It’s hard out here for a kid.
Sometimes it’s tough being the new kid. And when you’re the new kid in an MC battle, expect to hear about it. Especially when you’re a 16-year-old high school student.
“They say stuff like, ‘Go back to playing with Fisher-Price,’” says Matt Arab, AKA MC Quake, about his battle opponents’ lyrics. “One guy once said something like: ‘This kid’s not even born yet, that makes him an abortion.’ But I don’t let it get to me.”
Despite being barely old enough to drive, Arab has quickly made a name for himself in the Halifax hip-hop scene as one of the sharpest battle MCs around—regardless of age. Arab made his mark at the 2004 DJ Olympics, placing second and holding his own against now three-time champion MC Phakt. He went on to win other battles over the next few months and placed third in this year’s DJOs against MCs nearly a decade his senior. He also got a taste of the high life last summer, opening for Shawn Desman in Cape Breton with his group Fax 4. Not bad for the new kid.
“That was one of my greatest experiences I’ve had,” Arab says of being the opener at a big show. “We performed to about 500 people and when we came out on stage, we didn’t know what to expect. But all these people started to swarm us afterwards, asking us for autographs. I was like, ‘I’m going back to school on Monday just like you.’”
Arab began writing lyrics a few years after his babysitter’s older children introduced him to Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle at age 10. Although he first listened to mainstream artists such as 50 Cent and Nelly, he’s become a quick study of underground acts like Talib Kweli and the Cunnylinguists.
Rather than stop at being a good battle MC, Arab has been honing his skills with various projects. He and his bandmates just finished recording Ink-Lined, Fax 4’s debut, to be released in December. He also received an emerging artist grant for $2,000 from the federal government to start recording his debut solo disc with producer/performer Luke Boyd, AKA Classified.
“The first time I heard a demo I thought he had potential,” Boyd says. “If someone had told me this guy was 25, I would have thought he was pretty good.”
His solo debut Natural Disaster should see a 2006 release. Until then, Arab plans on improving his lyrical skills, taking down a few battle rappers and passing grade 11 math.
“I just want to make music that I like,” Arab says. “I don’t want to sell out and make something that sounds popular just to sell records.”
Sporadic quirkiness and math-rock leanings
Anyone who has caught this act in the past year is asking themselves the same question: “When can I have a recorded version of ‘Unnatural’ to call my own?” The thematic rock gem is the stand-alone favourite among more than a few songs that instantly hook audiences into Great Plains’ catalogue.
“It will be on the first record, which is going to be called Home of the New Totem,” says frontman Sean MacGillivray, who counts this trio among his multiple band associations in the city. “It’s going to come out hopefully in the new year, I am hoping to get it out earlier than that but my touring commitments in Burdocks have caused me to postpone the project a number of times.”
The only group MacGillivray fronts—he drums for Burdocks and HotShotRobot, and plays bass in Jenn Grant’s band—Great Plains draws influences from the intense math-rock format of The Constantines, earnest sociological lyricism of John K. Sampson and the sporadic quirkiness of Ben Folds. Along with bassist Lachie MacDonald and drummer Jeffers Lennox, the group aspires to construct some of Halifax’s most catchy and thought-provoking melodies. They are a force with an engaging live presence who came together through chance meetings.
“Lachie is a friend from Cape Breton who I had been playing in the same circles with for a long time, and I was a big fan of his playing,” he says. “We took out a want ad on Halifaxlocals for a drummer and the first guy we tried was completely amazing, this guy Jeffers Lennox. There are at least one or two people in bands right now that are so jealous at us right now for having such an awesome drummer.”
MacGillivray brings their songs to life with impressive vocal range and penmanship, attaching a human quality to issues that personally affect him. “Pink and Orange,” for instance, references pollution in the sky in MacGillivray and MacDonald’s native Cape Breton (Lennox is a Newmarket, Ontario, transplant) and “Sing This Science” addresses Halifax’s volatile music scene.
