When Yudii Mercredi and Nick Johnson were young, their elders would tell them stories.
The First Nation elders recalled the days when they lived off the land, travelling by dog sleds and canoes, not Ski-Doos.
Now that Mercredi is 21 and Johnson is 24, they have become storytellers themselves. But unlike their elders, they tell tales accompanied by music provided by beat-boxing and MP3 files.
A few months ago, the Whitehorse residents formed a hip-hop duo, Vision Quest. On Friday night, they’ll showcase their songs at Frostbite Music Festival’s battle of the bands.
Johnson and Mercredi’s interest in hip hop began when they were young. While in elementary school, Johnson convinced his teacher to let him play a cassette he made of mixed songs for the class during lunch. It had “old school hip hop,” he said of that first playlist that included tracks by the Beastie Boys and Young MC’s “Bust a Move.”
Mercredi would listen to tunes on his mother’s Walkman, but he found he didn’t enjoy country music. When he got his own CD player for Christmas, he filled it with discs by Dr. Dre and Eminem.
It’s fair to say Eminem’s songs inspire the two as much, if not more, than Southern Tutchone or Gwitch’in tales. Mercredi is from the Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation, while Johnson is Southern Tutchone from Burwash Landing.
Their interest in freestyling began during high school. At parties, a friend would start beat-boxing, and then people would get up and start rapping whatever came to their minds.
Johnson’s passion increased after watching 8 Mile, the 2002 film starring Eminem as Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, a white boy from Detroit who wants to become a rapper. “I had to get good at freestyling because I just loved (the movie) so much,” he said, before the two burst into lines from “Lose Yourself,” the Academy Award-winning song Eminem wrote for the film.
Vision Quest’s lyrics aren’t filled with traditional stories of trapping and hunting around Old Crow or Burwash Landing.
Instead, their song “Embrace the Vision” describes what their generation enjoys doing: playing Halo and smoking marijuana in the basement, “filling in the zone / takin’ ladies home.”
The song is posted on What’s Up Yukon’s website to promote the Peoples’ Choice Award the magazine is sponsoring at the event.
The duo want their songs to be relevant and to describe what it’s like to grow up now in the Yukon. One of Mercredi’s earliest public performances came at his Grade 11 talent show at F.H. Collins when he performed a number he wrote about his teachers and friends. They all liked it, he said.
But as their audience expands, they’re starting to learn not everyone may approve of their stories. “Embrace the Vision” describes the rush from marijuana, speeding past cops “dressed in black like Johnny Cash,” with a handful of profanities thrown into the mix.
“We’re definitely starting to take (our lyrics’ content) to mind more now that we’re getting recognized more,” said Johnson. But they don’t want to stray away from what they want to write about, and what people like to hear.
“I guess there’s two ways to do a song. You could do a song, like, really clean, aimed at a certain audience, or you could do a song (about) what you’re feeling at the time,” he said.
Bringing Youth Towards Equality, which is helping produce the battle of bands event, says that profane lyrics are fine, as long as swearing doesn’t make up the majority of the song.
“Obviously, we’re not here to judge them,” said Chris Rider, BYTE’s executive director. In the past, they asked an act to submit new material because of too much profanity.
“I don’t think it can be said that we’re promoting any of the lyrics in their songs,” Rider said when asked if he thinks people may think that by including the duo on the lineup, BYTE is endorsing using drugs or speeding from police. “Unlike a lot of hip-hop music, (Vision Quest’s) lyrics, they’re not homophobic, and they’re not racist, and they’re not derogatory towards any people, and so, from that perspective, we are really happy to get behind them as great, passionate young musicians.”
And their music is about more than doing drugs and playing video games. “Line for Line” is really just about verbal wordplay, said Mercredi. And even “Embrace the Vision” talks about bigger issues.
It mentions their love of the Yukon: “867 is the area code / This is the place where we live and roam / Ain’t nothing like home sweet home / Making a living at 40 below,” they rap before describing “living the traditional life” and beliefs in the “Maker of Life / He’s the Man in the Moon / She’s the flower that blooms.”
Their First Nation culture is something they want to explore in upcoming songs. While neither have attended any Idle No More protests, the movement could provide a lot of material for future songs, said Johnson.
They’ve been busy trying to find new beats for songs. They’re hoping to put together 10 songs for an EP, and are about halfway there.
One song underway deals with a timeless topic, relevant for this time of year: how men can understand what women are thinking.
The battle of the bands takes place Friday night at the Yukon College Woodshed. Six bands, made up of Yukoners under 30, will perform everything from hip hop to brass tunes.
The winner will receive recording time at Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow studio and a chance to play at Frostbite on Saturday. All acts will receive a prize. Some items up for grabs include photography with Gary Bremner Photography, a music video from JHall Productions and gift certificates from Unitech. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door.
Contact Meagan Gillmore at