A decade into the Drake era, it might be difficult to remember that Canada wasn’t always a force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. For a long stretch there, the Great White North was considered the laughably square antithesis to everything cool about rap. “Back in the ’90s, people would call music ‘Canadian’ as an insult,” Vancouver rapper Red1 remembers. “Like, ‘Yo, I don’t know, that just sounds so…Canadian.’”
That all changed in 1998, when Red1’s fast-ascending group Rascalz—alongside a cross-country crew of emcees—delivered “Northern Touch,” a hip-hop anthem so indelible, with a music video so bombastic, that it instantly became the song of the summer in a country where a friggin’ Nova Scotian fiddler was considered a musical bad boy.1 In one swift, wholly no-tooorious motion, “Northern Touch” launched a baker’s dozen worth of careers, from Kardinal Offishall to Director X; legitimized an ostracized genre to a skeptical nation; and firmly entrenched itself in the hearts and (later) iPods of an entire generation of Canadians.
To mark the seminal hit’s 20th anniversary, we tracked down all of the heavy hitters involved—that’s right: Rascalz, Checkmate, Kardinal2 and Thrust, Cho-CLAIR comin’ down wit’ the…you get it—to uncover the full story behind the song Seth Rogen once aptly christened “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of Canadian rap music.”
Part I: Setting the Scene
The early to mid-1990s was a barren period for mainstream Canadian hip-hop. There hadn’t been a homegrown rap hit since Maestro Fresh Wes’s “Let Your Backbone Slide”3 in 1989, and there was little support for the genre throughout the domestic music industry.
Craig “Big C” Mannix (manager of A&R, Sony Music Entertainment Canada): The industry did not understand that urban music—black music—was commercially viable in this country. When I got my first label job in ’93, the head of the marketing department told me: “I don’t understand why we even have you in here as an urban specialist. There’s not enough black people in Canada to justify marketing this music.” That was shocking. My answer to her was “You think only black people listen to rap music?”
Checkmate: Canadian hip-hop was very fragmented at the time. There was no hip-hop scene anywhere but Toronto. Everything else, including in Vancouver, was very indie and very disjointed.
Alan Cross (host of The Ongoing History of New Music): For many years, it wasn’t practical to have a hip-hop-based radio station in Canada. In order to have a Canadian radio licence in the late ’80s and ’90s, you had to devote 30 per cent of your playlist to Canadian content. There simply weren’t enough quality homegrown hip-hop acts to make it legally feasible to meet that quota. We had to wait for a critical mass of talent to break through before radio could embrace this music 24/7.
Part II: Origin Stories
In the late ’80s, a collective of rappers and breakdancers called Ragamuffin Rascalz formed in Vancouver, taking on other crews at parties across the city. By the early ’90s, the group had (thankfully) dropped the “Ragamuffin” and whittled itself down to four key members: Kemo, the producer/DJ; Red1 and Misfit, the emcees; and Sol Guy, an aspiring rapper-turned-manager.
Kemo: I met Red1 in Grade 8, but I didn’t like him at first. He was an arrogant little 13-year-old. By Grade 12, though, we’d reconnected—I was really into DJing, and he was into rapping. It was a natural fit.
Red1: We met Misfit and Sol Guy at different dances around the city, and we all started hanging out. Sol was one of my best friends, and we’d meet up every night and write raps. He went by ‘Sol G the Boy Wonder’ in those days. He could write lyrics but had a bit of a…timing issue when it came to laying down the tracks with Kemo.
Kemo: I was the only one with the balls to tell Sol: “Yo, you suck. You shouldn’t rap.” He caught feelings and left for a while. And when he came back, he was like, “You know what? I want to manage.” It was the best fucking decision the guy ever made in his life.
Red1: He took it seriously from day 1. He was going around with his little book and talking to people and arranging things. That was the move that got us to where we are. Me and Fit, we only cared about rap. Kemo only cared about making beats. Nobody was really there organizing and taking care of this business situation or negotiating on our behalf. When Sol came in, all of that went to the next level. We made our first album, Really Livin’, booked tours across the country—all of that.
