Of the niches that exist within the music industry, it is hip-hop that has earned a reputation as a genre whose sonic trademarks are in a constant state of evolution. With production that is heavily rooted in sampling, it is no surprise that the criteria to qualify as part of the genre have become so malleable. Every artist who emerges at the forefront of this musical niche inevitably becomes a leader for a new generation to follow, making hip-hop a constantly evolving and transforming genre. Sitting down in conversation with two emerging Toronto hip-hop artists illuminates the complexities and challenges of making it big while retaining individual sound.
Toronto native Devontée is quickly reaching a sophisticated maturity in both verse and production. He is an alumnus of the Audio Engineering and Production program at MetalWorks Institute, but an education alone is rarely enough to breed respect in the hip-hop industry, especially among OVO (October’s Very Own) members. With support from Boi-1da, Devontée has performed as a rapper in Atlanta at A3C, and at producer showcases in Toronto, demonstrating why his multifaceted talent holds significant promise for a career in the music industry.
The Varsity: Who do you keep up with most in Toronto, and who are some of the artists that you personally keep up with and feel have the most influence over your work, if any?
Devontée: Of course Drake. I like PartyNextDoor. The artists at OVO have great music. To say what artists I really go out of my way to keep up with in Toronto, nobody — and it’s not because I don’t fuck with them. I’m not trying to make the music they’re making. I try to find new shit I could bring here. It’s because I know all of them, [but that’s] not to say I don’t listen to them. I listen to every artist. Jazz Cartier, Tory Lanez, Daniel Caesar. Tory’s big now, he’s out of here.
TV: Have you worked with Tory or any of the other artists you mentioned?
D: I haven’t worked with Tory, but I was working with an artist named P. Reign. I was in the studio with him for a couple of months, during his album creation. Tory Lanez came to a couple of the sessions, and they were just making music. He’s a really cool guy, very talented. He can sing, he can rap. I don’t ever knock talent. I’m not here to do that. The one thing that I do not like about Toronto culture is that everyone feels like they’re the only ones able to make it and no one else should or can. It’s not a good mentality. I don’t think they understand what we could do if we all came together.
TV: How does Toronto differ from other hip-hop cities?
D: I don’t think it’s Toronto’s fault, I think we could change it. I think the only way to change it is to lead by example. Not even just music, but Toronto in general. I think we should smile more.
TV: It’s true, everyone you see on these streets seems miserable.
D: I don’t think it’s that they’re unhappy, I personally feel like they think they’re too cool. I was in Atlanta, and there was a street where I performed called Edgewood Avenue. There’s a whole bunch of stores, bars, and venues. All of the hot new artists like OG Maco, Makonnen, Key! and them, they all fuck with each other. They just show up at venues and work together.
TV: Do you see yourself as someone who’s at the forefront of that sort of mentality?
D: Hell yeah. I’m a nice guy. Very nice guy. Talkative. I used to get in trouble in school because I used to talk to everybody.
TV: It’s almost like if you tell people you’re great, they don’t believe you. So if you’re an emerging artist here, how do you break past that wall?
D: Just do it. Don’t care about what other people think about you, don’t try to impress anybody, don’t try to ‘make’ … If you want to make music for these kids and for your friends, then do it, [but] I’m not trying to just do that. I’m trying to be legendary. I want to make music for the world.
TV: What does your creative process look like?
D: I produce all my own music, so I start with the beat first. I go through random sounds, and once it starts unfolding, unless I’m driving and have a random idea, then I’ll try to build something around that. I don’t try to make a specific record. I never really organize it like “yo, I’m gonna go into the studio and make this type of a record.” Not a lot of artists produce their own music, or are that good at producing it. I think I’m pretty good at both.
TV: You’ve earned attention from notable figures like Boi-1da. As a result, do people ever try to put you in a box in terms of your sound, or compare you to Drake?
D: I’ve heard comparisons. Some people say Kid Cudi, I’ve heard someone even say Common. I don’t think I sound like Drake. I’ve gotten Kanye comparisons on my intro “By Now” in terms of my musical choices. If I ever get Drake comparisons, I mean, hey. I just know my flow and my voice don’t sound like Drake, but if my sound choices are compared to Drake? That’s pretty cool. He’s the best out right there right now.
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The term “rapper” has grown in the last five years to encase far more than simple, spoken word verses laid over uncomplicated drum loops. The thirst for greater success has driven artists to expand their talents into vocals, independent management, and digital production. Raz Fresco of Brampton has honed this mentality and become fluent in Reason, a production software, trademarking his production with eclectic and strategic sampling across hallmark decades in every genre. He’s performed as a rapper alongside A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$ across Atlanta, New York, and Toronto. With the release of his latest mixtape, Screwface on August 25 of this year, Raz has proven his ability to modernize the golden eras of the industry into a contemporary sound, earning him a pedestal at the forefront of the Toronto scene.
The Varsity: Where does your sound fit in Toronto?
Raz Fresco: The game is on a wave, a huge turnout wave right now. It needs to refresh its outlook. I feel that as an artist, I offer a different outlook, especially with this Bakers Club project. The shit I’m coming out with is sonically different. Personally, I’m trying to ride the wave with what’s going on. Toronto has seen a huge emerging bed of artists, it’s really bubbling, but I’m trying to offer a different look.
TV: Is it difficult to break into the Toronto hip-hop scene?
RF: It’s not at all like it’s in the States here. It’s a bigger industry in America. Lot more energy, bigger network of things going on. All the main labels and offices are there. There’s way more market there and that makes it easier to break through, because there are so many lanes. Here it’s a small city, you’ve gotta put your foot down. The only way to gain musically here is to export.
TV: How do you export to the States?
RF: Use your resources. Artists out here know that too, and that makes for even more competition. We all know the music business is in the States. You can be popping out here to a degree, but you’re still not anywhere and that means you need to go to bigger markets. That’s what makes it harder to make that crossover and get those eyes, because everyone’s looking for them. For Toronto kids specifically, coming up has been a little easier because we’ve had a lot more eyes. Definitely with Drake coming off the back heels, Kardinal. We’ve seen artists represent this city. Every generation makes it easier for the next generation to come on. I’m blessed to be part of this situation, because the Drake generation is behind me now, I feel like he’s had his own generation, and it’s a good thing that it’s coming off. It’s opportunity.
TV: How do you carry over from the past generation into a new sound and still stay relevant?
RF: You’ve still got to be able to translate whatever catches here to over there. I mean, hip-hop started in the streets. You can’t forget that it started without export. That’s a certain amount of scene that’s actually missing in Toronto. If you make it timeless, the era can pass, and only the best will stand out. It comes down to very unique personalities and charms at the end of the day. Stay close to your roots, but at the same time, don’t go over the heads of your audience. Get down to the understanding of your audience. Try to pose a formal question instead of preaching.
TV: If the scene is missing in Toronto how do you find you way into it?
RF: Develop your own network, branch out. It’s never what you know, but who you know. From the jump, I wanted a larger network. I loved how far reaching it was and could be. That’s how Bakers Club started. The Coma, P Black … I mean I’ve been making music forever, I don’t remember when I started rapping. [I’ve been writing raps] since first [or] second grade.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.