Gazeebow Unit may have gained the spotlight with ‘Newfie’ parody rap, but hard-working hip-hop locals remain in the shadows. And they’re beginning to wonder: Does Newfoundland rap have to be a joke to become popular?
Over the next few weeks Elling Lien will talk to some of the major players in local rap music.
Photo by Kelly Best
When I was asking around to find the big contenders in local rap, the name that came up the most was Johnny Hardcore.
28 years old now, John Young says he’s been rapping since he was 8.
But it was ever since he first heard the 1988 sound of hip-hop music from artists like LL Cool J and Public Enemy, he latched onto it.
His music, like his pseudonym would suggest, is aggressive, and his voice is gruff. In person though, he’s unassuming and friendly. Although he has a stutter when he speaks, his agility as an MC is really high.
Young has been through a lot over the past few years: On the personal side of things, he has been attending Narcotics Anonymous for the past number of months, and is winning a fight to overcome an anger inside him. All the while, music has been a central part of his life. He released a solo album in 2002, was in a video with popular Halifax MCs Jay Bizzy and Classified last year, and is busy at work on his second album.
I met up with him one afternoon last weekend for a chat about the rap scene here in the city.
So… Is there actually a rap scene here in the city?
I don’t want to be negative, but there isn’t really a rap scene here yet. I hate to be that kind of guy to say that, and before I was really mad about it, but now I just accept it. I’m not angry about it, but I’m not going to lie about it either and say, “yeah man, we’ve got a flourishing scene here,” because we just don’t.
Why do you think that is?
I’ve got my own hypotheses. One of them is that, first off, Newfoundlanders don’t really like to support other Newfoundlanders that much. That’s how I feel. When someone ‘makes it’, they go “oh, screw you.” I also think people can’t take me seriously, because people associate hip-hop with being from ‘the hood’ or being black, and so how could I be anything real or authentic?
Also, the people here who are into hip-hop are into a pop kind of hip-hop — like Tupac. There aren’t many fans here who like the aesthetic that I’m from, the 88 to 93 era. Like, when I listen to 50-Cent, I don’t hear stories, I don’t hear anything funny, I don’t hear anything new in how he says the lyrics, he’s just hard.
So I feel we — Radar and Lee Fitz — aren’t hard enough for the hard people here. And not artsy enough for the artsy crowd either. You know?
How often do you perform in town these days?
These past five months we’ve performed every month, and sometimes every week. We don’t have a huge following, but there are more people who have my album than would come out to my show every time. I sold three hundred of them here, but I can’t get every one of them out to see me.
But even up in Halifax, where they have a big rap scene, they don’t have a lot of fans going to see them. They have a lot more people, and they have good music, but no one does anything. I love Halifax, but I’m not going to get any more exposure up there than I am here. Maybe a little bit more, but not much.
I think I’m good. I think I could be better, but I don’t think that really matters. I could be worse and make it. It just depends on where you’re to.
People think it’s a big thing for a white guy to be successful and rapping — like Eminem, he got in, but he kind of closed the door on every other white person following after him. People had me convinced that I was going to make it once upon a time, and then I moved up to Halifax and I did my album, and eventually I came to the realization that I’m probably not going to make it there. It was a relief to admit it to myself at that point, because I was living on these crazy high hopes, and everything else around me was falling apart. I was so unhappy. I was attempting to make music I didn’t like, like a singing kind of thing, and I can’t do that. It’s not me. I couldn’t do it. I would listen to it and I’d say, “that’s not me.”
Now after a few years away from that, I make the music I want to make. There are a lot of things about that I don’t like about rap in the media, or about Newfoundland rap or Halifax rap… There are a lot of different things I don’t like, but I’ve stopped getting angry about it all.
So if you were to make another album, would it be less angry? The first one sounded pretty angry.
It won’t be much less angry, because I still do express my anger through my music, but I don’t let the anger own my life any more.
Working on my new album, I’m still negative, but it’s how I want to express myself. It’s not necessarily how I feel any more.
Like, recently, some guy around here did a song and mentioned my weight, and a few other things about me, and I did a song back at him that was really mean, but I wasn’t mad at him. I just had to respond because he called my name out.
Like in an MC battle? It’s not personal?
Yeah, but before I’d take it all very personal. I’d be out to kill him, to knock him out. I’d be angry about it every time I heard his name.
But now, even if people we’re performing for aren’t into it, that’s cool.
Like we performed one night with the Idlers, and Neil Conway, and he’s cool. Neil likes us. But the people there weren’t really into it. I wasn’t mad about it, I was laughing. I said, “we could leave if you want, we don’t have to perform. I know I’m good, and if you’re not into it, that’s cool. I’m not offended.”
We don’t fit in anyone’s scope here in Newfoundland. There are people out there, but it’s a small amount of people.
I’m kind of like a phantom around town here, really. I don’t get exposure, my face isn’t all over the place. I could mention an artist from Halifax that has been at it as long as me, and they know who are, and I’m in a video with them on Much, but people still wouldn’t know who I am. (Classified and Jay Bizzy.)
I’m in a video on Much with them wearing a “Free Newfoundland” t-shirt, dancing, and they don’t know who I am. It amazes me sometimes.
How do you feel about the success of Gazeebow Unit?
Oh yeah! [laugh]
At first, I was really angry. I was like, wow, these guys are getting respect and people love it all over. It’s not just in Newfoundland, it’s spread everywhere on the web. So part of me was really, really angry at first, since I’ve been doing this for so long and working so hard. But then I let it go. I let anger go now. I’ve learned a new way of life, and I’ve learned to deal with anger.
The thing is, these guys are just a bunch of guys — young fellas who did this to make fun of the people in their neighbourhood. They didn’t expect to get anything out of it, so I can’t really be angry at them, because they’re just guys who did it for a bit of fun…
Me and my friends were sitting around and we asked, “why are we really angry?” And we realized we were angry because Newfoundland loves them and they don’t love us.
But that just tells me that Newfoundlanders don’t take rap seriously yet. “You’re from Newfoundland! How can you rap and be sincere about it?”
Have you ever tried looking for a live band that would perform with you? Something to help bridge the gap?
Well, you need a band who doesn’t go off; who can stick to a groove.
I have had good times performing with bands. I performed with Skank a bunch of times — just hopping up and having a laugh, and they’re good for that. The Discounts are good for that too, I really like those guys. I like them so much I might want them on my album, you know what I mean? You know The Roots, the rap-band? The Discounts can do that stuff.
We’ve recently been attempting to unify people here, because everyone here — there’s only, like, eight of us. But we all hate each other? What’s the point of these beefs, you know what I mean? There’s only around ten of us here, and we can’t be angry all the time.
Two mp3 tracks from Johnny Hardcore’s 2002 self-titled release out on Backburner Records:
Produced by Matt Labbatt, cut by Uncle Fester
Produced by Lo-Fi, cut by Jabba the Cut