Michael P. Douglas, “T-Dot Anthem – IRS” (2000). Video, 3:34 minutes.
Mark V. Campbell
INDIGENOUS & AFRODIASPORIC RUPTURES IN THE HIP-HOP ARCHIVE
HIP-HOP IN CANADA is not necessarily Canadian hip-hop. Both Indigenous and African Canadian hip-hop practitioners continuously present nuanced ways for us to think about Western humanism and the Canadian nation beyond its present configurations. Hip-hop culture, filtered through Indigenous and Afrodiasporic systems of thought, are productively disruptive and destabilize dominant discourses of the nation and the human. Through both aesthetic and sonic innovations, Indigenous and African Canadian DJs, emcees, and bboys/bgirls present, disseminate, and archivize divergent notions of the nation and the human beyond dominant bourgeoisie ideals.1 This essay suggests hip-hop’s connection to space and its black geographies present a source code for Indigenous and other marginalized populations to negotiate subjectivities that evade western liberal, extractive, consumptive human beings. The existing plethora of hip-hop archives cannot fully grasp the impact of hip-hop if they use their current metadata organizing practices. Therefore, both Indigenous and Black Canadian hip-hop culture might provide avenues by which to reconsider and revise the work of the hip-hop archivists.
INTRODUCTION: A TROUBLESOME AFFAIR
What appears to be an unlikely union, that of institutionalized archives and hip-hop culture, is troubling when what we need are troublesome hip-hop archives—those that challenge and disrupt established archival practices. Troubling, particularly in the United States because within the walls of Ivy League universities (but not exclusively), hip-hop archives are mushrooming, with fellows, courses, and (at times difficult to access) collections. Archiving remains highly topical in many academic and artistic circles, reignited by the late Okwui Enwezor’s 2009 exhibition, Archive Fever, which, by engaging Derrida, demonstrated a practical application of theories of the archive that have become important ways in which artists and scholars have envisioned working with archival content. Erudite scholarly interrogations of the archive, by Laura Ann Stoler, Kate Eichorn, Charles Merewether and many others, signal a deep and important shift in the understanding of this colonial era institution that is, as Achille Mbembe reminds us, deeply connected to the state and its circulations of power.2
In our present moment of digital saturation, archiving the material culture of hip-hop’s lengthy, yet still youthful impact, is beyond critical to analyzing and sustaining how hip-hop culture has and continues to transform youth cultures, both globally and in the West. Marceylina Morgan’s modest collection of hip-hop magazines, which began at UCLA in the 1990s, was one of the earliest hip-hop archives within the American academy. With her move to Harvard, Morgan’s magazine collection expanded into an institutionally supported hip hop archive. Harvard’s archive was soon followed by the launch of hip-hop archives at Cornell, Tulane, University of Houston, and the University of Washington. Archives, such as Cornell’s Hip-Hop Collection, calculate their accumulated photographic files, the number of flyers, and other numerical data associated with traditional archives’ metrics of success. Some archives, such as the NOLA Hip Hop and Bounce Archive at Tulane and the University of Houston’s hip-hop archive are housed in university libraries and extensively supported by library staff utilizing an archival sciences approach. Other archives, such as Harvard’s Hip-Hop Archive, are housed outside of the university’s library with no distinct archival methodology or standard cataloguing process in place, yet are firmly housed within the walls of the university. Other hip-hop archives, such as the Massachusetts Hip-Hop archive are community-based and in partnership with public institutions, like the Boston Public Library, but disconnected from a specific university. In Canada, universities and public institutions have neither initiated hip-hop archives nor collections of historical hip-hop materials for preservation. My own efforts with the founding of Northside Hip-Hop Archive in 2010 have been a solely digital effort, national in scope, that has attempted to begin the process of collecting and exhibiting aspects of hip-hop’s historical legacy in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal, and Saskatoon.
After more than a decade of archiving hip-hop culture within American universities, the field of archival science, information studies, and library sciences, remains largely unaffected by the archiving hip-hop culture. Academic and popular publications on the archiving of hip-hop have been sparse, despite the robustness of several collections with thousands of entries. This is a curious affair because hip-hop’s impact is cross-sectorial, global, and stretches across new fields and existing markets such as fashion, marketing, intellectual property debates, and music promotion in which urban clothing, guerilla marketing, remixing and mixtapes—all central tenants of hip-hop culture—have significantly reshaped American culture. Yet, despite the global and local impacts of hip hop, the music and culture continue to be tools by which Black and Indigenous young people in Canada craft critical worldviews, speak truth to power, and advocate for social justice.3
Two questions underpin my thinking. I wonder if existing archival methods and tools can effectively capture, preserve, and articulate the disruptive ways hip-hop has transformed Western cultures? Beyond the logic of accumulation that underpins notions of the archive, which overly relies on storing and displaying material culture, can existing archival practices preserve and detail the immaterial ways Black and Indigenous hip-hop heads transform their Canadian locales and subjectivities? Having curated multiple exhibitions between 2010 and 2019 that focused on the cultural heritage and history of hip-hop cultures in Canada, I turn to archiving to think through how to sustain hip-hop’s impact and cultural critique. Rather than focusing on the items within an archive, I am more interested in exploring that which cannot be archived as a means of illuminating hip-hop’s cultural impact.
