Toronto DJ/academic Mark Campbell aims to ensure younger generations know their hip-hop history
A hundred cassette cases in grid formation are suspended delicately from nails in the studio of Toronto’s Gallery 918. From afar the tape covers create one image: a young Black boy holding up a boom box pendant hanging from a necklace. Across the room there’s an archived photograph of early Canadian hip-hop royalty — the first female emcee to sign with a major U.S. label – Michie Mee. She’s smiling radiantly gazing down at a disco ball.
Mixtapes: Hip-Hop’s Lost Archive exhibition presented by North Side Hip Hop (NSHH) Archive, a digital archival website, mixes new creations with recovered memories. It marks the fourth hip-hop art exhibit curated by the NSHH’s founding director Dr. Mark V. Campbell, a senior research associate at Ryerson University who specializes in Afro-diasporic theory and culture, Canadian hip-hop, and has been a longstanding campus radio personality/DJ. The website debuted six years ago in an effort to educate younger generations on the history of hip-hop.
“All of the stories you hear today about [Canada now] emerging and coming onto the scene and being put on the map — these are the stories that this kind of exhibition needs to argue against because the history is here,” says Campbell.
“Mixtapes allowed the phenomenon of hip-hop to really explode out into the world.”
He points out that contrary to what some people may believe, Canada was a place where hip-hop culture thrived pre-Drake and OVO. It was in the ’80s when the music first began to emerge. Since then Canadians like Choclair, Director X, Kardinal Offishall and Ghetto Concept — just to name a few — have helped pave the way for the talent celebrated today.
Campbell’s most recent exhibition pays special homage to mixtapes — the small plastic cassette tapes artists and DJs used to record and distribute their music long before the digital era. Often carried across the border when Canadian youth of Caribbean heritage would go to visit their extended family in New York, mixtapes bounced around in hip-hoppers’ backpacks and played through their boom boxes and Walkmans (portable cassette players). They could be either cassette tapes with new music dubbed from New York radio, or tapes of unreleased freestyles and written verses from several artists mixed by popular New York DJs over commercially-owned beats.
Campbell points out that mixtapes had many purposes. Dating someone new and wanted to impress them? You might consider making them a mixtape. Wanted to learn new DJ tricks or New York slang? New mixtapes offered access to both. Today, the concept of the ‘mixtape’ lives on, used as an online promotional tool for artists — both when they are on the come-up and when they are in between official releases.
“Mixtapes allowed the phenomenon of hip-hop to really explode out into the world,” explains multi-faceted artist Leon “Eklipz” Robinson, whose work is included in the exhibition. “When the music wasn’t mainstream and popular, that’s what allowed it to travel.”
“The Public Enemy logo is such a striking image — it kind of reminded me of that time when we were getting raided for selling our music.”
Because of their use of beats owned by major labels most mixtapes were technically illegal due to copyright infringement laws. Eklipz, who opened the first hip-hop record store in Hamilton, Ontario, called The Boom Spot, recalls police cracking down on the sale of mixtapes in the 1990s.
“I remember the times when you had to sell your tapes from under the counter [in case] the police walked into the store — it was illegal material,” he says, adding these types of incidents were a source of inspiration for him when creating his piece, Shut ‘Em Down, for the exhibit. The artwork consists of the Public Enemy logo painted on top of dozens of cassette tapes, framed with LED lights.
“The Public Enemy logo is such a striking image,” Eklipz says. “It’s got the b-boy in the crosshairs — it kind of reminded me of that time when we were getting raided for selling our music.”
“With art, you always have to push the boundaries of creating new conversation or stuff that’s currently affecting us and try to create another option of interesting dialogue.”
The tension between law enforcement, hip-hop and Black youth is an underlying theme presented in the exhibition — one that remains particularly relevant in 2016. Toronto artist Mark Stoddart drew inspiration from Radio Raheem, a character from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) who is killed by police, as well as various recent news clippings about blue-on-Black violence, to create his piece Fight the Power.
“With art, you always have to push the boundaries of creating new conversation or stuff that’s currently affecting us and try to create another option of interesting dialogue,” says Stoddart. “. . . what are you trying to say to actually impact our people?”
Like mixtapes themselves, the pieces within the exhibition demonstrate how collaboration is imperative. “[Mark] just keeps continuing to connect the dots with the artists within the community and figuring out ways we can all contribute in telling our stories through hip-hop,” says Stoddart.
Sheinina Raj is one of the exhibit’s featured photographers, who got her big break when she was commissioned to shoot a cover image and nine-page spread for Canadian music publication Access on the local hip-hop scene featuring images of Michie Mee, Kardinal and Saukrates. “It’s important to have people like [Mark] that recognize that there’s been work that’s helped set the stage leading up to where Canada is now,” says Raj.
With showcases such as this Campbell wants to ensure younger generations know how aspects of hip-hop’s earlier years — like the mixtape — helped shape the cultural empire it’s become today. “It’s work that not all academics do,” adds music journalist Del Cowie, “trying to bridge the gap between what you do in the ivory towers, so to speak, and really engage with youth. This is the kind of work that needs to continue in Canada for our history to be documented and told.”
Photos © Britnei Bilhete + Urbanology Magazine