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On Drake, The First Canadian Invasion And The Time Before Blogs Ruled The ‘Net

By / 06.08.14


On a day where those of us who pay attention to mainstream Hip-Hop were mostly discussing the location of a non-rapper’s jewelry, Drake drew attention away from the bright lights of the Summer Jam stage by dropping two attention-grabbing but disparate tracks. Released only hours before he hit the Met Life Stadium stage himself, the first half of the two-parter “0-100” features a confrontational Drake (“I’m in it for the bucks and the billies n***a/Don’t make me kill one of the G.O.A.T.s for it”) over sparse production that evokes influences as grimy as The East Flatbush Project’s “Tried By 12.” It’s hard enough that Inspectah Deck wouldn’t bat an eye if it was called “Wu-Tang Forever.”

The second half, “The Catch Up,” has frequent collaborator 40’s fingerprints all over it, as sweeping synths slowly wash over the listener like a gentle tide expanding further and further along the shore. Here Drake wields clarity as a weapon, as he spells out the reasons for his confidence—and it’s clear that his confidence is at an all-time high here—in an almost lawyerly fashion. He lists personal anecdotes, history, and future plans to underline his statement of being that n***a at this moment in time.

Still, even as I listened to Drake discard any reverence he had for the greats that stand between him and the throne, I couldn’t help but think of the time when another Canadian emcee snatched my attention like a chain from an inattentive stunter’s neck with a similarly two-pronged approach.

In the late-1990s and early-2000s, a trio of rappers, Choclair, Saukrates, and Kardinal Offishall, from a famed Toronto Hip-Hop crew called The Circle, all signed to major labels in the States. Early on, Choclair seemed to be the most ready for stardom, with the video for his single “Let’s Ride” in rotation on BET. However, Kardinal ended making the biggest, albeit moderately sized, dent with his single “BaKardi Slang” and the monster B-side “Ol’ Time Killing.” Neither act came close to reaching the heights currently occupied by their countryman Drake, and neither of them was as interesting to me as the then lesser-known rapper/producer Saukrates.

In 1999, the piece of the Internet pie carved out for Hip-Hop was thin enough to slide under a closed door. There really wasn’t anything that resembled today’s blogs. As a college freshman in a small, unfamiliar, city, I spent more time than I’m willing to admit reviewing the new offerings posted on hiphopsite.com and impatiently looking at my Napster client screen. It was at one of these sources or the other that I initially encountered Saukrates’ bullying single, “Action” and its captivating remix.

The kicks on the original “Action” were almost angry, like a policeman’s knock or a tired neighbor in the next apartment over banging on your shared wall. The no-nonsense track occupied space in the Rawkus years as one of the last remaining ties to what we affectionately refer to as the Golden Era. Booming kicks, a simple hi-hat, and a repetitive guitar sample were the only accompaniments Sauks needed for his aggressive, dexterous, and sneakily poignant (“giving you sweet misery, like sugar cane mixed with history”) lyrics.

“Action” also had all of the calling cards of traditional boom-bap that were being phased out in the mainstream. Think having a crew of homies in the booth screaming the hook and ad-libs in unison, running out of breath during a verse and not punching in, or describing things as lyrical versions of other things. Everything about it felt like spending time with an older uncle who was about to go to prison for an extended stay. I valued those little nods to the not-so-distant past, because I knew it was probably going to be a while before I saw them again.

By the time I found the “Action” remix, my roommate had dropped out of school, leaving me with a huge dorm to myself. With my newfound comfort and freedom, I proceeded to play the song, conservatively, about fifty times a day. While the original was a triple-digit fastball directly over home plate, the remix was a change-up that moved in confusing ways and left me slack-jawed in rapt attention. The drums were the star of the original “Action,” but an almost eerie electric guitar riff took center stage on the remix. I listened again and again, trying to comprehend how Saukrates knew those soft classical strings would pair well with the jarring whine of the guitar. I never quite figured it out, but I never stopped playing the song.

Both Toronto emcees provided powerful 1-2 punches while navigating completely different climates in their careers, and the Hip-Hop world as a whole. Drake has used the soft/hard approach to great effect, frequently pairing a lyrical free-for-all with downtempo R&B or more deliberate and introspective Hip-Hop. He now seems primed to overtake Jay Z as the presumptive overlord of the mainstream Hip-Hop world.

Sauks, though a supremely talented rapper, producer, and singer, never quite took off in the U.S., though he did spend some time as a member of Redman’s Gilla House crew and on tour with Nelly Furtado in the 2000s. Even if he never reached superstardom, he provided at least one indelible memory for a young D.C. teen in a strange city looking for something familiar to keep him stable, and paved the way for a fellow Canadian to remind the world that T-Dot has something to say.

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