“I try to write about really unconventional things. One of the things that is most important to me in this band is the lyrics,” says MacGillivray. “I need to feel really strongly about what I am singing. It’s that much easier if you think that what you’re singing is of merit.”
As for his many other projects—from graphic design to live sound engineering—MacGillivray says their growing fanbase need not be concerned about his leadership in the group.
“Some of my other commitments are quite compatible,” he says. “It comes and goes. Everyone else in Burdocks has other stuff on the go, too.”
Cheer up, emo kids—life should be about dancing
While most bands are trying to make some sort of living at this thing called music, mod-rocking foursome The Stance are making Halifax dance again, strictly for the fun of it.
“As of now, the music thing is mostly for kicks,” says vocalist Mark MacAulay. “We haven’t really thought about anything further than some locals shows, and maybe a record. We’d like to continue on if things go well, but our expectations are pretty modest.”
Offering something dissimilar from anything else happening in the clubs downtown, The Stance was created out of the compromise between the leftovers of distinct sounding Dartmouth high school bands. MacAulay and drummer Matthew Nicoll were members of The Candy Girls, and brother/guitarist James MacAulay and bassist Jeff Leadbetter came from a group named The Murrays. All four have known one another since middle school.
“The Murrays were more of a punk band, and The Candy Girls were a rockabilly trio,” he says. “That’s where the sound came from.”
Now students at Dalhousie University—ages scattered between 20 and 22—their sound has gradually tightened and evolved to take on specific influences.
“As for music we listen to, mostly we’re fans of old rhythm and blues, soul and garage rock,” MacAulay says. “Mod bands like The Action and The Small Faces had a huge impact on our sound. We never got into the mohair suit look, but our obsession with early R&B is beyond question.”
By and large, concert goers have yet to experience The Stance due to the fact they have only played three bar shows and list a mere five songs on New Music Canada as their only available material.
“The songs were recorded in a basement on a four-track cassette recorder,” says MacAulay. “The mixer we used smelled like an old man. Our friend gave it to us.”
Those fortunate enough to have seen them, however, will attest their anonymity should not last for long. They appear destined to bring back what they refer to in their bio as “the all-night dance party” with more shows, and eventually what is sure to be a much anticipated album.
“There are lots of great bands in the city that we’d love to play with,” MacAulay says. “As soon as we can scrape together some cash, we’ll probably get to work on an EP. It’s going to be called The Stance Shall Inherit the Earth.”
Two for the price of one
In a city where rock is king, Scribbler blends right in. Kind of. With a sound that encompasses the local flavours of Burdocks and Thrush Hermit and other varied styles from The Peter Parkers to Sonic Youth, the quartet (brothers/guitarists Craig and Alex Currie, bassist Adrian Morrison and percussionist Franc Lopes) is preparing to add another element into the mix.
“All four of us basically contribute to the songwriting in the band,” says Alex Currie. “Each one of us has our own distinctive style—I tend to write heavier distortion-laden songs, my brother tends to stick more on the folkier side of things, and Franc has recently been stepping out from behind the kit and singing with a heavy punk influence. But when all four of us get together to record, we usually don’t pick up conventional instruments at all, and rely on ‘homemade’ sound producers such as baby monitors, cheap vocal distortion boxes and children’s toys to create our sound collages. We’re kind of two bands in one, and plan on releasing two separate collections of songs really soon: one pop, one noise.”
Scribbler’s division of sound is far from prevalent in their live show at the moment, yet their forthcoming pair of recordings will present both sides of the band. They hope to release Prussia, their rock project, in December, and an as-of-yet untitled cassette of noise jams and sound collages that will be distributed for free in the coming weeks. Yet, instead of creating alter-egos to avoid confusion as to which material the band is presenting (a la Attack Mode/The Hold), Alex states that Scribbler is Scribbler, regardless of the style they emit at any given moment.
