Joe Cobden

Halifax Represent

I was just a tourist.

I moved to Halifax in ’88. I was 9. In grade 5, my friend Matt’s older brother showed me a music video of MC J and Cool G rapping in and around Halifax. I knew about rap from my older brother, and from watching “Breakin’” and “Beat Street” obsessively, but I never knew there was rap in Canada, let alone Halifax.

Uniacke Square Posse, Halifax, Nova Scotia (1988)

I also knew little about the North End, where the majority of the black people lived. I was told it was poorer and tougher. I lived in the Quinpool area and went to a white junior high school. In grade 7, I was “swarmed” by a group of angry young black teens, strolling through “my” neighbourhood looking for trouble.

It was common then. People would get their hats stolen at the Metro Centre or the Commons. They’d get swarmed. Often the whites would feel justified in open bigotry afterwards. Apparently it’s still happening. People like to say it’s the most violent city in the country. I was beat up badly. My eye was all screwy for a month because one of the guys had a ring on the hand that clocked me. I felt like a wimp. The guy at the corner store asked, “Did you at least get a punch in?” When I told him no he just shook his head and straightened the licorice, embarrassed. I wanted to know why these kids were so much tougher than me.

As I grew up I listened to more and more rap music, whispered freestyles as I walked to school, wrote rhymes in my journal, did the running man at the dance. I started drinking a lot too, smoking weed all the time. I was pissed off but I didn’t like punk music. School was boring and I was no-good with the ladies (especially ladies who preferred tougher boys). Rap was a no-brainer.

Then I started listening to gangster shit: Mobb Deep, Gravediggas, Nas, and the like. And Wu-Tang.

Wu-Tang, from “OB4CL” (1995)

Made me feel tougher than ever, especially blaring in the Walkman. I didn’t get into fights or anything, but just the fact that I knew and understood Raekwon’s lyrics and slang, made me feel more prepared. It was okay to be angry and “abnormal,” encouraged even.

Also, I wanted to be friends with the guys who had a lot of sex with girls and those guys were definitely listening to rap. I should also note that none of our parents or teachers knew about any of this.

Halifax had a rap community of its own that was also in adolescence. I missed the early years, but now I had Hip Club Groove, Sixtoo, Jo Run, and Stinkin’ Rich (later Buck 65) to look up to.

Governor Bolts, Buck 65, “Makin’ Love To Your Disk Drive” (2001)

And there was a new generation on the rise too: Tachichi, Kaleb Simmonds, Kunga 219, Skratch Bastid, Druncness Monster, and Gordski. Governor Bolts and Birdapres (both from London, Ontario) later became mainstays in the community and there are dozens of others who would tear a strip off me if they stumbled upon this website and didn’t see their name, front and centre (of course I’m safe here with you brainiacs).

Kaleb Simmonds on a shitty Maritime breakfast show (2005)

Friends of mine started recording raps on 4-track and meeting producers (beat-makers). I moved to Montreal but kept tabs on what was happening in tiny indie rap circles around the country. I learned about a movement in the San Francisco Bay Area from my more fanatic friends and we started buying their tapes by the dozens. This new style of rap was not about shooting guns or making millions. Instead, these rappers talked about their feelings and shit. Like Eligh and the Grouch, two guys from Living Legends (an enormous crew from the Bay Area). Or Deep Puddle Dynamics (pillars of “the movement”): Dose, Slug, Alias, and Sole. They each rap about a different part of the candle: flame, wax, wick, and candlestick (in that order).

Deep Puddle Dynamics, “The Candle” (2002)

They liked to read books, grew up in middle-class homes. Most of us were pussies and the only real damage we did was to ourselves, so that was what people wrote about. A lot of the music was un-listenable (lots of adjectives, mixed metaphors and cryptic nonsense) and most people didn’t like it, but the beats were often as good as ones from the ghetto.

Now we actually had personal access to the people making the music. We drank 40s with them and teamed-up for compilations and tours, this weird connection between Halifax and California (and Maine) and very little in-between. I felt like I was a part of something that would be talked about one day. We all had this secret and people who weren’t down all the way were just in the way.