Sol Guy: Eventually, I got a job at BMG in Toronto. Before I left Vancouver, I told the guys, “Yo, we’re going to get signed to a record deal.” I must have been an annoying little shit, because I was constantly telling everyone at the label: “Yo, you gotta sign my group! You gotta sign my group!” Finally, they were like, “You’re not gonna shut up about this, are you?” I said, “Nope.” And they said: “OK. If it works, it’s on you. And if it’s a disaster, it’s on you.” And I knew it would work.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, a group of like-minded artists, performers and producers were beginning to make some noise. They called themselves “The Circle.” Three prominent figures in the mix were Choclair, a smooth Scarborough emcee with a ladies’ man persona; Kardinal Offishall, whose music was infused with the dance hall and reggae of his Jamaican heritage; and Thrust, a true rapper’s rapper with a New York-tinged flow.
Jully Black (singer-songwriter): The Circle was a whole group of us—Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates, myself, Kid Kut from Baby Blue Soundcrew—who had attended a music camp called Fresh Arts in 1994. For an entire summer, we were paid minimum wage by the Jobs Ontario Youth program to learn production and songwriting. It was unreal. We wound up meeting Choclair because his manager at the time, Lee, had a nice, affordable studio where we would go to cut demos.
Choclair: The whole Circle, we would always show up to everybody else’s studio sessions to hang out, work on beats and freestyle.
Thrust: There was so much music getting made back then. We were in there recording stuff constantly. There are entire unreleased albums the public has never heard.
Part III: Making the Song
After signing to BMG, Rascalz released its second studio album, Cash Crop, in 1997. It sold relatively well, thanks to the minor success of its singles “Soul Obligation” and “Dreaded Fist.” Around that same time, Vancouver DJ Jay Swing tapped Kemo for a new beat to use on a mixtape he was working on.
Jay Swing: I made mixtapes all the time, with all the brand-new music out at the time. And I used to always get emcees to give me something original to introduce the record. It came time to do this tape, and Kemo had this superhot beat, and we had Rascalz and my guy Checkmate hop on the intro. It was just some raw mixtape shit.
Kemo: It was just another beat—one out of a whole batch I’d made. I found this sample that EPMD4 had used on an old song, and I loved flipping5 samples and making them my own.
Jay Swing: I went out to Toronto, because I was working for Sol at BMG at the time, and I brought copies of the tape for everybody. Sol heard that intro and was like, “Yeah, this is a dope beat. Let’s use it for this compilation we’re working on.”
Craig Mannix: It was the heyday of MuchMusic compilations—Big Shiny Tunes, MuchDance. A bunch of the labels would partner up to share their resources and repertoires to make the best tracklisting, and then MuchMusic would brand it and push it out. I thought it was time for a RapCity compilation. Much said, “Put it together and we’ll see.” As we were compiling the tracklist, we decided we should put some original music on there that would make people say “I need to buy this for that song you can’t get anywhere else.”
Sol Guy: I called up Kemo and told him, “Yo, we’re going to flip that track you did and get some of the Toronto guys on it.” That’s when Big C reached out to Choclair, Thrust and Kardi.
During the summer of 1997, Rascalz and Checkmate—a hard-hitting Vancouver emcee—reconvened at a B.C. studio to record new verses for the yet-untitled posse cut. Then the tapes were shipped out to Toronto for Choclair, Thrust and Offishall to add their parts.
Red1: Each verse was only 16 bars,6 and since we were a group, that meant Misfit and I only got eight bars apiece. We sat down by the pool at Kemo’s house, and Fit wrote his parts and left lines for me to fill in, and I wrote parts and left lines for him to fill in. It was easy to write, because even though we’re both so unique as individuals, somehow that uniqueness always fit together like Voltron.
Misfit: Having only eight bars on the song…it’s more of a stretch than a workout.
Checkmate: I found out we were recording it the night before. I wrote a couple of bars and then crashed. I wrote the rest of my verse on the bus to the studio, which was out in a suburb called Burnaby. I wanted my verse to have that West Coast flavour. A lot of the lingo and the slang in there is unique to the West Coast.
