Calgary’s reputation for cowboys, oil barons and sprawling suburbs may not spark visions of struggle rap, but beneath the surface of the city’s stereotypes, the tides have started to turn.
When the 10 at 10 hip-hop showcase originally proposed to feature 10 local rap artists per month, critics scoffed that the estimated 20 rappers in the city would not sustain the movement for long. Twenty-eight months and 250 showcased acts later, the leaders of 10 at 10 have proved their critics wrong. “Part of the mission for 10 at 10 is changing the culture of hip-hop in the city,” says managing director Sarosh Rizvi. “Not just from the artists’ and fans’ point of view, but from the venues and promoters who shy away from the stigma of hip-hop events.”
As the longest running hip-hop showcase in the city, and between its additional ventures in mixtapes, production workshops, major concert opportunities and media coverage, 10 at 10 is leading a consciously structured movement. The 10 at 10 community functions as a “dojo” style training ground, where artists can join a sustainable scene that gives their art a platform and provides links and feedback within the industry.
Beni Johnson, a founding member of 10 at 10 and an artist himself, moved to Calgary from Fort McMurray several years ago, and found a hip-hop scene that seemed to be “very disjointed; rappers rapping for other rappers in front of each other.” Rizvi, who was actively involved as a city rep for the web magazine HipHopCanada [editor’s note: the author of this article is a deputy editor for HipHopCanada], partnered with Johnson and the 10 at 10 team in providing some structure to a scene that had previously been unwelcome in many venues, and was disconnected both as an industry and as a community. Johnson wanted to help create the kind of community that he would feel good in as an artist, “a real genuine scene that people can feel inspired to be a part of, want to contribute to.” Johnson knew he was onto something because he understood that his own experience, as an artist coming to Calgary with no connections and no reputation, wasn’t an isolated thing; surely there had to be others who were searching for some kind of artistic grounding. “If we put the call out, MCs will show up,” he had said confidently, “we just have to a show that we actually care about the scene.”
Rizvi and Johnson stand firmly behind the foundational rule of 10 at 10: artists get out of it what they put in. In an industry that revolves around the braggadocio of rappers, there’s potential for a clash of egos, but Johnson knows what he’s doing. “Me being an artist, I totally understand that swag about it,” he says. “I counter it with just saying, ‘Hey man, you keep doing you, that’s cool. We’re gonna keep doing this.’ And over time, all those artists have come through.”
“Really for us, it always comes back down to community,” adds Rizvi, “and part of that for us is linking those different things in terms of media, in terms of radio play, in terms of production, live acts, photographers, videographers, and making those connections.”
The first step to building a sustainable scene was finding a venue. “Calgary is so conservative that everything that’s hip-hop related, people are like, no we can’t have that here,” says Johnson, recalling the difficulties that hip-hop shows used to have in finding a home. “Our biggest thing in Calgary is that an artist will come here and the venue is half full or three quarters full, just ’cause people didn’t know.” Rizvi agrees that “there wasn’t really a home” for the struggling, underground scene. But through the help of a small venue — the defunct Ubu Lounge — 10 at 10 started to find its feet, and began its mission to provide a platform for artists to meet, perform and find their voices.
The freedom to experiment in a safe environment is what allows a specific regional “sound” to develop, an authentic and identifiable rhythm and flow that tells listeners where those words were written, or where that beat was produced. “Calgary has suffered from this identity crisis because we haven’t had any eyes on us forever,” says Johnson, adding that without any outside attention to the developing craft, artists simply choose to sound like someone else, “and that in turn has never really produced music that people really believe or that’s coming from a natural place.”
In providing the space to develop and the media connections to draw some attention, the 10at10 crew are slowly but surely seeing the Calgary sound develop. “We’re starting to find more artists who are doing themselves,” says Johnson, “because now the infrastructure is here so people can come here and experiment, see what’s good, get feedback, go back home and work on the product.”
