Hip Hop's bad rap in the capital

OTTAWA  — The upbeat hip hop music fills the large room, and students in Yvon Soglo’s beginner street-dance class stretch their arms and legs, practise moves learnt from last week or chit-chat as they wait for class to start. The class contains about 15 people of various races, but mostly white, ranging in age from their mid-teens to early 30s.

“I live hip hop every day,” says dance teacher and enthusiast Yvon Soglo (here in triple exposure).  Yet others in Ottawa are wary of some perceived aspects of the culture.
Courtesy of Yvon Soglo

Jamie Cronk, who goes by “DJ Jamie C,” has been a disc jockey in Ottawa since 1992.  He now spins for local radio station Hot 89.9 and nightclubs Tila Tequila and Touché downtown in the Market.  The only musical genre Jamie C says he will play is high-energy: a mix of dance and house music, around 110-200 beats per minute.

Jamie C decided he would never again spin hip hop tracks less than a year ago.  He was a disc jockey at a local hip hop club.  One night the deejay he worked with decided to play slow hip hop to end the night.  Jamie C told him the energy in the club was at a low since many people had stopped dancing.  The deejay ignored Jamie C’s advice and a fight broke out.  The end result, Jamie C says, were 16 cop cars outside.  “I walked away, gave my notice.  I quit that club right instantly,” he says.

According to Jamie C, hip hop gives off a negative vibe.  Part of the problem, he says, is the lyrics.  “It’s all about money, power, women.  It’s the wrong message they’re giving.”  Another problem Jamie C finds with hip hop is its slow beat, which he says is not suitable for the dance floor.  Hip hop usually has 70-110 beats per minute.

Certain downtown clubs, like Touché and Tila Tequila, have caught on to the idea.  Tila Tequila used to play hip hop music when it was called Space nightclub.  But since August 2006 the club has switched its format and now plays more high-energy music. 

‘Usually the attitude associated with people who always listen to hip hop is not the most positive one,’ says deejay Jamie C.

Andy Stronach, Tila Tequila’s general manager, explains the merits of high energy music: “If you keep the energy rate going up, people will react in a very positive way by dancing, by drinking, by getting involved, by meeting other people—just being in a great mood.”

But, he continues, hip hop with its slower beat can allow people’s minds to wander, sometimes to hostile frames of thought.  And that has meant problems for bars.

Jamie C used to deejay at Space and has noticed a big change.  Space, he says, would have at least two to three fights per weekend.  Now, as Tila Tequila’s resident deejay, he says the club has not had a single fight in two months.  “So if you don’t play these songs and you play songs people actually feel happy listening to, who the hell is going to want to fight?” says Jamie C.

Does that mean hip hop music draws in tougher crowds compared to other genres?  Jamie C thinks it certainly include tough types: “Usually the attitude associated with people who always listen to hip hop is not the most positive one.”  Club manager Stronach says, “There’s no negative kind of music; it’s just a negative following to it.”

But club goer Melanie Wade disagrees.  She says she does not take hip hop lyrics seriously.  She used to go to Space, but since the switch, hardly goes anymore; she cannot dance to high-energy music, she says.

Likewise, Arjun Saraf who used to frequent Space almost every Saturday night last year says, “I like hip hop beats mainly.  I find them easy to dance to.”  He says he does not go to Tila Tequila that much because it does not suit his clubbing style; he likes to “chill out” to hip hop music at his clubs.

Street Dreams DVD Magazine, showcasing new Canadian hip hop talent, is produced in Ottawa by the clothing store 456 Fashions.
Courtesy of 456 Fashions

Young G, a local Ottawa hip hop artist, says you can’t even go into a club if you’re wearing urban gear.  Many Ottawa nightclubs have begun enforcing dress codes, which mean “No” to hip hoppers’ baggy clothing, running shoes or sport jerseys with a number (even jerseys that cost $100).  “They want us to fake something we’re not to get into the club,” he says. 

In short, hip hop is suffering an image problem in Ottawa—according to conversations with local hip hop artists, club goers and merchants familiar with a scene anecdotally marred by street gangs, drugs and violence.

Young G says hip hop culture exposes lifestyle on the streets.  But, he says, Ottawa city authorities “want to keep [that] quiet [and] are trying to shut the doors on us.”  Relevant to this, it is not surprising that the city has designated only one wall legally for graffiti (an art form integral to hip hop culture): under the Dunbar Bridge, where Bronson Avenue crosses the Rideau River.

This shutting of the door on hip hop has been exemplified by Ottawa radio station Hot 89.9.  When it first launched, in 2002, the station played solely hip hop tracks.  Now it plays only top-40 hits.    

