Scene to Watch: Toronto Rap

Scene to Watch: Toronto Rap

Guest post by Andrew Matson*

Despite boasting a homegrown superstar with more hits than the Beatles in Drake, Toronto still isn’t widely known for its rap scene. But not for lack of quality product. Beyond the “6 God” and his protege Nav, there’s a wealth of hip-hop to be found in Ontario’s provincial capital, often club-ready and Jamaican-influenced, with a signature mix of singing and rapping that could be Drake’s influence or just a sign of where Gen-Z hip-hop is at in 2020. 

The history of Toronto hip-hop

The history of Toronto rap is best summed up by DJ Grumps’ book–…Everything Remains Raw: Documenting Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital–almost all of which is justifiably fringe. Backpack groups like Da Grassroots made waves in the ‘90s, but nothing from Toronto really crossed over until Drake.

The exception of course is 1993’s “Informer” by Snow, the raplike reggae smash by a white dude with a Jamaican accent. Though, he seemed like an anomaly at the time, in retrospect he was Drake’s prototype, and reflected the reggae’s strong influence over Toronto’s music scene going back at least to Jackie Mitoo in the ‘70s. 

Pre-Drake, the most important Canadian rap song was 1997’s “Northern Touch,” the NYC-style “tunnel banger” by Rascalz, featuring Toronto legends Kardinal Offishal and Choclair. Toronto doesn’t sound much like New York anymore, but “Northern Touch” helped kick off its modern era. 

Toronto rap’s 2020 class

The next class of Toronto rappers sound nothing like this distant past, however. First up is Tasha the Amazon, a purveyor of singer-songwriter jams with bass, and the gruff-voiced Lil Berete, who mixes a melodicism reminiscent of NYC’s A Boogie with the effortless song-making of a Kodak Black. 

Similarly, Jazz Cartier’s album Fleurever showcases his lyrical rigor and ear for smooth bangers. Sean Leon is crossover-ready as well–check out his tracks “SORRY!!” and “Kelsey Grammer,” as well as his producer Eestbound, who’s a beast in his own right. Also about to blow is Haviah Mighty, who sings and raps in roughly equal ratio. Her track “Waves” (feat Sean Leon) is a prime example of Toronto’s unique approach, sounding simultaneously computerized and booming.

Artists adding R&B to the mix

Tizzy Stackz looks poised to be the city’s next big R&B star, operating in an Atlanta mode with an island twist. His patois-inflected tracks “Diamond” and “Body (Summer Walker remix)” prove he’s up for the job. With a rougher aesthetic, but the same mix of singing and rapping is Slim Dinero, whose warm approach on songs like “Lemonade” makes even his heaviest raps sound folksy. By contrast, WhyG sounds as hard as can be at all times, revitalizing Brick Squad-era beats and adlibs on his War Package album.

The “rockstar” side of The 6

Specializing in the “rockstar”/Rolling Loud side of Toronto’s Gen Z hip-hop are Swagger-Rite and Killy. The former makes festival cuts with a sound that often swerves into Electric Daisy EDM territory. The latter has kept the octane high from 2017’s bellowing “No Romance,” continuing to work with “SoundCloud rap” architects like producers 16yrold and Oogie Mane–and making increasingly good music. Also of note is Houdini, the 20-year-old with a subtly drilled-out sound, whose tracks “Belmont Boyz” and “Big Crip” are standouts, and Dana Dentata, whose introspective style shines on her remix of Lil Peep’s “Star Shopping.

And that’s just to scratch the surface. Lots else is afoot in Toronto rap, where individual voices are bubbling on the verge of boiling over, and while the scene might be lesser-known, it has nothing to prove. 

“Scene to Watch” is the newest extension of SoundCloud’s To Watch programming that gives you a heads-up on who and what should be on your radar. Because from artists to DJs to scenes: what’s next in music is first on SoundCloud.

*Andrew Matson has written for MASS APPEAL, Rolling Stone, NPR, The Seattle Times, and Genius. On social he’s @andrewmatson.

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