Built on Solid Ground: Toronto Music's Rise to Prominence

The Toronto music scene is flourishing after years of hard work from a dedicated community.

With artists like Drake, The Weeknd, Boi-1da, Dvsn, and Daniel Caesar seeing global success, Toronto has turned into a commercial powerhouse in recent years. But the city’s rise to prominence didn’t happen overnight. Toronto’s urban music scene has been developing for decades.

50 years ago, Rick James set up shop in the city, forming The Mynah Birds in the ‘60s, and Jackie Washington turned heads with his unique bluesy style when he dropped Blues & Sentimental in ’76. On the industry side of things, the Canadian Reggae Music Awards have called Toronto home since the mid-80s and city's go-to TV station Much Music housed shows like Rap City and Xtendamix, where viewers were given a weekly low-down on everything from the UK’s emerging grime scene to what was picking up steam in Belgium.

Toronto birthed a few chart-topping artists as well. Snow infused patois into his "Informer" cadence and Michie Mee made waves for her 1991 hit, "Jamaican Funk Canadian Style." Let’s be honest, though—when it came to local artists, few were able to get much traction outside of Canada.

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Things began to change sometime in 2004, when glossy American names like Peter Thomas and Daymond John held expensive summits for rappers, singers, and producers eager to stick gold pins on the global map. The timing was perfect, as locals were becoming more vocal in their frustration with Toronto’s rigid “urban” industry circles. And for a long time, the protocol for getting clout south of the border was by emulating an American artist—think Toronto-bred streetwear line Too Black Guys, championed by Mary J Blige earlier in her career. As producer Jordon Manswell points out, “[Toronto hip-hop] was very east coast. It resembled New York hip-hop. It had a very raw, grungy sound.”

The city’s current influx sees Toronto’s aesthetic from a different, more authentic lens. Take Boi-1da and 40. Both hit-makers are known for producing icy, ominous sounds reflective of the city’s climate. "Our winters are just so brutal; people create isolation and hibernate into their spaces," explains Gavin Sheppard, a founding member of Toronto's The Remix Project. "Everything's moody, and there are these layers to it. But we also have these epic summers. The winters make our summers pop. They’re vibrant and alive.”

At The Remix Project, you're around so many like minds. You're around friends who make music and share similar views, and you have access to different studios and people that are coming in and teaching you the craft.

With the rise of Drake, The Weeknd, and crop of exciting emerging artists, Toronto is now seen as an epicenter of cool and the city’s music scene is thriving. Toronto’s success has certainly been helped by the attention these big stars bring to the city, but it can also attributed to a community of individuals working hard behind the scenes to support the artists.

One of these programs is The Remix Project, an art incubator for at-risk youth which gives aspiring artists and creators resources like mentorship and studio time. Gavin Sheppard and his two friends—Derek ‘Drex’ Jancar and Kehinde Bah—officially launched The Remix Project in 2006, but its roots go as far back as 1999 as non-profit Inner City Visions. The crew have been staunch believers in providing access to local youth hoping to get a shot in hip-hop’s creative and music industries. Thriving from collaboration, The Remix Project brings aspiring creatives together from all different mediums.​ Whether you’re a rapper, producer, graphic designer, or photographer, there’s a place for you.

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“At The Remix Project, you're around so many like minds,” explains producer Jordon Manswell. "You're around friends who make music and share similar views, and you have access to different studios and people that are coming in and teaching you the craft. It makes it feel possible for music to be a real career. Not being in The Remix makes it a little bit harder.”

The initiative played an instrumental role in bringing us artists like Jessie Reyez, who said that The Remix Project changed her life. The program boasts a series of interactive workshops and sessions featuring appearances from some of modern hip-hop’s finest, including Just Blaze, Mannie Fresh, and Kendrick Lamar. More than anything, though, it’s given local youth a reason to feel a sense of cultural pride.

If Drake wasn't a pop star, then my portfolio might not have been as strong. Or if Daniel CeAsar didn’t just get nominated for two Grammys.

“We used to wrap ourselves in a cloak of [negativity],’ Sheppard says. “That was our insecurities. Be brave, be cool, be happy about yourself. I think it welcomes other people into that space as well, by saying, ‘Our city’s awesome, come check us out.’”

It’s working. The city has slowly become a destination for artists around the world. “Now more than ever, artists are going to Toronto to shoot music videos. I think that’s great,” says creative director Liam MacRae, the man behind PartyNextDoor’s "Recognize" video, which currently has over 140 million views on YouTube.

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Of course, many local artists have their sights set on goals that expand beyond the city limits. “I hate being the one to say you gotta move to be successful,” MacRae continues. “But for me, my idea of success was traveling. I just have so many different interests and so many different projects outside of photography and video. I’m just not that local guy.”

MacRae isn’t alone. Many have dreams of hopping the border and heading to Los Angeles, New York City, or London. Now that there’s a history of local artists who have done just that and gone on to global success, that dream has become a more realistic option. “Once you establish your work in Toronto, then you can be like, ‘Now, I can go somewhere else.’” MacRae says. “If Drake wasn't a pop star, then my portfolio might not have been as strong. Or if Daniel Ceasar didn’t just get nominated for two Grammys.”

This is a culture based on authenticity. It created a space for empathy, sensitivity, and openness. Those are the defining features of the Toronto sound.

Those who stick around in the city are treated to a rich cultural environment, though. You can hang out with friends at Trinity-Bellwoods Park or catch a vibe in Kensington Market. The city's Caribbean roots are planted on the corners of Eglinton​ Avenue West and out in the “Jungle” known as Lawrence Heights in North York district—not just Caribana. These aspects, both sonically and visually, are reflected in the multifaceted music and it's visual identity.

Kardinal Offishall once called Toronto’s style aBaKardi Slang.” But the city's cultural identity has grown and expanded. “There was a small core that had a solid identity, but even that identity was still searching," says Sheppard. "It was rooted in a Caribbean-Canadian context of wanting to be different. But it was super limiting, because you got all these kids, like a Somali rapper from Regent Park spitting all this patois over Caribbean beats. Maybe one or two joints are okay, but you’re gonna make an album like that?”

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Perhaps Toronto will always be a blank music canvas. BBC conducted a study that concluded the city, with its 200-plus nationalities, is the most diverse in the world. That makes the idea of a trademark style difficult to conceive.

“It’s impossible,” Manswell says. "Toronto is such a multicultural place. It's natural for us to have a dancehall feel in our music, reggaetón, African influence—it’s all infused together. It would stunt our growth to have one specific sound.” As Shephard points out, “This is a culture based on authenticity. It created a space for empathy, sensitivity, and openness. Those are the defining features of the Toronto sound. It’s a little bit more introspective—even in its braggadocio records.”

With new eyes on the local community, the next question is how to sustain the momentum and not rely on hype. “I think it’s gonna take investment in our infrastructure,” Sheppard says. “The talent has always been in our city; we've had all these global successes coming from Toronto but we still only have one radio station. [Things like that] need to change.”

That critical eye and drive to continue improving is what makes Toronto so special. It’s the locals who believed in the city enough to make our sound cool, and it’s the locals who will ultimately continue to push the culture forward. For now, the city is enjoying the rewards of groundwork laid by generations of hard-working creatives.

“In 2005, everyone was rocking a New York fitted," Sheppard points out. “Now everyone’s rocking a Blue Jays fitted.”

The Toronto takeover is in full effect.​

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