Choclair: Rascalz mailed us the tapes from Vancouver—there was no email back then; it was a big two-inch audiotape—and then Thrust and I went into the studio to do our verses. Back then, everybody wanted their verse to be last, everybody wanted to be the anchor. So me and Thrust literally did paper, rock, scissors to see who would be last. And I lost.
Thrust: It was the quickest song we’d ever done. Me and Chocs did our verses in one take each, and then Kardi showed up to do the hook. We were in and out of the studio in an hour and 20 minutes.
Choclair: Me and Thrust started thinking about the hook, and I don’t know why this popped into my head, but I suddenly went, [sings] “We notorious!” Then Kardi got to the session, and the three of us collaborated on the hook. We sent Kardi into the booth, ’cause he had that explosive voice—all that energy—and it just came out amazing.
Kardinal Offishall7: I think this might have been the first year that I actually had allergies. The day that we did ‘Northern Touch’ I probably sneezed literally about 500 times. I had a box of Kleenex by my side that day. That’s one of those days I won’t forget, because we were at the studio, everybody was there and I was just sneezing like a friggin’ maniac while all this history was being made.
Red1: Kardi’s hook got you from the jump. I remember I pressed play and it was just, “YO, WE NOTORIOUS!” I was like, “This is craaaaazy. Kardi killed that!” I knew it was a hit right away, but at that point, I just thought it’d be big in the underground, among hip-hop kids.
Sol Guy: Everything about it just worked. It was high energy. It was right in the pocket of what was happening. It was current. Kemo made an incredible beat. And each emcee was so radically different: Choclair was the lover; Kardi was the larger-than-life animated character; Red and Fit were this incredible duo, the most recognizable West Coast cats at the time; Checkmate had this West Coast gangsta style; Thrust was old-school Toronto.
Mannix: After the song was made and we had a tracklisting for the compilation, we went back to MuchMusic. They turned us down, because they’d never really wanted to do it in the first place. They said they didn’t feel comfortable putting out a compilation with an explicit sticker on it and we refused to use radio versions. That was their out.
Part IV: Initial Release
“Northern Touch” lay dormant for months. But near the end of 1997, on a whim, Sol Guy presented the discarded single to his bosses at BMG.
Sol Guy: We played it for the label, and they decided to service it [to radio] as a 12-inch.8
Craig Mannix: It began to pick up steam. The college radio circuit picked up on it immediately, and then it started to trickle out to certain places in the States—it got featured on Hot 97 [the biggest urban station in New York City].
The one potential roadblock to the song’s path to success? DMX’s “Get at Me Dog,” which was released the same year and whose beat featured the same sample as “Northern Touch.”
Choclair: The song finally gets released, and all of a sudden here comes [DMX’s voice] “WHERE MY DOGS AT? WHERE MY DOGS AT?” It’s the exact same beat, and we’re like, “Oh no, this American guy is going to come in and swallow up all the oxygen in the room.”
Red1: Here’s this massive Ruff Ryders artist, DMX, and everyone’s going to think we’re biting. I was really disappointed, because I thought for sure it meant our song wouldn’t get played. But it ended up having the opposite effect.
Jay Swing: In the clubs, DJs would play the DMX record and then go straight into “Northern Touch.” You’d never play one without the other. And that was just at the club level. People requested the shit out of it on the radio.
Sol Guy: This buzz was building, and the label came back and said, “We need to do a video, we need to put this on the album, because this thing is going.”
Part V: Shooting the Video
To direct the video, Rascalz turned to a 22-year-old named Little X. Despite being relatively untested, the Toronto native checked all the boxes: He was a disciple of Hype Williams (the hottest name in hip-hop videos at the time), hungry for a break and familiar with all the major players involved.
Director X9: I was the director version of the rappers: not a big star, not super-successful, but I was making moves in the industry and people were noticing.
Red1: It was a no-brainer. We had to get X, because we needed that look. Hip-hop was getting that gloss—more refined—it wasn’t all about that roughness no more. X brought that refinement.
Director X: I knew I wanted to do an in-studio performance video. We’d never really seen that in Toronto—or in Canada, for that matter—done with that style. It was such a staple of hip-hop, and that was part of the excitement.
