In conversations about hip-hop, Calgary—nicknamed "Cowtown" for its love of folk and everything country related—is often left out. A city of over a million people and Canada’s fourth-largest metropolis, Calgary has yet to produce a hip-hop act that has been talked about much beyond its city limits.
The city's scene is still relatively small, but in the last few years, Calgary’s made huge ground: from the artists to the venues hosting shows across town. In short, Calgary is redefining what hip-hop means to it. One the people spearheading the movement has been Beni Johnson, founder and creative director of 10 at 10.
Each month he brings together hip-hop lovers for 10 at 10: a Hip-Hop Showcase of Beats and Rhymes. The night begins at 10 p.m., and 10 artists are each given 10 minutes to perform. The event brings all the elements of hip-hop—rappers, DJ’s, dancers, and producers— under one roof to celebrate and showcase the best and brand new of Calgary’s scene. Local artists are able to build a true and consistent fanbase, network and develop and experiment with their craft. Alberta talents Oliver Throne, Evrlove Blake and Q-Benjamin have graced the stage of 10 at 10, but the group has also brought in talents from across Canada like Toronto’s Roy Woods and The Sorority.
“We’ve allowed Alberta to have a place where as an artist you’re identified, you’re recognized,” Johnson, who is also an artist himself, said. “You have firm standing because we provide you with audio, video and photos. And we provide monthly events that have four to five hundred people”
Johnson moved to Calgary from Fort McMurray in the early 2000s. If people think Calgary’s scene is small, Fort McMurray’s is nonexistent.
“There's nothing, no scene. It's just me and a couple of friends who I taught along the way how to do it, and then ended up moving down here,” Johnson said.
“First and foremost I'm an artist. So being an artist who wasn't from here, I spent a lot of years observing what was going on. And as hip-hop artists, our options were very limited. It was very much only smaller, ostracized, you know, underground hip-hop shows, in venues that didn't really invite people who weren't super enthusiastic about rappers.”
In 2011 Johnson launched 10 at 10, originally as a single monthly event, but it’s expanded over the years. In 2018 they held their first showcase in Edmonton. At least once a month, people can come to this venue, come to this event and experience hip hop culture in its purest form,” Johnson said. “And in its most inviting form and its most diverse form, giving you an actual night out where you feel like you belong somewhere.”
There is something about Calgary that keeps local artists from abandoning the city for bigger markets.
Twenty-two year-old producer, Andrew LeBlanc aka HOUNDS moved from Halifax to Calgary three years ago. His sound is an unorthodox mix of electronic and hip-hop.
“I have had the opportunity to move down to Los Angeles and I've thought about it a lot and to be honest, I really like this city (Calgary),” said LeBlanc whose management is based out of LA. “I’d rather get big here first then desperately fend off for scraps in bigger cities and try to survive.”
LeBlanc is one of Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp participants this year, something he’s dreamed about for years.
“It’s funny when I was living in Halifax, I applied to Red Bull Music Academy and I got denied. I applied the next year and got denied. It's something I’ve wanted for a couple of years now so it’s kind of come full circle.” It was only when LeBlanc moved to Calgary that he started dabbling in hip-hop. He’s hopeful of the growth of the scene over the next few years.
“The shows I’ve gone to have been all ages, 95% of the people at the shows are 18 or under,” he said. “It’s really neat because it means that in a couple years we’ll have this crazy scene for hip-hop once these kids are old enough to go to every show.”
Part of that is due to 10 at 10, who has all ages events throughout the year to both dismantle the negative stereotypes surrounding hip-hop culture, while also engaging with the younger audiences who want to be apart of the scene. But there’s been challenges, getting people out on weekdays, getting venues open to the idea of hosting a hip-hop event and just getting the word out. "Calgary has this really really bad problem where if somebody else doesn't tell us is cool. We don't know it's cool,” Johnson said.
“So that means bigger artists coming out of Toronto—who in Toronto isn’t even that big—but because they're from Toronto, already, they have certain stature and status above somebody who's been in Calgary busting their ass who's dope.”
One dope group that hails from Calgary and is helping further push the scene is Cartel Madras.
Cartel Madras is a radical, genre-bending, sister duo—who go by the names Contra and Eboshi— that incorporate their Indian roots to trap. In 2018, Cartel Madras released their first project, Trapistan, a five-track mixtape and are currently working on a new project.
“People are really afraid to bring new music to Calgary because it's not a hip-hop friendly city. Slowly it is becoming one,” Eboshi said.
“From the first six months of when we began playing here to the last six months, there’s a huge, huge difference. All of a sudden, there are 1 billion trap artists in Calgary. Like out of nowhere. That was not there even just a year ago.”
The sisters say they were surprised by how quickly the city took to them. They claim that part of that was due to timing. “A year ago there's no way you'd be like ‘yeah let's put to trap rappers on the stage and headline on our show right?’,” Contra said. The sisters are proud of their ties to Calgary and often use local motifs in their song. They’re invested in their city and want the scene to grow.
They recently started their own collective/label hybrid Thot Police, with artists Yung Kamaji and Jae Sterling, to spearhead the growth of a vibrant hip-hop community across the province.
“We want to be able to take Calvary with us. Wherever we go. We want to be able to go to like Atlanta or New York or Toronto and be like we’re from Calgary. We're Calgary-based rappers.”
Calgary is a young and small city in comparison to Toronto, but it’s growing and learning. There’s a passionate group of artists and organizers who want to see a robust and flourishing hip-hop scene in the city. Over the years it’s been trying to figure out where it fits into the hip-hop conversation in Canada. Though at times quiet, it’s there.