There was a time, in fact just last summer, when only a select few knew what a licky boom boom down was. Most of us still don`t know, but we`ve all heard them, like it or not. The licky boom booms are all around us – nagging, insistent boom boom from kids` ghetto blasters, thumping on the summery air, a new rhythm of the steamy streets and plazas.
This, man, is Toronto reggae. Not the Jamaican brand, now as traditional as New Orleans jazz, but as much a product of Hogtown as the Don Jail (now the Metro East Detention Centre) where it all began. It is Metro`s version of the Birth of the Blues (‘from a jail/came the wail/of a down-hearted frail’) except that it didn`t come from black folks – at least, not directly. It is multilingual, inasmuch as it`s largely incomprehensible in any language, and multicultural, being a white Toronto Irishman`s black music.
Got that? No? Well, let`s say that it`s sweeping the boom-box world, making an awful lot of money, and soon to be a Hollywood movie. It has made an instant star of 23-year-old Darrin O`Brien from North York, who is Snow on his record labels and video supers.
He raps in his own version of Jamaican patois, which he learned growing up in a mixed neighbourhood beside Fairview Mall. Purists say his patois is a bit off, like Jean Chretien`s English or Kim Campbell`s French, but patois is not taught in schools, so the question is academic.
The controversy over “voice appropriation” – one culture or race telling the stories of another – is most heated in the field of literature, but popular music is where appropriation often becomes the equivalent of a brazen daylight heist.
From jazz to blues to reggae and rock ‘n’ roll, white folks have long been borrowing and adapting and making piles of money out of music that black folks originated. Keith Richards cheerfully admits he lifted his licks from Chuck Berry; others have not been as gracious.
The trend spread to hip hop, a genre encompassing rap, funk and dance music that began in the inner cities of Los Angeles and New York in the late seventies. White boys began scratching vinyl and rapping, with results ranging from commercially successful and listenable (Beastie Boys) to mercifully forgotten (Vanilla Ice).
Most trends, especially those carried on the airwaves, don’t stop at the border and this one is no different: In Canada, too, you can find hip hop and Jamaican dancehall music – rapidly chanted lyrics over a swaying beat – in the least likely places.
Somehow it seems appropriate that Snow’s favorite hockey player is Bob Probert.
The Canadian rapper and Chicago Blackhawks tough guy have a lot in common: run-ins with the law, alcohol problems and subsequent immigration headaches.
Probert is struggling to revive his career. Snow is determined to keep his on track, starting this week with the release of his second album, Murder Love.
His 1993 debut, 12 Inches of Snow, was a million-seller highlighted by the huge hit Informer.
It hasn’t always been easy for the 25-year-old Toronto native, who uses the liner notes on Murder Love to thank his lawyer and others “for keeping me out of jail.”
And Snow says he hopes to do the same for others, figuring kids may listen to him because he’s been there.
Snow, he walks the walk to back up his talk. But as Canada’s foremost gangsta rapper, his is the kind of walk that can land a body in jail.
Which has already happened to the singer a number of times. It seems like every time something big happens with the 25-year-old rapper’s career, it’s paralelled by a brush with the law.
Snow spent yesterday afternoon holding court at the King Edward Hotel to promote his new album, Murder Love. In the morning, he was held in court to answer a charge of uttering death threats. This could be serious; he’s already barred from entering the U.S. and another conviction probably won’t help. Or it could go the way Snow hopes; a guilty plea and a fine. But the case wasn’t dealt with yesterday and has been held over.
“The real drag is that the incident is old news; you can hear on the new album that I’m moving away from gangsta talk. Now this charge comes up and it’s like I’m doing this now.
“The incident happened after an AIDS benefit, when me and some people went back to the hotel. Basically, I got into a shouting match and as you know, you get mad, you’re just yelling, blowing off steam. I guess I was just in the wrong place and things got blown up.
One of the most satisfying cuts on Canadian DJ Snow’s new release, Murder Love, is a tale of his love affair with Reggae music called “Dream.” Here Snow reminisces about his days in Toronto’s Allenbury housing project, where he first became acquainted with Reggae through the friendships formed with the many Jamaicans who had moved into his area: .. ‘Listen Shabba Ranks playing faintly from the speaker/I would eat mi curry chicken, that’s my favorite supper/If you think mi joke or lie, gwaan ask me mother/I would living on the island sweet, sweet Jamaica/Fish with Coco Tea down in the river/Hanging at the ghetto with me boy they call Ninja/No, but it’s only a dream.’
“Dream” goes on to describe imagined evenings spent at Kingston’s Godfather’s nightclub and sessions with the Stone Love sound system. If the song had more verses, it might have depicted other ambitions of the aspiring DJ, like performing at Jam World for Reggae Sunsplash and ripping up the crowd at Topline and other crucial Kingston dance hall sessions. Yet, something Snow could never have imagined was that his first album for Motor Jam/EastWest Records, 12 Inches of Snow (released in 1993), would go platinum and the first single from the album, “Informer,” would top the Billboard Pop Charts for seven weeks!
“When I did that album, it was just for fun,” Snow recalls. “I wasn’t thinking this album’s gonna blow up. I didn’t really think nothing of it, I just loved doing it. When it did blow up, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ Now, I look on my wall and I see these plaques and I think, ‘Yeah, they’re sure.'”