By Brendan Edwards
The sound system at Hooch booms with breakbeats punctuated by high pitch electric guitar riffs. A local MC named Misery stalks across the small stage, spitting rhymes in rapid succession. When he drops a clever one liner, the crowd pushes closes.
“People really listen to the MCs here,” says host Addi Stewart, who goes by the name Mindbender. “It matters to come with something with meaning.”
Situated above Gypsy Co-Op at 817 Queen St. W., Hooch is home to the hip hop night In Divine Style, which features a main act from Toronto and an open mic session every Thursday night, beginning at 11:30 p.m.
Every second Thursday of the month is open exclusively to female hip hop talent and is hosted by third-year journalism student Silk-Anne Kaya, also known as Eternia. Most of the MCs don’t have the money to book studio time so they use the venue as a springboard to develop an underground following.
Beside the stage a fireplace oozes warmth and the walls and ceiling have been decorated with a variety of colourful designs. Hooch’s eclectic interior would make an ideal set for a music video.
When Misery exists the stage, second-year radio and television student Tarik Wolfe is up first for the open mic. It’s Wolfe’s third performance at Hooch. He recalls the first time he grabbed the mic last November: “When I came here no one knew who the hell I was, but I was still given a chance to go up there and prove myself,” he says. “Mindbender doesn’t care about names, he just cares about skill.”
Wolfe says the song “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy first drew him to hip hop culture. “I remember when it came out, I was four at the time,” he says. Later on he came to understand the political significance of the song and hip hop in general.
“It has a lot of potential for societal change,” he says.
Wolfe, the song of Jamaica’s ambassador to Canada, came to Canada in 1998 and began writing rhymes. “I kept to myself,” he says, explaining that there wasn’t much of a scene where he lived, Ottawa. It was when he moved to Toronto in 2001, to study at Ryerson, that he began performing more often. He raps about a wide variety of topics: “I talk about everything. I find people have a certain stereotype of hip hop, about money and cars. I think there needs to be variety.” He says he’d be just as likely to rap about not having cars.
“The Hooch is a very small kind of place, but I like the atmosphere. People in the know go to Hooch. There are other venues that are bigger and attract bigger crowds. But to get respect at the Hooch is a good thing,” he says.
For Wolfe, performing at the Hooch was a way to make connections in the industry. A producer, who was looking for some raps to put over his own beats, saw Wolfe perform there and liked what he heard. Wolfe has since been recording with him to test out whether or not the combination is marketable.
At Hooch over the past ten years, Stewart and his co-host Alexis Mandziuk have watched a slew of MCs put on their first live show. Stewart says open mic nights are essential for underground talent to flourish.
“Every city with an independent scene of talented musicians needs some sort of support system,” says Stewart, who has been performing at hip hop shows for ten years. “Lots of places in the States have had it, it’s a breeding ground for some of hip hop’s greatest.”
He points out that American rap icons such as Biggie Smalls, Foxy Brown and Craig Mack ripped mics at New York’s Lyricist Lounge long before they made it into the studio.
“[Toronto’s music industry is] not keeping their finger on the pulse,” he says. “They don’t know what artists here are really building a fan base and a following, or who are real superstars in the raw, cause Toronto’s got tons of them. I’ve seen ‘em. If I was a greedy label executive I could have pimped tons of artists by now. But I don’t listen to demos and everyone gets an equal opportunity.”