Turntables are spinning, mikes are lined up and emcees are revving to rap their way into a new relationship — with their record labels.
Hip hop artists, especially those who pen contracts, are on the cusp of entering a new era, according to Canada’s top rap export Kardinal Offishall.
“The climate of hip hop in Canada has changed,” said Offishall in a recent interview.
Hip hop started out as a garage art. Rappers, beat-boxers, DJs and emcees would lay down tracks in basement studios.
It’s a form of music with deep independent roots, the Toronto-based hip hopper added.
“When we first started to get our foot in the door, hip hop music, in general, was really based on the whole independent movement,” he said.
“It was all about putting out your own independent singles and doing it all yourself.”
But hip hop wasn’t destined to bounce off basement walls forever.
From anonymous to notorious, the past 20 years have seen hip hop explode onto pop charts across the planet.
As rap gained momentum and moved into the mainstream, independent magazines and college radio programs in Canada and the US folded, said Offishall.
The indy movement lost ground.
“It changed the way you had to go about getting your music to the masses,” he said in a phone interview Friday.
Hip hop became commercial.
With the world’s largest labels vying for the biggest names in rap, power has been stripped from artists by multinational record companies, said Offishall.
This second era is currently coming to a fast close.
“Right now we’re definitely in a transitional phase within music again,” he said.
“Now there’s going to be a shift of power back to the artist.
“More and more, everyday, the record companies are losing a lot more power and the artists are gaining a lot more power.”
Cyberspace is a tool emcees are using to direct their music back to its roots.
“Now we’re into a new age where, almost as quickly as you can be in your home studio and create a song, you can get it out to the world,” he said.
The challenge becomes, how do you get people to listen?
Although hip hop’s signature deep-bass beats have rattled club walls throughout the world, virtually every big name is from the US.
For artists trying to break into an already-saturated market south of the 49th parallel, simply being Canadian is not an asset.
However, federal grants and arts funding programs do a pretty good job building Canadian talent.
“We’ve always been able to get our stuff out there way easier than any other country we’ve ever visited,” said Offishall, against a tinny background of ringing phones and muffled voices.
“Independent artists here, we have videos on MuchMusic,” he said.
“Depending on the quality, you could even be on high rotation. Meaning, whether you’re a Coldplay or a Kardinal, you could be getting heavy airplay.”
Not so for hip hop hopefuls in the US.
“On MTV, if you’re not signed to a major label, you’re not going to get that heavy airplay,” he added.
“On top of that, if you’re not signed to a label, you probably don’t have to money to produce a high-quality video.
Independent musicians — rappers, rockers and classical guitarists alike — have a chance to make it big in Canada, he said.
“That’s amazing. And we really need to realize where we live and take advantage of all the things that are helping out artists in this country.”
A born and bred Torontonian, Canadian identity is a recurring theme in Offishall’s music.
In his earliest albums he was among the first to popularize the term “T dot,” a hopped-up version of Toronto that jives with hip hop beats.
One of his first hits, Bakardi Slang, brought the street language of Toronto to radio waves in the States.
“Yo, we don’t say ‘you know what I’m sayin’’/ T dot says ‘ya dun know.’”
Blending Jamaican patois with American “slanguage” and a load of Canadian diction, Offishall’s use of language acts as a symbol for his music — he mixes his current life with his history and stirs in his hope for the future.
He performs at the Yukon Arts Centre Tuesday night, the next stop in his cross-Canada journey.
“I would always profess to have been across Canada many times, you know, since the first time we went on tour in 1996,” said Offishall.
“But I’ve never been to Whitehorse before.”
In fact, the furthest north Offishall has been is Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“We’ve been so many places, it’s not too often that we get to have a brand new experience, so we’re pretty hyped,” he said about his first show north of 60.
“We all think it’s pretty dope, you know, being able to spread the hip hop gospel up there in the Yukon.”
What kind of gospel will Offishall be offering?
“A vibe I’d like to have every day of my life,” he said.
Trying to infuse everyone who lines the seats of his shows with certain feelings and images, Offishall also hopes his life can be a positive example for his younger fans.
Offishall has travelled extensively in Canada, performing for youth who face a wide range of issues.
“Whether it’s in the inner city in Toronto — where there’s a whole lot of different things kids are going through, whether it’s gangs or violence — and we’ve done shows out in Winnipeg where there’s a lot more First Nations people.
“We’ve definitely done shows where the audience might be filled with more kids that are going through things in life.”
Although the show itself doesn’t change, sometimes one good experience is enough to carry a person through dark times, said Offishall.
“You can change things very easily from a negative to a positive in life,” he said.
“I believe that a lot of kids know that, and a lot of kids have the power to do good.”
Young people are battling against a daily bombardment of negative messages from movies, TV and music, he added.
“Sometimes all it takes is the right dude or the right female to say certain things.”
Sometimes the right thing just means a dose of honesty and some good break beats.
There is very little in his life that is more sacred to Offishall than his music.
Translating experiences into rhymes and rhythm, his tunes reflect his own life.
The future direction of his songs is unclear, he said.
New tracks will explore new trails he’s travelled since the last record.
One day, though, he hopes the world will know his name.
“We have, just within our camp, the world domination plan,” he said.
“There hasn’t really been a Canadian rapper so far who’s been on the map heavy, heavy, heavy around the world.
“That’s one of my goals, to be a household name in households around the world.”
Offishall will take the mike at the arts centre Tuesday night. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets cost $10.