Schoolyard to Stardom: The story of Nanaimo hip-hop

Artists from left to right in back: Evo Freez, Fa'poso, Maka Natural, Kesole, and Kavawon. Artists crouching: Monopoly, Benyamean, and DisOriental. Photo by Rob Halaiku (Kavawon).
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Nanaimo hip-hop has grown over the years. What began as a few kids rhyming over instrumentals has transcended into a close-knit community, artists like Sirreal, Jinx TK, Konfidential, and many others elevating hip-hop in the harbour city by showing what they can do.

Sirreal, aka Matt Dunae, recently raised over $20k for BC Children’s Hospital through charity shows. Konfidential recently shot a music video at Nanaimo’s Discontent City, spotlighting the topical issue—it received over 45,000 views on Facebook.

For the past five years Jinx TK, aka Tyler Barnes, has run a Toys for Tots through his nonprofit organization, Community Cadence Foundation. The program helps underprivileged children in Nanaimo receive gifts for Christmas. Barnes raises the funds by performing an annual charity show, with all proceeds going toward toys, and accepting toy donations from the audience. Last year, 65 children received toys.

Evidently, the current state of the hip-hop scene is fruitful. But where did it all begin?

The origins of Nanaimo’s hip-hop scene are a mix of fact and legend. Most of the history is passed by verbal storytelling from artist to artist. However, after The Nav spoke with local artists and producers, a central plot point emerged on the radar which made one thing certain: Nanaimo hip-hop grew its roots in the grounds of Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS).

Rob Hooper, aka Rob the Viking, has received four Juno Awards for his work with rap group Swollen Members. Swollen Members’ records have gone gold and platinum in Canada and sold over a million worldwide. He co-owns and operates The Chamber Studio in downtown Nanaimo.

Rob the Viking was also a part of the hip-hop group Telepathics, which spawned from NDSS. The Telepathics were not the first artists to get involved with hip-hop in Nanaimo, and even then, the community was tightly knit.

“Kavawon and Rick Threat were doing things before us, but it was all interconnected for the most part in the scene,” Hooper says.

Rick Threat now lives in Southern California while Kavawon still resides in Nanaimo. Threat was unreachable to comment during the production of this article.

The Telepathics were made up of Rob the Viking, Delux, and Midnight. They would write songs over remixed instrumentals and regularly practice in Delux’s parents’ barn, which they converted into a makeshift studio. Their first performance was for a party at the Cavalotti Lodge in Nanaimo. After that, Hooper says the group started to get more serious.

“I was getting into production in various forms, programming drum beats on Midnight’s step-mom’s TR-707, recording that onto an 8-track tape machine we bought from my neighbour, then playing samples over the beats live off of LPs I found at the local thrift shops.”

A vinyl record resting on a record player with with a yellowing label and orange lettering printed on it.
Finesse and Showbiz record featuring artist Rick Threat. Photo by Rob Halaiku.

The group’s popularity and confidence grew, so they began to rent the Cavalotti Lodge, German Cultural Centre, and other venues to perform shows. They would sell tickets for the shows in the cafeteria at NDSS and have friends work security at the doors.

“There were a lot of kids into the scene back then, a lot of rappers, some Graf writers, [and] a few b-boy crews. We were all cool with each other and would gather at the shows and everyone would be involved,” Hooper says.

The Telepathics found a way to express themselves through the mixed-up world that is high school. Everyone can remember their time in high school and the different social circles. Possibly even seeing those circles clash due to popularity concerns, not being “cool” enough, or whatever other reasons high schoolers decide to cast one another out nowadays. That’s when Rob the Viking took notice at the shows and realized they were bringing people together.

“If you were a rocker, you were a rocker and wouldn’t be into hip-hop. If you were into underground hip-hop, you weren’t as much into mainstream rap,” says Hooper. “[But] the shows still brought all kinds of people out, whether they were into the style of music or not.”

There were a few groups actively doing shows with a presence at NDSS: the Telepathics; Creative Minds, who later went on to form part of Sweatshop Union; and now Pigeon Hole. Both Sweatshop Union and Pigeon Hole have had much success. The groups are mainly Vancouver based now.

Kavawon, Rob Halaiku, is a Nanaimo born-and-raised artist who has had a large hand in the progression of the scene to where it is today. He remembers going to high school at Wellington, however, he also refers to NDSS as the birthplace of hip-hop in Nanaimo. In the central Nanaimo area that scene did not exist and hadn’t yet traveled up from NDSS.

“When I went to school, it was ACDC and Metallica all day,” Halaiku says. “But over on the ND side, you know, it was a hip-hop school. That was the whole vibe of that place.”

In 1999, Kavawon formed a group called ITAP Family after high school, ITAP for short, that consisted of himself, his brother Evo Freeze, and three of his cousins. ITAP was influential in the hip-hop scene and aided its progression to a new level.

“I guess that’s how you could say we influenced the scene. We were the first guys to get shows at the clubs,” Halaiku says. “Before us doing that, it was like what the ND boys were doing. You had to rent Cavalotti Lodge or the German Cultural Centre.”

Halaiku states that’s where his group made their contribution that helped propel the hip-hop scene. “ND started it and we helped take it to the next level.”

In a genre of music where many artists are aiming to be top dog, Nanaimo’s hip-hop community is unique. There is a cohesiveness among the artists here. Rather than each individual artist trying to claw their way to success at another’s expense, artists collaborate on tracks, albums, and projects to move the scene as a whole forward and evolve their own craft at the same time.

Today there are many forms of support for the hip-hop scene here that come from promoters putting on shows and bringing in larger acts to the city while providing opening slots for local artists. There are now also a few recording studios in Nanaimo. Between The Chamber Studio and Independent Generation, almost all of Nanaimo hip-hop is well covered.

Outside of the studios, rappers meet weekly to freestyle improvised rhymes over beats played on a speaker. These meetings are called cyphers. A group of young rappers first started holding cyphers every Wednesday under the name Cyphomatic at the abandoned Harewood Elementary School in 2011.

Harewood Elementary School was built in 1914. The school was closed in 2004 and declared a heritage building before being torn down in 2016. Despite the change, Cyphomatic continues to meet on the school grounds.

“It’s a feeling,” says Kavawon. “You’ll get it better than I could ever explain it if you see it.”