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Film

Toronto hip hop scene in the spotlight at Hot Docs

Posted by Alex Griffith / April 27, 2013

Alias Hot DocsThink of ALIAS, directed by Michelle Latimer, as musical activism, bringing Toronto's hip-hop scene into sharp focus for the uninitiated. The documentary, which premiered last night at Hot Docs, came into development during the infamous "summer of the gun" in 2007. ALIAS is partly a corrective against the negative publicity of Toronto African-Canadian communities and rappers. But it's also a very personal look into complicated lives beset with obstacles and empowered by ambition.

I sat down with Latimer and singer/rapper Keon Love, one of Latimer's subjects. Latimer, a short film and documentary director from Northern Ontario, was first drawn to the idea of a doc on the lives of Toronto rappers by the arrest of Alias Donmillion in 2002 for firing a gun into the air at Caribana. Alias was at the top of his career, having won the MMVA award and punching close to the kind of international recognition that rarely comes Toronto's way. It took a while to build the kind of trust between her and Alias and his contemporaries (including Alkatraz and Trench) to get an intimate perspective, far beyond your typical posterized entertainment special.

From hustling drugs to playing shows, from hand washing sneaker laces to shooting music videos at the Beaches, ALIAS follows its artists around with little judgment and a lot of access. Some of the artists, like Donmillion, are from east GTA, but not as East as Scarborough - they call it the "Middle East".

"Just for being around the artist, you get people vouching for you," says Latimer. "It took me a couple of years to get to them because I built cred, went to shows." Love agrees with Raekwon's comparison of Toronto to New York in terms of similar hip-hop vibes - with an equally strong dose of multicultural flavours, including reggae, traditional African, and even Bhangra Punjabi music. "Different parts of the world in one" is how Love describes Toronto style.

Love is a female rapper in a pretty exclusively-male environment. "I don't think it's lonely, I think sometimes it's more frustrating than lonely because I'm a woman. I always get the 'oh you're just a girl or 'she's a girl, let me try and take advantage." But she says you have to "go through the grind", and is currently hard at work getting her debut album Love Chronicles out for the summer.

All of Latimer's artists have worked with Mr. Knia (short for Know-it-all), a producer and very recently student of Osgoode Law School. Knia is exceptionally involved in his client's lives, the connective tissue holding the small but tenacious group together. "He's definitely an advocate for the community," says Keon, "Anyone he knows, he'll vouch for them." He is such a frequent presence at municipal courts (usually as co-sponsor for his artists' bail) that all the lawyers know him by name.

Knia's support network aside, Toronto hip-hop, and Toronto music in general, is not an especially tight-knit world. "I've been to Montreal," says Keon when I ask her about local GTA support, "And I've been to Montreal promoting music from Toronto...They're definitely more homegrown [in Montreal]. In Toronto I find it's very competitive. Everyone wants to be the one from Toronto."

The one from Toronto is, at least for the last few years, Drake. There was no way I was not going to ask Latimer and Love about the Drake Issue. "I'm not gonna diss Drake," says Love, diplomatically but also firmly, "A lot of people have negative things to say. At this point, I don't think we can sit here and be like 'Drake, Drake, Drake'. The world embraced him, and then Toronto more or less embraced him. So would Toronto embrace him if the world didn't embrace him? We have to ask ourselves that question."

Latimer and Love have high hopes for the doc and the publicity it will give hungry rappers looking to put their city and their art on the map.

ALIAS is playing Sunday, April 28 at 1:00 PM at Scotiabank 3, and Saturday, May 4 at 8:45 PM at Scotiabank 4.

Discussion

21 Comments

Sam Smith / April 27, 2013 at 06:50 pm
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Can't young black youth aspire to be in anything other than rapping or sports?

Want to be in music? Fine. How about actually learning a musical instrument? Also how about not limiting yourselves to only Rap or R&B?

Sheeseh! It would be nice to see some black faces come out of silicon valley for example. Will there ever be a black Zuckerberg or Jobs? guess not as long as there kids only want to 'entertain' for the bling bling.
Karen replying to a comment from Sam Smith / April 27, 2013 at 07:37 pm
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Hi Sam,
If this were a film on Caucasian kids aspiring to be Country singers, or South Asian kids playing Chutney music, would your comments be the same? This seems to be just as much about the struggle in life and struggle in their chosen path.
I do agree that I would also like to see more Black/diverse faces in the upper echelons of business. At least these kids have a dream. However without exposure and encouragement, any child, will not know how far they can dream and achieve. If you're up to it, mentor a child - try to reach our kids living in our at risk neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, there are a few to choose from. Although you can teach these kids something, I find I learn more about life and resilience from them and how extremely fortunate I am.
JayJay replying to a comment from Sam Smith / April 27, 2013 at 09:55 pm
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Anti-racism: you're doing it wrong
Famtomex replying to a comment from Sam Smith / April 28, 2013 at 08:28 am
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Who the fuck asked you to comment on what black kids want to be anyway, dumbass? Their music is THEIR music, not yours; not everybody wants to be a Beatlemainiac or be like Rush. Next time, keep your bullshit about rap music and black people to yourself.
A / April 28, 2013 at 09:26 am
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Before you watch any movie from Hollyweird watch this