Hip hop with its slower beat can allow people’s minds to wander, sometimes to hostile frames of thought.

Josie Geuer, Hot 89.9’s program director, says the station kept its hip hop format for only 12 months.  Today, she says, it plays music from the four most popular genres: pop, rock, rhythm and blues and hip hop.  The station switched formats, Geuer says, because after much market research it was found that most people in Ottawa craved a top-40 station. 

A more diverse group of listeners, Geuer says, has meant more advertisers.  When asked if hip hop’s bad vibe deterred advertisers from the Ottawa station, she says, “Advertisers get a little weary of a 100-per-cent hip hop station.”

Phil “Quam” Dzidah, who owns 456 Fashions, an Ottawa hip hop clothing store, has a similar theory regarding corporate advertisers: “If they do more [hip hop], then who are they really catering too?  It’s just people like me,” he says. 

Yet Ottawa’s radio market does sustain local stations that focus on such niche groups as country music lovers (Young Country Y101) and classic rock fans (Chez 106 FM).  Evidently hip hop has come to be seen as somehow the “wrong” niche.


Breakdancing at the “House of Paint” — an Ottawa hip hop celebration, featuring dance, graffiti (“paint”) and deejaying, sponsored by 456 Fashions. 
Courtesy of 456 Fashions

As well as radio airspace and dance clubs, live-show venues for hip hop are limited.  Adam Kronick, owner of Babylon Nightclub, says there are really only two main ones: Babylon and the New Capital Music Hall.  But for both places, hip hop is just an item on the menu.  Babylon, for example, hosts everything from punk shows to wedding receptions.

Kronick says fights are fuelled by alcohol, not by specific crowds.  Nevertheless, he does take extra security measures when he holds hip hop shows.  He would not specify why.  

Is racism to blame?  Is hip hop not given the benefit of the doubt because it’s “black”?  Jamie C believes hip hop’s bad reputation has more to do with some hip hoppers’ bad attitude than with race. 

However, dance teacher Yvon points out that hip hop’s core is African-American, going back to black kids in the Bronx in the 1970s.   Even so, he says, the culture should not be racially stereotyped, because today “the energy and the essence of hip hop are universal.” All elements of the culture—graffiti, emceeing, rapping, deejaying and dancing—give people worldwide a chance to express themselves, he says.

Unfortunately some mainstream hip hop artists have lyrics filled with images of violence.  Take for example 50 Cent.  The lyrics “You said you a gangsta/But you neva pop nuttin,” from his song Wangsta, equate gun violence with achievement. Peopleunfamiliar with hip hop are then led to believe that hip hop promotes violence.  Thus, Canadian officials tried to ban 50 Cent’s 2005 Canadian concerts, Ottawa being one of the locations. 

Yvon shows off his breakdancing on Rideau Street.  He remains optimistic about hip hop’s future in Ottawa.
Courtesy of Yvon Soglo

All these negative associations have meant a struggle for local Ottawa artists who are trying to use hip hop to spread their message.

Shaw-King, a local hip hop artist in Ottawa, says that although there’s a lot of raw talent in the city, no labels have released a successful hip hop CD here.  In addition to the unwelcoming atmosphere, he blames an artistic problem: local rappers “are mimicking their favourite American rapper,” he says.  “We need artists to innovate and not get stuck in this loop of recycled rhymes and played out topics.”

Dzidah, owner of 456 Fashions, is trying to do just that.  He puts out mixed tapes that promote local and Canadian talent.  Yet it is hard for local artists to get support, he says, because most people associate hip hop with the “gangsta” image of the mainstream artists.

Is racism to blame? Is hip hop not given the benefit of the doubt because it’s ‘black’?

This has made it difficult for local Ottawa rapper Young G who raps about things going on around him and the plight of his people in the Middle East.  He says “I try to be a voice for them because they don’t have a voice here.”

He sees Ottawa’s hip hop scene as bad.  “I’ve done more shows in Toronto and Montreal than I have in Ottawa,” he says.  “People out there are more open-minded to hip hop; the demand is bigger.”

The future of Ottawa’s hip hop scene remains uncertain.  In the absence of regular venues and radio stations, along with un-supported local artists, the movement seems to have hit a brick wall in the capital.

Yet enthusiasts like dance teacher Yvon remain optimistic.  For one thing, he says, hip hop offers wonderful recreational and even therapeutic qualities for those outside the scene. 

He is involved with a social program called Blueprint for Life, where he works with Native youth for a week, educates them on different aspects of hip hop culture and relates that to some of the problems they face in their communities. 

More generally, Yvon says, education about hip hop culture is the best way to break down the bad stereotypes.  “People need to take the time to truly understand and appreciate the culture, instead of believing what they see on TV.”