In what follows, I suggest that there are Black technologies that exist within hip-hop culture that productively trouble archival practices. These technologies challenge classificatory measures that risk obscuring or neglecting how hip-hop culture challenges established archival methods. Black and Indigenous hip-hop artists produce unarchivable and disruptive moments with their innovative uses space and land, I am attentive to these moments here. After a brief overview of hip-hop culture and its connection to space, I turn to practices of representing one’s neighbourhood and the practice of remixing. I elaborate on how these acts pose problems for the archiving of hip-hop. Together, these two practices (representing one’s neighbourhood and remixing) expose the limits of archiving. They also encourage a decolonizing of archival methods that obscure what I suggest are the unarchivable impacts of hip-hop culture in the Canadian context.
Bboy Salon. Installation view during For the Record: An Idea of the North, TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library, Toronto, 2019. Photo by K. Whyz
Long before the word hip-hop came into use, dance battles, tagging and outdoor jams have been disruptive endeavours in the public sphere. On her first photojournalist assignment in 1978, Martha Cooper witnessed kids as young as ten years old being arrested for break dancing and charged with rioting. In addition to being flagrant over-policing, the reaction of these police demonstrate how far outside of society’s conceptions of comportment and self-fashioning hip-hop culture lay.4 When young people took up public space in unique and before unseen acts of competitive dancing and joy, Western regimes of comportment and public behavior were jolted into unfamiliar territory. Karen Recollet reminds us that in an Indigenous context “B-girls and B-boys are natural transgressors of spaces; they work within the break beats in order to reconfigure acceptable Indigenous identities ….”5 The use of space within hip-hop culture is never innocently apolitical, rather through dance, jams in the park, or graffiti on trains, public space are the grounds by which the culture makes itself present.
I begin from a location of Black geographies, thinking through the plantation, the plot, the streets, and eventually, the reserve as ways to frame one of hip-hop’s discursive spatial innovations and interventions. From a human geography perspective, the urban rubble that birthed hip-hop in the South Bronx exists as part of a continuum of managing disposable populations and modernity’s excess humans. Since the time of the establishment of plantations in foreign colonies in the 1500s, there have been geographic and spatial realities that have violently worked to contain, impoverish, extinguish, and exploit human populations. Such spaces have been the intimate battle grounds of colonial expansion, planned governmental neglect, and strategic dispossession of Black and Indigenous communities. Accordingly, I work with a definition proposed by Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Woods, which understands Black geographies as an “interdisciplinary understanding of space and place-making that enmeshes … different theoretical trajectories and spatial concerns” that focus on how “black human geographies are implicated in the production of space”.6
I was There! Steel Town edition. Installation view, The Space Factory, Hamilton, 2017. Photo by Leilah Dhoré.
When we consider how hip-hop culture’s hyperlocal foci and practices open new practices of representation, Black geographies become a useful analytical tool to understand hip-hop’s continuing relevance and global purchase more than 40 years since its humble beginnings. When focusing on how Indigenous populations in Canada engage in hip-hop culture, what becomes clear is how hip-hop can operate as a source code for geographic adaptations and survivals within the plantation logics of the city and the reservation. Further, McKittrick reminds us that within the geographic systems of the Americas, from plantations to urban centres “racial violence is tied to the administration of economic growth”.7 Thus in our neoliberal moment of unchecked desires for economic growth and the scaling of “innovative” practices, the potential of racial violence continues to get woven into our existing itineraries and metrics of success. Archives, in their original colonial forms, have been deeply connected to the violence inherent in the colonial enterprise; this milieu influences how hip-hop archives are born and into which frames their effectiveness might be articulated and evaluated.
