January 21, 1996
Rap nation rising
By ERROL NAZARETH
By ERROL NAZARETH --

Reports of the death of Canadian rap are highly exaggerated.

True, it did get deafeningly quiet around '93, but that didn't mean the army of wordsmiths in the Great White North weren't up to something.

The proof can now be heard on scores of independently released tapes, CDs and at hip-hop jams. So active is the scene right now, that observers say it's the healthiest it's ever been.

A major player in this resurgence is Toronto's Saukrates, a gifted storyteller who's all the rage in the hip-hop community. To say Father Time, his independent debut album due next month, is being eagerly awaited is an understatement. That Masta Ace, Common Sense and O.C. -- three hard rhymers from the U.S. -- agreed to guest on his disc is further testament to Saukrates' skills.

"I always wrote a lot," says the 18 year old, whose songs burst with colorful metaphors and analogies. "My dad writes as a hobby and he always encouraged me, so writing rhymes came naturally.

"A group of us used to freestyle at basketball games and one day my neighbor Lock Jaw and I decided to just sit down and write," recalls Saukrates, who says he's been rapping since he was 12. "We used to hang in the basement and just write!"

Fast forward to '95 and Saukrates releases an infectious single, Hate Runs Deep, and a self-financed video.

"It created a huge buzz on the street," says Mastermind, whose twice weekly hip-hop show on Energy 108 is the only one of its kind on commercial radio in Canada.

"His lyrics are great, and for a young guy he has such a mature voice," adds the 10-year veteran of the scene. "Also, his

video was one of the first independent rap videos that wasn't funded by Factor that actually looked good."

Adds Saukrates modestly: "I like telling stories and letting people decide if I'm good rather than boasting about how good I am.

"Hate Runs Deep isn't just about the politics of the street," says Sauks, discussing the song that paints a bleak picture of life in the inner city. "It's a universal theme. I like keeping things open to interpretation."

What everyone's hyped about is this new wave of rappers edging out what one observer calls "crossover-type groups" who've symbolized Canadian rap.

The facts boost this trend.

The Junos' rap category received 16 submissions this year, a record for the grouping established in '91. Of the hopefuls, only one is on a major label.

And last summer, under the banner The Hip-Hop Explosion Tour, Vancouver's Rascalz, Toronto's Ghetto Concept, and K-OS visited 14 cities, giving 4,000 rap fans a fever for their flavors.

"The tour was wicked!," says K-OS, whose single, Musical Essence, bagged a Canadian Music Video Award for best rap video last year. "Seeing people come out to the show in places like Thunder Bay and Kelowna and having a great time was really eye-opening.

"I didn't know hip-hop penetrated those parts."

It's impossible to attribute this rap renaissance to one particular factor, but one can point to Ghetto Concept winning the Juno for Best Rap Recording last year as crucial.

"The people making hip-hop saw a group they either know or can relate to accepting the award and felt that that type of recognition was attainable," says Jonathan Ramos, chairman of the Junos' rap advisory committee, a prominent local concert promoter, and the organizer of the Hip-Hop Explosion Tour. "Before that happened, a lot of kids had no time for the Junos.

"Not only did they feel unwelcome because no effort was made to reach out to them, but they felt they had to be on a major label to get a shot at winning.

"Whether Ghetto Concept knew it or not, they shook things up in the rap community," adds Ramos. "They made history."

That isn't hype.

Since its inception, the rap category has been the domain of major label artists. So, when an unsigned group won the award on the strength of a song (Certified) released on vinyl, you had to take notice.

Like Saukrates, K-OS believes "the music's getting better and more authentic" and celebrates the underground acts edging out "commercial rappers."

He explains the hive of activity this way: "This genre's so competitive that when someone comes out with a jam, another artist will check his stuff and try to take the music to another level. That's why there's so much amazing music out now."

And there's more being made as we speak.

"The stuff people like Thrust, UBAD, Elemental, Redlife, Concrete Mob, and Nas-T-Howie are putting out is getting a lot of response," says Mastermind. "The music's really moving forward.

"There's no stopping Canadian hip-hop."

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