Checkmate: It was February in Toronto, which was a new kind of winter for me. I was cold the whole time. I’m a skinny guy, too, so that doesn’t help.
Thrust: We all sat in the dressing room for hours, everyone was talking, kicking it. We had a Nintendo in the other room with GoldenEye going on—that was the classic on the 64 at that time. There was some sharpshooters there.
Misfit: There were jokes going back and forth from the Toronto crew, the Vancouver crew. You had to be prepared and on your toes.
Jully Black: I remember hanging out on set that day and just thinking, “Wow, OK, something is shifting in a great way.” They’d created this bridge for Canadian hip-hop, and it was a beautiful thing.
Director X: It was the first video for Melyssa Ford.10 She was dating one of my best friends’ brothers at the time, and we were looking for models.
Craig Mannix: I make a cameo where I’m smoking a cigar, because Chocs mentions me in his verse. He goes, “Down with Goldschläger”—that was his drink of choice back then, don’t know why—“Big C puffs the weed.” They were all so young at the time. I was the only guy they knew back then who smoked.
Director X: It felt like we were getting there. The music was sounding right. These guys looked like stars. And now we had a video that looked like a cool American video. We were on our way.
Part VI: Major Success
Suddenly, “Northern Touch” was everywhere. The video hit MuchMusic and was immediately selected for “heavy rotation”—a rarity for hip-hop videos at the time. The re-released Cash Crop album, now with “Northern Touch” tacked on as a bonus track, went Gold.
Checkmate: Jay Swing was in Toronto a week or two after the video dropped, and he called me up and was like, “Bro, I kid you not, there’s kids ciphering outside on the street right now, and they’re literally rapping your verse.”
Choclair: I started getting calls from across the country: 204, 604, 403—all these area codes. They’re like, “Yo, that song is dope!” “Yo, who’s that girl on your lap?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?”At that point, I hadn’t seen the finished video yet, and there was no YouTube to check it out right away. I was dying to see it. I was still working at a daycare at the time, too, and the parents would come to pick up their kids, look at me and go, “Yo, aren’t you Choclair?” It was crazy.
Red1: I remember telling Sol, “Yo, it’s like I’m living in a dream.” I’d wake up in the mornings, and I’d sit in bed and laugh sometimes for a good five minutes. I used to leave my TV on when I’d sleep, and some days I’d wake up to my song playing on MuchMusic. That was so surreal. I felt like I’d pulled a fast one.
Craig Mannix: For a lot of the Canadian players, it was a major moment. Choclair got signed off of that. Thrust had a record deal off of that. Everybody. Melyssa Ford went on to become a huge deal. X began directing massive videos. Mr. Morgan, who was Kardi’s manager at the time and runs Drake’s OVO Sound label now, still talks about “Northern Touch” as this seminal point in his career. It was the biggest thing any of us had been associated with up to that point.
Part VII: On the Road
Once “Northern Touch” was a bona fide hit, the label sent all of the artists out on a nationwide tour.
Choclair: I had to quit my job at the daycare because I couldn’t go on tour and be in and out of these kids’ lives. June 1998 was the last time I worked for somebody else. From that point on, it was music full-time.
Sol Guy: That tour was electric. We weren’t apologizing for being Canadian rappers anymore. We were accepted. We felt like stars. We were rolling from city to city, and the shows were packed. We had levelled up.
Choclair: It was one of those rock star moments where you could stick the mic out into the crowd and everybody sings all the words. I was completely blown away.
Red1: We were all living on the same tour bus, and I just remember all the wildness that went on at the shows, backstage. We’d go out to eat after and get drunk with everybody. There were so many stories of “Yo, last night, you know what happened to me?”
Thrust: The best parts of that tour I can’t even talk about. All kinds of pranks and crazy stuff out in the middle of nowhere—but I’m sorry, man. I swore an oath. I’ll say this: It was off the chain.
Part VIII: The Junos
At the 1998 Junos, prior to the release of “Northern Touch,” Rascalz won Best Rap Recording for Cash Crop. But when they realized their award would be handed out at a separate dinner, the night before the televised awards, they decided to turn it down.
