The Discounts may lie on what some people consider the fringes of hip-hop, but Neil Conway, organizer of the popular yearly hip-hop and reggae event Home Grown Dope Jam, argues that you can still consider them a part of the culture.
Elling Lien caught up with Neil in Regina, a stop on his solo cross-country tour.
So do you think there is a hip-hop scene in St. John’s?
There is definitely a scene in terms of artists making music and performing it in front of people. How cohesive it is, or how supported it is is another story. I wouldn’t say that it’s a thriving scene at all. There’s definitely a scene. Yes. There are all kinds of people doing it in lots of different ways.
And how do you fit in all of this?
I’m not riding anybody’s coattails. I’m approaching it in my own way, which is a little bit more diverse than other people. I’m playing in a reggae band, and I’m playing in a funk band, but then I also get up as a rapper.
I’ve been MCing since I was a kid. It’s what I’ve been serious about, and the reggae and the funk and all that stuff is all the same project for me.
John[ny Hardcore] compared The Discounts to The Roots. If you guys are heading in a more hip-hop direction, is that a fair comparison?
Well, there are definitely similarities in that we’re both bands playing music for rap. But I don’t think our sound is very much alike.
We have a good dose of reggae in there, and I don’t really have straight-up hip-hop lyrics. I write more from my personal perspective, trying to be more abstract, or political, or humourous.
What are you doing that’s different from 2001, when The Discounts released their last album?
The lyrics are a lot more interesting. I’ve gotten away from being preachy and moralistic. There are still definitely a lot of my political views and beliefs in there but I try to approach it with a bit more wit or humour. The really basic chord progressions, musical structures are intact, but I’ve basically trashed all of the lyrics from back then. I’ve been really working on trying to craft lyrics with a lot of rhyme and interesting turns of phrase.
I really don’t want it to sound like anybody else, and I want to look at the lyrics and be proud of them. For me now having put out albums of satirical folk music, I’m really getting into honing the lyrics – saying what I mean in the song. So instead of having a song drift from topic to topic I want it really to be a song, not just a jam.
How difficult is it to write rap lyrics compared to your other stuff?
I wouldn’t say any one is easier or not. Rap is definitely more difficult to perform, and I need a lot more practice. It’s more difficult because the verses are a lot longer and I want the intensity to be there. For me to bust out the boom bap, I don’t want to repeat the verses and I don’t want it to go through all these different ideas.
The most difficult thing about music, no matter what genre it is, is promoting it and finding a venue for it. That’s how it is in St. John’s now. For me it’s been a lot easier because I can tell them its reggae. I often hear people call The Discounts a reggae band.
That’s what I’d thought you were.
The Discounts is probably 1/3 reggae, 1/3 funk and 1/3 hip hop – almost all the lyrics are more along the lines of hip hop and some of the beats go to reggae or funk.
But why is reggae more accepted than rap here?
Because it sells more booze. That’s the main thing.
Yeah. You’re talking about what’s accepted. It’s easier to get a gig as a reggae band because the bar owner knows they’re going to sell more booze… but I guess they’re selling more booze because it’s more accepted by the general populace.
People know a reggae show is going to be a fun time. They’re going to be able to go and dance and they have certain expectations, whereas a hip hop audience — just on average anyway — is a younger audience and there’s less people out there, less hip hop fans out there willing to support an unknown artist, especially local artists from NL. So I find it a lot easier to book gigs and bring in a crowd if I can say it’s live reggae.
But if I say its rap, then there’s all kinds of preconceived notions as to what that is. And I think it’s funny that people don’t even realize that The Discounts it’s a live rap group.
How do people not even realize?
Oh. People realize it. It’s just that there’s no DJ, and it’s not sample-based music.
We do this procession thing which isn’t very hip-hop like. At the end of a set we’ll just go one by one from these electric instruments to percussion instruments and we leave the bar and bring people with us. We’ve had some really great times where everyone in the bar came out with us.
So we can’t really be described as one thing, but I think hip-hop allows for that. It itself is really a mishmash of a whole bunch of things coming out of Jamaica’s DJ culture. Hip-hop was born out of reggae. When Cool Herc came to New York people were doing what he did in Jamaica way before New York, just rapping over records and releasing the records like that. You could call us a fusion band if you want, but I wouldn’t really say that.
The real old school?
I wouldn’t say that I’m very old school as an MC, but as far as what we’re doing with the band, it’s closer to old school. We’re playing basically roots, reggae and funk.
In hip-hop, a lot of people really really care about “keeping it real” or pure, what do you think of that?
I used to shy away from it but now I’m not afraid to say that I’m a rapper. I rap.
I think the way we’re doing it with The Discounts is something that is really easy for an audience in St. John’s and we have all these different scenes to draw from so all those young hip hop kids can come out and see us and recognize what I’m doing is dope but I still have the reggae fans from Skank who’ll come out and see The Discounts and support that, maybe warming them up a little bit to rap. Then there are the rock bands that I’ll play shows with, and their audience can see us. I know a lot of people have changed their mind about us, in a good way once they see us. People that are more into the rock scene may have thought of us as a cheesy reggae band, or a hip-hop thing and think that’s not what they’re into. But then once they go see us play with a band they get into it. They feel the energy of the music and the audience and we warm them up to something else, instead of being really purist about it and just rapping over loops with DJs scratching. And also we or myself as band leader we like to mix it up a lot. Sometimes we’ll have a DJ scratching with us, sometimes the show will be like a rap show like the Homegrown Dope Jam – a collaboration of local hip hop and reggae, where MCs come up and jam with bands.
For the younger MCs in town, or someone like Johnny Hardcore who’s been at it for a long time, I feel they appreciate being able to get up with a band and be presented in a format where more people will feel their music like what happens at the Home Grown Dope Jams.
That’s the most important thing. Not just to have the big crowd, but to be accepted.