There's a part near the end of the Drake song No Tellin' that captures the surreal state of Toronto music right now.
Around the three-minute mark, the drums drop out, and this eerie vocal sample creeps in. It sounds like a boys' choir performing Gregorian chants in a church basement, as recorded by an old gramophone.
What you're really hearing is the vocal stem of No Talk, by the Toronto musician River Tiber. He's a 26-year-old graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston who still lives with his parents in Toronto's Roncesvalles neighbourhood. His real name is Tommy Paxton-Beesley. We were friends in Grade 2.
Because this is Toronto, which is both a sprawling modernist city and a small town, he is friends with the producer Frank Dukes, who works closely with one of Drake's producers, Boi-1da. Last February, the No Talk sample showed up on Drake's platinum-selling mixtape If You're Reading This It's Too Late.
"I didn't listen to any other songs on that mixtape for like two weeks," Mr. Paxton-Beesley says. "I was like, 'This is dope – this is sensational.' That's what I was thinking. An air horn – my mind was an air horn."
Since then, his career has been all air horn. He signed with the super-agents at United Talent Agency. Got good reviews for his debut LP. Recorded with the legendary rapper Pusha T in Los Angeles.
This now happens to Toronto musicians all the time. Drake is a tide: He has lifted, if not all boats, then dozens and dozens of boats. The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, Boi-1da, Majid Jordan, Nineteen85. There's a whole genre of interviews with Drake collaborators remembering all the famous people they met in the studio with Drake, or at Drake's mansion in L.A., as though recalling a dream. ("And then, suddenly, there was Kanye …")
Even more important than his commercial impact on the city, though, is a subtler change that he's brought about in Toronto's cultural landscape.
It's a sound. A distinctive style of music that echoes its hometown. Broadly speaking – down-tempo, ambient R&B. But more specifically – the sonic equivalent of driving down the 427 at night.
Dark and neon-lit; spacious and intimate; melancholy and sleekly modern.
River Tiber's music is suffused with the Toronto sound. He calls it "the language of the city."
"When you're driving along the Gardiner and it's frozen outside and your car is warm and there's snow falling, and you're listening to Know Yourself, it's just perfect," he said. "We didn't have that before."
This is a story that is and isn't about Drake. If he is the tide, this is about the boats.
Without him, there might not be a Toronto sound. But there is also something deeper going on in the city – a story of collaboration and mutual influence. Brian Eno, the great English record producer, calls it "scenius" – a kind of collective, local inspiration.
It speaks volumes about the heady sense of achievement and possibility that Toronto musicians feel right now that so many of them invoke the greatest flowering of "scenius" in the history of Western art.
"It's the Renaissance period," says Sean (Neenyo) Seaton, a producer from Mississauga who works closely with PartyNextDoor, arguably Drake's most talented protege.
Guys like Mr. Seaton are the workshop painters of this renaissance: fluting columns and touching up angel wings while their famous bosses move on to the next commission. The dream of blowing up is often tempered by pride in the larger movement. "I've always dreamed of being that big producer from Toronto, but I'm also happy to just contribute to the culture," says Daniel Worthy, a Scarborough native and one half of the team that produced Drake's Star67.
If the Toronto scene is built on a deep sense of place, it has also, oddly, been nourished by the placeless ether of cyberspace. The foundation myths of the Toronto sound are all infused with the democratic ethic of the early Internet. Boi-1da met Drake via instant messenger. He sent the beat for their breakout 2009 hit Best I Ever Had to Drake's BlackBerry, after listening to the verses on BlackBerry Voice Notes.
Social media fills that role now. There's a kind of comically slapdash quality to the way some Toronto artists have been discovered. Often, Drake's manager Oliver El-Khatib will hear a beat snippet on Instagram and make someone famous with it.
The city's sound, like the scene, was largely a digital creation. Beat-making programs like Pro Tools and Fruity Loops – often available as online bootlegs – gave some of the city's top musicians their start producing hip hop. PartyNextDoor takes his name from a Fruity Loops filter setting that reminded him of the murky, moody vibe that Drake's producer, Noah (40) Shebib, achieved on his early records.
In interviews, 40 often points to the early mixtape hit Successful as Drake's first song in this register. Marvins Room is another plausible candidate. Anchoring the 2011 album Take Care, it's a deeply strange piece of music, beginning with a snippet of surreptitiously recorded cell-phone conversation that led an ex-girlfriend of Drake's to sue for royalties.
But what makes the song characteristic is the way it manages to be both dark and shimmering, like taillights reflected in a pane of condo glass at night. In its wintry, nocturnal way, Marvins Room gave a glimpse of what an authentic Toronto sound might be. There are whole albums – careers, even – that flow directly from that song.
This isn't just a critic's dreamy projection. We actually know that Drake was trying to mint a Toronto sound. He talks about it all the time. In an hour-long conversation with the gonzo crate-digging performance artist Nardwuar, Drake extolled Houston rappers for believing "in their own style of music."
"It gave me a lot of confidence to come back to Toronto and believe in what we had as well," he said.
This might all seem a bit arcane to music listeners not steeped in the jealous localism of rap music. A map of North American hip-hop would look like one of those illustrated road atlases with cartoon orange groves popping out of central Florida and prickly cacti straddling the southwest. New York's boom-bap classicism; the languid menace of L.A.'s gangsta rap; Atlanta's manic crunk and trap sounds: each vividly evokes the character of its city.
