The top 10 Toronto hip hop acts of all time
The top Toronto hip hop acts underscore just how rich and diverse (not to mention often under appreciated) Canada's hip hop scene is. Being Canada's foremost metropolitan centre, it's no surprise that many of our country's hip hop heavyweights come from TO. While there were some obvious picks, it's a difficult task to narrow down a list like this in any genre. My criteria for inclusion here was an act's historical significance, the success of their releases based on album sales and critical acclaim, and their ability to break through into international markets. If you think someone's been missed, let us know in the comments.
Here are the top 10 Toronto hip hop acts of all time.
No rapper reps Toronto more than Drake - the most recent notch on that belt being his global ambassadorship for the Raptors. Aside from the big business movies, his musical talent and influence on hip hop are undeniable. His last three albums have gone platinum and peaked at number 1 on BillBoard and he holds the record for most number 1 hits on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart (14). He's been nominated for 13 Grammys and won one, plus countless BET awards and 6 MuchMusic Video awards. People who question whether Forest Hill constitutes as "the bottom" fail to realize Drake's talking about his career. He skyrocketed from nothing and has found everything. All signs point to Drake sticking around for a while... so get used to it!
Maestro Fresh Wes
It would almost be easy to underestimate the importance of Maestro on this list, given the strength of Toronto's hip hop community today. It was a different story back in 1989 when he released "Let Your Backbone Slide," a single that actually made the top 40 (unprecedented for Canadian hip hop at the time). Much of the 1990s were less friendly to Maestro, but he's returned to being a Toronto hip hop fixture and an ambassador for the community at large since dropping the Black Tuxedo in 2012. Drake might be the international poster boy for Toronto hip hop, but Maestro is, well, the backbone of the local scene.
One of Toronto's most prominent hip hop figures is rapper, singer, and producer Saukrates. In 1994 Capitol Hill released his heavily popular Brick House EP, featuring Common, O.C. and Masta Ace. This led to full length, The Underground Tapes, and collabs with Choclair, Pharoahe Monch, Xzibit, and Heltah Skeltah. He snagged his second Juno nomination for "Money Or Love", had a track on the soundtrack for Red & Meth's "How High," and produced "Heaven" on Nas' God's Son. In '06 he worked extensively with Nelly Furtado, appearing with her at the 94th Grey Cup, the American Music awards, and on her "Get Loose" tour. He's still a member of Redman's Gilla House crew. Last year Saukrates released sophomore album Season One, featuring production by Rich Kidd and appearances by Redman, Nelly Furtado, and k-os.
Born in Scarborough, Kardi is responsible for more than just popularizing the term T-dot. His career started off on an incredible note - at age 12 he played his first show to an audience including Nelson Mandela. Kardinal's dancehall reggae influenced style was embraced internationally, letting the world see Toronto as the multicultural hub that it is. He's collabed with Sean Paul, Baby Blue Soundcrew, the Rascalz, and, in 2005, Akon (he would eventually signing onto his Kon Live Distribution label). In 2007 his single "Dangerous" became a top five hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and went triple platinum in Canada. Most recently Kardi released Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself, a collaborative mixtape with producer Nottz.
Referred to as an alternative hip hop artist, k-os has certainly worn many hats over his stylistically diverse career. He won a MuchMusic Award for his '93 single "Musical Essence," then took time to better define his sound. His debut album Exit was released in '02, and Billboard praised it as being one of the Canadian best hip hop releases ever. His next two albums went platinum in Canada, with a slew of singles including "Crabbuckit", "B-Boy Stance", "Man I Used to Be", and "Sunday Morning". In 2005 he was nominated for a Grammy for his collaboration with The Chemical Brothers, "Get Yourself High." This year k-os dropped BLack on BLonde, a double-disc highlighting his ability to cross genres - one disc hip hop, the other rock.
Hailing from Jane & Finch and Willowdale, this group formed in '88 when King Lou and Capital Q joined forces. They made waves a few years later with their jazzy rap debut And Now The Legacy Begins. The album ended up winning a Juno and going gold Canada, and was well received abroad. In '95 they added rapped Spek and DJ Luv to the group and released Subliminal Simulation featuring Butterfly of Digable Planets and Gangstarr. King Lou and Capital Q stuck around for the release of the Dream Warriors' greatest hits comp Anthology: A Decade of hits 1988-1998, and their final studio album, '02's The Legacy Continues... In 2011 they performed at CBC's Hip Hop Summit alongside Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, and Ghetto Concept.
One of the most significant Canadian hip hop pioneers, Michie Mee has been an integral part of Toronto's hip hop history. In 1985 when she was only 15 she performed on stage with Boogie Down Productions. She then recorded with KRS-One and Scott La Rock for her duo project with DJ L.A. Luv. In 1988 they signed with Atlantic, making her the first Canadian rapper to sign a deal with an American major. Three years later their single "Jamaican Funk" earned a Juno Award nomination. As time went on she would turn more of her attention to acting, but still released singles sporadically, and maintains her influence on the community as an advocate for education.
Born in Scarborough, Choclair aka Chox or Chiznock would leave a major impact on Canadian hip hop. After climbing the ropes in the underground he released his What It Takes EP in 1997. Two years later his first full length, Ice Cold, would go down as a Canadian classic. Off the strength of the Kardinal Offishall produced single "Let's Ride," the album would sell over 50,000 copies and win a Juno Award, a MuchMusic Video award, and a SOCAN award. Choclair would go on to release three more studio albums as well as a collection of early unreleased recordings. Although none of these albums would garner the attention that came from his debut, Choclair's place in Toronto's hip hop scene was set in stone.
Known for his off-center style and introspective lyricism, D-Sisive aka Derek Christoff has been around since the late 1990s. After the release of his first two EPs, other than being featured on DJ Format's popular single "3 Feet Deep", he went through a lengthy self-proclaimed period of dormancy until The Book EP in 2008. As if struck by a lightning bolt of creativity, he unleashed years of pent up artistry, spreading it out over 2 more EPs and 6 albums during the next half-decade. His '09 release "Let The Children Die" was nominated for a Polaris Music Prize. D-Sisive has never shied away from using his music to address the deep trials and tribulations of his personal life, and this freedom from creative constraints puts him in a unique category.
Hailing from Rexdale and Lawrence Heights, this duo was most active in the 1990s, winning two Juno awards for singles "Certified" and "E-Z On Tha Motion", respectively. Although they formed in 1989, the duo wouldn't release their debut album until 1998. It was well received, but their most popular single didn't come until 2001, in the form of "Still Too Much" a remix featuring Maestro, Kardinal Offishall, Red-1, and Snow. Currently they've formed G7 Records representing a handful of artists, and rumour has it Ghetto Concept is planning a new album called Times Up.
Main Source were split between Toronto and New York - hailing from Toronto were Sir Scratch and K-Cut, who first teamed up with NYC's Large Professor, then Mikey D. Fans of random trivia (or, you know, hip hop history) will know their first disc Breaking Atoms (1991) boasted the first on-record appearance of Nas on track "Live at the Barbeque." The followed this up with '94's Fuck What You Think, which caught the attention of Madonna - she sampled "What You Need" in a little track called "Human Nature." K-Cut went on to work as a producer for Maestro Fresh-Wes, Queen Latifah, and (seriously) Shaquille O'Neal.
Photo of k-os by Brian Morton