All posts by Corinne Przybyslawski

Sing for your supper

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]edia outlets  produce content that caters to distinct tastes in hopes that it will resonate with a desired audience. Predicting what will become popular, however, is no easy feat. Popularization is a phenomenon that has its basis in media producers making educated guesses about what will satisfy consumers.

Like most industries, the media operates on a basis of supply and demand. The content that an outlet curates and produces is always subject to the approval of their consumers.

Media outlets are obligated to follow this equation if they wish to maintain audience engagement and spread their reach. In an increasingly interconnected and digitized world, critical observation of media becomes crucial to understanding the politics of popularization. If people can observe how and why content becomes popular, they can begin to understand which aesthetics, brands, and forms generate attention better than others.

Quality content

Anupa Mistry is the Canada editor of The FADER, a magazine based in New York City that specializes in taste-making and spotlighting underground music and culture. Mistry believes that “it’s great that a lot of young people are blogging about music and culture.” The influx of blogging, however, crowds the marketplace for music journalism, in Mistry’s view.

“Publications will blog about any and every single thing,” she says, which makes it difficult to distinguish the kinds of content that a given generation is receptive to ­­— in other words, their taste profile. One result of this, according to Mistry, is that the industry is saturated with the ideas known to have once garnered attention. She says that it is a hallmark of the digital era that blurs the line between what the public wants to consume and what they are simply being offered en masse.

Generations’ tastes are constantly changing. They are not easily reduced to specific criteria such as likeness, shape, or form. Popular content offers added value in many ways. In the right place, at the right time, popular content accomplishes something, whether it is connecting with its consumers on a personal level or challenging stylistic and creative limitations.

Content quality, then, is a concept in flux rather than an objective trait. Artists can aspire to a certain caliber of work, but ultimately how their content is received  by the audience will determine whether or not they are successful.

Alyssa Petru, digital coordinator for Bell Media, suggests that the ability of content producers to compete with the constant growth of content archives on the Internet is in itself a measure of the quality of the artist’s work. Content creators that have stayed “honest and true to themselves, and [avoided] getting caught up in an idea of what they should be, or what ‘character’ they should play” have been the most successful in Petru’s view. In her experience, the “authenticity of the individual,” and “differentiation among a sea of creators” tend to help art stand out online. “Finding that rare niche or theme that defines your brand and sticks with you and your audience is crucial to a foreseeable future of sustainable success.”

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.
Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

According to Mistry, regardless of whether they are receiving publicity through underground publications or corporate powerhouses, “talent really is what’s going to sustain an artist’s career.” Marketing tactics, such as unique use of social media or the proliferation of a particular aesthetic can help content generate attention at first; however, sustained popularity depends upon the artist’s ability to produce content that suits changing tastes. Marketing tactics and the use of aesthetics alone would not be enough to propel content that people do not enjoy. This, Mistry says, is “totally apparent in people’s online behaviours.”

Mistry advises that artists in the nascent stage of their careers would be prudent to focus on their craft and not to get “caught up on visual aesthetic,” for these reasons.

Going viral

Taste and timing work in tandem to spur mass-consumption — in other words, they are necessary to make something ‘go viral.’ Artists who are good at recognizing appetites within the market are at an advantage when publishing viral content. The key to content going viral, it would seem, is a well-timed release that corresponds to the public mood.

Frazer Lavender knows about the importance of timing. He founded the Toronto Radio Project (TRP) in November 2014, after sensing that there was an unfulfilled demand for independent music channels playing good local content in the city. The independent station now boasts a 24 hour schedule of shows five days a week, and their Facebook page has over 3,000 likes.

Radio projects like TRP are crucial to the media landscape. They help make people aware of independent content they might not otherwise consume. TRP strives to “introduce Toronto to its own artists,” through shows like Intersections, hosted by Michael Newton, and New Toronto Radio, hosted by Devon Little. Where FM radio might be “obviously pushing a sound or an artist,” Lavender says TRP has the curatorial freedom to “become the voice” for the tastes of this generation.

