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Toronto hip hop scene in the spotlight at Hot Docs

Think 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.

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