Eklipz, shut em down (2016) and Elicser, Untitled (2016). Installation view during Mixtapes, Hip Hops Lost Archive exhibition, Gallery 918, Toronto, 2016. Photo by K.Whyz
RESPATIALIZING POETICS: THE GRUNG
To focus on Indigenous and Black Canadian hip-hop artists allows for an engagement of organic intellectuals/hip-hop heads whose interventions into the dominant culture often come from the demonic grounds such as reserves and ghettos. Following both Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick’s engagements with the notion of demonic grounds, I work with this concept to capture the out of bounds, the unaccepted and unacceptable “irrational” ways Indigenous and Black cultural producers enunciate creative forms of life from positions of dispossession or from the margins. Colonial histories have manufactured sustained tropes in which to contain and suppress Indigenous and Afrodiasporic thought and culture. The work of the “noble savage” trope and the African American as 3/5 of a ‘man’ have been enormously productive in securing white supremacy since the late 1400s. While this is one way to understand a connection between African and Indigenous populations—erroneously as man’s other—I am more focused on understanding the relationality between these two populations as critical to the expansion of Western European colonialization. For this reason, I turn to land, geographies, and what in the Caribbean is called the grung—in Patois, the ground—to find one relational node. Several Caribbean historians have illuminated the importance of the slave plot in the formation of self, subjecthood, and the sustenance of the enslaved.8 The plot of land was the location in which enslaved Africans could grow their own foods, both for consumption and for sale at a local market. Caribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter calls the plot system “the indigenous, autochthonous system” within the colonial plantation society.9 These were sites that were connected to, but not entirely dependent on, the market economy, signifying both condemnation as man’s ‘other’ and spaces of innovative practices that “spatialize acts of survival.”10
Adjacent, yet connected to this notion of the slave plot, are understandings of land by the Indigenous groups of Turtle Island in both pre and post European contact. Like the plot, land reserves and urban reserves are semiautonomous zones created by the colonial empire to manage Indigenous populations. Today, treaty territories proliferate in Canada and the continued fight for Indigenous self-determination maintains its important unsettling course. What we know from historical understandings of Indigenous land use was that it was not extractive in the same manner in which European colonization continues to relentlessly practice forms of extraction and domination for financial profit. A variety of practices, instruments and institutional mechanisms continue to actively push Indigenous peoples off their land.11 Reservations created to contain Turtle Island’s Indigenous populations, as well as the neoliberal creation of urban reservations, signal the hegemonic ways in which white supremacy works to eliminate Indigenous sovereignty and existing relationships to the land that might provide relational rather than extractive ways of living.12 While we are currently living through an Indigenous decolonization resurgence with the Idle No More movement in Canada, both enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and First peoples of Canada, are unevenly positioned in relation to their local geographies, as well as their alternative paradigms, to structure cultural production and modes of human life. Such uneven positionality makes itself heard and seen in the various expressions of hip-hop culture, from lyrical choices to music video scenery that radically reposition and value the human lives colonial genocide and slavery sought to eradicate.
Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital. Installation view, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 2018. Courtesy of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Photo by Alexandra Cousins.
As Wynter articulates in her useful 1971 article “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” plots of land operated by enslaved Afrodiasporic populations in the Caribbean help orient a use value notion of the land. This means human needs (use value) orients individual action, not market trends or desires. This is a useful way for us to understand precolonial notions of land in contrast to our contemporary moment. This type of focus on human needs contrasts the market’s exhalation of exchange value and the underlying logic of neoliberalism’s reductionist and antihuman formulations. When examining hip-hop’s production of culture, which holds both exchange value and use value, the clearly delineated Marxist formula gets murky in a productive way. Wynter understands the plot as the “roots of culture,” while as McKittrick makes clear, the plantation is the root of our current exploitative economic arrangements in the city. What if the plot—transfigured into today’s urban ghettos and reserves—formulated a use value for their cultural production that continually frustrated attempts at exchange value by exploitative corporations? I look closely at two practices, both material and immaterial, which can convey some of the more complicated ways Black and Indigenous cultural production via hip-hop present challenges to our present system of archival practices. Representing and remixing are two specific practices that, when employed by Black and Indigenous hip-hop artists, frustrate attempts at extractive uses of hip-hop culture in solely exchange value term.
Hip-hop’s hyperlocal social critiques, stemming largely from its roots in New York’s abandonment of the South Bronx, focuses on geographic acts and neighbourhood-level spatial dynamics. While it is commonly known that outdoor block parties were one of the main ways DJs nurtured the growth of hip-hop dancers and graffiti artists, it is the continuing lyrical practices of emcees that represent a significant geographic act in representing or reppin’. Hip-hop scholar Murray Forman has written extensively on the practice of reppin’ which he describes as the public honouring of one’s local community and the individuals critical to the success of that artist.13 Spatial poetics play a prominent role in hip-hop emcees observations. Emcees represent by utilizing their local space, their neighbourhood or city, as platforms upon which to lyrically disseminate scathing critiques, admonishments, and ethnographic analysis of their realities and surroundings while also boasting of one’s prowess thereby demonstrating a thorough understanding of hip-hop’s cultural ethos. An individual within the culture can represent by conducting themselves in a way that makes the hip-hop community proud.14 In a positive way, boastful recognitions of support systems, like crews, also find a way into songs. Outside of the New York context, hip-hop artists present analysis of their local geographies often commenting on police brutality, corrupt politicians, or by articulating a sense of belonging or unbelonging to their national narratives. One of the best examples is France’s hip-hop scene prior to the 2006 riots, in which several artists and groups warned of the rebellion that would eventually emerge due to state sanctioned police harassment. While hip-hop archives might capture an artist’s lyrics, the affective impacts are not easily articulated through existing archival practices if metadata from an archival entry cannot be connected to other contemporary works whose perspectives also align.