New Toronto Radio specializes in showcasing underground content that is set to emerge from Toronto. Little curates the show’s content from a wide variety of brands and genres. He admits that while branding can sometimes help in directing the attention of a tastemaker, it is not the main factor in his curatorial decisions, saying that “if the music is good, I’ll play it.”

Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.
Corinne Pryzbyslawski and Vanessa Wang/The Varsity.

Newton adds that “the hours in a day don’t ever grow, but [TRP] did.” This provided the station the freedom to narrow the focus of each channel into distinct musical niches. Newton’s show tends to be “mostly focused on guitar-centric bands, because that’s [the show’s] taste spectrum,” but he still seeks a wide variety of music to play.

For example, in the past, Newton says he, “played very obvious, ‘iPhone-in-the-middle-of-the-floor’ punk band demos” because the craftsmanship of the song was of such a high caliber. Newton notes that “Some of [his] favourite albums are very raw, and not technically great, but the song craft is there.” When it comes to the quality of music, for Newton, “not everything has to sound like Paul Simon’s Graceland.”

Lavender says that there are many approaches to the curation of a radio show, one of which is simply to select music that you enjoy. According to Lavender, “By doing that, you’re still producing something good. You’re generating a community for that niche. It invites other people to participate.”

He notes the reception of the content being shared is instantly apparent. “[I]t’s clear to see when people have something they want to do, it resonates straight away.” 

In the case of TRP, Lavender says “It’s curated, it’s thought out, and it’s supposed to be, at times, a little jarring, where you go from a political chat show to a live hardware electronic music.”

Tune in to tastes

Garnering attention may strike some artists as the immediate goal when preparing content, but the reality is that aesthetics and branding do not supersede talent. Creators of content must work on their craft and attempt to predict what will generate positive reception based on people’s tastes.

Marketing tactics, when they are well-applied, can help artists to gain attention in the digital media industry, but not all content that imitates previous success will have this effect.

Content that is deemed ‘quality’ is largely dependent on the environment in which the content is showcased. As a result, the popularization of content becomes a reflection of the communities that consume and create it. For this reason, critical observation of public attitudes is incredibly important to creative industries.

On private parts and private places

Today, Rowan is a 21-year-old bass player in a local indie band. Between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, he acknowledged something that would form the foundation for all of the conversations about sex and bodies he would engage in over the coming years. His “body and mind, though companions, did not physically align with the way that people perceived [his] gender.”

Over the years, a shift towards more liberal attitudes has begun to erode the barriers which have prevented discussions of transgender identities, masturbation, and menstruation in the past. Discussion of these topics, however, still demands a punctuated preface, despite their pervasiveness. Rowan is among those young people who regularly defy the stigmatization of some such conversations. Here, four youth share their experiences.

Talking body

The stigma attached to transitioning gender identities begins with the preception that trans-people appear or behave differently than members of the cis community – individuals whose gender identity agrees with their biological sex at birth. Rowan is acutely aware of communities that make assumptions about his body, and what he wants to do with it. “Men will coach you on how to put [your] hands into [your] pockets.”

He also questions what appears to be a contradiction in modern society’s judgment of surgeries. Why is society more or less tolerant of cosmetic surgeries that exist for aesthetic reasons, but not those surgeries that align individuals more closely with their identities? Gender reassignment procedures, Rowan notes, go largely uncovered by OHIP: a systemic manifestation of this attitude.

“It’s 50K to be able to pee standing up — if you’re comfortable with breaking your legs to be taller, you should be comfortable with transgender identities too,” Rowan said.

Thou shalt not masturbate

The spectrum of conversational censorship continues to narrow, as we become societally accustomed to the various, melding aspects of the human identity — yet, even in the privacy of an intimate discussion with a close friend, some topics remain difficult to broach.

Monika is a university student who today openly describes masturbation as a “super casual activity that [she] does whenever [she] feels like it.” Monika was raised in an Eastern-European household with potent Catholic values. She remembers, after the first time she masturbated, being “scared shitless because [she] had just read in a Catholic textbook that masturbation was a sin.”

