Documentaries

Dropped beats: the evolution of hip-hop in Canada

Canadian hip-hop pioneers like Maestro Fresh Wes and Michie Mee find comfort in the success of global stars such as Drake and The Weeknd.

Rich history of the genre explored in new CBC documentary 'Northern Beats'

A man speaks with his hand.
Maestro Fresh Wes, the first Canadian to release an international rap album, is featured in ‘Northern Beats,’ the third episode of CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories. (DUANE COLE PHOTOGRAPHY)

Black Life: Untold Stories is an epic eight-part documentary series that reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada over 400 years. Watch now on CBC Gem.

Canadian hip-hop pioneers like Maestro Fresh Wes and Michie Mee find comfort in the success of global stars such as Drake and The Weeknd.

"The fact that Drake made it makes me sleep well, because this was the whole vision that we had here in Canada," Michie Mee says in the "Northern Beats" episode of the CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories. "And Drake took it to a whole other level."

The episode delves into the origins of Canadian hip-hop, its evolution, and how artists struggled for recognition and commercial success in the 80s and 90s. 

WATCH: Canadian hip-hop artist Shad shares how former MuchMusic personality Master T influenced him

How Master T brought Black music across the nation | Black Life: Untold Stories

6 months ago
Duration 0:39
Canadian hip-hop artist Shad shares how former MuchMusic personality Master T influenced him in this clip from “Northern Beats,” the third episode of CBC docuseries Black Life: Untold Stories.

It looks at pivotal moments like Vancouver hip-hop group Rascalz turning down a Juno award in 1998, which would have been given at a non-televised event the day before the telecast. "Urban music, reggae, R&B and rap: that's all Black music and it's not represented at the Junos. We decided that until it is, we are going to take a stance," the group said in a statement at the time.

"The Rascalz's refusal of the Juno actually amplified what was invisible to a lot of people, which was [that] infrastructure in Canada … had no interest in supporting any kind of Black music or anything, period," hip-hop historian Mark Campbell says in the episode.

"What did Canada lose by not supporting this first generation of hip-hop artists? We lost the ability to build the infrastructure to support artists like Justin Bieber or Alessia Cara today or Drake or The Weeknd," Campbell said. "All of those artists, their infrastructure is not in Canada. They're touring the world, they're topping the charts, and none of their benefits are really coming back to this country. We could have learned something by exporting Michie Mee. By supporting the Dream Warriors."

Persistence and determination

"Northern Beats" not only discusses the historical challenges faced by Canadian hip-hop artists, but the unique advantages of their tight-knit community and their influential impact on global music trends.

The episode also highlights the persistence and determination of Canadian hip-hop artists who refused to accept that their music was inferior to that of artists from the U.S.

LISTEN: Black Life: Untold Stories playlist


"Now, everybody wants to be from Canada," Canadian rapper Rollie Pemberton, better known as Cadence Weapon, says in the episode. 

Artists and experts featured in "Northern Beats" include: 

  • Jully Black.
  • Mark Campbell.
  • Shad.
  • J.Kyll. 
  • Michie Mee.
  • Ron Nelson.
  • Rollie Pemberton.
  • Red1.
  • Malik Shaheed.
  • Master T.
  • Maestro Fresh Wes.

About the director: Will Prosper

A man laughs sitting on a couch.
Director Will Prosper explores the rich history of Canadian hip-hop in ‘Northern Beats.’ (DUANE COLE PHOTOGRAPHY)

"Northern Beats" was directed by Montreal-born filmmaker Will Prosper, a former community organizer and police officer. 

Over the past decade, Prosper has become known for captivating audiences with his poignant exploration of underrepresented communities and Afro-descendant cultures in Quebec. His notable works include The Lost Tapes du hip-hop au Québec, Les derniers pèlerins, Républik Basket, Aller simple : Haïti and the award-winning Kenbe la – Jusqu'à la victoire.

"Northern Beats" is streaming now on CBC Gem. Watch it on CBC-TV on Nov. 8 at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT).


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from features on anti-Black racism to success stories from within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.
(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist who was born in Zimbabwe and has received honours from the Canadian Church Press, the Canadian Association of Black Journalists and the Radio Television Digital News Association Canada. She is a web writer and editor of First Person columns at CBC Edmonton. She is also the digital producer of CBC's docuseries, Black Life: Untold Stories, debuting on CBC Gem and CBC-TV in October. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca.

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