On Nas’ “Represent” he details and demonstrates how reppin’ works. He observes and articulates specific behaviours, such as a “walk with a bop,” and he shouts out the many individuals in his community that nurtured his craft and provided his opinion on local matters and institutions such as the school system. While Nas represents his local Queenbridge community, other artists like Smif N Wesson, Jay-Z, and Biggie vocally pledge their allegiance to Brooklyn. This practice is far from being exclusively American. Major Canadian cities like Montreal, Halifax, and Toronto, are regularly the recipients of lyrical odes and practices of reppin’. In many of these cases the city is reimagined, renamed, and partially transformed to showcase the hip-hop heads who demand, celebrate, and boast of belonging to their city and local borough—often in the face of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
Michael P. Douglas, “T-Dot Anthem – IRS” (2000). Video, 3:34 minutes.
One example of Toronto being creatively reimagined and represented in local hip-hop music is IRS’ “T-Dot Anthem”. Released in 2001, the track boldly intersects Toronto with its Caribbean populations renaming and refashioning how this cohort of first-generation Canadians relate to their city’s geographic reasoning. Against the backdrop of the Toronto skyline and also in well-known landmarks like City Hall, IRS produces an explicit geographic refashioning of the city. The crew rhymes:
I’m from the T dot O dot, where the beasts walk/both sides of the city chat peace talks Where the flows’ tight and the people vibe on the city streets all night
T dot O Dot is where we all rude, can’t find one girl without an attitude
Its where we beat juice and bun mad karn
I’m in a city that’s full of pure badman
In lyrical content and the visuals edited into the video, IRS demonstrates how representing works, and shouts out local radio shows, DJs, fellow artists and various boroughs across Toronto. Reppin, within the context of a plantation logic of containment and exploitation, is a technology of Black geographies that contests the unevenness of the local and national space. Not only is the invisibility of ghetto dwellers contested when they are shouted out on a song, reppin can also be understood as an act of survival that produces visibility and truth speaking. To reconsider Toronto as a city “full of pure badman” is to both reinsert marginalized Caribbean populations into the cityscape and to honour these populations as having a unique disposition of preserving and promoting Caribbean culture. Badman is a diasporic recuperation of the Jamaican Rudebwoy and the Trinidadian Bad John, both key figures in the musical development of their regions. To rhyme from a podium at City Hall, Toronto’s political epicenter, is also a geographic act that refuses to become invisible or marginalized, even when discourses around migration and immigrants imagines Black lives as unCanadian and always from elsewhere. IRS transforms Toronto from an alienating antiblack urban centre to a culturally responsive space of belonging. Capturing the affect of IRS’s “T-Dot Anthem” within an archive requires thinking of the group’s use of official public space as a grung—something more than a promotional video. Connecting future (after 2001) Toronto videos that utilize the term the T-Dot, or whose visual poetics demonstrate a subversive intentionality, is the work an archival practice must do to refuse the silencing violence that traditional colonial archival approaches produce by using dominant ideologies and language to categorize and preserve hip-hop’s interventions.
In the now iconic video for “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the crew walks down a New York street commenting on the impoverishment, the destitute individuals, and the “burnt down buildings everywhere”. Flash and his crew are on the front lines of neoliberalism’s ravaging of New York City in a post-OPEC crisis world, and their observations are not at the policy level but at the people level, the grassroots.
Fast forward three decades and hip-hop artists continue to observe a myriad of oppressive situations. From Immortal Technique’s critique of the cocaine trade’s impact on Peruvians on “Peruvian Cocaine,” to Ghettochild’s discussions of Halifax’s antiblack racism, social critiques are embedded within hip-hop’s repertoires of analysis. Unlike IRS’s refashioning of Toronto, Ghettochild laments his city’s unwelcoming antiblackness by producing a history lesson. In a video directed by Cazhmere, Ghettochild rhymes while superimposed images of historical newspaper clippings move by, with headlines like, “Slaves Shipped to Sierra Leone to Avoid the Cost of Maintenance” and “1792: Maroon slaves arrive in Halifax”. The track begins with the hook that refrains “Welcome to Nova Scotia” and Ghettochild’s first verse rhymes:
Home of the brave/home of the slave
1848 Africville built/relocated to Public Housing
Ghettochild, from his stage name to his historical treatment of his city, takes seriously the practice of reppin’ to disrupt the antiblack ways in which racism has circumscribed his life and his ancestors lives. He explicit connects Africville’s destruction and the creation of public housing schemes. When Ghettochild’s reps his neighbourhood, the legendary Uniacke Square, he implicates the government’s manipulation of the uneven geographies of Black life. The incisive critiques in “Welcome to Halifax” produce subjectivity and heighten consciousness, much like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five did in 1982 with “The Message”. Ghettochild’s geographic analysis of Halifax creates a relationship between the inhabitants of the remains of Africville and the spatial ways in which oppression is organized. By raising consciousness and advocating for a different land use value, he generates new possibilities and amplifies social justice. This amplification forms a basis of geographic knowledge that refuses dominant modes of accumulation and extraction that have been normalized by settlers’ relationships to the land in Canada.