Conservative Catholic values were so deeply inculcated in Monika as a child, that they drove her to attend confession in ‘repentance’ for what she had done. After confessing, she was even more convinced of the wrongness of masturbation – as a Catholic woman, she was expected to save all of her sexual feelings for her future husband. Monika found this understanding of sexual expression “pretty fucked up at [the age of] ten,” considering she “doesn’t know if [she] even saw masturbation as sexual then.”

Monika no longer feels daunted by, or guilty about, self-pleasure. She believes that the stigma surrounding female masturbation exists “only in religious communities and in misogynistic culture.”

In Monika’s view, men do not have to deal with repressing their sexual urges in shame or secrecy to the same extent that women do. “They just jack off whenever they feel like it,” she said.

The lament of Aunt Flo

Masturbation is not the only unapproachable topic when it comes to women and bodily functions. Society dictates restrictions on a slue of female-centric topics. Chief among them, perhaps, is menstruation – a phenomenon which provokes so much revulsion in other parts of the world, that women and girls are displaced from society for the duration of their menstrual flow.

Kasia, who currently works for a leading financial institution in corporate communications, is part of a movement to dispel this stigma.

Given what she considers to be a constricting environment that corporations impose on its employees, Kasia maintains that women’s health issues should not be censored — especially menses.

Kasia laughs that she, her girlfriends, and her boyfriend “are so open about [menstruation].” In some moments, she recalls saying, “I need a vanilla dip donut because it’s day two and you know what that means.”

Deklan, a student at York University, “begs [her] boyfriend every month” for sex on her period, and while apparently, “he thinks it’s gross, he finally gave in last month because [periods] happen naturally and can’t be helped or stopped.”

These stigmatized conversations are slowly emerging from behind closed doors, as society progresses towards more liberal attitudes that embrace a pursuit of deeper understanding of various aspects of human identity.

The process of changing these deeply ingrained social norms is slow, with persistent pockets of naysayers pleading for certain aspects of our lives to be kept quiet. Ultimately, the scope of what we share when it comes to our bodies is a personal choice ­­­­­­­­­— it is not a decision to be left to the whims of social taboos.

Blending sounds

Music evolves naturally over time. Its patterns form styles, whose consistencies and discrepancies forge schemas for full-fledged genres. Creating something wholly unique then becomes a challenging task. Sampling serves as an element of production that helps the music industry remember its history. By recycling specific components of a style that definitively communicates a specific time in music history, the genre as a whole is able to transcend time and appeal to a new generation or audience.


Samples often reflect themselves in soundscapes. Sometimes they are intentionally used to contribute to a nostalgic atmosphere if the artist is aiming to pay homage to a specific point in time. However, in cities where the musical scene is not quite defined, such as in Toronto, emerging artists scramble to throw together innovative collages of sound. The intention is to both startle and impress the audience to the point that an artist develops a following based on their unique sound. Notable figures who have embraced this strategy are Last Gang Records artists Ryan Hemsworth and Harrison, who fuse 8-bit flourishes with house-y funk, and sleepy, hip-hop ridden electronica, respectively.

More recently though, a 19-year-old DJ has begun creeping out from the shadow-like atmospherics of the west end. Chris De Minico is emerging as an artist in his own right, performing at coveted venues like The Hoxton, CODA, and the Danforth Music Hall. De Minico’s sets flawlessly incorporate a self-proclaimed “random range of selections” that fuse together everything from old school hip-hop to deep house to contemporary trap.

Locally recognized as Hrmxny, the variety in his creations has become De Minico’s defining trait. His versatility has proven key, and local entertainment powerhouses like Embrace have caught wind of that, landing him his first set opening for Gaslamp Killer in May of last year. Approaching the one-year mark in his pursuit of music as a career, De Minico is beginning to interest the eyes of the industry with his debut EP In Time and his distinct sound.

TV: [In the course of] establishing yourself as a DJ, what moved you into production?

CDM: I DJ’d first, and my manager now, Biz Davis, told me that you have to make music as well, or there’s no longevity in your career. There’s a lot of DJs in Toronto who just DJ, and there’s very few who produce and DJ.

TV: When you were designing your EP, who did you borrow most from?

