The rhythm method
The Dream Warriors spin some old themes into an altogether new kind of rap music.
Saturday Night, April 1992
The Dream Warriors stand in the backstage dressing room of the Concert Hall, the former Masonic Temple on Yonge Street in Toronto. King Lou is light-skinned, with an oval face and, despite a pair of dark glasses with tiny round lenses, an air of casual amusement. His mother, for whom the Dream Warriors’ song “Ludi” was written, sits quietly, beaming at her son, who, true to his word, stays close to her side. Capital Q, darker-skinned, looks more intense, or at least capable of greater intensity. Right now, both Dream Warriors are contending with a large crowd of journalists, record executives, well-wishers, fellow Toronto rap artists, and just about everybody that Lou and Capital Q ever met in high school. The concert is the Dream Warriors’ return to the Toronto stage after a seven-day press tour in the US. and three months’ worth of performances in Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Japan, Australia, and Great Britain, where they became popular with the release of their first album, And Now The Legacy Begins. “We should probably get our own place over there,” says Capital Q wearily.
King Lou and Capital Q certainly don’t fit the image most people have of rap stars. They’re not wearing black clothing emblazoned with Los Angeles Raiders insignia. The fat gold chains sported by a large segment of the rap contingent are absent. Neither one is wearing $200 sneakers. (The lone concession to theatricality, other than their names, is Lou’s four-foot staff made of petrified sugarcane stalk, which has become their talisman on stage.) There is very little in their music, their lyrics, or their personalities that comfortably fits into any popular definition of rap, except that the Dream Warriors, after only one album and a handful of singles, have become Canada’s most eccentric and most inventive hip-hop artists.
Rap seems new and unfamiliar, but the roots are deep. The practice of serving up observation, commentary, and insult in rhyme runs like a main-circuit cable through Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean oral culture. Anyone who’s heard a few stanzas of Jesse Jackson’s oration will recognize the cadences and constructions of rap.
One of the earliest forms of rhyming rhetoric in the U.S. was called “playing the dozens,” a practice that has been traced back to the turn of the century. Young black men would taunt each other in sequential couplets, usually attacking economic standing — or lack thereof — appearance, housing, or parentage. Each participant capped the preceding couplet until one couldn’t think of a rhyming comeback sufficiently quick or stinging for the game to continue. (Such contests were usually limited to a set of twelve rhymes, hence the term “dozens.”)
In the Caribbean, the extemporaneous rhyming lyrics of calypso songs were usually satirical observations on the politics of the day. That same tradition found a slightly different expression in Jamaican toasting. Dancehall DJs would play the “dub” or instrumental side of a current single, and offer rhymes — everything from social commentary to exhortation to the crowd — into a microphone at the same rhythm and pace as the accompanying record.
The three strains hooked up in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the influx of Caribbean immigrants, many of whom settled in the South Bronx, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other black neighborhoods in New York City. Dozening was already well established as a rite of passage for young American black men, so melding that with the rhyming oral culture of the West Indies was an obvious step. Jamaican toasting helped turn the whole thing into entertainment. The only difference now was that the backing music came not from reggae records but from the B-sides of funk and rhythm-and-blues records. Thus rap — also known as hip-hop — was created.
It wasn’t until the early eighties that rap found an audience outside the confines of the South Bronx. By the mid-eighties, rap was serving the same cultural purpose as punk had a decade earlier. It stripped music down to the essentials, making it instantly accessible to both audience and prospective practitioners. Like punk, it spoke in its own blunt way about what mattered to its audience. And as with punk, the prerequisites for becoming a hip-hop artist were minimal: wit, verbal dexterity, some funky dance records, and a pair of turntables to keep that beat going. With the rapid proliferation of rap crews, the form has expanded to include everything from lightweight party music for suburban teenagers to political dispatches that Chuck D. of the militant group Public Enemy calls “black America’s CNN.”
Lou Robinson and Frank Allert grew up in the Jane-Finch corridor, a grim, Soviet-style slab of public housing in northwest Toronto. Both were part of the immigrant community there: Lou’s family arrived from Jamaica, Frank’s from Trinidad. Jane-Finch has won notoriety as a nexus for the drug trade and its accompanying violence. But that reputation is the result of the mainstream media’s natural tendency to look for the sensational. In Jane-Finch, as in any other community, there’s a lot more going on.
When they were kids, neither Lou nor Frank cowered indoors immobilized by fear. While they don’t deny that Jane-Finch was a tougher place to grow up in than a lot of Canadian neighborhoods, they’re thankful for the way it tempered them, and toughened their resolve to surmount the limited expectations of the people who lived there. A liner note in And Now The Legacy Begins — “Thanks to the Jane & Finch massive for making men out of us” — crystallizes their view.