Another excellent example of the power of reppin’ one’s locale is by the first Indigenous group to receive national video rotation in Canada, the trio named Warparty, consisting of Cynthia Smallboy, Rex Smallboy and Karmen Omeosoo. In 1994, they release their debut album, Greatest Native From The North. Their lead single, “Feeling Reserved” and the accompanying video, revealed to the Canadian publics the lived realities on Native reserves in the early 1990s. The video features the crew walking through their reserve, Hobberma (now renamed Maskwacis). While walking, they name the various factors that create the dehumanizing conditions on reservations in Canada. They engaged in deep ethnographic observations, speaking truth to power in a fashion that honoured the creative praxis of hip-hop. Karmen rhymes:
I’m feeling the pain
The strain on my mental weighs heavy
Genocide makes me live my native life deadly
I hope you get me if you don’t let it marinate
The mind-state of my people, we try to set that strait We never brought residential schools to this place
We never brought alcoholic fluid to our taste
We would never go and try change you
What you did to my descendants changed the elder’s lives too And all the Time you knew, now we feeling reserved
Living disturbed, living a life huh we never deserved
The native way of thinking ain’t the way of the old
Its time to look toward the future let our story unfold
For many hip-hop heads in 1994, visuals and rhymes about living on a reserve were a new articulation of hip-hop culture north of the 49th parallel. Importantly, hip-hop that addressed the reservation is a gateway to a relational understanding of Indigenousness and Blackness in the settler colonial context of Canada. When Warparty details their reservation, they formulate the land and articulate a use value that frames their spatial existence as a metaphoric double entendre. They refuse to promote the exchange value which replicates Western modes of extraction and the exploitation of natural resources. Warparty represents their community and focuses on its health thereby refusing the orientation towards market analysis or exchange value. In more contemporary representations of the reserve by Indigenous hip-hop groups in Canada, an orientation to their local geography is not human centred but instead is guided by images of consumption that are reproduced by the circulation of images from American’s media imperialism. I am thinking here explicitly of Winnipeg’s Most Wanted and images in the videos by Team Rezofficial where scenes of urban landscapes are filled with flashes of jewelry and wads of cash.
Reppin’, in its earliest pre-internet existence during Warparty’s debut album in the 1990s, is the initiation of a gesture that moves away from a simplistic exploitative relationship with the land. Warparty’s lyrical rendering of the reserves’ damaging impact, alongside lyrics of encouragement and positivity, were carried to many reserves while the group toured in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Karmen, now renamed Hellnback, attributes his handling of racism to his ability to rap.15 The impact of Warparty is well documented by several groups and artists that came on the music scene since the 2000s. Crews such as the Team Rezofficial and Tru Rez Crew attest to the centrality of the reservation in representation practices of Indigenous hip-hop heads. Arguably Canada’s most commercially successful Indigenous recording artists, A Tribe Call Read, also credit Warparty with their desire to do music professionally.16
For those hip-hop artists whose positionality offers an opportunity to rep their reserves, this provides a way to utilize the land as an analytical rudder that allows for a wider critique of state-sanctioned Indigenous genocide. The relationship remains a use-value relationship where honouring and representing one’s reserve becomes a critical act of self and social transformation. The extraction model is not utilized and rather a social consciousness raising act of critically engaging the reserve occurs as forms of geographic knowledge are produced. The impact is not simply on Indigenous populations. In the video for Maestro’s most overlooked releases, “Nothing at All,” Maestro wears a ‘Rocket’ Ismail Toronto Argonauts football jersey, and rhymes straight faced with long metal chains hanging from the ceiling and surrounded by a multicultural cast of children. The somber rhymes spark deep criticism of Canada’s anti-Indigenous and anti-Black histories:
We have to hurdle the system cause hate penetrates multiculturalism.
Listen, I want an explanation.
Why are Mohawks being kicked out of their reservations?
Creating miseries, stealing the land to create sport facilities.
The Native man of the land is who you killing and then got the nerve
to celebrate Thanksgiving.
