Before he became one of Drake and Kendrick Lamar’s favourite producers, Ritchie “Rich Kidd” Acheampong was a young street hustler in a rough part of Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. “I had a criminal record, I was doing B&Es, selling drugs, and working a 9-to-5 job to get by,” the Juno-winner recalls. Whenever he found spare time, Acheampong tended to his true passion: Making beats. When a friend introduced him to a creative arts drop-in program for youth in need, formerly known as Inner City Visions (ICV), he saw a way out – working, recording and accruing community service hours at ICV’s Scarborough headquarters.
Shortly thereafter the program expanded, moved to downtown Toronto and relaunched as the Remix Project, setting Acheampong up in its first cohort and putting him at ground zero for Toronto’s current cultural swell. “[Drake’s executive producer Noah ‘40’ Shebib] was my mentor,” he says. Drake and Shebib would record two mixtapes at Remix, and the connection landed Acheampong four production credits on Drake’s 2007 release, Comeback Season.
But moreover, Acheampong had found in Remix a structure and platform for success that would otherwise have been unavailable to him. “I’d been to different youth programs, but this was the first one I could tell my mom about,” he says. “At the end, I got a diploma. It showed her that I was working towards something.”
Founded in 1999, the Remix Project rebranded in 2006 as a reaction to what was dubbed Toronto’s “Summer of the Gun” – when there were over 50 shootings within a few months in 2005, resulting in a push to drive at-risk youth off the streets to help reduce gun violence. Three years later, Remix registered as a non-profit charity and received a United Nations Habitat Program award for excellence in community safety in arts and culture.
More than a decade on, Remix’s new waterfront office walls are lined with notable faces: Shebib looms large, as does Drake’s former DJ and current manager, Adel “Future the Prince” Nur. Television personalities and activists Amanda Parris and Tyrone “T-Rex” Edwards look out alongside breakout stars Ebony “WondaGurl” Oshunrinde and Jessie Reyez. “[When you graduate] you’re accepted into this legendary alumni,” Remix’s executive director Annalie Bonda says. “We are a community and a network of people, including partnerships with Universal, Sony and Warner Music, as well as RBC and MLSE.”
Remix’s $3.5-million Toronto headquarters, which opened in June of this year, is not only state-of-the-art – facilities include professional recording, production and photography studios; a terrace with Lake Ontario views; an open-concept workspace and a shipping-container boardroom – but also reflective of its legacy as a launch pad for the city’s underprivileged, unrepresented and notably talented youth.
Now in its 15th cohort, its nine-month training program offers free courses in creative, business and recording arts in 5,000 square feet of space.
Though not every graduate becomes a household name, Bonda notes that almost all become a success story in their own right. “Matthew Romeo, for example, literally slept on the steps of the Don River because he didn't feel like he was treated fairly in the homeless or youth shelter system. Now he’s a successful DJ,” she says. Photographer Yasin Osman, whose Shoot for Peace project, a photography mentorship initiative available to young people in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, came out of Remix’s program and was recently commissioned by education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
As a testament to Remix’s success, three years ago Acheampong put his production career on the backburner to help guide the next generation of artists as the leader of its recording-arts program. “When I got into the program as a student, I was just looking for an outlet for creativity,” he says. "The end goal wasn’t becoming the most famous producer on the planet because we weren’t even close to that territory. Now, realistically, that could happen.”
Currently, each cohort is made up of 50 students from the GTA. But with hip-hop’s rapid mainstream ascent and the proven success of Remix graduates, applications are rising. In 2017, Remix had 350 applications, and in 2018 that number rose more than 200 per cent to 800. Reyez and WondaGurl’s achievements, in particular, have helped expand the number of girls and women applying.
“We are a proof-of-concept case study,” Bonda says, citing recent workshops in Vancouver and Halifax as opening the possibility of taking the program nationally and beyond Toronto, like its satellite school in Chicago. Despite the program’s growth and popularity, “we’re still working on getting as much federal and provincial funding as the opera or ballet,” she says.
“Art, music and business look very different than they did 20 years ago,” Bonda says. “Remix is a community hub where people can come and feel safe to network and collaborate. By reflection, we’re the definition of the people and the city of Toronto. That’s our contribution to the entertainment industry, and we’re just getting started.”