It was the summer of 2009 when I finally “got” the Tragically Hip. I don’t know how it happened, but it was like a switch went off in my brain and they went from being an OK band that was played on radio more often than I thought made sense to being One Of the Greatest Bands Of All Time.
A lot of other people I know who are Hip fans had the same thing happen. They didn’t really care for them and then, suddenly… they did. Trying to explain why you like them to someone who doesn’t is kind of a fruitless exercise, because until that switch goes off, no amount of rationalizing is going to make it happen.
And yet, with the news that singer Gord Downie has terminal cancer and the Hip are coming to an end, I’m going to give it a try.
Aside from their musical skills, which I’ll place up there with any all-time-greatest rock group, the Tragically Hip helped teach me the difference between being from Canada and *being Canadian*.
Lots of celebrities are Canadian, but only in the sense that they happened to be born here. Nothing in their music/output really reflects that background, and more often than not they wind up moving somewhere else as soon as they are able. The fact that they are Canadian is little more than fodder for one of those “secretly Canadian!” clickbait articles.
Then there’s the celebrities who are from Canada and wear it on their sleeve, in a kitschy, annoying way. Their version of embracing Canadian identity is making jokes about maple syrup and hockey and being nice. A lot of the time, these are also people who no longer live in Canada but have found it to be a good marketing exercise.
The Tragically Hip make no secret about being Canadian but it comes out naturally, not by yelling about toques and poutine. They tell Canadian stories and make Canadian references because it works in their songs, not because it will get them media coverage from journalists writing about the Canadian angle.
@mattgurney there’s something very rawly Canadian about them, but it’s never layered with the same pretensions like so much Canadiana.
— robert hiltz (@robert_hiltz) May 24, 2016
So, yeah, that’s what I appreciate about the Tragically Hip, aside from the fact they are a great band with great songs. And like many other Canadians, I’m incredibly sad to learn singer Gord Downie has terminal cancer and also incredibly grateful they will be giving us one last chance to see them live. This morning, I pulled out my old CD jacket and found the two-disc “Best of the Tragically Hip” compilation I made for myself back in that summer of 2009 and was on constant rotation when I still had a CD player on my car. I’ve turned it into a Spotify playlist, and added a few more tracks to include the releases from the past seven years and some older gems that have grown on me in the intervening years. If you care about this, tracks 1-20 (“Blow At High Dough” to “Summer’s Killing Us”) are disc one, tracks 21-39 (“New Orleans Is Sinking” to “Ahead by a Century”) are disc two, and the remainder is disc three.
The thing I’m enjoying most about Drake’s victory lap after releasing Views is the amount of light being shone on Canadian hip-hop circa 1998-2003. I’m only a few months older than Drake, so we were both Canadian teenagers when songs like “Money Part One” by Jelleestone became Canada-only hits. The obvious difference is that while while I might put the song on my barbecue playlist to inspire some nostalgia among friends, Drake is able to bring it to a global audience new audience by quoting it at the end of “Weston Road Flows.”
A lot has been made of how Drake is giving exposure to new Toronto rappers, but I think it’s fair to say he’s also shining a light on the Toronto rap scene of ten years ago. By giving love to still-relatively-unknown-globally MCs like k-Os, Kardinal, and Saukrates, he is retroactively giving early 2000s Toronto the same legendary status of the Bronx in the 1970s or L.A. in the 1980s, hotbeds of creativity that would give way to global movements.
But back when The 6ix was known as the T.Dot, there as another centre to Canadian hip-hop: Vancouver. The most commercially-successful Canadian rappers of the era were Swollen Members, a hip-hop duo from the Lower Mainland who were frequently joined by fellow Vancouverite Moka Only. Nelly Furtado came up with them and went on to global superstar status. And arguably the most important Canadian rap song of all time, “Northern Touch“- which was the first chart hit for Toronto’s Choclair, Thrust, and Kardinal Offishal- officially belongs to Canadian hip-hop legends, and Vancouverites, the Rascalz. Just as the States had New York and L.A., Canadian hip-hop had two poles, Toronto and Vancouver, neither one clearly dominant.
