Torontonians really like board games. One in three Torontonians owns ten or more board games, while three in eight own more than 25 and play bi-weekly. Could it be the influence of cottage country? Too much spare time on our hands? Or do we just really love playing games?
I’m going to have to go with the latter: Torontonians love playing games.
You are now about to embark on the first ever Notes to Self identity challenge, brought to you in part by StudioFeed and Peter Marrack. Notes to Self — comprised of immediate members, Rage Roshin, Swamp Donkey, DJ Dopey, and Bronze One — also includes the extended family, graffiti artist Elicser, producer Book, visual artist Adam Hilborn and a creative everything named Jabari. The crew dropped their debut LP back in 2009, entitled A Shot in the Dark, through the German label BBE and now, after dropping a number of successful videos (notably “Nobody” and “All of the Above”), they are preparing to release their sophomore LP, entitled Target Market, which is due out February 26.
The dudes from Notes have inked a deal with the independent monster in New York City, Decon Records, which handles the releases of The Alchemist, Roc Marciano, Nneka, Gangrene, and in the past, Jay Electronica, RJD2, Jurassic 5, Freddie Gibbs, Evidence, Black Milk, and more. Decon is the brainchild of record exec, director, and all-around creative genius, Jason Goldwatch, who you may have caught in Toronto when he visited for Cudi’s Man on the Moon tour back in 2009; at the time Goldwatch was shooting footage for Cudi’s tour video, The Journey of Mr. Rager.
The deal Notes to Self have signed with Decon includes the distribution of their new album, which has received a creative tailoring by the team in NYC. They have already altered the title (the album was tentatively titled Used to be Dark and afterwards, Popular Music before settling on Target Market), as well as Adam Hilborn’s album art. The deal allows Notes to work alongside the publicity company Biz3, which handles most of the fixing work for Decon’s most profitable artists, as well as for guys like Pusha T.
Past and present Toronto rappers like Choclair, Kardinal Offishall, and Snow have flirted with major labels, and then struck relationships with small imprints in Canada, or started their own labels. But in the age of social networking and the internet, the Notes deal is pretty new. Decon reigns supreme in the arena of online marketing and buzz creation.
So why Notes? Sure, they make good music. But — apart from co-signs from Dilated Peoples, Emilio Rojas, Fashawn, and more — why has this big-time indie label in New York City that is a major cog in the wheel that is the American underground scene, latched on to four Torontonians who grew up in the heart of the city (well, Dopey is from Sauga) who specialize in humbling ‘90s-inspired hip-hop?
Well, how about we leave that up to you? I’m a firm believer that testimony speaks louder than statistics. So how about I lay out four real-life stories for you, and you try and tell me which member of Notes each instance features; That way you can discover the true ‘essence’ of the crew for yourself — what makes them unique. If you get four out of four correct — these are the game instructions, so listen up — then you can sleep easy knowing you are the biggest Notes fan this side of Bobcaygeon. And of course, the names of each member in each individual story will be disguised. Understood? Good luck.
Bay Street. 5 o’clock p.m. Rush hour. The Hustler sits in the passenger seat of a blue Saab hatchback — not his — and prepares to stick his head out the window. He wears khaki shorts, a Notes t-shirt, fresh Nike kicks, and a fitted A’s cap.
He turns up the volume on the stereo — Evidence’s “To Be Continued…” — and raps along to the lyrics.
Kicking park bench rhythms up till I vision a flow,
I stay at home sick and visit her,
Radio, I visit station nights
It’s kinda like their fucking visitation rights.
While rapping, The Hustler strums the underside of his chin — heavy brush — and scans the sidewalk. The Saab is in the thick of it. Tall grey buildings loom overhead with reflective surfaces, while mice scurry across crosswalks, onto buses and into the false security of streetcar tracks.
Just as the Saab is about to zoom away, two legs emerge in the passenger window and The Hustler turns to address them.
The pair of legs contemplates the deal and then, after a moment, a matching set of arms reaches out and snatches the packages — which turn out to be video games, MLB: The Show. With the deal complete (bills in his bag), The Hustler sticks his head back in the window and motions for the Saab to giddy-up.
The El Mocambo Tavern. Up the stairs, through the hallway and around the corner. The lights are dimmed. A hundred or so die-hards dot the floor. Others flock to the bar at the back of the room; Vegetable-shaped lights drape overhead. It smells of salt.
The Soldier stands in the middle of the pack, head down, hidden below the brim of his Notes 59Fifty. He rocks gently from side-to-side, his mouth silently reciting rhymes. Every couple of minutes he switches spots, droning around the floor of the club, arms at his side, walking like the lady in Seinfeld whom Elaine makes fun of for not moving her arms when she walks
Eventually — probably very late — you see The Soldier take a sip of his water, having joined the rest of his crew stage-side; He is neither the tallest nor the shortest of the lot.
As Rich Kidd finishes up with his introductions, inviting fans to move to the front of the stage, The Soldier is seen mulling around in the shadows, waiting. The moment the beat drops — a combination of shrill horns and soulful wails — he explodes. He grabs the mic and goes.
The Buick mini-van rockets down Bathurst, en route from the Rogers Cup Tennis Tournament. The late summer sun falls over the horizon, just as the Italian driver, Anna, ramps over the crest of a hill — approaching St. Clair West.
