“Take it back to Grassroots…”
In the late ‘90s, Canada’s Hip Hop scene was undergoing a renaissance, returning from years of being on the backburner. Poised to explode in the late 1980s with emcees like Toronto legends Michee Mee and Maestro Fresh-Wes gaining attention at home and abroad, cosigns from major American rappers like KRS-One, and a pioneering Hip Hop radio program known as The Fantastic Voyage hosted by deejay Ron Nelson at Toronto’s Ryerson University, several stumbles sidelined the rise. Lack of attention by the American public and dismissal as a fad at home, as well as lack of a true Hip Hop radio station in many major markets, Toronto, in particular, kept the scene north of the border very low until 1998. That year, a legendary collaboration between several prominent Canadian emcees — Rascalz and Checkmate out of Vancouver and Toronto artists Kardinal Offishall, Thrust and Choclair — changed the game. The track, called “Northern Touch,” reenergized the community, bringing dope rhymes and a much-needed spotlight to listeners on talented emcees and producers who aren’t from America.
It didn’t take long for other local artists to shine, and one of the most stellar crews present during this rebirth was Da Grassroots. The trio of Mr. Attic, Mr. Murray and Swiff had been producing for Canuck rappers throughout the ‘90s, with a string of singles and close connections within Toronto’s Hip Hop scene. In 1999, they dropped their one and only record, a compilation known as Passage Through Time, one of the more underrated releases of the ‘90s and an excellent piece for this edition of Forgotten Classics.
Passage Through Time is an understated burn. No flash or gimmicks, just solid beats from GR and rhymes delivered by prominent underground T-Dot emcees, bringing a unique flair that only a city like Toronto can manage. The record is consistent with its strong jams. Try “Eternal” featuring k-os and Thrust to start. K-os, one of Canada’s most well-known rappers who is not named Drake, steals the show, going in over lonesome strings as he positions himself as an enlightened outsider striking at the mainstream (a concept he’s since returned to many times in his music): “The meek shall possess the earth so stay modest, and treat the music like a goddess / Never bow, cuz if you do then you get caught up in this game / Seeking your own fame trying to fortify your name, the only name to fortify is that of the creator, remember what happened to Darth Vader? Dark side.” It’s a strong listen from a dope emcee. The jam is followed up by “Precious Metal,” a banger which features Ghetto Concept, the hard-edged duo of Kwajo Cinqo and Dolo, repping the working-class T-Dot neighborhoods of Rexdale and Lawrence Heights and known for their lengthy career since forming in the late ‘80s. On a wiseguy-ish beat, the two go off like a loaded gun, telling foes, “don’t make me have to touch you.” The track is sly, but menacing.
Passage Through Time succeeds because it nails a time and a place quite well: Toronto in the late ‘90s, even reminding me of my coming of age in the city back in the days. One of the record’s best moments is “Price of Livin’,” featuring Mr. Roam From The Plant (“The Plant” being a shoutout to his hometown of Pickering, a city east of Toronto and the location of a nuclear power plant). GR provides a subtle, elemental production which Roam rolls with nicely, making for a very cool and low-key listen which sounds perfect for a crawl down Yonge Street on a Friday night with the windows down. Roam provides the goods, with lines like:
When I start to take flight, what it’s like?
It’s like me being a champion writer
And your whole crew’s a set of biters man
I won’t diss you cause yo you dissed yourself
Spitting the whole three minutes sounding like somebody else
Kids play R. Kelly cause you remind em of something
But when I start to bless the mic you know the man dem cy’aan say nuttin’…
It’s a listen I’ve had on repeat now for years, believe me! And GR pretty much knew they had a strong chemistry with Roam, enlisting him on two other tracks: “Postal Work,” another head-nodder with snappy plucked guitar strings and a choppy drum loop that has Roam playing around on the mic, and “Born II Roam,” a manifesto of sorts with a zoned-out feel. “I could lose my car, my house and my wife,” he says, “But fuck that, I’m born to roam til the end of this life!”
The record stays engaging throughout. “Body Language” features Choclair and Saukrates, two well-known and highly praised Toronto emcees, trading X-rated stories of past flings in a sendoff reminiscent of EPMD’s “Jane” series. “Thematics” is another slick power move, with guest Arcee flexing some serious verbiage over a head-nodding guitar loop, telling us, “Corrupting minds, erupting divine rhymes, acquired tastes like fine wine,” and shouting out local T.O. Hip-Hoppers and even The Fantastic Voyage radio show. This listen is another album highlight.
On release in 1999, Passage Through Time stood up tall for Toronto Hip Hop, and appeared on the radar of some heads in the United States as a cult listen. The artists featured on the record went on to varying degrees of success, such as k-os emerging as a major artist with a notable fanbase in Canada and some inroads made in the US, while artists like Saukrates and Ghetto Concept remained local heavyweights. Da Grassroots continued to produce for Canadian artists, including Michee Mee and Kardinal Offishall, throughout the early 2000s, and still remain pretty involved with the Toronto scene today. Hi -Hop in Canada has grown considerably since Passage Through Time. Yes, there’s Drake, but we’ve also got talented artists like Shad, Eternia, E.D.G.E. and many others holding us down, representing not just Toronto, but cities like Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and more. Passage helped define us. Don’t sleep on the record, or the country.