BY JD BRANT
Earlier this month, the United States’ neighbor to the north, Canada, announced border openings allowing vaccinated Americans to travel freely through the country. But the second-largest country in the world is still battling rising COVID cases. As of November 22, there are 1.77 million COVID cases country-wide, a number that is concerning to both travelers and Canadian citizens.
While some Canadians remain uncertain of what the new year will bring mid-pandemic, one thing is certain: People are trying to carry on with life as best as they can. Music and art remain strongholds for many people learning to deal with COVID curveballs. This has made catching up with hip hop devotee and educator MikeAll that much more ceremonious.
Mike is someone who can speak passionately on the grassroots of Canadian hip hop influences; as a member of Canada’s HipHop HeadUCatorz, Mike’s worked with childhood hero Dan-e-o (Dear Hip Hop) and most recently Sadat X of Brand Nubian fame on the drum-heavy single “Refine Your Craft”. He’s also a fan of hip hop’s indigenous arts, often referencing David Strickland on his social media.
Eloquent Mag got the opportunity to ask the Scarborough alumnus about his new single, the fundamental principles that continue to drive hip hop, the digital trends that may collide with them, and the American “co-sign” condemning many independent Canadian acts to earlier graves.
EM: What is “Refine Your Craft” about? What does it mean to you guys?
MA: Since 2019, the HipHop HeadUcatorz have a tradition of releasing new music every World Teacher’s Day, which is October 5th. The crew wanted to do something special for the third installment. It started with Wizekrak selecting a bare-bones yet banging beat by DJ/Producer IKhan. Wizekrak wrote a verse on the topic of improvement so that became the theme.
As other MCs penned their bars, the idea of a guest feature was discussed. We wanted to maintain the criteria that everyone involved was a certified teacher. Through social media, Wizekrak was able to connect with and secure a guest verse from the veteran Sadat X. For us, the song itself is a major achievement as it is our biggest feature yet.
It was an honor to build with legendary Brand Nubian MC and one-time teacher, Sadat X! Thematically, the song is an anthem for life-long learning through trial and error. It challenges the unrealistic adage, “practice makes perfect,” to instead promote healthy pressure for progress over time. It is hoped that it will inspire listeners from all walks of life to keep trying and refine their craft.
EM: Speaking on Canadian influences, are hip hop influences in the States different in your opinion, and how so?
MA: That is a great question! I think there are some similarities and some differences. Hip hop culture was birthed out of the Bronx, NY so the American influence will always be there. Many rappers copy popular trends and will imitate whatever is selling. Usually the “hot sound” is generated by whatever American city or region is popping at the time. A true school MC is supposed to speak about and for their community so in that sense, Canadian MCs should reflect issues of their reality. Hip hop overall has African roots and MCing evolved from Jamaican toasting. However, Canadian MCs seem to embrace that Caribbean connection a bit more so that would be a key difference from my point of view.
EM: Who are three MCs or producers you would love to link up with on a project in the future and why?
MA: Top three MCs are Maestro Fresh Wes. He is the Godfather of Canadian MCs, a fellow Guyanese and Scarborough head. Another is Inspectah Deck. He is my fave MC of all time and rhyme teacher. He changed the way I listen to hip hop and inspired the flow plus lyricism to which I aspire. Another is Mathematik. He is another Scarborough legend and embodies hip hop culture. Dude is like all elements in one!
Top producers are Kardinal Offishall. He is Toronto’s official hip hop ambassador and responsible for producing many CanCon classics. Second is DJ Premier. He is arguably the chief architect of raw anthem bangers. Classified is a dope producer who has come a long way. He can make radio-friendly singles but still deliver that boom bap sound.
EM: According to an interview indigenous hip hop producer/artist David Strickland did with ET Canada, he said until you break through to the states, much of the time, that’s when artists truly feel like they’re making headway inside the art form. What is your opinion on his take?
MA: Sadly agree with this statement. It seems like Canada has an inferiority complex from being under the shadow of our “big brother.” Many will not accept homegrown talent until they get the co-sign from an American artist. Look at Drake for example. He did not really get love until his relationship with Lil Wayne. Toronto in general used to have a nickname of the “Screwface Capital” where our own stars were dismissed. I have seen many local opening acts get booed before they even really had a chance to rep as the crowd just wanted to see the American headlining act. Unfortunately, it seems that acceptance by the American mainstream is the metric for success.
EM: As a hip hop educator, do you believe hip hop is still teachable, despite the “DIY” wave we’ve been experiencing since the inception of YouTube? Ex. younger rappers coming up without a real “come up” story (traditionally) or prior knowledge of elder MCs?
MA: Another fascinating topic! Hip hop Culture will ALWAYS be teachable as “each one teach one” is a core bedrock principle. This idea is true for all elements as techniques or skills are passed from generation to generation to add on and build. Sometimes rap music is just used as a get rich, quick scheme or hustle. In that case, it might be teaching wealth generation to a select few and not benefiting the community as a whole.
It is definitely a different “come up” story these days. Whereas the past was physical, now it is digital. I applaud the younger generation’s use of social media marketing to create buzz and reach an audience. However, I am not a fan of how it’s often more about the social media clout instead of the music. It is fair that the next generation has their space and lane to represent their era in a unique way.
At the same time though, a greater appreciation and respect for the past is healthy. After all, if one wants to be good at their artistry, craft, or any discipline, they study the greats that came before them. Even if they reinvent the wheel or put a new spin on it, they still acknowledge what came before. Perhaps looking at that past will better inform the present “stars” of their important position so that they really show up for the future ones to come!
For more from HipHop HeadUcatorz, visit their Bandcamp page.