“We met playing video games,” Frank says of the roots of their partnership. “We got into an argument because I wanted to play and Lou was taking too long. We saw each other around and, after a while, we started hanging out. Our interests were the same — dancing, entertaining.” Like many kids in Jane-Finch, they tried to amuse themselves and their circle of friends with rhymes. Frank would pound out a beat on the cafeteria table and Lou would start to rap. But unlike a lot of his friends, Lou started committing his rhymes to paper. Their early experiments set up the rough division of labor that persists today: Frank creates the music; Lou writes the lyrics.
By 1987, Toronto’s tiny rap underground had grown into a thriving creative community. “In Jane-Finch, there’s a lot of guys doing different things, as opposed to everybody doing the same thing. We always seem to be bringing in the new trends,” Lou remembers. “We were the first ones to bust it out. A lot of people just look and think, ‘That’s just Jane-Finch. They’re always coming up with something different, anyway.’”
As they began working on their own jams, Lou, now redubbed King Lou, and Frank, who called himself Capital Q (Q for Quiet Storm), soon abandoned the subjects and approaches of their American counterparts. “Braggadocious” is the neologism they coined to describe the blustery, macho style that dominated rap music then. Instead of just telling a story or stacking boasts, Lou wrote rhymes that slyly dismantled stereotypes and subverted assumptions with a deft stroke from an unexpected angle. In “Wash Your Face in My Sink,” for example, Lou twists a straightforward image into a strange metaphor for communication. The sink is Lou’s rap; washing your face becomes learning from the rap without merely imitating it. Lou stretches his metaphor almost to the breaking point before coming back to this central image in much the same way as a jazz soloist plays improvisations over a set of chords before returning to the melody.
What I just spoke to, a language called speech,
You try to catch it but you just can’t reach
When you leave a ring around the basin
When you wash your face in
THE Dream Warriors happily acknowledge the influences of jazz lyricists on their rhymes. They were among the last artists to work with Slim Gaillard before his death last year. Gaillard had enjoyed a long career as a singer, composer, bebop guitarist and pianist, and leading man in Hollywood-produced black movies in the 1940s (which earned him the nickname Dark Gable), and he was a seminal part of the American expatriate scene in Paris. He’s also credited with inventing a jazz-inflected rap precursor called “vout” (rhymes with “out”), his own private language, for which he published a dictionary. A lot of the verbal gymnastics and the coinages that turn up in rap can be traced to Gaillard’s toying with language. The Dream Warriors recorded a track with Gaillard called “Very Easy To Assemble, But Hard To Take Apart,” and released it on the flip-side of “Ludi.”
“A majority of rappers don’t understand,” Lou says of their collaboration. “They come on like they’re the first person ever to do what they’re doing. But you have to look back, look at what came before you. He did this for you. He made you into what you are. You have to learn to put back in what you take out. That’s why we did a song with Slim Gaillard: to put back into the jazz what we took out of it. We did a song with Slim Gaillard to say: this is our source. This is what we are speaking about.”
The Dream Warriors were also eager to use rap to explore some of the intriguing elements of being Canadian, or, as they’re quick to point out, of growing up West Indian in Canada. “Radiant [their pun on radio airplay] is my immigrant speech.”
“Some rappers, if they’re from the West Indies, seem to forget their heritage,” says Capital Q “They just adopt an American style and say they’re American. But we stick to our roots.” The sugarcane staff they carry on stage is the most obvious symbol. (The producer of Britain’s “Top of the Pops” television show, mistaking the cane for a weapon, tried to ban it from his program.) One track on their album celebrates their origins using a scratchy ska record and the name of a West Indian board game, Ludi, that gives the song its central image:
My mother wanted me to make another song
Something brand new that she could dance to, too
So this one’s dedicated to no other than my mother,
My father, my sisters, and my brother,
Or you could say the family, or better yet, the families
Or wait a sec, what the heck, this one’s for Jamaica,
Africa, Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago...
The song’s verse continues, listing every other possible country of origin in the Caribbean. It ends with the line, “but truly, this one’s for my mother,” probably the first time that word has been used in a rap lyric without being followed by “fucker.”
Virtually every rap song is constructed the same way. The relevant musical elements are lifted from previous recordings by means of a digital sampler and reassembled into a sonic collage. It’s musical pointillism: tiny brush strokes of noise lasting only seconds are layered on top of one another until something entirely different emerges. The result doesn’t resemble any of its sources, even though it’s composed of nothing but second-hand sounds.
“Whatever idea you’ve got in your head, the music just goes to that,” Capital Q says of the sonic backing for Lou’s lyrics. “You try to make it fit, with a loud sound or a flowing tempo. It was hard when we first got into the studio, saying, ‘I feel I want this there. Can you make this sound?’ And then, we started being able to pick out the sounds we wanted.” The Dream Warriors’ choice of sounds — the sources for the music — proved every bit as idiosyncratic as their lyrics.