“So you say you make music, like shows? CDs?” Anna asks The Politician in the backseat, removing her eyes from the road.
“Well,” begins The Politician — appearing perfectly at ease with the TTC bus bearing down on the van — as Anna swerves into oncoming traffic.
“It’s a tricky situation. Because a couple years ago we signed to a German label called BBE. A very good, reputable label. At the time we were pumped that we would be able to press copies of the album, maybe do some vinyl, have our records in the stores. But then this was also around the time when everything transitioned to the internet. You know, fans were no longer buying physical copies in the stores, and everything went digital. So we ended up releasing the album, which was called A Shot in the Dark, completely online — which was good — but at the same time not as nice as the deal we had hoped for. So I guess you could say we dropped our debut during a peculiar kind of transition period, when the old-style of selling records was just about extinct, and the new style of pushing records online wasn’t quite as established as it is now. We weren’t as competent maneuvering around the net back then either. But now we are. We’re looking forward to dropping our sophomore album in the next little while. We know what to expect this time around, we’re prepared, and we’re fortunate enough to be working with some great people.”
The Politician rattles all this off in the time it takes Anna to pull the van back into the appropriate lane. “Hmm,” she says, considering the story. “My son does music too. He’s a DJ. He likes trance music.”
“That’s good,” says The Politician. “There’s always a market for that. Whatever makes the ladies dance, right?”
Anna chuckles, blushing at the thought of her son and night club floozies. She changes the subject, “Did I tell you the story about when I drove Rafael Nadal?”
THE BIG BROTHER
The Big Brother sits across from underground battle-rapper Jake Bluez in the backyard of his cozy west end abode. The blue sky permeates the scene, vibrant with only a couple cumulus mushrooms. In the backyard there are evergreen hedges — what Bluez has dubbed ‘the blazing bush’ — a shed and some patio furniture. Big Brother and Bluez pass back and forth a joint while sitting on chairs. The joint smells nice.
“You know why that bush is called the burning bush?” asks Jake.
The crowd members shake their heads.
“It’s because one time we threw away our joint and it got stuck on one of the branches, so we took turns going over there and smoking it as it is, lying there on the bush.”
Jake examines the bush with his crystal blue eyes, while Big Brother kills the joint.
“Let’s talk about the video,” says Big Brother.
“Yeah, it’s like one of my best songs. I want to do it right. Get a bunch of girls, a hotel room, bottles, do it at a nice place.”
“That’s a big investment.”
“Yeah, but the joint is one of my best-”
“You’re prepared to lay down those kind of bills?”
“Yeah, don’t you think-”
“I know. I know. You want the whole ‘hotel with girls’ video. I know what you mean. We can do it. I’ll work on some prices with the director.”
Bluez smiles and nods his head. “Sweet.”
The group gazes up at the blue sky, contemplating. The backyard is virtually silent, vague sounds from jets flying overhead. “Oh,” says Jake. “You wanna see the album art for my new mixtape?”
“Sure,” is the consensus. Jake brings up the photo on his iPhone, and turns it around for all to see. It pictures an airplane in the blue sky with puffy, cloudy lettering spelling out the title of the mixtape: Jake’s On A Plane. A hearty grin spreads around the campfire.
“Fitting. Quite fitting.”
It’s time we move on and reveal our answers. But first, let me just say that you did an awesome job of hanging in there, and seeing this story through to the end. Your participation is more important than you think. In fact, it’s the most important. No matter who did what, or which identity is which, Notes to Self first and foremost have you to thank for their newfound success. I mean it. If it wasn’t for the accumulation of your YouTube views, album downloads, Twitter follows, Facebook ‘Likes’, merch purchases, and the love displayed at concerts, then the dudes at Decon probably never would have stumbled across Notes in the first place, or taken them seriously. In fact, it was the high number of YouTube views that initially brought the “Nobody” video to their attention, and proved to the A&Rs how strong the Notes following really is. “They liked the ‘Nobody’ video, and wanted to know more about us,” recounts Notes emcee Rage Roshin.
So give yourself a pat on the back, and recognize that it was (at least partly) you, and your participation — in this beautiful age of computers and the internet — that allowed Notes to get noticed. That’s what makes this deal first of its kind, at least in our region. It was precipitated by you, the fans. But hell, enough is enough. You guys must be dying to know the answers of the identity quiz by now. So without further ado… here goes:
The Hustler, that dude who chops video games out the window of his friend’s car, is Rage Roshin. The Soldier, more proof that the thousand-yard stare is in fact legitimate, is also Rage Roshin. The Politician, aka the minivan babbler, is again, Rage Roshin. And The Big Brother — Jake Bluez’s boy — is… well, you already guessed it, Rage Roshin. Now don’t feel silly, if you do, know that was hardly my intention.
On the contrary, if you answered differently, it simply means that you overlooked the fact that although we all have unique dispositions, and arrive from separate wombs, we are still, at the end of the day, children of the same Earth. We are all still brothers. Which is what, I think, Notes to Self, along with the entire Toronto hip-hop community (on a good day), stands for — a group of brothers who have all influenced each other to the core; like the way Roshin has been influenced by his brothers in all of the characters outlined above. That’s what makes us unique, and to the folk at Decon, sellable.