Words by Erin MacLeod
Since 2009, Manifesto Jamaica has been educating, exposing and empowering the arts through workshops, reasonings, town hall meetings and a two-year old festival of “art-ical empowerment” held at the Edna Manley College of Art in Kingston. A three-day event in November, this year’s fest showcased music, food, yoga, poetry, storytelling, DJing, dance, fashion, filmmaking and photography—and an appearance by Toronto’s Michie Mee. The godmother of Canadian hip-hop didn’t just perform, but also held a workshop to talk about her career as well as Canada’s support for the arts (Specifically the help Fresh Arts, an Ontario government program to fund budding artists in urban areas, provided to young people in the 1980s).
In her workshop, Michie revealed that she’s been performing from childhood and was a Ring Ding girl on Miss Lou’s famous JBC program. After Michelle McCullock moved to Canada in 1976, she started training in track and field but her father had worked in music in Jamaica, and young Michelle was attracted to tunes. The riddims of Ring Ding seemed similar to those of hip-hop and Michie was drawn to the sounds of New York in the 1980s. By the age of fifteen she was hanging out with the Zulu Nation, Heavy D and Boogie Down Productions. Becoming the first Canadian hip hop artist to be signed to an American major label, Michie Mee had a nationwide smash hit in 1990 with “Jamaican Funk.” Along with Guyanese-Canadian Maestro Fresh Wes’s “Let Your Backbone Slide”, it’s probably the best known song from Canadian hip-hop’s early years. As Michie says, she knew it was a pretty big tune when she was asked for karaoke lyrics.
From “Jamaican Funk” to dropping in big ups to her homeland whenever possible, Michie always makes the connection between reggae and hip-hop evident. Having experimented with a pile of different genres—even fronting the rap-rock band Raggadeath—she now plans to release a new album spanning reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, rock and whatever else she’s got up her sleeve. In an interview after her talk at Manifesto, she discussed her career, the connections between Toronto and Jamaica—and her role in creating a distinctly Canadian hip-hop sound that predates that Aubrey Graham fellow.
LargeUp: There’s a major connection between Jamaica and hip hop. This seems particularly evident when you look at Canadian hip hop—from Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors to Kardinal Offishall and, now, Drake.
Michie Mee: One thing, and I think this was an asset, was that I wasn’t afraid to break the rules. Because when I started, even in the dancehall community, they were like, “Yuh da rappa.” In the hip hop community it was the same. But the West Indian culture was there. In Canada, we’ve put our love around Caribana. Our festivals were bigger than America’s. So we would go to the US in the hip-hop scene and they would ask: “Where are you from?” and when we’d say Canada, they’d say “Oh, I’ve been to Caribana.” So a lot of the artists, when we were over there, would be aware of that. Canada loves West Indian culture. On the level of big mass appeal, Trinidadians, Guyanese, they were also into Jamaican music. This Carnival thing was a big asset to everyone. So people took from August [Caribana time] to the rest of the year to elaborate. It made us different.
LU: I also think that in Canada it’s OK for people to foreground their backgrounds…
MM: Yes. Americans will be quick to say they want to go back to Africa and Jamaicans will say, “we’re not going!” That type of mindset might have been in the delivery or in what people were creating, whereas when Americans look for culture they look to Africa. Between Africa and Canada, there’s a little thing in the middle called Jamaica. And that just made every Caribbean individual not afraid to be over confident in everything, including music, writing, behavior. I just think Canada adopted it well and never let it go.
LU: Drake’s new album features Canadians Chantal Kreviasuk and the Weeknd. Complex magazine wrote that “What [Drake] and his OVO crew are trying to build here is a Toronto movement.” But you’ve just described a Canadian—if not Toronto—movement that’s been going on for a while.
MM: Canada has always had that. It’s part of our infrastructure. We’re the closest and the tightest family. The people you have around you or who gravitate towards you, that was who held you up. That’s always been the way. Beat Factory, when we started, we were the Beat Factory family. We were all from different areas but we grabbed on to Beat Factory.
LU: And then there was the Baby Blue Sound Crew.
MM: They were family too. If you had a crew—and I include Fresh Arts—everyone was talented. There was no one person and a hype man or a side person. The families that were formed in Toronto were all full of individual, strong talents.
LU: So are you saying that Drake should be a bit careful and avoid standing out front of his crew?
MM: Weeknd need[s] to step up, and he will, because it’s front players that Drake’s bringing. But just be aware of it. I think that’s the difference between the American families and Canadian families when they form. In the US, there was always a shining person. In Canada, a family won’t form unless everyone shines. Canada leans towards that because we’re afraid of what everyone else will say. We’ve always been in that corner so we go hard.
LU: Just like the crews in Jamaica. After all, Sugar Minott wouldn’t sign only one of Youth Promotion. You had to take the whole deal.
MM: You’re giving me some ideas. I can see that. I didn’t look at it like that, but you’re damn right.