The Big Birds of Toronto Hip Hop: From Kardinal to Drake

Being a rapper from Toronto, it’s only natural that I want to pay homage to the rappers and emcees that came before me and made it possible for our hip hop community to exist.  It’s not hard to see why most Americans used to just see Toronto as the land of ice, syrup and hockey, until Drake put “The 6” on the map, but it didn’t happen overnight. Before Toronto was the 6 it was actually called the Tdot and many still refer to it as that today. Tdot and other Toronto slang words like Moretimes (usually), Gyal (women), Screwface (an angry facial expression that is either used for actual anger or just to be cool) and Still (used at the end of a sentence for emphasis) came from rapper Kardinal Offishall. When Kardinall burst onto the scene in the late 90’s, it was no easy task.  There were no hip hop/rap radio stations in Canada so we all had to tune in WBLK in Buffalo, NY (if the signal was available) to find out what was hot and fresh with hip hop. That is probably why today so many Canadians really watch the American hip hop/rap scene; y’all had yours going strong from the get go while we were just trying to be heard. 

Never the less, facing exclusion, what is believed to be outright racism and limited methods of actually getting signed/viewed, Kardinal Offishall was one of the originals to breakthrough and take our hip hop culture to the mainstream. After he, Checkmate, Thurst, Choclair and Rascalz recorded the song “Northern Touch”, things really began to take off. It made people know who we are and that we are here to stay. That song was the first hip hop song in Canada to make it to the top 100 in the country and actually get widespread airplay in Canada and internationally. Fast forward a few years later and we now have a multitude of websites for artists to try and put themselves on. We got HiphopCanada,, CanadianDope, MUCH and so many other ways to get noticed. On any given weekend there’s a hip hop show happening somewhere in Toronto. So how is it that the average person thinks that our boy Drizzy Drake is the only rapper from Toronto to make it?

Like most rappers, Drake didn’t have it easy growing up; although people like to debate about it, he did struggle in a single parent household. Despite the odds Drake was able to climb his way to the top and become the most successful rapper from Toronto thus far. Although he rose to fame quickly in the eyes of most people, let’s not forget about his humble beginnings as “Wheelchair Jimmy” on Degrassi High: The Next Generation, a popular Canadian teen melodrama based in Toronto. I think it’s a combination of things that made Drake so successful so quickly; For one, by the time Drake put out his first mix tape in 2006, the Canadian hip hop scene was well established; he already had visibility from being an actor and no doubt some connections in the industry. Let’s also consider the fact that Drake is also a songwriter and a producer. Because we don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s easy to assume that he just bought his way to the top, but you can’t buy talent! Drake is able to create music that appeals not only to Toronto, but the rest of the hip hop world as well. It’s clear that Drake is where he should be and it all happens for a reason. In addition to these things with Drake comes drama; no offence, but the guy is all over the news! Most Toronto rappers like the ones who came before seldom get involved in fights, baby mama drama and what not… well at least not in the public eye anyway. Mainstream Canadian media isn’t quite in tune with the hip hop world like it should be, but maybe Drake is the key to opening that door. I think it’s time we start keeping up with the Torontonians. With the creation of his OVO label, Drake and partner Noah “40” Shebib are giving back and helping to pave the way for more Canadian artists such as the Weeknd and PartyNextDoor. 

My advice to anyone yearning for a spot in the hip hop hall of fame better get some new hats and no I’m not talking about Kangol! I’m talking about versatility. I say learn everything about the game you can and add to your portfolio. If you can rap, but you can’t sing, try learning to dance. If you can’t make beats, try writing songs for other artists. Pick up a skill like directing, graphic design or even try managing another artist. All in all it’s the talent that makes you unique as an artist, but in today’s market if you want success, you really gotta work! - Asha Mullings