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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.”