http://theapologeticsgroup.com/product/pandoras-box-office-hollywoods-war-on-family-values/
Me2 replying to a comment from Sam Smith / April 28, 2013 at 10:46 am
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Talking in front of a drum machine (rap) is so peopole with no actual talent can have 'careers". Everyone knows that.
Me2 replying to a comment from Sam Smith / April 28, 2013 at 10:46 am
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And people like me can't spell....
Josh / April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am
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All the bars and clubs in Toronto last night were full of whitey wanna be rock stars. How many rock bands are trying to be three cord talentless hide behind distortion Ramones wannabe's.
Can't white kids try anything else?
Fantomex replying to a comment from A / April 28, 2013 at 12:12 pm
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I'm sorry, but that book, and anything else from the religious/secular right in the USA, is not to be believed at all.

Justin / April 28, 2013 at 12:31 pm
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Summer of the gun was 2005.
ROB replying to a comment from Josh / April 28, 2013 at 02:55 pm
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Josh white kids do,see Sam's silicon valley comment. Also what he said is valid. Too many black musicians limit themselves to hip hop,jazz,and R&B. It's just as limiting as the three cord emo/nupunk bullshit that suburban whities get up too. But it's oh so progressive to deny it.
Josh / April 28, 2013 at 05:55 pm
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What does Silicon valley have to do with anything? Why aren't you the head of a tech company in Silicon Valley Rob. What are your plans for getting there?

Did you just watch the documentary "Black In America: The New Promised Land - Silicon Valley" or something?

http://vimeo.com/49293655

http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/18/after-black-in-america-silence-from-tech-industry-leaders/?iid=SF_T_River
Me replying to a comment from ROB / April 28, 2013 at 06:35 pm
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Aren't most white kids trying to be black now too? Like that M&M idiot?
ROB replying to a comment from Josh / April 28, 2013 at 08:19 pm
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Did you even bother to read Sam's post? When in doubt the true progressive's response is no response. It's easier to attack the commentator.
Sam Smith replying to a comment from Famtomex / April 28, 2013 at 09:01 pm
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I'm not surprised some of you didn't even get my point or read my post properly. Sucks to be you I guess. Lowering yourself by swearing also shows you can't refute my FACTS!

The fact that none of these black youth that want to get into music know musicians such as Joshua Redman, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller or even Vernon Reid while wanting to emulate fakes like Kanye West or Jay-Z is a disgrace! When I saw that pic at the beginning of this article of the idiot holding out his hand like he's shooting a gun that gave me enough reason not to watch the vid.

Typical stupid youth.. Glorifying 'negatives' (or negative perceptions) about themselves and also using THAT as an 'excuse' to make a point. Yawn!
Sam Smith replying to a comment from Famtomex / April 28, 2013 at 09:16 pm
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And another way to make my point...

There is a black blues musician on the come up that many veterans praise. His name is Gary Clark Jr. He's played here a few times I believe.. and no I'm not really a fan of his but at least he actually writes his own songs and plays an instrument.. Do any of these kids know of him? Of course not. They'd rather want to follow, Know about or emulate the latest Souljah Boy known as A$AP Rocky and his crew of 'wannabe thugs'. That's what the mindless kids this article is about aspire to be and nothing more. Pathetic.

By the way where is SoulJah Boy nowdays? Or that's right he's FORGOTTEN just like this A$AP boy will be 5-6 yrs from now as well.
Sam Smith replying to a comment from Karen / April 28, 2013 at 09:29 pm
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"At least these kids have a dream."

And that 'dream' is to be the next A$AP or Kanye to get that bling bling right? Hmm.. How 'restrictive' of them...

No one said they can't dream. The point is they are using the 'Wrong thing' or person/s (idols) to start that dream. It is also a limited one as well. All I'm saying is they should EXPAND the dream. That could/should be easily done by not regulating themselves to only hip hop or R&B or only music and sports. Sad that none of these kids think about medicine, law, engineering etc.. Blame it on the CULTURE that glorifies what that idiot is doing with his hand in the article vid pic. The same CULTURE these kids can't see or look beyond. Hence their limited mindset.
Me / April 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm
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Many people dream of being rich with no effort or talent. It still doesn't give them talent.
Free Hip Hop Music Videos / May 6, 2013 at 11:06 am
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Hello friends, nice post and nice urging commented at this place, I am in fact enjoying by these.
Hip Hop Music Websites / May 7, 2013 at 04:27 am
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This post is really incredible, one of the most helpful I have ever read,indeed.
bills8091 / September 17, 2013 at 09:45 pm
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That looks fun. I have wanted to take a hip hop dance class in Naperville for awhile now. The dancing looks awesome.

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