“Oxygen” rapper thrives off genuine connections with fans

When Matthew Progress takes the stage, it’s not just about him, it’s about the gang.

Headlining one of Toronto’s monthly hip-hop shows, The Hustle, at the local Drake Hotel, Matthew Progress follows fellow local emcees F.E.L.N. and Prince Rose on the line-up. He jumps on stage in a white beanie and shirt that bleeds to red under the spotlight overhead.

Everyone in the room piles up at the edge of the stage. As he grips the mic, his rough voice cuts through the room in rapid fire verse, with DJ Bambii behind him handling the rhythm.

Progress calls out, “A lot of people I call family are in this room right now, and that’s the gang. Make some noise if you’re in the gang.”

The crowd knows exactly what to do.

The 29-year-old Toronto rapper has gone from freestyling in the corners of his high school and working with the city’s Freedom Writers collective, to landing mentions on popular American websites, but he’s still maintained a genuine connection with other local artists.

“He’s someone that we’ve gotten to know,” says Crossword, one of the organizers behind The Hustle. “He’s out at events; he supports.”

At least a third of the show-goers inside the venue are a familiar face to Matthew Progress.

Before the show, from his seat on a couch in the hall, he either smiles, tilts his chin or stands to greet everyone with a ‘hey, what’s up’ as they walk past; then he directs them downstairs where electro hip-hop beats reverberate.

“I guess it comes from just doing different things in different spaces,” he says, about his popularity.

Matthew Progress // Photo By: Isa Ransome © Urbanology Magazine

Matthew Progress // Photo By: Isa Ransome © Urbanology Magazine

“I’ve become an artist that sees 360 degrees of expression.”

In the past, Matthew Progress has been involved with a number of community programs. He coordinated a recording studio with the former Palisades Media Arts Academy (PMAA) to support creative youth, has chaired a number of other youth committees and studied social work at Ryerson University. Eventually, Matthew says he hopes to create an artist incubator to help provide young people with resources to turn their art into a career.

“He supports other artists; he’s very selfless in that way,” Crossword shares. “I feel like that’s a very key thing in this city.”

Matthew Progress has grown throughout the years to receive community support in Toronto, from fellow artists and music lovers. Even his mom has been to nearly all of his shows, he shares.

Crossword says Progress is just the type of musician The Hustle likes to feature: musically gifted, hard-working and building a buzz.

“He’s making very provocative music I feel that’s very sonically provocative, lyrically provocative, stylistically provocative, and we want to support something like that, that creativity,” he explains.

Progress gained notice at the end of last year with the music video for his single “Oxygen”, directed by Sammy Rawal, where he experiments with choppy cuts, black light and glowing paint, which he smeared across his face and gingery beard.

The video followed his 2014 EP Night.Rhetoric, which started Matthew Progress’ foray into a more eclectic sound with disjointed, electronic beats.

“I’ve become an artist that sees 360 degrees of expression,” Progress says, adding he admires artists like Kanye West and David Bowie who are not just musicians, but creative directors. He and Rawal worked together to develop much of the concept and aesthetic direction for the “Oxygen” video.

This year Progress plans to release a full-length LP around summertime, with singles and more videos leading up to it, but he keeps quiet on details. “I want to take people on a trip and I don’t want them to know what I’m going to do next.”

Photos By: Isa Ransome © Urbanology Magazine