“As of right now, our show mainly consists of the pop material and the noise is just a recording project,” he says. “But soon, we hope to have a balance of the two in our shows. We already play it over the PA while we make our various stage switches and different tuning adjustments. It’s just hard to get a proper sound on a live stage out of baby monitors, trash and toys. Proper sound checks and better microphones is probably our best bet to get that in check. We’ve tried various things in the past such as condenser mics and different stage set-ups. Hopefully our current slew of shows will allow us to acquire the proper gear to get the sound we want. It’s an extremely expensive hobby.”
Bringing high-intensity punk right into your face.
“So many people want to start a band, but they can’t find the drummer, they can’t afford the drum kit or they can’t play their instruments very well,” says Uber Destructor. “What we’re saying is that none of that stuff really matters.”
Formed out of a mutual admiration for horror movies, CKDU and New York City punk, Gilbert Switzer came together a year and a half ago. Employing a DIY approach, they hacked out a sound using what they knew. With old friends Ash F and Poison Ivy trading drum and guitar duties and Uber Destructor fronting the act, they began creating both songs and an agenda that they felt would fill a hole they had noticed in the local music scene.
“We saw a lot of shows where it was very dour, dreary,” says Ash F. “We wanted to add something to that, we wanted people to smile.”
The group quickly delivered on this promise. With the primal beats of their stripped-down drum set, ragged guitar tones and wailing vocals, the band quickly grabbed attention for their intense and confrontational live show.
“We want to be like an advancing column of soldiers attacking the audience,” says Ash F. “We all line up in a row at the front of the stage because we all want to be close to the audience. Ideally we’d like to play on the floor but that’s not possible sometimes.”
Now after touring, releasing two recordings and earning a growing reputation, the group has become as focused on developing their audience’s reaction to their music as developing the music itself. From proliferating their self-created Crazy Wave movement, to encouraging a more open and honest live experience, they seem to hold both creation and the reaction in even hands.
While they have been happy with the response they have gotten so far, their sights are still set much higher. Poison Ivy is quite to the point in describing this goal. “We want everyone on the ground on their back and we want juices flowing out of their nether regions,” she says. “I want all the guys to have erect penises and all the women to have their nipples hard.”
It’s not exactly a mission statement that will appeal to the masses, but for a select few it represents the kind of freedom that died in the closing pages of Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me.
Alpha Flight DJ scratches for style—and substance
If it wasn’t for the generosity of a fellow hip-hop fan, Kevin Bryden (AKA Y-Rush) might not have competed in the b-boy/b-girl competition at the recent DJ Olympics. Bryden first got into the genre when he and a few fellow high school classmates wanted to learn how to breakdance. After taking a few lessons, his instructor then showed him the way to hip-hop enlightenment.
“He lent us a video and the DJs on there inspired me,” Bryden says over a hot chocolate at a local coffee shop. “And a friend had” the seminal turntable video “Return of the DJ, Vol. 1. He put that on cassette for me and it was just so bizarre sounding. That’s kind of how I got my roots in hip-hop, I guess.”
Like many DJs before him, Bryden purchased a set of turntables and began to practise in an attempt to emulate the heroes on Return of the DJ such as Q-Bert and Roc Raider. And now it’s paying off. Currently a math major at Dalhousie, Bryden has been one of the most visible turntablists in the city in the last year. He plays with rising hip-hop squad Alpha Flight, which holds down a weekly residence at the Khyber Club on “Droppin’ Science” Wednesdays. In the past year he’s opened for underground MC J-Live and backed up Vancouver via Halifax hip-hop legend Josh Martinez.
But Bryden’s skills on the decks are the reason why people have been talking. He recently performed at the prestigious DJ competition Canadian DMC Finals in Hamilton, after winning the Moncton preliminary. Although he didn’t place, he came home and took top honours in the DJ Olympics in the turntablist category.
“It was great to be finally recognized as a champion in Halifax because I hadn’t even placed in the top three in past DJ Olympics,” Bryden says. “It was a whole ego-stroker just to have everyone congratulating you all the time. Now I can just focus more on style instead of just trying to win.”
With upcoming appearances on records by Jay Bizzy and Joe Buck, Bryden also plans to release a mix tape and wants to get started on a self-produced album. After he graduates with his degree, hip-hop will become his number one priority.