But it wasn’t long before I realized I was a fraud. I wasn’t rapping, djing, break-dancing, or writing graffiti. Montreal sucks for rap, and doesn’t care about being tough. It’s a happy place. Girls in Montreal don’t like rap as much as they like coffee and guitars. So I got into that instead. Many of the Halifax hip-hop crowd went west to Vancouver and kicked off a whole other chapter that is still evolving and has tight links stateside. Also there is new blood in the Halifax scene.

Josh Martinez, Classified and Skratch Bastid, “Goin’ Back to Hali” (2009)

Here is “Evil”–on the Camobear Records label, run by Josh Martinez (still rapping full time and a major Halifax-Vancouver-West Coast US connector) and Miles Rubin, after Low Pressure Records folded:

Evil Ebeneezer, “Told You So” (2006)

I think I always knew I was more into cigarettes than blunts. I was too much of a worrier to “keep it real.” I was just biding my time, enjoying it while it lasted, knowing I’d abandon all of it (and them) one day for a much healthier situation. I grew distant from my rap friends and their new harder friends. Couldn’t relate, they seemed stuck. I liked the music less and less. It was just too macho a world for a wimp like me.

Cee!!!!!!!! aka Oracle the Newf, DJ Moves (a grandaddy of this scene) holding the camera, & Fatt Matt who’s cranking out releases in Vancouver right now (2008)

And another thing happened: The more popular the movement became, the more hardcore the original fans had to be. The same people who liked Dave Matthews were now listening to Murs, the Living Legends, Old Dominion, and frankly, Buck 65. Vice Magazine, Anti-con, and the Internet detonated the whole thing. Line-ups to see Dose at SXSW. A million copycats instead of a few hundred. It’s probably like environmentalists from the 1980s. Now that everyone agrees with them they must be so disappointed.

Some guys wanted to be legitimate so badly that they sabotaged their lives until they became the “genuine article” with something real to rap about and the right to have an opinion. (“I’m harder than you, so shut up and listen to how it is in this world.”) They went to jail, dropped out, got in fights, and disappeared. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe a lot of those guys were on that path anyway.

David Berman says, “Punk rock died when the first punk said, ‘punk’s not dead.’” Well, I stopped listening to indie rap when they started to eat their own. I knew I’d be first on the chopping block. Funnily enough, the same thing is happening to indie rock now (see smarter people write about that demise, from Sasha Frere-Jones to Carl Wilson to Kate Carraway).

I stopped caring around ’04. I don’t know what happened to the scene after that. I think a lot of them got into dirty south stuff, crunk, hyphy, new r and b, and new gangster stuff. I don’t even know what the different sub-genres are called.

Some of my best friends are still obsessive rap fiends. I’m surprised they aren’t embarrassed by me now. I’m glad we still know each other. I love them as much as ever, even if I never see them. If I want to know what’s really going on in rap, I look at Sharks and Hammers.

Rhek is dedicated and knows more about the best stuff than nearly anyone. In fact, you can scrap this whole article and go look there for the real shit. He’s the future of YouTube, a YouTube DJ. He does the heavy searching and you get to go to the show-and-tell.

– Joe Cobden

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Joe Cobden is an award-winning actor/performer from Montrealifax. He was the first anglophone to receive Quebec's "Les Masques" award for 'Revelation of the Year.' He spent more than two years working on "The Eco Show" (with theatre creator, Daniel Brooks, of Necessary Angel) and "Untitled Faction Project" (with Ame Henderson of Public Recordings). Film credits include "Blindness" (dir. Fernando Mereilles), "I'm Not There" (dir. Todd Haynes), and "Le Piege Americain" (dir. Charles Biname) and he has the lead role in the feature film "Peepers," from Automatic Vaudeville. He is also known for his recurring role on the TV series, "Living in Your Car." Joe's film directing credits include music videos for Miriam Makeba ("Help") and Fats Waller ("Sigh"), which has played at over 20 film festivals worldwide and won the People's Choice award at the Cabbagetown Film Festival. More Joe Cobden here.