A portrait of Toronto's rap underground...

Along with Boston-born sports lifestyle brand ’47, Clash is delving into cities where rising rappers are redefining how their city is viewed within the global hip-hop culture, embodying ‘47’s mantra to “let your you out.”

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“We have so many famous artists in the city, but it’s not like they’re all blowing up,” says rapper Jimmy Prime, deep in a game of Madden NFL 18 as he meditates on the city that raised him. “I think that’s one thing that’s very unique about Toronto right now; there’s this huge spotlight on it, but not everyone is blowing up. It’s a crabs-in-a-bucket type situation.” It’s a phrase that’s common amongst Toronto rappers, as they all fight to rise above the noise. “The city is huge but the scene itself is small,” agrees fellow Prime Boys representative Jay Whiss. “Everybody is crossing paths so it’s like you’re surrounded by your competition.”

These harsh conditions have created a thriving scene in the city, proving an invaluable training ground to those who are up for the challenge. “It’s like training at 100 times Earth’s gravity, on some Dragon Ball Z shit,” declares Sean Leon, rapper and founder of the IXXI Initiative, who grew up in the Greater Toronto Area before moving into the city. “If I was always given what I wanted, I might have never known what I could accomplish on my own. That chip on my shoulder is fuelling a lot of this movement. It’s what’s keeping me up at night.”

Toronto is often said to have an underdog mentality, and it’s this perspective - close, but not enough to be accepted by their peers in the US - that has been driving the city’s creatives for years. However, now that the Internet has levelled the playing field, things are changing, and Toronto artists are no longer tucked away and ignored.

“Nobody really gives credit to music from Canada because it wasn’t pop culture,” says artist development specialist Lola Plaku. “Social media and the Internet was not as big as it is now. Toronto has always produced really good musicians, it’s just that nobody was really paying attention on that scale. It wasn’t until Drake became popular culture that everybody was like, ‘Oh my God, Toronto’s coming up!’ But I was coming up as a journalist in the days when we had other rap, before Drake.”

Matthew Progress, who has built a buzz with his unique blend of rap and electronic music, took a lot of inspiration from what he calls a “super vibrant urban scene” in the late-’90s early-2000s. He remembers rushing home to watch local artists like Kardinal Offishall, The Circle, Ghetto Concept, Infinite and Mathematik on RapCity. “I think they’re victims of an era,” he admits. “I think that the way our infrastructure works now, with technology. I have no excuse to be local. I definitely see a difference between myself and them, but not so much in terms of ability, talent or drive to go international, as much as a difference in climate, in era.”

Jimmy Prime believes that the outside perception of Toronto culture is more accurate than ever before, thanks to platforms like Instagram account @6ixBuzzTV. “A lot of cities don’t have that, their own journalists talking about the culture in the city,” he says. “I feel like our identity is kind of getting solidified, people know what we’re about more than ever.”

Jimmy contributed heavily to spreading Toronto culture outside of the city when he rebranded the city “The Six” - after its six boroughs and the area codes 416 and 647. Drake took the term global, and it’s common to see everything from dentists to guided tours adopting the name when strolling around areas like Queen Street West. “I feel like the idea is bigger than me,” he explains, humbly. “If everyone didn’t embrace it, it wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s like the Big Apple: I’m sure someone invented that, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s more about the city embracing it.” He admits that it hit him how much the term had really caught on when he saw it being used by the Toronto Raptors basketball team, then later found it had also been adopted by the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team.

“We’re not a mystery city anymore,” says Jay Whiss. “I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot. It’s time to transcend, I want my music to transcend everywhere.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photo: Olivia Seally

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