That’s changed today. Not just because of Drake, but certainly helped by him, Toronto is now one of the global heavyweights in the hip-hop world. Jazz Cartier, Majid Jordan, the Weeknd, Derek Wise- all routinely hitting the charts or being touted as the next big thing, not just in Canada but globally. And Vancouver? I honestly can’t name a single contemporary Vancouver MC. While Toronto’s catapulted onto the global stage, Vancouver doesn’t even seem to hold the same status on a national level. I know there is still hip-hop in the YVR, but it doesn’t seem to be spreading across the country in the same way it once did. If you have any thoughts as to why, let me know on Twitter.
Note: the below musings are mine, and they aren’t so much stating an opinion as thinking out loud about an ongoing situation
We’ve all seen them, at this point: Facebook posts and Twitter pictures of someone standing in front of a truckload of donations, ready to haul it up to help those displaced by the Fort McMurray fire.
These are heart-warming, and they speak to the better instincts of humankind: you see people in a time of crisis, and you want to help. It’s a lovely thing.
But it’s also not necessarily the most effective way to help. Edward McIntyre has written a good post about why on his own site, but the short version is the cost of storing and sorting physical goods often causes more problems for volunteers than simply receiving the money that would allow organizations to purchase what is needed as the need arises. Already, groups helping Fort Mac evacuees say they are being overwhelmed by physical goods that may or may not wind up actually being useful.
Which has me wondering about media responsibility when it comes to covering those heart-warming stories. They are great narratives, regular people stepping up to the plate to help friends, family, and strangers, often with their own personal anecdotes and motivations to go with them. But there is also a risk: the more these stories get shared, the more it might prompt other people to do the same, contributing to a problem for organizations on the ground and having the opposite effect of what everyone involved would like to see happen.
So does media ignore the stories? Cover them, but include the information about the potential problems this can cause? I think it’s an interesting conversation, and one worth having.
To you, sir, I raise my glass. pic.twitter.com/xGbvZX6BQG
— Charelle Evelyn (@CharelleEvelyn) May 7, 2016
Today I heard the sad news that photographer David Mah passed away.
I will link to an official obituary when it is posted There is an official tribute over at the Citizen, but for now I will just share how his work inspired me.
Dave was a gifted photographer. His work for the Prince George Citizen elevated our understanding of the community.
The photo above won him a national award, and was arguably the primary catalyst for a real conversation about crime in this city. He would win more, for other dramatic shots. But all of his work held value. His gift for capturing the humanity of our community in a single shot was unparalleled.
— Andrew Kurjata (@akurjata) May 7, 2016
On a personal note, my first interaction with media was when Dave took photos of my sports team, when I was still in elementary school. There I was, name and picture in print.
In retrospect, that’s one of the things that helps me understand the value of telling the small stories, because I’ve felt that excitement.
I didn’t know him well, but those who did speak often about his kindness. I will leave it to them to tell that story.
I did try to interview Dave a couple times, about his photos and their impact. He declined, saying he preferred to let them speak for themselves.
And they do. We’re lucky to have them, and we were lucky to have him.
Thank you, Dave. You will be missed.
In case you hadn’t heard, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is good. As in, really really really good. I’ve enjoyed singles from here and there- “Crazy In Love” and “Irreplaceable” in particular- but before Lemonade, I’d never listened to a Beyoncé album and then immediately started it from the beginning again (I’m not sure I’ve actually ever listened to a full Beyoncé album more than once).
There is something about major artistic statements that, for me at least, re-frame the other work of the same artist. Now that Beyoncé has Lemonade I’m interested in going back and hearing her movement towards this point. Early singles like “Say My Name” about calling out a cheating boyfriend become significantly more interesting when you know this is a theme she is going to come back to in a big way in the midst of a marriage and after having a child.