Claiming everyman is equal, I hate to see what ya’ll got planned for my people!
In his criticism of the Oka crisis, in which a golf course was planned to be built over a sacred Mohawk burial ground, Maestro connects the plight of Black Canadians to that of the Indigenous populations and their continual fight to maintain and honour their sacred lands. In “Nothin’ at All,” it is not the reserve but rather a traditional burial ground that becomes the connective mode of relational thinking. In reppin’ Scarborough in his previous rhymes and in reppin’ Toronto with the Argonauts jersey in the video, Maestro’s scathing critique of Canadian society refuses to address Black struggle as a singularity. In the accompanying visuals for the lyrics quoted above, the hanging chains entangle a set of golf clubs, powerfully symbolizing the connection between the Indigenous struggle and the Black struggle to fight off the chains of oppression. The golf clubs do double work, symbolizing not just the proposed golf course planned on the Mohawk sacred burial ground, but also symbolizing the exchange value notions of the land that underpin the rigid Eurocentric understanding of land. Maestro is clear in his rhymes, claiming “without togetherness we have nothing at all,” reminding his listeners of the connective relationships that require our recognition to undue social oppression.
REPPIN THE REMIX
The kinds of connective relational logics Maestro points toward in “Nothin At All” emerge within remix culture in an era of increased production in a post Napster, peer-to-peer world. Since at least the middle of the 2000s, the remix has become a concept deployed beyond music and has found its way into video, literature, and visual art. An examination of the cultural production of Indigenous hip-hop heads in Canada allows for a deep engagement and bountiful yield of analytical insights. The remix as a concept allows us to think about mixture and hybridization. It also interrogates cultural production under settler colonialism as well as the legal complexes designed to own and profit from culture. The definition of the remix that I am working with is the process of mixing or referencing and combining previous separated works to develop a new derivative work. This process involves referencing, riffing, citing and honouring previous works, often playing with nostalgia, to create music, video, or visual art within the same field. Hip-hop’s music has been one of the very early practitioners of excessive sampling and remixing, with lawsuits in the early 1990s clearly indicating the violation of Western European conceptions of personal property and ownership. For example, in Sugar Hill Gang’s first breakthrough single, “Rapper’s Delight” they creatively sampled Chic’s “Good Times”. Notions of recycling, pastiche and riffing are all connected to the practice of remix and allow for a typology of remixing to emerge. Today, hip-hop artists continue these practices. Many hip-hop classics by groups like Wu Tang Clan and artists like Busta Rhymes and Kanye West breathe new life into well-known tracks by the likes of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield and many more. The importance of remix culture, particularly as it involves and evolves sampling practices, is that the act of remixing makes authorship and power ambivalent.17 The lines between consumer and producer are redrawn and troubled into a new set of relations that blur the previously rigid and linear ideas behind the production of culture.
Like the practice of reppin’, the remix also functions within Black diasporic cultural production as a technology that can reframe some of the dominant ways in which Western culture extracts exchange and surplus value from Black cultural production. Remixing, while engaged with consumer markets and utilized as a strategy by record labels over the last three decades, also finds ways to resist becoming completely engulfed with intellectual copyright battles, by at times utilizing Creative Commons licensing or CopyLeft to unshackle the artist in their creative endeavours.18 These alternative ways of thinking about the legalities around the production and sale of culture are remix culture’s way of interrupting the status quo. The use value of remixes, as articulated in Lawrence Lessig’s development of Creative Commons licensing, is not obscured by the hegemonic flexing of legal regimes that GirlTalk and other remix artists understand as creating obstacles to the production of culture. Remix culture balances use value with the predominance of exchange value and provides a flexible paradigm that imagines the variations of cultural production possible within the tightly controlled logic of Western Europe’s current regime. Establishing such copyright violations within an archival setting puts into question who might an archive serve and how can we preserve the affective impact of remixing. Does preserving and refusing to trouble the illegality of remixing or of mixtapes essentially serve to maintain the status quo? These tough questions lay at the heart of the archiving of hip-hop culture, but are not easily addressed in acts of cataloging, display, or indexing.
If reppin’ allows for the formation of geographic knowledge that refuses narratives of land extraction, what might the remix allow for? In its frustration with intellectual property regimes and its use of old and supposedly obsolete vinyl records, remix culture opens the relational possibilities that legal structures and consumption habits close down.19 For example, popular music focuses on continually consuming and producing new ‘hit singles’. The radio industrial complex promotes the same ‘hit’ music as do stores and online outlets? Aggressive marketing connects songs on radio rotation with current box office movies ensuring that artists whose music is charting end up on talk shows and in commercials. The only goal of this incestuous cycle is getting consumers to purchase or stream music and/or attend a live performance. In stark contrast, the 2009 creation of DJ Dangermouse’s Grey Album, a remix album that paired Jay-Z’s lyrics with instrumentals from the Beatles, flooded peer-to-peer websites and garnered critical acclaim without investing in marketing, advertising or ever being played on commercial radio. This remix album completely bypassed the entire music industry’s infrastructure. A fact that demonstrates how remix culture disrupts established hierarchies of authorship and the existing power structures that make the music industry a possibility.
