Rashid St. James, the energetic and quotable rapper from downtown Toronto, performed for Canadian Music Week at Studio Bar on Dundas Street West Wednesday night. St. James’ performance was yet another example of the city’s rising homegrown talent.
This year’s CMW has marked a banner year for burgeoning Toronto area rap artists. Never in the history of the city has widespread appreciation for hip-hop been so strong. It is thrilling to see such an abundance of innovative voices continue to grow. Rashid St. James, an introspective partier, contributes to this new Toronto spirit and sound.
Over the past half-decade, Toronto has been able to break in to the international hip-hop scene through the growth of self-aware lyrics backed by dreamy production styles. Borrowing heavily from a variety of influences (Southern United States-style drum breaks and ominous atmospheric noises), Toronto rap artists have added their own perspectives on top of triumphant music. What distinguishes Toronto’s rap identity from the rest is that the city’s artists originate from economically and culturally diverse places.
People from all areas of the world meet amongst the many neighbourhoods so important to the Greater Toronto Area. It is not uncommon for them to converge under one roof and share stories. Increasingly, the city’s hip-hop scene has shown this in practice with abundant musical releases by a variety of rappers and singers.
Rashid St. James’ music and vision is contemplative. He rhymes at you “from the back seat of a taxi cab” as he zips from one spot to the next. You can picture him freestyle rapping with his boys in a derelict industrial space at one moment and then turning up at an elegant after-hours loft party the next. While other artists from the city hint at the same themes, Rashid St. James executes this with a horror film aesthetic. His visions are scary and the characters he raps about are zombies who feast on drugs and sex to survive. The scene he sets is claustrophobic and sometimes you may forget to breathe.
Rather than running away from the nocturnal demons and temptations, he embraces them and documents their effects on the people around him. He raps about the lives of people spiraling away from the reaches of cleanliness to a deep dark hell that preys on lost souls. As he hurtles from one location to the next, there is no love to be found.
If any one of his song titles best encapsulates his message, it’s “Nightmare in the Afterhours” – also his set’s opening number. Over a frantic beat from his longtime-producer, Solid Mas, Rashid St. James sets the scene with vivid imagery and a tragic atmosphere: muddy waters, rain, a makeout session with Medusa, Courtney Love, and Kurt Cobain. Performed with conviction in his eyes and confidence in his movements, St James even had to tell the crowd that he’s not as scary as he looks in order to get them closer to the front of the stage.
Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Rashid St. James was able to bring some light humour to his performance as he addressed the audience between songs. Wearing a bright orange jacket, he called himself a pylon. This was met with numerous laughs and showed his ability to connect with the crowd through various means. It wasn’t easy to tell that this was his first CMW performance as the emcee looked right at home in front of an eager group. He rapped directly to crowd.
There’s no mistaking St. James’ love for Queen Street, the downtown Toronto strip and meeting place for the weird. He once Tweeted to send his Grammy there as if it’s his territory. Fittingly, it is also the setting for the cover art of one of his recent songs, “Hallelujah.” “Hallelujah” has the rapper chanting a catchy chorus to the creepy tune of Eastern-sounding instrumentation. It’s as if the song was recorded in a Buddhist temple about to be set aflame. You can’t help but picture display windows of the Queen Street West head shops full of pipes and crafts closed down in the darkness of the night. Distant howls echo through the graffiti-adorned alleyways.
Studio Bar, part seated lounge and bar, was not the right venue for the performance. The sound was bad. During the musical interlude before St. James’ set, the sound engineer and on-stage DJ could be heard fiddling with the speaker levels. They never found a way to harness the bass and mic levels so essential to the success of live rap performance.
The rapper acted like it didn’t matter. St. James’ final song in the set, “We Like to Party,” gave way to supporters and crew members who sang along and jumped to the chorus. From that reaction, Rashid St. James has found himself in the middle of enthusiastic support. He did not want people hanging around the fringes of the venue. He understands his presence in the room and will not let the crowd forget it. He’d “rather be an asshole than a shit stain.”
With a sound and vision rounding in to form, where does Rashid St. James take it? His recorded delivery has come a long way since his early ‘Cinderella’ days and with more experience, his live show can be polished and fun. He’s found a sweet and scary spot in how to document a city’s rising rap scene. Will Toronto’s temptations take him down, or will he survive to tell the tale? Time is the only judge. One thing is for certain, though. He’s gonna have a huge party first.
Check out Rashid St. James’ latest music videos below:
“We Like to Party”