Twenty years ago, two independent singles—by Ghetto Concept and Saukrates, respectively—changed the future course of Toronto hip-hop.
The year 1994 saw the release of several landmark American hip-hop albums, and 2014 has been doing a good job of remembering them. In addition to Notorious B.I.G.’s debut, Ready to Die, 1994 yielded such classics as Nas’ Illmatic and Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, whose 20th anniversaries are currently being celebrated with a remastered re-release and an extensive comeback tour, respectively.
With hip-hop firmly established as a global phenomenon by the early ’90s, Toronto aficionados were no less voracious in their consumption of these records than our counterparts south of the border. But the city’s rappers and producers were, in hindsight, also on the cusp of a key, transformative moment for the city’s embryonic yet prodigious hip-hop scene.
While mixtapes, Soundcloud pages, and YouTube videos define the independent hip-hop grind these days, 1994 saw a surge in the number of local MCs committing their work to vinyl, building on the groundbreaking success of Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, and Dream Warriors in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and ushering the phrase “T-dot” (coined by pioneering Toronto MC K-4ce) into the local lexicon. But of the countless people contributing to the scene at the time, two entities stand out from the crowd: Ghetto Concept and Saukrates.
Hailing from Rexdale, Ghetto Concept—comprising MCs Kwajo and Dolo—had already released their debut single, “Certified” (produced by cratedigging trio Da Grassroots), to a positive response on college radio through Julian Arthur’s Groove-A-Lot label in 1993. The song would eventually go on to win a Juno for Best Rap Recording. “It was an introduction to a new sound in Toronto, mixing West Indian, African, and Canadian ghetto vibes,” says Kwajo, who formed Ghetto Concept with his MC partner Dolo. Kwajo had connected with Swiff of Da Grassroots after he DJed a Rexdale party; at the time, the latter had just begun dabbling in production. Swiff ended up mentoring Kwajo, schooling him on song structure in his home studio. “They were responsible for a major part of the Toronto sound,” says Kwajo. “Everybody wanted a Grassroots beat. They were definitely way ahead of their time.”
Kwajo and Dolo were doing a photo shoot at the Keele Station graffiti wall when they heard a jazzy, saxophone-tinged John Klemmer instrumental coming out of a nearby Nissan. “While we were doing the shoot, [Da Grassroots’] Mr. Attic played the beat for ‘E-Z on The Motion’ from his car,” says Kwajo. “As soon as I heard the beat, I knew that was the next record. I literally begged him for the beat.”
This response was a harbinger of things to come from Mr. Attic, Swiff, and Mr. Murray, who became an in-demand production team that recorded with many of the key players in Toronto’s mid-’90s independent hip-hop scene. “I think what happened was a dynamic change,” says Mr. Attic. “We wanted to be the ones to change the dynamic musically. That was our goal with Ghetto Concept or pretty much anything we did, you know what I mean? We were striving for that perfection.“
Thanks to Groove-A-Lot’s partnership with distributor Quality Records, “E-Z On the Motion” resonated with hip-hop audiences both here and south of the border; the group ended up playing gigs at Howard University in Washington D.C. and getting the track’s video—filmed in Rexdale, the Jungle, and Brooklyn—play on BET and the influential New York show Video Music Box. “They really liked the jazzy vibe, and the T-dot slang was something new to them,” says Kwajo. “They was like, ‘Y’all from Canada?’ It was a good look. We broke barriers.” The track also featured a standout appearance from Infinite, who up to that point had been Ghetto Concept’s DJ, but would go on to have a notable solo career of his own. “Infinite was our DJ and my homie from the Rex,” says Kwajo. “When we heard his verse, we had to get him up on the joint. He killed it. It was a perfect blend.”
“E-Z on the Motion” was a rugged statement of intent that boasted a catchy chorus and chronicled the group’s ascent through the underground. “The song was just vibes—it was our story,” says Kwajo, referring to the single’s catchy Dolo-crafted hook. “’93 was locomotion, when our journey started on the runaway train—the industry. ’94, they knew the name and we were on top of our game. ’95 we gone and coastin’. Which was true, ’cause we won a back-to-back Juno for that track.”
Kwajo recalls that the group was more surprised to win the Best Rap Recording Juno for “E-Z on the Motion” than the first time they won for “Certified” the year prior.
“I remember getting to my seat and not being even able to sit down and they called our name as the winners of the Best Rap Recording,” says Kwajo. “We were baffled. That was a big look. Again, we shocked the industry. The crazy thing is, after winning two back-to-back Junos, we could not get a major record deal. We had to continue independent. If an independent group in the States won two back-to-back Grammys, they would have been signed right away. That shows you how slow our industry was.”
Despite these industry issues, Ghetto Concept was proving an inspirational example to other up-and-coming Toronto hip-hop artists at the time.
“Obviously me, Kardi, Marvel, Solitair [of influential Toronto hip-hop crew Figurez of Speech] were heavily influenced by just the movement that Ghetto Concept had at the time,” says Saukrates. “And seeing the vinyl at [record store] Play de Record… you know, seeing that, it’s real. Vinyl was a big thing—that is what kind of reignited Toronto’s interest in its own hip-hop culture.”
While Saukrates was an avid observer of the city’s hip-hop scene, he was also developing a reputation in his own right as an MC in 1994.