Instead of focusing on creating a commodity that will make its rounds on the commercial music cycle, remixes of songs are often unpublished, rarely marketed and rarely integrated into commercial radio. Rather than orienting solely towards the consumer market, remixes are often underground, hard to find, and unauthorized artistic creations. At times, remixes refuse to remain within the same genre or generation of music, their samples, rhythms, and baselines find limitless possibilities of expression. One can find many examples of house versions of popular Madonna songs in the 1980s and similarly within the Canadian context, Kardinal Offishal’s soca remix for “Dangerous” attest to the ensuring legacy and logic of remix culture.
Notions of the remix underpin the massive success of A Tribe Called Red’s invention of electric pow wow. Through both video and audio, the Ottawa based DJ trio have fused traditional pow wow sounds such as chant into the electro influenced rhythms they create on six turntables. The backdrops of their performances feature archival video of mythical and stereotypical “Indians” often remixed with various video clips of more contemporary imagery. Their DJ sets and musical innovations have been pivotal in debunking still prevalent myths of the “dead Indian” and the stereotype of connecting Indigenous cultures to the past. Instead, these sets and innovations solder their realities to the present and future. New visions of urban Indigenous life are made possible by electric pow wow’s mixing of the past, present, and future, dynamically elaborating the possibilities of the remix.20 While remixing is common practice in popular culture, A Tribe Called Red complicates simplistic notions of cultural appropriation. In songs such as “Shottas,” the sampling of sonic materials such as whistles familiar to soca road marches and voices sampled from Jamaican dancehall tracks update common notions of Indigeneity as out of touch and rooted in the past.
Similarly, in the various works of bboy emcee Que Rock, notions of mixture and hybridity proliferate. Ideas of the remix are deeply embedded in his music. Like A Tribe Called Red, Que Rock presents his audiences with a notion of urban Indigeneity that is deeply connected to its past yet intimately connected to futuristic understandings of being Indigenous. Unlike A Tribe Called Red, Que Rock’s art has not seen significant commercial success, his lack of management may suggest his lack of interest in engaging the commercial side of hip-hop culture. In his mixtapes, Graffiti Music Volumes 1-3, tracks like “Native State of Mind” are his versions of what many consider foundational songs in hip-hop. Riffing Nas’ “New York State of Mind” and utilizing the same beat as the original track, Que Rock rhymes about life as an Indigenous emcee. In this artistic rendering of remix ideology, Que Rock’s “Native State of Mind” plays tribute to Nas decades after the release of the song and thus is in no way attempting to compete with the original “New York State of Mind,” a key facet to a remix whose use value exceeds its exchange value. When “Native State of Mind” creatively pays homage to Nas while simultaneously articulating an Indigenous artist’s engagement with the consciousness raising potential of hip-hop, archives are ill-suited to track and detail the affect Que Rock produces.
Similarly, Que Rock, in both the lyrics and video for his song “Ghost Dance,” embodies the remix aesthetic, moving seamlessly between past and present and between hip-hop culture and his Cree culture. The video opens with archival audio and visuals from the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota. The original narrator of the archival video explains the Ghost Dance originated from a Shaman of the Pauite people of Nevada. The dance was meant to unite the remaining numbers of Indigenous groups in the West and
Southwest United States and reunite the spirts of the dead in order to banish the evil of encroaching European settlement. Throughout various scenes in the video, Que Rock, at times dressed in traditional regalia, is seen both breakdancing and Indian stepping. He rhymes about restoring pride in his community as well as about the importance of his breakdance crew. Que Rock’s hybrid display of the intimate features of bboyism alongside respect for and performance of traditional dances illuminate an operational modality of the remix. In this modality, hierarchy and existing authorial control are suspended in favour of mixture, hybridization, and remixing. Like the innovative electric pow wow music invented by A Tribe Called Red, Que Rock’s “Ghost Dance” gestures toward Indigenous futures, ones in which hybridity, mixture and remix play a significant role in destroying myths of the “extinct Indian” and the “backwards Native”.
