TORONTO — The chorus of one of Canada's most famous rap songs almost didn't happen.
As Toronto's Choclair, Thrust and Kardinal Offishall put the finishing touches on the highly popular single Northern Touch in the summer of 1997, Offishall struggled with constant sneezing.
"I think this might have been the first year that I actually had allergies. The day that we did 'Northern Touch' I probably sneezed literally about 500 times," said Offishall. "I had a box of Kleenex by my side that day.
"That's one of those days I won't forget because we were at the studio, everybody was there, and I was just sneezing like a friggin' maniac while all this history is being made."
The lead single from the Rascalz's album Cash Crop went on to become one of the most successful hip-hop songs in Canadian history. It reached No. 41 on the top singles chart in 1998, the first domestic urban song to crack the top 100.
Originally produced by DJ Kemo of the Rascalz as part of a mixtape for Vancouver's Jay Swing, the track sampled Everything Good to You (Ain't Always Good for You) by B.T. Express. The beat is familiar to fans of hip-hop, as it had been used in EPMD's Get the Bozack in 1989 and in DMX's Get At Me Dog, which was on the charts the same year as Northern Touch.
Sol Guy, the manager of the Rascalz, was so impressed with Kemo's beat that he decided to re-tool it for another project he'd been working on for some time.
"That's when all the major labels had their urban departments up and running. Universal, EMI and Sony wanted to do a Canadian hip-hop compilation," said Thrust, who raps the fourth verse. "This was like a year before the record actually came out. And they wanted to have one CanCon track on there.
"That's officially how it started. They did this conference call between me, Chocs, Sol Guy and a bunch of us were on the phone — not everybody on the track — and we were all like 'Cool! We'll do it!"'
Guy combined the mixtape idea with the Canadian hip-hop compilation, having the Vancouver-based Rascalz and Checkmate record their verses and the beat before sending it to Toronto to be finished. Jully Black and k-os were originally supposed to provide the hook, but weren't able to attend the recording sessions.
That opened the door for Offishall's distinctive voice to do the chorus.
"It was really me and Chocs, we'd heard the Rascalz verse, and then we put our heads together and worked on the hook and then Kardi came in and that's how it was done," said Thrust. "It was actually the fastest song we probably ever did too. I think each verse was one take and it was done in, like, 20 minutes."
Unfortunately, the compilation album was cancelled, putting Northern Touch in limbo for seven or eight months until Guy put it on a re-release of Cash Crop.
Checkmate, who raps the song's third verse, still remembers when he knew Northern Touch was going to be big.
"When they wanted to shoot the video. It was one thing if they were going to shoot the video in Vancouver 1 / 8... 3 / 8 but they were like 'we're going to shoot the video out in Toronto and we're going to fly you there,"' said the B.C.-based rapper, who was also on the original Vancouver mixtape. "Everything was on the up-and-up. It wasn't like an indie project.
"It surprised me at how fast it progressed."
That was a common feeling among the artists involved, since Canadian hip-hop had largely been an underground phenomenon up to that point.
"Canada didn't support hip-hop on the level that it does now, all those years ago," said Offishall. "You have to understand, there was no Internet, there was no nothing to support us.
"Everything that every artist on that track had accomplished up to that date had been done just basically on the backs of us literally flying places, carrying our 12 inches, actually physically having to go meet people, getting them to play the record and then saying 'uh, hey, could you play this?"'
The popularity of Northern Touch did much to change that bias.
"That track just never dies," said Thrust. "It's the beauty of people always coming up to you saying 'Yo! I know that you're the one who did that verse!' And people can always quote it.
"It's probably one of the first times ever where you can actually put the mic out and have the whole audience recite your verse."
For Choclair, who raps the second verse on Northern Touch, it was seeing the Canadian single compete directly with DMX's Where My Dogs At, which used the same sample.
"DMX's song came with the same beat and I was like 'OK, here we go again.' The Canadian market is going to jump all over this DMX song — which they did, because it was a good song too — and kind of leave this one in the bag because a lot of people are not putting their faith in the artists from up here and the abilities and talents that we have from up here," said Choclair.
"But once I started seeing that people were playing our song almost as much ... it was still keeping leg-to-leg in some kind of 100-metre dash with Where My Dogs At, I was like 'Wow, OK, this could be something!"'
That commercial success was matched with critical praise, but not without controversy.
Cash Crop won a Juno in 1998 for best rap recording but the Rasclaz never collected the award, which was part of the non-televised section of the show where the bulk of trophies are handed out. The Rascalz spoke out against the slight after the ceremony.
"We had to (make our speech) backstage, in the press room," said DJ Kemo. "But it was that kind of thing. Not even five minutes into the un-televised portion, they're like 'Oh, let's get this rap (stuff) out of the way.'
"We just wanted to let the industry know, the people that were running it, that 'Yo, you guys need to pay us a little more respect."'
Misfit, one of two Rascalz MCs, credits groupmate Red1 with the idea of protesting the award. He believes that the group changed attitudes toward hip-hop in Canada by taking a stand.
"This was even more powerful than Northern Touch itself," said Misfit in an email. "The after effects brought about the feelings and awareness within the media and industry that hip-hop was to be taken seriously, as the artists themselves within the genre were quite focused on having the respect within this country similar to artists of the U.S. and those native to their country."
The Junos moved the award to the main ceremony in 1999 and the Rascalz won it again, this time for Northern Touch itself, performing the song on stage.
The music video was also one of the earliest by Director X, then known as Little X. He's gone on to direct videos by superstars including Jay-Z, Justin Bieber and Nelly Furtado. Director X also won a Juno for the video to Drake's HYFR.
He sees Northern Touch as an important turning point in his career.
"I had something to show people where they'd say 'oh, OK I see there's talent there.' Everyone could see there was some talent going on. That's what I feel what was good about it," said Director X. "I think it was like that for everybody, actually. When you look at the video now it's nothing great, it wasn't genius.
"But you can see it in everybody, you can see there's talent there."
Offishall agrees, saying it enhanced the careers of everyone involved.
"You know like when you see The Fast and the Furious and they kick in with that nitro joint and then all of a sudden it goes from fast to super-fast? I think that's what happened with Northern Touch said Offishall. "It definitely elevated all the work that all of us were putting in. It just started to multiply exponentially."