“Putting records out, absolutely,” he says of his goals. “Playing in cities outside of North America, for sure. World DMC Champion? There are people who are so technical…but I’m not ruling it out either. I’m just going to let it all come to me.”
Internationally flavoured hip-hoppers look outside the local box
Guitarist and pianist Dave Dalley—of hip-hop collective The Chronicles—carries strict convictions when it comes to exposing his genre beyond the confines of Atlantic Canada.
“We can sit here and name thousands of reasons why it hasn’t happened,” he says of why the scene has yet to break nationally. “The fact is, a group of dangerous acts have to be assimilated and thrown beyond the borders. Instead of doing what’s already been done, artists need to have their own creative voice, act with professionalism and get behind one another.”
The group, whose song “Strugglin’” garnered a 2005 ECMA nomination for Urban Single Track Recording of the Year, is committing itself to doing just that. The Chronicles’ infrequent, but collaboration-intensive performances are developed to be spectacles as opposed to the same old thing. Permanent members of the group—including Dalley, vocalists Jarreau Hayward and Nhuri Bashir, guitarist Kevin Salter (formerly of Sketch Cab) and drummer Ashley Chalmers—invite as many as five extra musicians on stage at any given time. Live instruments are another way The Chronicles try to steer away from convention.
“Traditionally and typically, beats that rappers rap over come from samples,” Dalley says. “If we need a flutist, we can get one. If we want a violinist, we’ll get one. The feel of a live instrumentalist there for real doing it creates a vibe that is hard to capture when you’re using MIDI clips from someone else’s song.”
Like their progressive contemporaries in the hip-hop genre from other parts of Canada, K-OS and K’Naan, The Chronicles mix an international flavour with Dalley and Chalmers, who are Newfoundlanders, and Salter who hails from Ontario. Hayward and Bashir founded the group in their home in Bermuda before seeking additional members.
“The group started in 2003,” he says. “Jarreau at the time was rapping over mix tapes Nhuri would make. They were introduced to myself through mutual friends.”
The quintet’s demo was released for the sole purpose of attaining an ECMA nod, but will be followed by a full-length effort in spring 2006. A tour is currently being finalized for shortly after Christmas.
“This whole time we’ve been saving our pennies,” says Dalley, “so this album can be properly distributed and marketed.”
Cross-pollination breaks down genre wall
Hive Mind have been abuzz with plans to break into the hearts of Halifax showgoers over the past 18 months. Whereas there aren’t many other bands in town who share their heavy jam-jazz-rock sound, the trio performs with everyone from The Dean Malenkos to The Jimmy Swift Band to Universal Soul, in efforts to turn different crowds on to their music.
“We’re just trying to get our music out there,” says bassist Aaron Cooper. “We’ve been getting more focused with our sound, but it’s still not easy to find a lot of bands that play music similar to ours. I think it’s good to play shows where people are exposed to more than one type of music anyway. Sometimes, I find the music community in this town can be segregated.”
To help other local acts in similar situations, Cooper recently spearheaded a compilation disc project featuring his band alongside Down with the Butterfly, Jenn Grant, Picture Show and State of the Art. The disc was circulated at the band’s jam spot, The Rock Garden, and at the Evolve Festival.
“I basically wanted to cross-promote all of our bands together,” he says. “It was a good way for us to get some of our music out there for audiences that might not hear it otherwise. We may make some more for future shows or we may move forward to new projects. Right now, we’re just concentrating on an album for next year.”
Earlier this summer, Hive Mind told The Coast that they were planning to record and release a double EP, showcasing their groove on one disc and their rock on the other. However, Cooper says that a change in vision might lead to a more suitable first foray into the wide world of band merchandise.
“We were talking about the double EP for a long time and still think it’s a great idea, but we decided towards just a full-length album to start,” he says. “We all figured a strong full-length may be the best introduction we could give people. We have most of the songs written now and have been making plans for recording. We’ll be working on it in the new year and it should be out by late summer, more than likely. We’re taking our time so that it will be done right.”