackson score hits, but he also influenced such prominent producers as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Jermaine DuPri, Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, to name a few.

This melding of hip-hop and R&B is evident everywhere, and the styles are slowly becoming indistinguishable. For example, producers will hire street-smart rappers like Nas and Nelly to fill up the breaks in an R&B song or inject the melodic voices of singers like Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans to break the tension of a hardcore hip-hop jam. In the 80s, such sounds in their purest form could not get airplay on mainstream radio; in the 90s, this hybrid became the biggest commercial music phenomenon and still shows no sign of surrendering its place to another genre.

Urban Moves to Canada

Get Loose Crew
MC Shadow (left), S-Blank (producer back left), MC B (center front), DJ Jel (back right), Mix-Master Len (right), 1987. Image: MC Shadow/Wikicommons.

The first known Canadian rap single, Singing Fools' "The Bum Rap," was released in 1982. In 1988, Michie Mee became the first Canadian emcee to sign with an American record label. Forming a duo with L.A. Luv, Michie Mee was featured on the KRS-One and Scott La Rock produced compilation Break'n Out. Also in 1988, the Get Loose Crew, comprised of Chris "DJ Jel" Jackson, Kory "MC Shadow" Neely, Len "Mix-Master Len" Grant Stuart and Carl "MC B" Badwa, became the first Canadian rap group to produce a mini LP on their independent label East Park Productions, and the first to achieve international record sales. The group later disbanded in 1990 into other notable groups JUST Me, Juno award nominee B-Kool and Self-Defence. In 1989, Maestro Fresh-Wes released his first single, "Let Your Backbone Slide." The record was the first Canadian hip hop single to break the Canadian Top 40 and Billboard. In 1991, Michie Mee released her Juno award winning album Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style, selling over 60,000 copies.

While African Canadian R&B, pop and rock musicians had notable success in the late 1990s, prominent hip hop acts struggled to gain attention outside of college radio. In 1996, with the establishment of the Urban Music Association of Canada, Canadian hip hop's platform strengthened. In 1998, Vancouver-based group Rascalz collaborated with Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Chocolair and Thrust to record "Northern Touch," a galvanizing statement of purpose for Canadian hip hop. The record peaked at #41 and was the first Canadian hip hop record to garner widespread radio play since Dream Warrior's "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style". Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, a number of hip hop artists gained visibility, including: Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, Saukrates, K-os, Drake, Classified, K'Naan and Shad. While many Canadian urban musicians have continued to face mainstream obstacles, many have achieved notable success, including Kardinal Offishall's #5 peak position on the Billboard Hot 100 with his 2008 record "Dangerous," Drake's #2 peak position on the same chart with his 2009 "Best I Ever Had," and the selection of K'Naan's "Wavin' Flag" as Coca-Cola's official theme song for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Kardinal Offishall performing at The Wave in London ON. in 2013.
Image: The Come Up Show/Eddy Rissling.\r\n

History was also made in 2002 when Honey Drops, Canada's first all-female urban music compilation, arrived in stores. Released by Universal Music Canada, the CD featured contributions from 19 unsigned singers, rappers and poets from across Canada. Incidentally, two artists — Nelly Furtado and Jully Black — who had performed at the Honey Jam, the Toronto-based all-female talent showcase that inspired the album, were later signed by major labels.

Jully Black performing in 2010.
Image: Damien D./Wikicommons.\r\n
Nelly Furtado at the ceremony for her induction into Canada's Walk of Fame, 2010. Image: Tabercil/Wikicommons.\r\n

Urban music has significantly influenced francophone and First Nations youth culture as well. In the late 1980s, few French hip hop artists broke the mainstream; they included Les French B, Le Boyfriend and Kool Rock and Jay Tree. Francophone hip hop remained largely underground until the emergence of Dubmatique. Muzion, Sans Pression and Atach Tatuq then followed. First Nation's hip hop has been spearheaded by artists such as Kinnie Star, War Party, and Plex, who hosts a First Nations hip hop program on the Aboriginal Voices radio network. In 2009, Team Rezofficial became the first group with a song on the RapCity Top Ten, and Manitoba's Native Communications radio launched Streetz FM, Canada's first station marketed primarily to Aboriginal youth.

Image: \u00a9 Victoria Vaughan/ www.vixvon.com.
Image: Victoria Vaughan/\r\nwww.vixvon.com

In 2011, the CBC promoted the Hip Hop Summit, a month-long celebration of Canadian hip hop. The event and its accompanying documentary, Love, Props and the T.Dot, produced by Chris Jackson, featured artist spotlights, panel discussions and concert performances by Ghetto Concept, Maestro, Shad, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, K-os, Classified, Red1, K'Naan, Michie Mee, Rema Major, and Dream Warriors.

Urban Radio in Canada

In its early years, Toronto hip hop and R&B fans relied heavily on Buffalo, New York's WBLK for music content, while other Canadian cities often had little access to urban radio stations. In 1983, concert promoter Ron Nelson launched Canada's first hip hop program, The Fantastic Voyage, on Toronto's CKLN college radio. The timeslot continued to gain cultural relevance with the three shows that followed. They included, DJ X's The Power Move Show, The Real Frequency and Mixtape Massacre. In 1990, Milestone Radio applied for a mainstream urban music station, however in a controversial decision, that application was denied. In 1991, Dance Appeal formed in support of Milestone's application. The group, which featured many prominent urban musicians including Maestro Fresh-Wes, Michie Mee, B-Kool and Dream Warriors, released "Can't Repress The Cause," a protest song meant to advocate for the mainstream inclusion of hip hop, house and R&B. Controversy erupted yet again when Milestone was passed over on its second application in favour of the CBC's 99.1. In 1999, when CBC's Toronto station surrendered two new frequencies for license applications, the CRTC awarded one of its frequencies to Milestone following a federal Order in Council requiring that the CRTC acknowledge applications with a focus on cultural and racial diversity. The following year, CFXJ (Flow 93.5) debuted as Canada's first urban music radio station. In 2010, Milestone announced its decision to sell Flow 93.5 to CHUM Radio, and a new radio station, CKFG-FM (G 98.7) was later licensed in 2011.

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