Less Canadian, More Music as Hard Rock Café Hosts International Hip Hop Artists for Canadian Music Week 2012

With over 900 bands in attendance over five days, it stands to reason that at least some of them would have crossed a few borders to get here. On March 21, the kickoff day for Canadian Music Week 2012, the Hard Rock Café in downtown Toronto played host to some international hip hop talent. Coming from as far away as Finland and as close by as New York City, the hip hop artists included a Finnish beatboxer (Felix Zenger), a Brooklyn-based rapper (Max Burgundy, with his DJ Jeff Hayes), and the Scarborough-born and bred Scott Ramirez and his DJ, Ryan DeRushe.

First on the Hard Rock stage was Felix Zenger. An unassuming guy wearing a grey hoodie, white t-shirt and jeans; the only thing that immediately stood out was his incongruous red-checkered flat cap with a red bobble on the crown, like something a Scotsman would wear. But then he picked up the mic and within a matter of seconds, he had the attention of the whole room. For the first part of the set, Zenger performed alone, first using his lips and vocal cords alone to swerve sounds, crunch beats, and recreate recognizable sounds in semi-recognizable yet irresistably head-bobbing rhythms. Then he went behind his laptop-soundboard setup and began to get even more creative.

Using a sound looping program, Zenger laid down beats, shakers, and vocal curlicues, layered over a pre-recorded track of a man singing, followed by heavy-hitting rap in another language. Shortly after, Zenger brought on stage another Finnish artist, also wearing the red-checkered cap, who identified himself simply as “Tommy.” They proceeded as a duo to rap and beatbox through a medley of well-known hip hop classics like Tupac’s “California Love” — Zenger’s vocal rendition of the autotune is eerily spot-on — as well as random-seeming mashups like an entertaining version of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” fused with Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack.”

Towards the end, Zenger took the mic alone again and performed a grinding, electronic-sounding beat which video-game lovers might have recognized in an instant — it was the sound effect from Super Mario Bros. level 6. At the end of their set, the crowd made up for its sparseness with enthusiastic applause, and afterwards the mystery of the hats was solved. Beatboxer Zenger had teamed up with a hat designer in Finland, Costo, and he wears the hats as a form of advertising (his initials, “FZ,” also appear on the back as a stylized logo).Talk about international trade.  After the show, Zenger had copies for sale of his album Won’t Say a Thing, which debuted in Finland last year.

Next up on the block was Scarborough’s own Scott Ramirez. Although this was his first time at Canadian Music Week, this up-and-coming rapper is no stranger to the music scene. Earlier this month he opened at the Opera House for the Wu-tang’s GZA and Masta Killah, performing alongside the Cypher Crew. And just last year, he released his seven-track album, Mad Work, Low Pay, Big Dreams, with a launch party that took place in Kensington Market. Aside from performing at several venues in the recent past, including the Subtext Multi-Arts Festival and at an NDP campaign launch party last year, Ramirez also recently released a documentary on the relationship between Filipino youth and hip hop, entitled Flip-Hop: Bridging the Gap.

His bio cites his influences as including Ghostface Killah, Nas, and Kool G Rap — and these old-school hip hop influences are evident in his lyrical style at the Hard Rock Café. But this CMW appearance almost didn’t happen. Following their application last November, they were beaten out of a playing slot by another act. But then a week before Canadian Music Week, they were contacted and placed back on the bill after American act Sapient withdrew. Having thus made the cut (although they didn’t make it into the CMW guide), it gave them just a week to prepare for what the other musicians had been working on for months. But you’d never guess it by the quality of the music and the passion poured into Ramirez’s performance.

The first third of the set was a flurry of activity on the stage as DeRushe struggled to find needles to use on his turntable. While the venue’s sound guys were working out a solution, Ramirez picked up the microphone and began to banter onstage with the crowd to keep them from losing enthusiasm. When a voice from the back of the room yelled out, “A cappella!” Ramirez was only too happy to oblige. And in that way, he created an almost seamless transition from a cappella-rapping to rapping hard-hitting rhymes set to catchy, funky beats (once his DJ’s turntable was up and running), his lyrics covering life, love, and every struggle and triumph in between — from a distinctly Torontonian perspective.

Max Burgundy was the next act on stage. A tall, dynamic New Yorker wearing a green jacket and bright scarlet Nike kicks on his feet, he was a compelling mixture of brashness and sweetness; at the start of his set he jumped off the stage and, mic in hand, introduced himself – “Hi, I’m Max . . .” – to a few of the audience fringing the front of the stage, before launching into a hyper, explosive rap performance.

His set showcased a variety of styles, launching his first song with an explanation that he had just come from Texas, and in tribute, had written a slow rap. He then proceeded to throw himself into the song, winding lyrics over a beat that could be pumping out of the back of a car rolling slowly down a street on a hot afternoon in Austin, Texas. He followed this up with a song much different in tone — harder and grimier — with autobiographical lyrics referencing a hard childhood and the struggles it took to make it to this point.

After Burgundy came Caspian (a hip hop artist out of Surrey, B.C.), then Dope D.O.D  (an electronic/hip hop act from the Netherlands), followed by Toronto’s Burnz N Hell, and then Tim Fundament Stuart. It was an array of artists showcasing a spectrum of nationalities and stylistic influences. And for one night, it replaced the “rock” in Hard Rock Café with a heavy dose of hip hop.