“We heard about this person named Sauks and I had personally never heard about him or heard of him,” says Mr. Attic of Da Grassroots. “It was later on after ‘Certified’—maybe just before ‘E-Z On The Motion’—that people were asking, ‘Are you working with this guy named Saukrates? Are you working with this guy named Saukrates?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, we’ve never even heard of him.’”
As a teen, the Scarborough-based Saukrates was enrolled in the Fresh Arts program and was schooled by Toronto MC/poet Motion, who co-hosted CIUT’s Saturday night hip-hop show, The Masterplan. Saukrates had been laying down tracks in a Bloor and Ossington home studio run by The Masterplan’s DJ Power as well as producer Day, who would go on to start Kneedeep Records and issue Choclair’s first recordings. Teaming with manager Chase Parsons, another aspiring MC who recorded at Power’s studio, Saukrates’ music was brought to the attention of Motion’s Masterplan co-host John “Jonbronski” Adams, who had already held a pioneering “urban music” executive post at Sony Music Canada and had taken on the role of managing Steppin’ Bigga Records, a label run by Play De Record’s Eugene Tam. Jonbronski agreed to release a one-off single by Saukrates.
“I told Saukrates, ‘I’ll make this record for you, but I got to be honest: you’re not gonna make any money off this “Still Caught Up,” but everyone’s gonna remember this record,’” says Adams. “And this record’s gonna put you on.”
The MC went to Play De Record’s basement studio and re-recorded one of his demos he had done with producer Day, bringing along Fresh Arts colleague Kool Aid—who had yet to change his name to Kardinal Offishall—to assist on hooking up his self-produced beat for the session. “[Kardi] was a huge mentor at the time because he had already been interviewed by frickin’ Peter Mansbridge on The National with his high-top fade like Kid from Kid ‘n Play,” says Saukrates. Kardinal appears on the introduction and chorus hook of the jazzy original version of “Still Caught Up,” but it was the slower remix version that gained the most traction and airplay on college radio.
“The cult effect of the song still amazes me,” says Jonbronski who had low expectations for the song, due to the fact the far more immediately catchy 1994 Steppin’ Bigga release “Chi-Litchi-Latchi-Low” by Freaks of Reality was not the crossover hit he expected it to be.
“I didn’t think the record was gonna blow up or become a huge commercial success, but even now, people are like, ‘Still Caught Up’! Are you kidding me?” says Jonbronski, laughing. “Like, it’s 96 beats per minute!” Jonbronski’s reservations about the slowness of the track impacting its ability to be played in a club or in a mix did not stop the song from nestling comfortably alongside tracks by KRS-One and Nas on Mastermind’s influential Energy 108 Saturday hip-hop chart show
Given this context, it’s interesting to note that the song’s inspiration stemmed from Saukrates’ interest in girls and navigation of cliques at school. “I had turned a corner in my life—I had just switched high schools,” he says. “I went from being cute little Karl at R.H. King, where I got a lot of love from the seniors and whatnot… being in the 9th grade and being able to hang with 12th graders was a great confidence builder. Then I switched to a school called Agincourt. The summer of that switch, I put that record out everything kind of changed. I was a senior now in the 12th grade. I was pushing a Mustang. Everything was changing. I was getting better at my craft and people around me were noticing that, and they were kind of changing around me in the way that they approached me.”
While Saukrates’ concern was his immediate teenage life, the influence of the song extended further, snagging a Juno nomination for Best Rap Recording (but losing to “E-Z On the Motion”).
“When Saukrates came out and Ghetto Concept, there was Choclair [who eventually ended up signing to ] Virgin, and Frankenstein started putting stuff out, right?” says Jonbronski. “That’s when the industry changed, and that’s why I give those guys a lot of respect, because they actually made records. And you saw the slow progression. I think that’s what ‘Still Caught Up’ did. It put in dudes’ heads that you gotta make a record.”
In 1994, “Still Caught Up” and “E-Z On the Motion” inspired various Toronto independent hip-hop labels to spring up, following Groove-A-Lot’s lead. Engineer Noel “Gadget’ Campbell”—who worked on Ghetto Concept’s “Certified” and “E-Z On The Motion”—became a unifying force, overseeing many subsequent local recordings thanks to his work on those singles. “Gadget was our go-to guy,” says Mr. Attic. “He was our Bob Power, he was our Rick Rubin. He was our guy. He understood our music and understood what we wanted. He would take the garbage that we would bring in and then make it sound like a beat.”
But in addition to helping to shape a new sound in Toronto hip-hop, Gadget—who has, more recently, worked with Drake—also provided a creative and communal hub. “Gadget’s studio acted as this little meeting ground where people would be finishing a session and we’d be coming in and vice versa so you got to hear what was going on,” says Swiff of Da Grassroots, who adds that the production team eventually met Saukrates through Gadget. “You got to meet people doing the same thing at the same time, and network.”
Saukrates’ “Still Caught Up,” was a song that helped to foster a sense of the collective. It was the first record from a member of the Figurez of Speech crew that would eventually morph into the Circle Crew. More releases from Saukrates—as well as artists such as Kardinal Offishall and Choclair—would emerge from the crew in the wake of that first single’s success. “It changed our lives and it gave us all a clear view from A to Z,” says Saukrates. “It straightened the line: no left and right and jumping through hoops and shit. We simplified the approach and said, ‘Create good music, press the vinyl, use your connections’—there it is and then it was done. It was a pivotal point in all our lives.”
(Del F. Cowie – The Grid To)