As Mr. Seaton put it, sitting in the lobby of the Royal York hotel, sipping a cocktail: "Black music is about stories of where you're from."
Toronto hasn't always seemed like a place with stories worth telling. Even artists who now extol the city and embody its aesthetic say their hometown once felt beneath consideration.
Turns out they weren't looking closely enough. Maybe it was hard to notice because it can be so all-encompassing, but the cold has been as crucial as anything in shaping the city's musical style. It seems reductive until you ask the artists. A disarming number of them talk about winter with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome reverence – like it made them who they are by making them miserable.
"For most of the time, it's brutally cold," says Jordan Evans, a producer from Pickering who worked on Pound Cake, a standout track from Drake's 2013 album Nothing Was the Same. "If you're in a beach town, the music is going to feel a certain way. Toronto is a very chilly city. And we kind of reflect that in the music."
Like so many of his colleagues in the scene, Mr. Evans is from the suburbs. And not just from the suburbs, but of the suburbs. He, Boi-1da, Matthew Burnett, and T-Minus are from Pickering or Ajax; PartyNextDoor is from Mississauga; Roy Woods and WondaGurl are from Brampton. The Weeknd is from Scarborough.
Mr. Burnett, a creative partner of Mr. Evans's, talks about how the spaciousness of his surroundings opened up space in his music – the simplicity and ambience that's so characteristic of Toronto's sound.
"Don't overcrowd it," he thinks to himself when he's making a beat. "You go outside and you have all these trees, and all this space, and it's so open. And it's beautiful."
In Ajax or Mississauga, those vast open spaces can only really be covered by car, so driving has become central to the imaginative life of the places.
"I make my music strictly for the purpose of driving at night time," Drake once told the CBC, and a version of this sentiment pops up with uncanny regularity when you talk to the musicians behind the Toronto sound.
"Every song has to feel good driving down the 401," said Mr. Seaton. For River Tiber, the Gardiner Expressway has the same importance. Others cite the Don Valley Parkway.
So inspired by Toronto's urban highways, their music has imbued those most prosaic of places with a romantic charge. Driving in the city can now feel like being in a movie scored by PartyNextDoor or The Weeknd – all gloomy grandeur and the foreboding rumble of an 808 drum kit.
In its coherence and clarity of vision, the music has given a marginal, tenuous community its first proper image of itself. The constellation of artists around Drake has become a sonic Group of Seven for the Toronto suburbs.
And what a surprising picture they paint. Canadian music – and Canadian culture more broadly – has always been associated with rusticity. Think Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot. Acoustic guitars. Camp fires. A town in north Ontario.
There's nothing rustic about this new Toronto sound. It's city music. It's electronically produced music. And, by and large, it's black music.
Pickering High School is both a microcosm and petri dish of the scene. Four of the city's marquee producers went there: Boi-1da, T-Minus, Mr. Burnett, and Mr. Evans. All of the school's most prominent exports have West Indian heritage. The gospel, reggae, and dancehall of their parents' living rooms is dyed into the music they make now.
Their version of suburbia wasn't a cosseted Pleasantville. Whatever accounts for the school's artistic flourishing, "it definitely wasn't the water," says Mr. Burnett. "We weren't allowed to drink the water at Pickering High – there were signs saying, 'Don't drink the water, it's not safe.'"
It's an almost-irony befitting this small revolution in Canadian music that the last famous alumni of Pickering High were the NHL goalie Glenn Healy and Neil Young's older brother, Bob.
In a recent essay on the state of Canadian poetry published in The Walrus, Michael Lista wrote that "Canadian poets are interesting precisely when they steal the whole world for themselves and sing it in all its useless complexity."
At their best, Toronto hip-hop artists are like this, too. Our own native tradition is too shallow to take healthy root in. So we look abroad. Drake borrowed southern sounds from Houston, Memphis, and New Orleans in the beginning.
By developing a local sound, the city's artists risk squandering the cosmopolitan disregard for folk tradition that has allowed them to flourish in the first place. They risk becoming what no Toronto artist can afford to be: parochial.
Even Drake's unofficial biographer frets about this. Dalton Higgins, a veteran Toronto music writer, does publicity for Jazz Cartier, a talented Toronto rapper who doesn't align with the new sound.
"I'm not sure it would be that interesting if there were a Toronto sound," says Mr. Higgins. "Does everyone want to sound like PartyNextDoor and Majid Jordan? Is that the kind of musical universe we want to live in? I'm not convinced."
Mr. Higgins is not the only person who sees a creeping homogeneity in Toronto hip-hop. Music bloggers dismiss new musicians from the city as Drake Lite all the time.
A serious listener can tell the most prominent exponents of the city's sound apart. Roy Woods has a voice like barbed wire wrapped in velvet; PartyNextDoor is louche and bleary-eyed; there's an 80s shimmer and techno thump to Majid Jordan. Still, even the most devoted fan would have to acknowledge that the charge of uniformity carries a ring of truth.
Mr. Seaton isn't worried. He uses Atlanta as a template for what Toronto could become: a city that has dominated hip-hop culture for a generation by making music that sounds fresh but acknowledges its roots.
"As Atlanta's sound has constantly evolved, so will Toronto's," he said. "This isn't the tail end … I authentically believe this is really the start."