This has happened before. I didn’t have any thoughts on Green Day one way or another, but when American Idiot came out there was suddenly an interesting momentum to their discography from goof-offs to political activists. The early Beatles albums are good, but they become better when you know they are leading up to Revolver and The White Album.
The opposite can happen, too. There are artists whose early work I love, but mediocre later releases cast a shadow over them. If this goes on long enough, I start to lose interest in their earlier work, as well.
Then there’s artists who have bouts of mediocrity but come back with something interesting enough to make going through their other work interesting. The Rolling Stones fall into this category for me. I have little interest in Goat’s Head Soup but there’s enough interesting stuff before and after that it’s a worthwhile pit-stop.
Of course, you can always skip the mediocre moments and go right for the good stuff. That’s why greatest hits albums are so popular. But with the deaths of Bowie and Prince this year I’ve re-discovered the joy of going through the entire catalogue of a talented artist, even at the moments they aren’t churning out their best work. It’s interesting to hear them grown and evolve and take detours into territory that maybe wasn’t the best idea. Just like a good album is more than just a bunch of good songs, a good discography is more than a bunch of good albums. It ebbs and flows and tells a bigger story than any of its individual parts.
PS. I put out a newsletter that has posts like this plus links to other things I like. You can subscribe here but only if you want to.
Prince George used to have more tennis courts per capita than any other city in Canada.
There are a number of theories for why this is. One is that Desmond Park, the city planner in the 60s and 70s, was a tennis fan himself and so when he was adding new subdivisions he made sure a court was included. Another is that the federal government had a lot of grant money to give towards tennis at the time, and the city was happy to take it.
* * *
Looking at parks is an ideal way to gain insights into a city’s history. In the 70s people in Prince George loved tennis, and so a lot of tennis courts were built. Today, they don’t, and grass grows through the broken pavement of places where the game is no longer played. In 2013, city council voted to reduce the number of courts it maintains from 63 to 34. Priorities changed.
Along with tennis courts, neighbourhood parks had a major boom in the 60s and 70s. The design philosophy of the time was that everyone should be able to walk to a nearby playground, and so neighbourhood parks popped up everywhere. The smallest, known as tot lots, were basically squeezed onto whatever leftover green space could be found.
Malaspina Park in College Heights is the perfect example of a neighbourhood park. There’s a playground with a merry-go-round, slide, monkey bars, teeter-totter, and swings. Beside that, a ball diamond, another popular sport of the decade.
Prince George is no longer the boomtown it was when the park was built. At the time it was on its way to being the second-largest city in the province, and every expectation was it would hit 100,000 by the 21st century. Instead, the population stagnated at around 80,000, and in recent years has been slowly declining. Its residents are aging and as schools shut down, new seniors’ residents open.
The merry-go-round in Malaspina was once the sign of a neighbourhood full of children and families. Today, it sits at a twenty degree angle, layers of paint built up over forty years rubbed away. Rather than hosting a game among friends, the ball diamond is being used as an impromptu enclosure for a woman playing fetch with her dog. The space is being adapted and reclaimed by its lack of use.
* * *
Which isn’t to say there’s no demand for kid-friendly playgrounds anymore. A fifteen-minuted drive and I’m in Duchess Park, the newly-built destination park in the Crescents neighbourhood, just outside of downtown. You can see the new design philosophy here- artificial turf is on the ground. Instead of the metal of Malaspina, this playground is plastic. Nothing spins too fast or goes too high. There are tennis courts nearby, used by the adjacent high school, but there’s also a small BMX track. Right now, a group of toddlers are running over the jumps and hills.
The first person I talk to is a father of two who lives closer to Malaspina Park than he does to here. He comes here twice a week. He’d like to go to a playground near his house but… well, I’ve seen the state of Malaspina. The next person runs a daycare near Rainbow Park, another playground with metal and a merry-go-round. The third person came here from the Hart with her son. She also wishes something like this were closer to home. Instead, she makes the drive.
