Fresh off the release of his excellent new album, Small World, we talk to Def3 about the Canadian rap scene, the benefits and downsides of guest features, and working with one of the greatest emcees of all time, Masta Ace.
An artist should be judged by their work, not where they are from. But inevitably, any rapper from outside of the US tends to get tagged as such. Do you get frustrated being referred to as a Canadian emcee, rather than just an emcee?
No it doesn’t bother me. I’ve always agreed with the “It ain’t where your from, it’s where your at” philosophy, and have always just let my music or performance speak for itself. I’m proud to have gotten to this point being from somewhere so outside the bubble. I also tour so much internationally that it doesn’t really matter where I live…I’m barely ever there anyways.
I guess it’s a difficult line to walk; you want your music to speak for itself, but at the same time there’s a sense of local pride in wanting to represent where you come from. How do you achieve the right balance?
I find my balance by just creating as much music and art as possible, and not worrying about what’s going on elsewhere. When I was first starting out, handling all aspects of promo, and securing distribution and so forth, it was really tough breaking into international markets, but now the internet has changed all that. I’ve also experienced both sides of the game from physical to digital and now streaming, but nowadays it’s a lot easier to get your music out there, especially in the past five years. I’m glad I went through those steps though because I appreciate it a lot more now. I used to focus on building a network and fan base locally, then nationally, then internationally. Nowadays a kid can literally be living in their parent’s basement in Moose Jaw and end up producing a song for Lil Wayne or Jay Z. Shit’s crazy!
What is the local scene like in Saskatchewan anyway?
Many local folks would disagree, but I think it’s awesome. It’s definitely witnessed a huge growth in the hip-hop scene since I started releasing music in the early 2000s. I might be a bit biased, but I truly think it’s one of the most supportive scenes in the country. There’s a great sense of community between all the artists and fans of all genres – there just seems to be something for everyone.
Local rap scenes have always fascinated me, where having to try harder to make an impact can produce huge amounts of creativity among a small circle of people. Rhymesayers in Minnesota for example, or the Columbus, Ohio, movement. Would you agree?
I couldn’t agree more. I used to compare Saskatchewan, especially Saskatoon and the Sideroad crew in the 2000s to the feel and vibe of Minneapolis and the whole Rhymesayers crew. Obviously smaller but I think the Canadian prairies and the Midwest have a lot in common from weather, its people, and the arts—they both harness a very unique sound. That has changed as of lately though. It seems the new generation has just kind of adopted a global sound no matter where your from. You got kids from Regina rapping like they are from Atlanta. Not that it’s a bad thing, I just find that its a bit harder to tell where artists are from these days just by hearing their music.
Small World has guest spots from Masta Ace and Del The Funky Homosapien. How vital is it from a marketing perspective to have features like this on an album?
It definitely helps get the music to more people and opens up more doors as far as press and blog features are concerned. But I’ve always made sure to have a balance of solo singles that hold their own as well, so the features are more like the icing on the cake. Although this album was a lot more feature-heavy than usual – due to the concept of the album being Small World – I still made sure to feature myself primarily on the singles I released.
I gotta say though, the weird thing about features In this day and age is, unfortunately most artists, especially rappers, are for sale. Times have changed that’s for sure. For example you could probably reunite The Pharcyde for $5k on your new album, as where back in their prime they would just say no. I get that rap is a business and people need to get paid, but If you have anywhere from fifty to a hundred grand, you can pretty easily buy yourself a verse from Snoop, or even Lil Wayne, in just a few phone calls. That’s the business now, but as a result, the nature of features doesn’t impress me like they used to.
This happens from the highest level of pop stars, all the way down to your favorite underground rapper for a couple hundred bucks. Not gonna lie, I’ve sold a few verses in my day, but have stopped and only decided to work with people I’m inspired by, or peers that want to work with me. Every feature I’ve ever had on any record was based on musical respect, and not a financial interaction. I’m not saying its a bad thing to do business wise…hell if I was rich, I’d probably buy a ton of verses from all my childhood idols, but to me it’s obvious when things aren’t organic, and I think when it is, the final result is much stronger…but to each their own.
This part of the industry does bug me a bit though, and it even extends into the performance side of things. A lot of people don’t realize that often the reason the openers at a shows are so wack is because they’ve paid to open, or even tour with the headliner, as opposed to earning it based on skill. And then there’s the whole hustle where promoters will stack 30 artists on the bill and get them to sell 20 tickets each to fill venues. I really enjoy seeing promoters and venues who book a small number of fitting openers and pay them properly. I think the term ‘paying your dues’ is a bit misconstrued these days but that’s just my two cents.
You’ve also toured with Masta Ace. What have you been able to learn from someone with such experience and longevity?
Touring with Ace was so refreshing and definitely a learning experience. Golden Era Hip-Hop unfortunately isn’t as supported as it once was, but there’s definitely still a lot of veteran artists keeping the scene alive, and making new fans. Ace is definitely one of them. At 50 years old he is killing it harder onstage, and in the studio than almost ever other rapper I know…there’s a reason he is still on the road as much as he is and still selling out venues around the globe. I think a lot of artists get lazy these days and just tour based on an old popular record or hit song, but Ace is still putting in work, dropping dope new music on the regular and even trying to out do his previous efforts.
I always learn a lot when I tour with artists that I really look up to because you see how they operate especially in a live setting. Ace’s show is a fine-tuned journey filled with hip-hop classics blended seamlessly with stage theatrics, breath control, and crowd participation. It definitely made me want to up my stage show. He’s also is extremely healthy and takes care of his mind, and body much more than most. In my 20s, I was going on tour for months on end partying hard every night, and feeling like total shit when I got home. I’ve definitely chilled out a lot since those days…for example, the last European tour I did, Ace and I, I think drank one night out of 20, and for the most part we were waking up at 7 or 8 am well rested, and going for runs through the city and getting to see so much more. Ace’s DJ and musical director Power Malu (Lyricist Lounge) is also huge fitness dude, so I was going out with him in almost every city for long runs through historical towns full of castles and old roads like Heidelburg, or even in the Swiss countryside.
They actually have a running group/community called Bridge Runners where they meet up with literally hundreds of other runners daily in New York and take runners of all levels on tours through the city. They even invite fans on tour to come running with them. To say the least It was very inspiring to be around him and his whole camp, both in a musical capacity, and just as people. Happy to call those guys family.
What can we expect next from you?
I’m just finishing up summer festival season but I have a ton of new music videos coming out for this album that I’m super excited about. I’ll also be touring heavily through the fall and winter, both nationally and internationally. I’ve also been collaborating with a lot of artists in the electronic world as of late, so aside from a grip of upcoming cameos on their projects, there’s also a remix album being released with a track off Small World, from a label called Westwood Recordings, which is run by a group called the Funk Hunters. I”m really excited to see how the songs evolve into a different genre, so expect that in the next 2-3 months. I’ve also begun writing and recording for a new EP that I’m aiming to release for free in December, which definitely displays an evolution from my previous sounds. Trust, there’s lots more music coming your way!