CDM: It was a wide variety music. I hated electronic music until I was 17, so about two years ago. I grew up in Scarborough, so my mom listened to Bruce Springsteen, and my grandpa’s Italian so he was all Andrea Bocelli. I wanted to be like, a gangster, listening to 50 Cent and stuff. It was a wide variety. I heard… “Trials of the Past” by SBTRKT, though, and that changed my outlook on music as a whole. I played with SBTRKT on Halloween actually, so that was the best moment of my life. I got to talk to him for a bit, and it was literally like meeting Jesus, a reincarnation. I listen to a lot of SoundCloud music too… SoundCloud is really its own genre.

TV: You never aimed to cater it to any specific audience?

CDM: Nah, it’s just stuff I like. I literally just sit there and make it in my room. I don’t really make it for other people. I know a lot of people say that, but I can’t. I won’t make a song for a specific crowd. If I like it, then okay, whatever — other people will like it. Not everyone will, but there are going to be people that do. So I don’t care if there are some people who don’t, you know? If it doesn’t work, I scrap it. I’m very quick with that. I brand myself with my aesthetic. I only wear black, always, but everything I put out, I keep it colourful.

TV: You’re pushing something that’s different. Where do you think our scene is at post-Drake era?

CDM: Very moody, very emotional. You hear any rap music out of Toronto, there’s one specific sound. Dark, ambient, hard-hitting stuff. Even with the producers, it’s more or less the same. Me, I can’t make trap. I could if I tried, and I’d do it just to play at parties but it’s not, like… my music. Everything is like a story to me. From the intro to the outro, everything meshes together. A lot of my music is done in two hours. It’s just me expressing myself; if you like it, you like it. If you know me as a person, it’s separate from me. I’m really hype when I DJ, I wear a bandana on my head and shit — it’s stupid. I jump in the crowd. But when I’m making music at home, it’s calm and mellow. You need to be emotionally there. I can’t make [a] song just to make it. That’s why I can’t do the four-song- a-day thing like some producers. I wait for the inspiration.

TV: What made house the genre you wanted to give a shot?

CDM: No one does it — it’s such a niche market. When I lived in Durham, there’s really nothing to do, besides make hip-hop and try to rap. Hip-hop is the most prominent. There’s a lot of house people in Toronto that are low-key. You have to go through the elders to kind of step foot in this scene. I feel like I had a good backing from the older people first and they were like “here’s this kid, give him a shot.”

TV: How did you get your stuff to stop sounding weird, [with you] fusing together such a variety of sounds?

CDM: My first set, I predetermined it, because it was like a make-or-break moment. It wasn’t a small bar or anything, it was the Hoxton and I was opening for Gaslamp Killer. I had an opening slot from 10–11, and I played straight deep house. I’d never played before then either, so I had to guess what the crowd might expect. With the EP what I noticed about the blog reviews was that it was more how they felt while listening to it, not the technical aspects. Technical music sounds good, but it’s fake. It does bother me a little, like, I got one dislike on this YouTube video and I was like, I’m gonna find you. I got premiered on Thump too, and I was on Thump that whole day, and when I saw that one dislike, I was like, what? But I know what I like. I think I have good taste in music, so I make what I would like. If I like it, most people will like it. I’m ignorant when it comes to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Transitioning to the forefront

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.

* * *

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.


Personalities in the music industry are inevitably ambiguous. At best the calculations of market analysts stamp out the creative perspectives of artists. At worst, they produce talentless, derivative acts.

Progress in technology has had a massive impact on the music industry. Production software and the reduced cost of hardware has made authentic artistry tremendously more accessible to musicians. Artists have a better chance to produce something genuine without the necessary trade-off of excessive management for studio time and gear. The availability of software however, creates space for anyone with the money to create music — even if they lack talent or originality.

Working within the industry, artists face the constraints of an emphasis on marketability and sales that can prevent creativity. Producing music independently has its own pitfalls, allowing access to technology to those who can afford it, whether or not they are producing anything truly new. The Varsity sat down with creators from both ends of the spectrum to discuss the costs and benefits of making music within and without the industry.


Insider: Evan Stewart


Evan Stewart is an alumnus of Metalworks Institute. After graduating from the audio production and engineering stream, he was “told to expect a phone call by one of his teachers.”

Two days later, Drake’s producer, Noah “40” Shebib, reached out to him. Working for OVO Sound as an intern, Stewart is consistently watching sound leave the studio to an international audience of listeners.


The Varsity: Do you think people get into the industry for the wrong reasons? 

Evan Stewart: Music has become more accessible, but you’ve got to know this is something that you really want. In my graduating class, there were only eight of us, even though 50 had started at the beginning of the first semester.

It’s easy to lose yourself in the lust for fame, but keep your head on straight. 40 is one of the most down-to-earth people I know — Drake as well. He introduced himself to me before I got a chance to introduce myself to him.


TV: Why do music leaks happen? 

ES: It’s all planned and strategic. The “We Made It” freestyle [by Drake] was dropped without warning and had 300,000 listens before I even knew it was out, and I worked on that track. There is far more thought put into everything than people realize. Every release of every song — someone calculated that decision, independent artist or not.

It builds hype. An album leaked four days before it’s release date is usually a lot less aggressive and cleaned up. People want better quality, and they’re encouraged to buy it after having “tested” it. That being said, don’t expect to make any money that way. We have this “throw-away” commodity with music. You put it up on a blog — three days later no one cares.




TV: Working so close to Drake and 40, what’s your impression on the best route into the industry? 

ES: If you’re going to do it, be your own recorder. Learn everything. Don’t focus on solely being the artist… You sell a million records at $15, you’re only getting back $24K. You don’t want to be signed to a label, so working towards it seems to be the new standard. It’s like any other job. You can’t make it in any industry if you’re not focused. You need to try to control everything.


TV: Is talent still relevant to a musician’s success? 

ES: Talent still matters. Drake isn’t a terrible rapper. I mean, in the studio, two takes and he’s done. He’s really good at what he does. We’re at a turning point in the industry, and it’s going back to the music.

It was bad in the ’90s, where the industry was pumping out fabricated groups because that’s when the image was selling more than the sound. Music is a lot more visual now with Pro Tools and Ableton, so the recording process is not as hard as it used to be. The artist has a lot more control over what’s put out.


Indie: Paradise Animals

Indie band photo

On the other end of the spectrum are members of the indie community whose production process allows for a more detached view of the industry. Paradise Animals, a Toronto band, fuses both electronic and acoustic elements into their music. As a tightly knit trio, Mark Andrade, Gary Pereira, and Kerri Silva feel that while the industry is perhaps not catering to indie musicians just yet, it is certainly shifting its margins in the community’s favour.


TV: Are there any musicians on the radio that you enjoy? 

Mark Andrade: We don’t listen to the radio to get our indie dose of music. This is partly because we listen to radio during working hours. When it comes time to engage with the radio, we’re often driving. We’ll listen to hits, Drake mainly. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is a smooth jam we always crank. There is a string of solid young artists, even more so on mainstream radio lately. A good song is a good song.


TV: Do you think the radio is gaining more respect for indie musicians? 

MA: The radio has always been a place for radio-friendly music. Indie musicians today are challenging this, but in reality, [we’re] still marginalized. However, indie songs are influencing the sound of mainstream music. It adds a sense of indie credibility to their sound. It isn’t such a bad thing. This is the kind of respect indie musicians are garnering.


TV: How do you think that’s going to affect what gets airplay? 

MA: Listeners are accustomed to the immediacy of pop music structure. The radio will always inhabit that dominant mainstream perspective in pop. Even listening to certain indie radio stations, there is still a formula present, which conforms to this mainstream ideology. Bands like Arcade Fire who have indie roots and sensibility are safe to play, though, at this point, with their added Grammy recognition.

Maybe one day, indie musicians will change the landscape of radio so much that a four-minute saxophone solo will be acceptable and appreciated by the masses. More than ever, artists are starting from the bottom and making themselves into a business rather than relying on specialists to string them into success.

“You’ve got to work your miracles”

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.


IMG_7894TV: 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.