* * *
Times are changing, and so are parks. The city has launched a series of public meetings, online survey, and app in order to figure out what people want out of their green spaces today. Should the merry-go-round of Malaspina be fixed, replaced with a plastic playground, or abandoned all together? How much are we willing to pay so people don’t need to drive in order to access a Duchess-style park? Tennis courts, dog runs, or skate parks? Every one of these questions speaks in some small way to our interests and values, what we think a city should look like and be navigated. The result will be another layer of history, a clue about who we were for residents walking around forty years from now.
Note: I also did an audio version of this story with interviews. Listen to it here.
So here’s an interesting tidbit: it turns out Bryan “Birdman” Williams, millionaire rapper and CEO of the record label that is home to Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Lil Wayne, has a secret childhood right here in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada.
The revelation came during an interview with Angie Martinez on New York station 105.1 FM.
Update: Birdman has responded to this story on Instagram- details at the bottom of the post.
Martinez asks about mentors growing up when Williams- who has also gone by the name Baby- starts talking about being raised by his neighbourhood and his secret past in Canada (it begins at 13:52 in the video above):
Birdman: Everybody liked me because I was one of the kids that ain’t had no momma, no daddy, just in the streets van wild
Angie Martinez: Since what age?
Birdman: My mom died when I was two, my pops died when I was five.
Martinez: And then so then who was in your- was your grandmother?
Birdman: Nah, I never had no
Martinez: So who was in your house
Birdman: Uh, I had a stepmother, but… I was living in a boy’s home until they was able to come get me, but um… you know, the streets raised me, the block, the neighbourhood. I have like ten brothers and twelve sisters, so, I can go to anyone of them… but, um, the streets raised me.
Martinez: Since that young?
Martinez: That’s- we NEED a biopic
Birdman: I felt like, it’s just time, I would like to show
Martinez: And we see that all in the biopic?
Martinez: Wow. So do you go back to like where you were, and
Birdman: I went back to as much as we could trace. You know, um, I lived in Canada for a few years, my sister took us–
Martinez: Who are you, what? Anybody know that?
Birdman: Nah, I never spoke on my past… I never really wanted to, cause it was–
Martinez: Why were you in Canada? Were you hiding out?
Birdman: My sister took us away, right? My momma passed, my uncle came down, and she decided to just take us, drive us to Canada. So we stayed in Canada for like two, three years?
Martinez: Wow. Where?
Birdman: Um, Prince George.
Williams says he stayed in Canada until age seven or eight, which means he would have been here from roughly 1973 or 74 until 1976 or 77. At that time Prince George was a fast-growing logging town, on its way to being the second-largest in British Columbia and, purportedly, the city with the most millionaires per capita in the country.
Williams would also go on to be a millionaire, but not before some hard times. He moved back to his hometown of New Orleans and lived on the street and in jail before founding Cash Money Records in 1991. The label went on to be one the most influential in hip-hop, signing acts like Lil Wayne, Drake, and Nicki Minaj. According to Forbes, in 2015 he was the fifth wealthiest man in hip-hop (just behind Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and 50 Cent), with an estimated net worth of $150 million.
The Canadian angle in Williams life hasn’t previously been disclosed- he says not even label mate and noted Canadian Drake knows about it.
Williams has also said he is working on a biopic about his early life, though it is unknown if his time in Prince George will be included.
I have sent an email to his publicist for more details about this part of Williams’ life, but in the meantime…
UPDATE: There is now a CBC News story about this. Liam Britten takes full credit for incorporating the names of Birdman songs into it.
UPDATE 2: Birdman has responded to this story! He posted a link to the CBC story on Instagram and wrote:
“🔥Summer thank you CBC news British Columbia Canada I appreciate Tha love Tha life was a real experience livin in Prince George I will always honor and respect”
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