Red1: It was a tough decision. We were new to the industry, and we weren’t sure if turning down the award would get us blackballed or blacklisted. But at the end of the day, this was bigger than us. We did it for urban music. They did the same thing to reggae, to R&B, to hip-hop—none of our awards were on the main night. It just felt like such disrespect.
Kemo: What’s funny is that we didn’t even get to turn down the award onstage. The event started at seven, and we got there at 7:02. We were walking to our seats, and someone told us we’d just missed them call our names. That’s how quickly they moved past the hip-hop award. They were like, “Go to the media room and speak to the press.”
Sol Guy: We had a little speech that my mom helped us write, and we got up there and read it. It basically said that the Junos were meant to celebrate Canadian music, but we didn’t really feel like we were invited to participate. On behalf of not only hip-hop but the other genres of black music and the artists and the community that we represented, we were turning this down until we were included in the celebration.
Craig Mannix: The industry was up in arms. They were like, “How dare these guys do that?” But the urban community supported what they did. They were tired of being marginalized the day before at the dinner. Why couldn’t hip-hop be on the main stage? Why couldn’t hip-hop be televised?
Sol Guy: We didn’t realize it would be the headline about the Junos both nationally and internationally. It got written up in Billboard magazine, and I got an angry call from my boss at the label. “Why are you causing trouble?” I was like, “Whatever, I’m part of the Rascalz. I don’t care!”
A year later, at the 1999 Junos in Hamilton, Ont., Rascalz were once again awarded Best Rap Recording—this time for “Northern Touch.” Not only were they presented with the award at the televised ceremony but the entire crew opened the show with an electrifying performance of the song.
Craig Mannix: It worked out, because the next year they released this massive song. And the mainstream was like, “Oh, maybe there is something to this.”
Red1: It was one of the top three most nervous moments of my life. After the year before, there was so much focus on us. We had to go out there and represent hip-hop and the culture and show everyone that we worked our asses off and deserved to be there. I remember practising non-stop, because I wanted everything to be flawless.
Checkmate: It was at Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, which is already a big venue. We were sitting next to Céline Dion and Sloan backstage—all these people. You’re not really thinking about the television audience; you’re thinking of the immediate crowd right there. It’s a big performance, there’s a lot of equipment around and you’re just trying to get through it without falling on your face or getting burned by the pyrotechnics.
Sol Guy: We rocked it. It was a crazy moment. It felt like our point had been made. It felt like we were ushering in a new chapter for Canadian music.
Red1: That was the night that solidified everything with my girl. We sealed the deal that night. Twenty years later, we’ve got a couple of kids and we’re still together. So that was the highlight of the night for me.
Thrust: It’s the same way that Vince Carter affected basketball. When Vince showed up in Toronto, he made an impact on the game. Next thing you know, 20 years later, there’s all these Canadian players in the NBA. It’s that same feeling. If we didn’t do what we did and smash down those walls, the way wouldn’t be clear for everybody now to be able to come in and present their art. We’re part of the collective energy that made that happen.
Illustration: Kagan McLeod
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Y’all remember Ashley MacIsaac, right? Yikes.|
|2.||↑||Kardinal Offishall was actually the only person on the song who declined an interview, but I did steal a quote of his from a 2013 Canadian Press story by John Chidley-Hill.|
|3.||↑||Unless you count Snow’s reggae-inflected “Informer”—and I’d sincerely implore you to do otherwise.|
|4.||↑||The seminal late ’80s New York hip-hop duo. The song in question is “Get the Bozack.”|
|5.||↑||Definition: Recutting and remixing existing music into something wholly new.|
|6.||↑||Definition: The number of lines each rapper has to deliver, vis-à-vis the time signature of the beat.|
|7.||↑||This is that stolen quote I mentioned earlier.|
|8.||↑||Meaning the song was pressed to vinyl records, which were then sent out to radio DJs to put on the air.|
|9.||↑||Around 2010, he stopped feeling so “Little.”|
|10.||↑||Ford would go on to become one of the most recognizable hip-hop models of the era, appearing in the videos for Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and Usher’s “Yeah!” (among others).|