CBC Hip Hop Summit
At Glenn Gould Studio
In Toronto on Tuesday
In hip hop, timing is everything - it's how beats and rhymes become rap - and the timing of CBC's Hip Hop Summit was telling. Two days earlier, the Canadian music industry celebrated the 40th annual Juno Awards but somehow forgot hip hop.
2011 seems a long way from 1998, when the Vancouver-based Rascalz famously declined their award. "They gave back their Juno because they wanted to have the hip-hop award televised," said Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall in the CBC lobby in Toronto, moments before the Hip Hop Summit got under way on Tuesday. "I remember the next year they televised it, and after that it reverted to how things always were."
Northern Touch, the Rascalz's Juno-winning pan-Canadian collaboration with Offishall, Choclair and others, won in 1999 and their broadcast performance became a landmark moment for Canadian hip hop. But this year, not even multi-nominated host Drake performed, and though K'Naan picked up best single, it was for the Tears Are Not Enough-esque charity version of Wavin' Flag rather than the original, which lost to Michael Bublé last year.
"It's unfortunate," said Offishall. "It only made sense that if you have one of the biggest rappers in the world hosting your event, there would be more hip hop representation. But it is what it is. You have to work within the system that you have and do things to showcase hip hop in other ways, find other avenues to expose the talent that you have here. And this is an amazing example of that."
Though Drake was notably absent, the Hip Hop Summit did include almost every other relevant rapper of the past quarter century, from Radio 2 host Buck 65 to Can-hop pioneers Maestro Fresh Wes and Michie Mee to acclaimed rappers Cadence Weapon, (non-televised 2011 Juno-winner) Shad, k-os and Offishall.
The evening kicked off, appropriately, with Classified's Oh…Canada which updated our "north of America" national anthem to include references to marijuana. He was joined by Maestro for Hard to be Hip-Hop, before the country's very first rap star big-upped Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings and performed his Guess Who-sampling hit, Stick to Your Vision.
That mix of old- and new-school stars continued throughout the night. Ghetto Concept reunited for their first original lineup performance in 16 years, then brought out 15-year-old Reema Major who, in turn, introduced Canada's first cross-border rapper Michie Mee. In a red Adidas track suit, with dreads up in pigtails, she busted moves while dropping classics like her dancehall-inflected Jamaican Funk, which influenced the next (and most electrifying) performer, Offishall, who juiced the crowd with his hometown-repping singles BaKardi Slang and The Anthem.
Next up came Cadence Weapon and Shad, who each performed a couple solo joints before debuting their thrilling collaboration Baby, I'm Yours. K'Naan, in town for the Junos, made a surprise appearance to perform his soft-spoken Take a Minute, note that the "entire black population of Toronto is backstage - it's like Haiti,' and introduce Dream Warriors on their iconoclastic jazz-rap classic My Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz Style.
K-os took the stage with his full band before bringing Saukrates back out for I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman, which saw the pair crooning the event-appropriate lines, "Oh Toronto, here we come/Right back where we started from."
The summit followed suit, with Maestro returning in full Symphony in Effect regalia - black tuxedo, conductor baton and Africa medallion - to perform Can-hop's biggest-ever hit Let Your Backbone Slide with k-os and Shad before a gleeful freestyle session with each emcee spitting off-the-cuff rhymes about themselves, each other and the summit, concluding with Kardinal's: "CBC, I hope you got my cheque/peace out till next year/one love, respect."
Then, in one final attempt to outdo all that had come before - and perhaps as a reminder to the Junos about our rap scene's resilience of spirit and depth of skill - the MCs joined together on the Rascalz's anthemic Northern Touch, wrapping up what had become a new and more powerful landmark moment for Canadian hip hop.
The CBC Hip Hop Summit will screen at CBC's Barbara Frum Atrium in Toronto on Friday and will be part of CBC Radio 2's Canada Live broadcast, which starts at 7 p.m. ET.
Special to The Globe and Mail