Matthew Derrick-Huie, who goes by the name John River, is a former high school runner and soccer player from the GTA whose pursuit of a dream, rather than a finish line, had him taking down license plates, stalking vehicles, and idling at airports. With a self-produced mixtape and his charity, Hope City, the 19-year-old’s remarkable humility and drive steered the odds into his favour.
When an interview with J. Cole, organized by Hip Hop Canada, fell through, Derrick-Huie decided to chase down the celebrity to meet him as well as Ibrahim Hamad, president of Cole’s label, Dreamville Records. Derrick-Huie met J. Cole at Pearson Airport on his way back to Toronto. Soon after, the two met at Hamad’s New York City home, where Derrick-Huie rapped a verse for him.
Derrick-Huie’s years of patience, in conjunction with his extraordinary route to the industry’s doorstep, has earned him brotherly recognition and respect from Cole and Hamad, as well as the Toronto rap community. The Varsity caught up with him in Mississauga to discuss rap in Toronto and how he has pursued his dreams.
The Varsity: Who is John River?
Matthew Derrick-Huie: “John River” is a name that started with hope. When I left Europe and turned down a career in soccer, I had my future in front of me. I made that sacrifice — that’s automatic credibility. There’s a greater purpose right now. Sending back money wasn’t going to cut it. I wanted to make an impact at the grassroots level. I shouldn’t have to be a billionaire and “come back” to my city. My job is to connect people, especially if they feel like there’s nothing else they could be doing. John River is the artist to mobilize that movement.
TV: Considering how disjointed the Toronto rap community is, it would almost seem delusional to pursue a career in it. What compelled you?
MD: I’ve always liked the ability to express myself. I had an opinion about the world, and I was looking for a platform. I’ve never looked at it like, “I’m a musician.” It was just something I did. Rapping wasn’t anything like it is today when I started out. There were maybe 10 kids listening to it. It wasn’t a profitable job market — you just did it because you loved it.
TV: How did you know that rap was the style for you?
MD: I started with beat boxing. I never wrote anything down, but by high school, when people started getting into the genre, I knew I was really good. At Clarkson Secondary, we used to hold 200 people in the stairwell and have two people go at a freestyle against each other. Bets started going around in this too. People always thought I had my stuff written down, so I started going off what people were wearing — you can’t script that without seeing them. At that point, people knew I hadn’t been training for that moment or nothing… I never wanted anyone’s money, though. It was enough to know that people were recognizing me for something I was really good at.
TV: Is the industry as exclusive as outsiders believe?
MD: It is and it isn’t. You’ve got to go to the big guys and start. Kanye, Kendrick, Jay-Z, Drake, J. Cole. You choose one, but let’s say that road closes for whatever reason. Then you go to the next masthead, and your fashion of getting to them will have to be completely different each time. Take Drake, for example. He got booed at a lot of places in Canada. People said he sucked and would never have any success, but he’s laughing now. Maybe he couldn’t fill the genre he wanted to, fine. He went and just reinvented it, though, so he could. You’ve got to be proactive rather than praying: “I’ll be the one.” Do it yourself, man, Home Depot.
TV: What’s your best advice to others with a similar dream?
MD: Understand that despite my success, it could have been anyone. We got downtown, we ran into the president of Dreamville, and that was pure luck. Will Smith said once that the universe moves to you. He was sounding a little weird to me then, but how wrong was I? Everyone has their own secret, their own story. Let me tell people that if you want it, go get it. You’ve got to work your miracles. J. Cole was that miracle route, but it didn’t have to be me first.
TV: When you decided you wanted this career, did you have an initial course of action in mind?
MD: I never had a direct path of getting where I am now. In the summer when Drake was recording at Metalworks, I was waiting there from 1:00 am until 6:00 am four nights a week, hoping to see 40 [Noah Shebib]. Every night, the bouncer would come out around 4:00 am and tell me to fuck off, so I would grab my skateboard, make the 20-minute ride home, then come back the following night. One night, Future The Prince came out, Drake’s right-hand guy. He comes up to me and says, “Hey, you’re that kid,” and so I hand him my CD. He actually took it. Man. That was that.
TV: What happened between Future taking your CD and the J. Cole concert?
MD: Everything happened on the fly. An interview I was supposed to attend with J. Cole got cancelled, but I knew I had to get it done. That encounter held the opportunity to give me the break I needed. If all it was going to take was rapping for him, I’d better find a way. Now we’re at the J. Cole concert in August, at Starbucks and charging the phones, getting ready for the big follow. We knew they had to have come in some vehicles, and we knew that those vehicles, once we found them, would be carrying our man, so I took down the license plates as soon as I saw what I thought I was looking for. Thankfully the odds were in my favour.
TV: And that was when you decided to follow them?
MD: A couple of weeks before the show, I crossed very narrow paths with 40 and Future around the block from where the show was at. Knowing that by chance, I was able to get my CD to both of Drake’s right-hand guys was the biggest, most definite sign in the world. I had to find J. Cole. After the concert, we followed the cars on foot. It was crazy, but there was so much traffic for a couple of blocks to follow, so as they started to turn, we hopped into a cab and told [the driver] to follow those cars. He actually kicked us out and told us that shit only happened in the movies. We were back on foot, so we started running. Three blocks later we break stride, but we figured they had to be headed home. Logically, the airport was our next stop, and so there we were, 2:00 am, waiting for our guy [J. Cole] in Departures [at Toronto Pearson International Airport].
TV: After following J. Cole down to the airport, doing a verse, and finally meeting Ibrahim, what was your headspace like?
MD: I was embarrassed. I caught up with Bas after all of it, and he told me, “Ibrahim kept saying that you kept apologizing. What were you sorry for?” Just because I have a story to tell doesn’t justify crossing the boundaries I did. Who was I to be profiting off someone’s privacy? I just want people to look at this as a motivationally driven story. The guys at Dreamville are so brotherly to accept what I did and understand where I was coming from. I only did what I thought I had to do, for the people I thought I had to do it for.
TV: You chose to pray on a miracle to get your way. Did that [take a] toll [on] your optimism at all?
MD: There are so many parts to the story where I think, “I could have stopped there.” I didn’t know I was going to take it as far as I did, but that’s exactly what made me realize how badly I wanted it. There is no not making it. I think if I was only doing it for me, I would have been too scared… The day I decided I’m not going to settle for a no, I’m going to work hard and try and get J. Cole, I run into 40 on my way there. You give and you shall receive, man.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.