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Native Youth Are Remixing Hip Hop Into An Art Form All Their Own
by Shane Breaker
Native hip hop - what is it, who's doing it, and who's listening?
Alongside more traditional music genres commonly associated with Native American peoples (eg, drums, flutes, and mesmerizing vocals), hip hop is presently the fastest growing craze among Native youth in Canada. Native hip hop has been on the rise for some time now, and from urban centres like Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver to reservations across the country, hip hop has become a substitute culture for young people, and rap has become their voice. Native youth have been forming posse circles, adopting hip hop elements (attitude, slang, and clothes), and transforming them into something all their own. By contributing their own realities and experiences back into hip hop culture, Native youth have adapted it as a vehicle to represent their identity; in particular, as people who relate to hip hop's Black American roots and accompanying lexis against depression, segregation, and racism. And so the hip hop form, already a venue for the remixing of records and samples and loops, has become a venue for remixing cultures as well.
Native hip hop is a relatively new development in the long line of diverse forms that have graced hip hop's evolution. And recently, notable groups like Warparty, Red Power Squad, Tru Rez Crew, and Redd Nation have been treading their way into the mainstream domain with their rap adaptations: taking advantage of hip hop's potential as a vehicle for mass awareness about the plight of Native youth, and for expressing their individualism, collectivity, and pride.
It's a national fact that Native youth are the fastest growing demographic age group in Canada, and Karmen Omeosoo aka "Kool-Ayd" of Warparty (Alberta's essential Native hip hop group) agrees that more and more Native youth are identifying with hip hop culture: "It's becoming more predominate on every reservation that I've been to," he explains, "and there's not an emcee there who doesn't want to get up and bust a rap, or a whole crew of break dancers... people coming up and showing us their note books and graffiti... it's becoming a pretty big staple. Everywhere we go, the hip hop culture is breeding there, it's kind of crazy."
Warparty has taken a lead in the scene for the past eight years. They have three albums in the bag, plus two awards for best hip hop group and one for best video from the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. They have also been featured on radio, Much Music, and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and have performed live across the continent in front of a growing following. These successful musicians have opened for acts like Ice-T, Wu-Tang Clan, and Choclair, and headlined events and festivals like The North American Indigenous Games.
Kool-Ayd (along with Warparty's other members, Mic Noble and Girlie Emcee) has been shaping his craft for some time now. But he doesn't actually like to be labeled as a "Native hip hop" artist, insisting that hip hop is global and that categorizing different types of hip hop is wrong. "I think a lot of these Native groups are doing it because it feels good," he explains, "It feels like the right thing to do."
Warparty started their hip hop career voicing a political stand against the government and speaking out about social depression in lyrics drawn from their experience of living on the Hobbema reserve in central Alberta. They were quickly labeled as a radical group, and got the attention they were looking for. But now, with their third cd The Greatest Natives from the North just released, they are taking an easier approach. Their newer lyrics are more about expressing the good life, hanging and keeping it real, while still not straying away from Native pride and purpose. "I think Native hip hop will definitely become something out there that people will want to cop," says Kool-Ayd, echoing this sense of positivity. "We coming. Get ready - Native hip hop is blowing up right now."
Junior Simpson a.k.a Windreamer is a Web master who runs www.nativehiphop.net, a resource for musicians and fans that offers a who's who of the scene, including links and free Mp3 downloads. Windreamer, who hails from the Coliville Reservation in Washington State, has been operating his Web site since 1998, and has built its reputation as a reliable source about new artists, new releases, and his personal take on current issues. There are also chat rooms and links to other sites that promote Native events around the country.
"It is a collective effort, [put together by] myself and what [other] people contribute," says Windreamer, "whether it be tips, tricks, graphics, or news about who's doing what. I just want people to be informed, and the site has been a good way of seeing that carried out. Believe it or not, this all comes from someone who is self-taught in Web site building. Just a Native trying to do good, that's all."
Because he has a handle on what's going on in the Native hip hop scene, I asked Windreamer to offer his opinion on why Native youth are presently taking the hip hop avenue: "I can speculate," he says, "My thoughts are that this is a new generation coming up, and these days hip hop music is a big part of how things are handled and presented in anything from shoes, to food, to cars. Natives are going to pick it up and do what they do with it.
"It seems that if something goes on that is run by and includes Natives, then all types of folks are going to be interested. This hip hop thing is no different. It is interesting, though, to see the reactions of people who hear something nice and are vibing, and then all of a sudden realize that it is a Native showing versatility, talent, and the drive to participate in this universal culture of hip hop."
It's evident that the Native hip hop scene is on its way to becoming a strong musical entity in the spectrum of hip hop music. Canadian acts like Vancouver's os12, Manitoba's Da Skepla Squad, Alberta's Redd Nation and Red Power Squad, and Ontario's Tru Rez Crew are all solid testimony that the Native hip hop vibe is in full swing and ready to be heard by the masses. Through this music, the Native voice is gaining new forms of integrity. Hip hop represents the evolution of a generation finding a voice against their critics, using words and beats to destroy old perceptions of the "Indian", and to generate widespread awareness about the Native people of the new millennium. Hype-cha!
Shane Breaker is the editor of Alberta's New Tribe Magazine. He is also an accomplished sound engineer and audio artist. Visit REMIX's Audio Reconstruction Zone to hear Shane's remix work entitled "Neo-Genesis".