How a Canadian hip-hop movement became a global phenomenon.
Illustration courtesy of Jane Kim
In the late 1990s, pockets of hip-hop obsessed Canadian kids from suburbs like Surrey and Langley, British Columbia, set out to make themselves known. Removed from urban centres like Vancouver, they saw themselves as outcasts and took refuge in music, the streets, and their crews. These skaters, rappers, and graffiti artists—with alternate egos like Vision, Capital Q, KeepSix, Caspian, and a host of others—would eventually help found intertwined brands Ephin and Stompdown Killaz.
Stompdown Killaz (SDK) is likely the most recognized of the two entities and it looks after the graffiti and design side of the business. SDK was named by the filmmaker Capital Q. Capital Q, real name Quinn Leathem, is the brand’s co-founder, along with a handful of friends who hung out at Brookswood Skatepark in Langley. They started gaining a larger audience for their art, which you could find bombed across train cars and brick walls after Capital Q uploaded graffiti videos on their YouTube channel in 2005. The first videos were simple slide shows of their work, and eventually they produced everything from music videos to an online talk show called Get off the Couch. Their videos went on to gain hundreds of thousands of views worldwide. Their logo became the infamous Canadian flag-stamped ski mask with crossed baseball bats behind it.
The SDK brand has since become synonymous with aggressive rap and raspy-voiced emcees like Snak the Ripper, who owns Stealth Bomb Records. The Stealth Bomb label was founded in 2013 and manages many artists under the SDK banner. Last year, SDK personalities and fans became embroiled in the rap beef between Snak the Ripper and Madchild, the leader of the Battleaxe Warriors movement. Followers on both sides took shots at each other while their generals traded diss tracks. Many saw this feud as a clash between two hip-hop movements originating from western Canada.
Before SDK’s rise came Ephin, legally called Ephin Lifestyle Holdings Corp. Formally established in 2002 by Ryan Wiese, aka Vision, Ephin grew from a small t-shirt vendor in Surrey. Opened in 2004, the first Ephin shop at 162nd and 84th Street was 500 square feet; two shops later, today the current space is five times bigger than the first iteration. Around 2006, Ephin and SDK came together, giving the SDK brand a solid business backing. Ephin, which is majority co-owned by Capital Q and Vision, grew to manage branding for artists around the world, making its first major move in 2010 with the legendary rap group Onyx. That group currently consists of emcees Sticky Fingaz and Fredro Starr.
With the teaming up of Onyx and the SDK and Ephin crews came the integration of 100 Mad, Onyx’s symbolic hip-hop movement. It represents the group's roots stemming back to New York’s 90s rap scene under the mentorship of Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay.
Fredro Starr of Onyx. Photo courtesy of Loudphoto
Onyx brought over 20 years of experience to Ephin and SDK. It was a perfect match: The three groups are known for explosive music and grimy visuals; they all built up from the streets and expanded globally. SDK’s motto, “Always moving forward,” encapsulates that drive. Noisey spoke to the forces behind SDK, Ephin, and 100 Mad to plot their tragedies and triumphs.
Photos courtesy of Ephin and Loudphoto.
Founding the Ephin Empire
Vision (Ryan Wiese; Ephin Lifestyle Holdings Corp. founder and co-owner): Before there was any Ephin or Stompdown Killaz, we had this rap group Ink Operated—that was Mr. Mumblz, Kaboom, Grafhic, epdeMIC, and DJ Wundrkut [who formed in 1998.] They were starting to get some fame [around British Columbia.] The fanbase was growing. In the back of my mind I always thought I was going to be doing something in the hip-hop community.
KeepSix (Graffiti artist; Stompdown Killaz co-founder): Before the whole Stompdown thing, Vision had a thing called Ephin. It was sort of the Surrey hip-hop collective. It tied in DJs, breakdancers, and rappers. There was already something established. I started with him in 2002 on designs and stuff. Before anything, everyone wrote graffiti.
Vision: I graduated from [Fleetwood Park High School in] the Surrey School District… In grade 11 and 12, one of my electives was an entrepreneurship class. The second year was kinda cool because my teacher said we had to create a business and market it. Thinking back on it, this was probably the first time I started to really form an idea. Basically, me and a few of my friends in the class thought of the idea for a store.