Jaynova, a Calgary MC who has shared her music with the 10 at 10 audience, agrees. “Definitely, it helped me get more comfortable onstage, it gave me a place where I didn’t have to be scared to just do and act how I wanted to.”
Artists come into this hip-hop training ground at all levels of development: they first learn some basic crowd control, experiment with newly written music onstage and gather feedback, and then in turn take that back to the studio to improve their craft. AYE, another longtime 10 at 10 participant and reputedly one of the most exciting rap artists in Calgary, says 10 at 10 has been helping the Calgary scene create its most important aspect — talented artists. They do so, he says, “by giving artists a platform to showcase their talents to a wide audience.”
From the tiny Ubu stage — barely big enough for a drum kit and an MC — to its current monthly residency at Commonwealth Bar & Stage, 10 at 10 sparked a new kind of community, one that was self-sustaining, mutually supportive and progressive in its refusal to promote the kinds of violent trends that had made promoters and venues so hesitant to house rap shows. “Venues don’t always like doing hip-hop,” Rizvi says. “There’s not a great feeling about it. But we’ve been putting this event on for so long and built credibility, the same way the music has built credibility or the team has built credibility.”
The growth has only continued, most recently with the 10 at 10 Concert Series, which Johnson calls “the next level of the dojo of creating and developing your skill.” It’s a collaborative effort with major Calgary promoters, who have invited the 10 at 10 team to support the big touring hip-hop acts who come through town. The 10 at 10 organizers help on the promotional end, and set up the opening acts out of the showcase family. “Performing in front of people encourages artists stepping up their game to not only control a crowd, but to know they have to bring their product up to that level that a mainstream act has been doing,” Johnson says.
Developing a complete product is the final level of the 10 at 10 dojo. After learning crowd control, engagement of the audience, performing with bigger acts and collaborating with peers, the artists seek to release quality recorded material. “Now it’s about bringing that back to the studio, polishing off that product, creating an album, creating a mixtape, having a product to give,” Johnson says. “Because music now isn’t local; it’s very global. But it’s about training you here, so when you blow up and are able to go somewhere else, you’re ready to rock.”
A collaboration with Beat Drop music production and DJ school teaches artists that, as Johnson puts it, “You can’t be a sustainable artist without having a good sound engineer who’s actually in a good studio, a good producer that makes good beats, a good songwriter.” Add some much-needed media coverage — from several radio shows at CJSW, including the syndicated Dirty Needles, and various online hip-hop blogs that partner with the event to profile an outstanding performer at each showcase — and the package is nearly complete. The 10 at 10 organization bridges many aspects of hip-hop culture and industry together, providing a complete picture of what an artist needs to be the best.
“People trust our results,” Rizvi says. The multiple promoters, venues, artists and DJs who depend on the 10at10 community for support trust those results for good reason; 28 months of 10-artist showcases (with few repeated acts) have occurred without a single violent incident, for starters, and the shows are generally to packed crowds of young women in platform heels, young men with hats real low and hipsters clad in plaid — a cross-section of the city’s underground community.
Furthermore, what Johnson and Rizvi had originally dreamed of — a welcoming and sustainable hip-hop scene for Calgary — has manifest in many ways, especially “in terms of the collaborations that have come out of 10 at 10 connections,” says Rizvi. “And add onto that the venue aspect and promoter aspect, and there’s so much more exposure for artists who want to do their own shows or even to get on supporting major acts.” Part of this successful scene is the ability to give back, and 10 at 10 have had no qualms in doing that; their “rebuild” project in the summer raised $12,000 for flood relief.
Still, Johnson and Rizvi both recognize the community is larger than themselves. “We have no qualms in being the leaders of this ship, but without people buying into it there’s nothing there,” Johnson says. “It’s not about us bigging up our names individually, it’s genuinely about throwing more energy and talent into a pool so people can really see what’s up.”
Rizvi, too, recognizes that a movement isn’t about individuals. “It’s a community that’s actually actively building,” he says. “What we want to do is have the community itself turn the tide… it’s a matter for us about trusting the product and trusting our vision, and letting the rest take care of itself.”