Although Toronto dominates the Canadian rap discussion – having birthed global chart toppers such as Drake and Kardinal Offishall – a fresh, diverse and positive scene is rising up in a seemingly unlikely place: the Maritimes.
Nova Scotian MCs Buck 65 and Classified gained national traction back in the early aughts, but now Halifax is arguably buzzier than ever. Dartmouth’s Thrillah had a song featured on HBO’s Euphoria. Nationally famous rapper Shad called his recent Halifax openers General Khan, Lxvndr and Ghettosocks an eclectically “dope” lineup. And legendary New York rapper CL Smooth ended a years-long hiatus to contribute to the latest album from Ghettosocks and Halifax producer DK, which also features Toronto star pHoenix Pagliacci. MCs from New Brunswick and PEI are also releasing forward-thinking LPs.
While the Maritimes scene is making major gains, “there’s still lots of work to be done,” says Dwayne (DJ$lim) Marcial of Saint John, who has managed many key New Brunswick rappers and also founded the 2017 Urban East Music Conference (which received little industry support, though he plans to rebrand and relaunch). Most rappers can’t expect backing on par with the singer-songwriters and folk acts the East Coast has long been known for, says Ghettosocks, adding that MCs are “getting by independently” regardless.
As pHoenix Pagliacci says: “The Atlantic has a lot to say. And it’s time the rest of us listen.”
Here are some of the best rap artists coming out of the Maritimes, and how they’re making the business work for them.
Wolf Castle (Tristan Grant)
“There’s something to be said about the Maritimes perspective. Torontonians can’t rap about being in the woods,” Fredericton-based Wolf Castle says, with the same cheekiness that’s helping him break big.
The rapper-producer from the Pabineau First Nation flaunts a medicine pouch instead of bling in his Get Lit music video. On Welfman, he subverts welfare stereotypes and “capitalist-fuelled interests.” He won his first Music New Brunswick Award last year, and partnered with the organization to create the NB Indigenous Artist Development grant to help pave the way.
Even more promising: Wolf Castle’s satellite radio royalties coming through SoundExchange, an organization he learned about through music-business community college courses, are dwarfing streaming revenue.
Aquakultre (Lance Sampson)
When Aquakultre isn’t recording instant neo-soul classics such as his recently released LP Don’t Trip, he works as a Halifax plumber – ensuring stability for his family while still being able to express himself. In his Pay It Forward music video, he stays connected to his blue-collar roots, literally giving a passerby the jacket off his back. His forthcoming Africvillean Funk video depicts and is named after Nova Scotia’s pioneering black-led village; he loved recapturing that spirit of what he calls an “artistic black mecca.”
Ghettosocks (Darren Pyper) and DK (Darrell Kelloway)
Aquakultre’s frequent partner Ghettosocks (they released a joint album, Holos, in 2019) has an equally fruitful new partnership with producer DK. Their album Listen to the Masters not only maintains the time-honoured hip-hop tradition of sampling vintage jazz records, but also boasts exclusive live instrumentation from musicians such as Halifax saxophonist James Shaw and New York keyboardist Cas Weinbren (who has worked with famed hip-hop artists including Action Bronson and Statik Selektah). Combining those elements helps give the album “a classic feel without sounding dated,” DK said.
Lxvndr (Chelsey Moisan)
The PEI-born, Halifax-based Lxvndr is one of the East Coast’s most boundary-pushing musicians. She has a handful of forthcoming recordings that will not only feature her lithe braggadocio flow but – on one project, at least – her horrorcore rock-rap ambitions as well. During a recent Zoom interview with The Globe, a jagged black guitar that wouldn’t be out of place at a Metallica concert was visible in the background; Lxvndr says she can’t wait to delve into the “dark, duality of humanity” by playing it on her genre-bending work. She turned heads earlier this year by guesting with Pagliacci on Listen to the Masters track Be a Mango, holding her own alongside Ghettosocks and DK. Fruit serves as a patriarchy-dismantling metaphor throughout the song, and Lxvndr says that social consciousness aligns with how “many in the Halifax hip-hop community are fierce about human rights and ensuring everyone has a voice.” On that note, she is quick to shout out other female Halifax rappers, including General Khan (Masuma Khan), who is one of the few visible Muslim (hijabi) women rapping in North America, and Megz (Megan Paquette). The latter returned Lxvndr’s compliments during a recent interview, before proudly praising the city’s female MCs for being “so supportive and happy for one another.”
Stephen Hero (Matthew Elliott)
This Saint John MC (and Wolf Castle collaborator) sounds similarly – though more pointedly – socially conscious than some of these other artists as he lambasts “oligarchy enabling” politicians and corporations during a recent Zoom interview. (Perhaps not surprisingly, his recent EP is titled Eat the Rich.) Though Stephen Hero frets about inequality and corruption in his province, he is also energized by fellow Maritimers rapping about such adversity, such as Wolf Castle on Welfman. Stephen Hero also weaves details about Saint John’s history into his music and lyrics, and he’s confident that will resonate beyond his local fanbase: “Regionalism has always been part of rap,” he points out, before describing how dialects and lyrical specificities mentally transported him to hip-hop hotbeds such as the Dirty South as a boy.
Vince the Messenger (Daniel Butterfield)
When this razor-tongued rapper moved as a boy to PEI from Toronto, he “rarely saw other Black people thriving.” The feeling of being an outsider drove his ambitions. Now, he says, Charlottetown is “blossoming” with diverse university students. It has a supportive music scene, though a lack of rap-dedicated venues leaves him sharing stages with punks and indie rockers. He’s keen to further tour the Maritimes after a recent string of dates with New Brunswick’s Mister Monark.
Monark (Jarrod Thomas), Sean One (Sean McInerney) and DJ Uncle Fester (Shaun Ryan)
Sean One still remembers his first time seeing a 13-year-old “big red afroed” Monark “tearing up the mic” at a Fredericton open mic night. He went on to produce many Monark songs, and now the pair have been joined by DJ Uncle Fester.
The trio, from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, released their Presidents of Canada LP in 2021. Monark and Sean One sound purposeful throughout: On one track they anthemically chant about putting Fredericton, Halifax and the entire East Coast on the map.
Ghettosocks and Lxvndr both appear as guests. Sean One and Monark “really draw you in with their flow and style,” Lxvndr says. “I was stoked to be working with NB’s finest and feel they can hold their own on the mic in any city.” Fester similarly describes Sean One as a scene leader who runs collaborative rap boot camps.
Sadly, a cloud hangs over the album. Shortly before its release, Monark’s younger brother was murdered, a case which is still unsolved. “Sean and Fester really saved my life when we made this record,” Monark says. “I thought I wouldn’t have the strength to keep making music after his death.”
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