The place where these experiments in musical recombinant DNA take shape for the Dream Warriors is Beat Factory Productions, an unlikely recording studio in the basement of a house in northeast Toronto. It belongs to one of the kingpins of the city’s rap scene, a short, speedy man named Ivan Berry, who currently manages thirteen rap acts. Lou met Berry completely by accident one night in a dance club. Knowing that Berry was about the only Toronto manager with artists under bona fide recording contracts, Lou cornered him in the washroom and fired off rap lines a cappella from “Voyage Through the Multiverse,” a song that eventually landed on the album. Berry was impressed, and hired Lou as a writer for his successful woman rapper Michie Mee.
One room in the Beat Factory studio — scarcely larger than a closet — is the vocal booth. It houses a single microphone on a stand. This is where the rappers recite their rhymes. The guts of the operation are in an adjacent room, crammed with digital samplers, a Macintosh computer equipped with a magneto-optical disk drive (essentially a big CD that can be erased and rewritten indefinitely), effects units, a small keyboard, and box after box of diskettes. These contain the raw material for a million potential hip-hop compositions. They are samples: hooks from forgotten funk numbers, scraps of movie soundtracks, single-bar bytes of rhythm, isolated bass lines, booming kick-drums, explosive snare shots, free-floating, lush horn stabs, and countless other auditory bits and pieces.
At its most basic, the rap-recording technique renders nothing more than retreads of old records — Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby,” a transparent lift of “Under Pressure,” or MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” a witless regurgitation of Rick James’s “Super Freak.” “People condemn sampling,” Capital Q says. “But I want to see them sample and create a song if they think it’s so simple and such a foolish thing to do. They call it stealing, but it’s just another means of creation in music. It’s like anything else: using a piece of the old to create the new. We call it organization of sound. Organization of noise, really.”
The Dream Warriors, along with American hip-hop crews such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, have proved it’s possible to reassemble obscure old records into something that doesn’t bear the distinguishing marks of any of its manifold sources. Take, for example, the Dream Warriors’ track “Face in the Basin.” The opening bar is composed of individual drum sounds lifted and rearranged from several rhythm tracks. Then a repeating chord compiled from guitar, bass, and horns comes in, followed by a loop from an early 1970s James Brown single, “I Know You Got Soul.” Layered over the Dream Warriors’ own synthesized progression is a four-bar burst from a jazz orchestra, and the “ooh” sound pulled from the background vocals of another track. Midway through the song, where you might expect a solo, there’s an ethereal, faintly Arabic flute melody. It’s almost impossible to tell which elements are composed by Lou and Capital Q in the studio and which are “found” and slid neatly into place.
What sets the Dream Warriors apart musically from all other popular rap groups are the kinds of sources they’ve chosen to mine for some of their funky audio landscapes. Their rhymes are delivered over a bizarre amalgam of jazz instrumentals propelled by stomping, syncopated rhythms. (They’ve fashioned another neologism, “boombastic,” to describe their style.) This fusion of jazz and rap drives the best tracks on And Now The Legacy Begins, and makes it possible to listen to the record while doing any number of things other than dancing. But steering away from the rap formula didn’t make the search for acceptance any easier. “I find that Canadian people are into massive reaction,” Lou observes. “If the masses like it, so do they.”
The Dream Warriors’ biggest hit illuminated the unlikely places they look for the components of their work, as well as pointing up the fun they have mashing together disparate musical and lyrical material. “My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style” has a butt-shifting, impossible-to-ignore dance groove throbbing at its heart. But its melody is, well, goofy. It had previously been used as the theme for a hopelessly cheesy TV game show called “Definition,” once a staple of the CTV network’s daytime programming. When Lou and Capital Q researched the song, they found the composer was, of all people, Quincy Jones, who readily gave his approval for them to use it as a backing track.
The opening bars of “My Definition” lope past propelled by a funky syncopation welded to a smarmy Latin dance-band melody. Rather than dismiss the original context of the television theme, Lou presses it to his advantage in his rhymes:
Here we go. Are you ready for one other?
Dream Warriors’ noise as new discoverers
Once again with a new blend, so telephone a friend
(Capital Q interjects, Yo, Dream Warriors got this new song, it’s dope, man.)
Compact disks to the prime as optimists
Fans and friends, I’m universal and cosmic
Concrete jungles abound. Stand by the speaker,
You’re smothered and covered up in the sound.
You stand strong as you pump your fist
I’m talking all that jazz
Now what’s my definition?
As with all the Dream Warriors’ songs, the lyrics here are split between a philosophical view of the world at large and a witty description of a loopy private universe. There are no references to cars, guns, bitches, ho’s, drugs, shoot-outs, or the Evil White Blue-Eyed Devil Oppressor: just a distant allusion to an all-too-local game show. That association probably helped to sell the single in Toronto, but its subsequent climb up the British charts proved it is more than just a cleverly reworked bit of Canadian cultural flotsam.
And there’s a warning here about the futility of matching the Dream Warriors and their work with expectations, stereotypes, or preconceptions: Define if you will, but I know so, Lou raps from the stage, there is no definition.