Supporters gathered at the first Ephin shop on 162nd and 84th Street, Surrey, BC., March 2005. From left to right: Ashes (emcee); Jaykin (affiliate); DJ Kutcorners; Grafhic (emcee); Caspian (emcee); Marvel (DJ); Wundrkut (DJ)
The idea I had was to do a live rap show to market my store—exactly what I’m doing today. We got Ink Operated and [the emcee] Caspian to come down to the school… [Caspian] went to same high school as the Ink Operated guys at Johnston Heights High School. Caspian was making a name for himself as well because he was doing these rap battles on the radio with DJ Maximus Clean.
Caspian (Amir Mahjoub; emcee): That’s how I got my start. Maximus Clean had a hip-hop radio show [called The Morning Drive By.] People would listen to it on the way to school. I remember calling up and doing a freestyle battle and I won. I never lost after that. That’s where the title came from for my first album, Still Undefeated. That was a little street project I put together myself. I put that out and met Vision at a release party at my house. Vision came through and supported me and we started working together… [I met emcee] Evil Ebenezer who came when I shot my first video for “Rock It” around 2006. That’s how we met Stuey Kubrick, the director [now with Stealth Bomb Records.] Once we started seeing his visuals, we knew we had to connect with that guy.
Merkules (Cole Stevenson; emcee): Out of all the artists involved with [Ephin and] SDK, as far as rap goes, Caspian is the OG vet of everything. He would go on the radio and freestyle off the head. I think he won 100 battles in row or something like that. When you heard Caspian, everyone in the room got quiet. At lunch time at school, you would run to your car, smoke your weed and listen to Caspian win another battle.
Vision: It was hilarious because I don’t think the teachers knew what we were doing. We set up a rap show in the [Fleetwood Park High School] gym at lunch time. We charged like two bucks to get in or something. We had like 250 kids come and we made around 400 bucks. The teachers were blown away.
Ephin crew in 2007 posing at the second Ephin store at 152nd and Fraser Highway., Surrey, BC. The current headquarters at 103A Ave. #107 is five times bigger than their first store.
Years later [in 2010,] the Surrey School District banned our [SDK] clothing. It’s kind of ironic. They gave me the first ideas of starting this, and then they banned us and we made the front page of the newspapers. [The School District] said our clothing represents gang violence.
Doug Strachan (Surrey School District spokesman): The ban was on clothing that was deemed inappropriate. The Killaz [logo with the] ski mask and baseball bats were deemed inappropriate.
Snak the Ripper (William Fyvie; emcee; Stealth Bomb Records owner): The school system and adults don’t understand shit. They don’t know what’s in. They see kids coming to school with a shirt with a ski mask and bats and shit and think it’s a gang but we’re a voice for those motherfuckers. We are those motherfuckers but a little bit older.
Vision: I had [officially] started Ephin in about 2002. Later, I connected with my partner Capital Q, who is now my business partner in both businesses, Ephin and Stompdown the brand. We connected in about 2005, when Capital Q and one of our good friends and graffiti artists, Label, had been chatting and coming up with an idea to sell spraypaint online.
The Outcasts of Stompdown
Capital Q (Quinn Leathem; filmmaker; Stompdown Killaz co-founder; Ephin co-owner): SDK is a movement of positive thinking people. It started as a local group of kids from the Brookswood Skatepark in Langley BC, Canada. In the summer of 2003, I started going to the skatepark everyday riding my BMX bike. During that time I became very good friends with the other locals that were there each day painting graffiti, skating, or just hanging out. We would sometimes sleep at the park because we really had no place to be.
Day after day, we became like a family because of many situations that happened. For example, there was a group of crack heads that would steal bikes from the little kids at the park—basically just beat up the kids or scare them and take [their stuff]. We put a stop to this; we protected the locals and ourselves. As time went on parents felt safe enough to leave the kids at the park for a few hours because they could trust all of us. It wasn't until 2005 that I decided to give us the name SDK, Stompdown Killaz.
Vision: As far as the name [SDK,] Capital Q and Label came up with that probably drinking a forty or something. Originally, they came up with Stompdown Troopers. Then I think Label said, “Nah, we gotta add Killaz.” In the hip-hop world, you gotta be killin’ it.
Capital Q: The original skatepark SDK [group] was people [and artists] like KeepSix, Doug, Lesen, