To complement next week’s Thre3style World DJ Championships, the event organizers asked music journalist and club DJ Denise Benson to compile an in-depth timeline of Toronto’s musical styles, artists and influential figures. The resulting work can be viewed online, or it can be seen as a giant poster at the Thompson Hotel, the DJ competition’s hub. We spoke to Ms. Benson about the city’s musical past and possible future.
Your upcoming book, Then & Now: Toronto Nightlife History, is a survey of influential but defunct nightclubs over the last 40 years or so. In your research, did you come across anything that ties everything together?
I think the biggest thing, whether you’re talking about Toronto electronic music or Toronto hip hop or Toronto rock, is that while Toronto is a large city and a hub for the music industry, up until fairly recently people haven’t really been interested in their own city as they are now. And when you look through the decades, because there wasn’t as much focus on the city it has meant that people have largely been able to do what they want to do. It’s been very individualistic, and what’s mind-blowing is the range that has been produced here. All that happened organically.
What do you make of the recent Toronto-Austin musical alliance, and the more formal organizing and championing of the city’s music scene?
I feel like I don’t know enough about it yet. I mean, what did we see in the media? We saw Rob Ford going to Austin. I feel I know more about what the Mayor did in Austin than I did about what the end goals are.
Given the historical context of your research and the book, is it possible that the new embrace by the city and provincial governments of the role of music will result in the recognition of Toronto’s musical past and the preservation of it?
My first response to that is that Toronto as a whole is horrible at preserving or respecting its history. We can look at our own architecture to know that if the city can’t preserve its own important buildings or respect aesthetics and maintain a sense that we’re not a city that’s only 20 years old, it’s not shocking that there’s not a lot of attention paid to our music history.
The fiasco with the Sam the Record Man sign, with Ryerson University seemingly trying to wiggle out of its commitment to preserve it, seems to indicate that nothing is changing in that respect.
Well, of course it’s ridiculous that Ryerson won’t honour their word. But while the sign is an important marker of Toronto and Yonge Street history, it’s just one thing. What are the ways we can start telling our own story? It’s got to be more than a sign.
Perhaps we each keep our own history and tell our own stories. To that end, how about telling us your all-time favourite Toronto performance by a Toronto musician?
I’m not sure I can do that. I will say that one artist who I’ve seen many times over and watched him consistently expand his ideas and references is Caribou, Dan Snaith. But I also think about [all-woman, post-punk band] Fifth Column playing the Cabana Room, as they used to do. As a kid new to the city in the late 1980s they were massive to me. I remember seeing Peaches at the Reverb once when it was clear that she’d found her groove. And Zaki Ibrahim. I’d written about her and seen her before, but seeing at Harbourfront last year I felt I was walking into this wall of star power. There’s so many others. It’s completely impossible to say which one is my favourite.
Thre3style World DJ Championships, Nov. 4 to 9. Various venues. redbullthre3style.com; On Nov. 5, 4 p.m., Denise Benson co-hosts a panel discussion, Toronto Music History and Present Day, at Thompson Hotel, 550 Wellington St. W.