Music Rags: Defining Canadian rap music

Culture Music

On “The Great Rhyme Dropper,” the first single from Grand Analog’s new album Modern Thunder, MC Odario Williams raps, “I do the damn thing proper/I ain’t a rapper, I’m a great rhyme dropper.” To the uninformed listener, that might seem like an arbitrary distinction, but it is an important one, however subtle.

“I’d been dissecting people’s idea of a rapper, society’s idea of a rapper at the time I wrote that. I didn’t want to be called just a ‘rapper,’ so I had to come up with a new term, something that stood out,” says Williams—a native of Guyana, raised in Winnipeg—speaking to me from his adopted home base in Toronto.

“There’s still a negative connotation out there. Even though ‘rappers’ have come a long way, we’re still categorized in a certain way. We’re not known as ‘songwriters’ so much. A rapper has to have an ego to be taken seriously by the general public. There always has to be some kind of spectacle behind it. People won’t listen to the new Kanye record unless he calls his record Yeezus, but Arcade Fire puts out a record when and how they feel like it and everybody’s all over that.”

The quest to rise above the common definition of “rapper” is something that has become more pointed and focused since the release of Grand Analog’s first record, 2007’s Calligraffitti, an album more rooted in “traditional” hip-hop roots than the group’s more recent output. “The first record I was a little obligated, because I had something to prove. I had to prove to myself that I did it, what would be called straightforward hip hop in the mix. Now it’s really our playground. ‘Hey, what do we want to try today?’ Mind you, not everything worked. Some things didn’t make the record. At least we’re trying all kinds of stuff because we want to, stuff we’ve never heard before,” explains Williams.

Along with many of his peers, Williams takes special pride in the lyrical side of the music, something he feels is vitally important to the current golden age of Canadian hip hop that seems to be taking place. “Canadian rappers have come to terms with the fact that American hip hop is the birth, the platform. In Canada, we don’t have really ‘a sound.’ We all sound pretty different if you take each group separately, but what we have in common is we have to make sure we have thought-provoking lyrics. That’s what we all share in common. You take Lytics beats and compare them to K-os, K’naan or Classified or even Grand Analog, all the beats are going to sound different. It’s not going to be like, ‘That’s that Canadian sound there.’ But in unison, what have always been there is the lyrics. It’s always been the common denominator.”

While the journey to be known as more than simply a “rapper” informed much of Modern Thunder, it was hardly the only impetus for an album brimming with colourful influences and revealing personal insight. “I focused a lot on city life in this, because city life is personal. In rural areas, everybody knows everyone’s business. There’s a bit more of a support system, but you can’t really be anonymous. In big cities you can be anonymous when you want to be. It can be lonely. It can be lots of fun. There’s a lot more heartbreak,” says Williams.

No matter the inspiration, with three albums under their belt, Grand Analog are always bringing something new to the table and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down with this latest release. “We all know a band or an artist somewhere in the world that we love and we’re watching them gradually get worse. I don’t know what the sociology, the psychology of that is. I’m just glad we don’t have that,” reflects Williams. “We’re treating it like kindergarten. We keep learning stuff. I know deep down inside we just keep getting better.”