Across the many Indigenous artistic engagements with hip-hop in Canada, there are multiple ways in which the remix aesthetic pays homage to hip-hop culture. Just as Que Rock’s “Native State of Mind” remixed Nas’s “New York State of Mind,” T-Rhyme’s “One Love” did the same again, playing tribute to another track of the same title from the critically acclaimed debut album by Nas. Smartly riffing hip-hop in naming practices like A Tribe Called Red’s and A Tribe Called Queenz take on A Tribe Called Quest or Que Rock’s naming paying respect to his bboy crew, the Ready 2 Rock crew, sets up relations that are based in homage not exploitation. The wiliness to engage in the same wordplay that makes hip-hop music powerful signifies a respectful engagement with hip-hop culture that is more than mere market orientation. Remixing then, in these instances, is a technology that loosens authorial control of “original” pieces of culture by paying homage to them and by dislodging the grasp of a market orientation to the production of culture. New axis of relations are possible both between consumers and producers, but also importantly between Indigenous and Black populations both of whom are intimately attuned to the cultural exploitation and appropriation perpetuated by market orientated Western European cultures.
These sets of relations resist the powerfully constructed linearity of producer and consumer to expand and artistically innovate modes of living within Western culture that allow for another kind of human relationship to culture. Similarly, in representing one’s ghetto, reserve, or neighbourhood, the practices embedded within hip-hop culture, such as honouring one’s community, do the kind of transformational work to Black and Indigenous subjectivities that do not fit neatly into existing archival structures. With community and crew being central to hip-hop culture, archiving must do more than simply catalogue vestiges of material culture.
Given the very immaterial ways Indigenous and Black hip-hop artists transform their consciousness and their community’s idea of itself, how might the drive to archive hip- hop’s material culture capture the impact of reppin and remixing? Listing massive numbers of flyers, recordings, or photos appears to be one way to signify that archiving is being done. For example, the Seattle based 206 Hip-hop Archive, one of the newer archives on the scene, has already begun listing its accumulations of songs. The taxonomies and classificatory sciences that form the bedrock of modern day archival practices are designed to support a logic of accumulation, obscuring immaterial, yet highly impactful histories like mentorship and communities of learning (crews) buried in data piles. The honouring of modes of accumulation so deeply embedded within the archival sciences as metrics of success cannot capture the work of reppin’ or the deep impacts of remixing. Even at the level of naming, the honouring practices of riffing A Tribe Called Quest or sampling a track from Nas’s “Illmatic” are significant acts that are not easily captured within the widely used Dublin Core metadata categories. As I have examined in another context, the eighteen categories typically used in the Dublin Core metadata can be altered to speak more directly to hip-hop culture.21
The ways in which the Black geographical act of reppin’ alter not just local conceptions of space but also artists and audiences’ conceptions of self and their subjectivities, are critical to effectively archiving hip-hop culture. Gathering a connective web of locales within a city that nourished hip-hop, such as Uniacke Square in Halifax or Scarborough in Toronto, speak to and allow for an understanding of hip-hop in more expansive terms that are not solely tied to narratives of consumption. These forms of reppin’, like the plot or grung, sit outside of, or in juxtaposition to, the market and market-orientated activities—this makes them fertile grounds to reimagine existing relations of cultural production. This means that amplifying the ways in which hip-hop heads represent their geographic affiliations and support systems provides a spatial and geographic knowledge of how we might live beyond the extractive logic of land use, especially from the demonic and disqualified grounds of the ghetto and the reserve.
If remix culture can shake the cultural industries to reimagine intellectual property rights and reppin’ can induce new subjective modalities and spatial knowledge beyond our current dominant conceptions, the task of a hip-hop archive capturing, preserving and celebrating these aspects is a momentous one. But archiving hip-hop without being attuned to its impact, beyond the well worn narratives of “blowing up” or “making it big,” simply reproduces ideas of celebrity, accumulation, profit, and extraction that underpin the logic of colonialism. Attention to the practices of reppin’ and remixing and their incorporation into the informational architecture of hip-hop archives can allow for a thorough and more deeply impactful engagement with the potentialities of hip-hop culture beyond the market. It is the unarchivable elements—the impact of the immaterial acts on Black and Indigenous lives—that illuminates what is most at stake in the archiving hip-hop culture and its abilities rupture and reconstitute the archive and archival practices.
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4 Vanessa Fleet, “The Camera in the Cipher: Martha Cooper’s Early Photographs,” Prefix ICA 33 (May 2016):
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6 Katherine McKittrick and Clyde Adrian Woods, eds., Black geographies and the politics of place. (Toronto: Between the Lines).
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15 Devin Pacholik, “We Premiered a Video from Hellnback and Talked about Canada’s Indigenous
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18 Lawrence Lessig, “Free (ing) culture for remix.” Utah L. Rev (2004): 961.
19 Graham Reynolds, “A Stroke of Genius or Copyright Infringement: Mashups and Copyright in Canada,” SCRIPTed 6.3 (2009): 639-668.
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21 Mark. V Campbell, “Hip-hop Archive or an Archive of Hip-hop? A Remix Impulse.” Public 57 (2018): 62-73.