The West End Cultural Centre’s home is a former church located in the not-quite-gentrified Spence neighbourhood near downtown Winnipeg. The band posters lining the wall confirm the pedigree of the venue: everyone from Montreal’s Planet Smashers to Loudon Wainwright has played here. But the music of Winnipeg’s Most, a three-man native rap crew, is beyond even those eclectic boundaries.
On a recent Wednesday night, Charlie Fettah stomped around the stage, spitting tales of drugs, money and the dangerous allure of both into the microphone held tight against his lips. “The game got a funny way of pulling me back / Try to stay on the right side by making these tracks / Get away from the bad life, pushing it back / But I’m addicted to the fast life, I gotta get stacked.” Fettah and band members Jon-C and Brooklyn sported standard-issue rap gear: gold chains, tattoos, baseball caps turned sideways, oversized pants and T-shirts.
The crowd of about 200 was almost entirely native—young kids, women pushing strollers, entire families and, in particular, teenage girls in crop tops and too much makeup. They bumped to the thick, droning beats and crowded the stage, mouthing the lyrics and shrieking whenever these included the “Northside,” the poor neighbourhood in the city’s north end mythologized on the band’s first album, Northside Connection.
All rap artists worth their gold have a crew, and as the lights went up, Winnipeg’s Most went to work, frisbeeing copies of their CD into the crowd. Their mike cords tangled, the band signed baseball hats, T-shirts and just about anything else thrust at them. This was tame by comparison; at a show not long before, they’d signed chests and foreheads. Someone ripped Fettah’s shirt right off his back.
There is a great, thumping noise emanating out of Winnipeg these days, propelled by a crop of artists bent on telling tales of their rough, windswept city. The city famous for the “Winnipeg Sound” of Neil Young, the Guess Who and a more recent crop of well-regarded indie rock bands is becoming better known for its beats and rhymes than its drums and guitars. There’s another twist: almost all these artists are native.
Winnipeg’s Most, which recently brought home Best Group and Best CD honours from the Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards, has a rabidly devoted fan base. A YouTube video of the band performing its first single has been viewed nearly 440,000 times since last December. Streetz FM, the city’s all-hip-hop station, began broadcasting at about the same time; it has Winnipeg’s Most on heavy rotation, along with native rappers Drezus, Manik and Young Kidd, among others.
Not all of the city’s rappers are native. There’s the Lytics, a four-man brothers-and-a-cousin group whose self-titled EP is a breezy, hook-heavy delight–De La Soul’s Three Feet High And Rising for the parka set. And there are the souled-out breakbeats of Magnum K.I., plus the grouchy nihilism of Pip Skid.
But natives garner the most attention. Rap—specifically, gangster rap—looms large in the city’s native community, which represents about 10 per cent of Winnipeg’s population. Just as rap thrived amidst the racial strife and decrepitude of Los Angeles, Aboriginal rappers have found a muse in Winnipeg, a city with a homicide rate 143 per cent above the national average.
“People feel like there’s something against them all the time, that there’s racism, that the police treat us differently,” says Lorenzo (Leonard Sumner), a hulking rapper originally from the Little Saskatchewan reserve north of the city. “It’s almost like [L.A. gangster rap pioneers] NWA in the early ’90s. That’s Winnipeg now, and instead of black people it’s native people.”
Native rap isn’t new: War Party, the genre’s pioneers, formed in the mid-nineties. What has made it increasingly popular and marketable is the quality of the acts now coming out of the community, as well as the burgeoning promotional muscle to bring bigger shows to the city: promoter Cass Elliott recently arrived from Vancouver, and has since brought in the likes of Pharoahe Monch and the Beatnuts.
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