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George Stroumboulopoulos began the project to get musical artists to cover their favourte Tragically Hip songs as a 30th-anniversary celebration of the band, as well as a love letter to the band and frontman Gord Downie.

Vanessa Heins

Billed as a "love letter to the band," Hip 30 is the long-in-the-making project from George Stroumboulopoulos and The Strombo Show that gathers Blue Rodeo, Sarah Harmer, the Barenaked Ladies, Donovan Woods and other Canadian artists to record their versions of Tragically Hip songs. We spoke to Stroumboulopoulos about fight music, private Tragically Hip experiences and why Gord Downie songs are so hard to cover.

You dedicated an episode of The Strombo Show recently to people who died in 2016. Which passing had the biggest effect on you?

Bill Nunn died this year. He played Radio Raheem in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. He was the guy who was choked out by the cop at the end of the film. The whole "I can't breathe" thing – Spike Lee had it in his movie in 1989. The death of Radio Raheem was a major cultural moment to me as a kid. You didn't see cops kill people on television before – not a good guy.

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You mentioned 'I can't breathe,' which was part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Musicians were very active politically and socially this year.

Artists trying to find their way was really interesting to watch. Phife Dawg, from A Tribe Called Quest, died this year. I think the Tribe's record We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service, which came out after Phife Dawg's death, was the best record of the year. We the People .… – that's a fight song. It's calling out America's hatred for Muslims and gays, and Q-Tip, in a way that only he can, says, 'We all go home, we get hungry and all eat the same food.' And then he pauses and says, 'the ramen noodle.' So, yeah, I thought fight music was back.

I don't know if you'd call it fight music, but I found what Gord Downie did, with his Secret Path project and the issues surrounding the history of residential schools in Ontario, was very interesting. Protest music can be a matter of preaching to choirs, but Downie was presenting people with something that might make them uncomfortable.

I don't know about that. There's an appetite for this type of discussion. There are a lot of people in indigenous communities who have been talking about this for a long time. I think Gord is smart with what he's doing with Secret Path. He's honing in on a person and a family and a legacy.

Tell me about what The Strombo Show is doing on Jan. 1 with its salute to Downie and the Hip.

We started this project long before we heard of Gord's health. This is about 2016 being the 30th anniversary of the Hip. This has been over a year in the making. Basically, we told musical artists to pick their favourite Hip songs and encouraged them to really make the song their own with a cover version. This is a love letter to that band and, of course, to Gord.

Other than Justin Rutledge's Hip cover album, Daredevil, there haven't been a lot of Hip covers done. Did you talk to the artists about that, ask them why that is?

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I did. Greg Keelor told us that Gord's phrasing is complicated – that it's harder than you think and that it's not enough to write the lyrics down. This is Greg Keelor. He's written some of the best songs this country has ever heard. I also asked Sarah Harmer. She said the same thing. Gord's songs are hard to cover.

Where were you when the Hip performed that tour-ending concert in Kingston this summer?

I was in a theatre in California with a bunch of Canadians. It was a pitch-black room. Nobody sat beside each other. We all gave each other space. I was standing in the corner, arms crossed, leaning against the wall. The tears started right away. All of us had a solitary experience. We were happy to be there together, but it was personal for each of us.

I saw the show in a park with friends. I wanted the community, the camaraderie.

Yeah, I didn't want to do that. No thanks, pal. I was watching a friend on stage. I was watching a band that I respected so much. It was important for me to be in the moment. It was a one-of-a-kind experience.

Hip 30 airs Jan. 1, 8 p.m. to midnight, on CBC Radio 2.

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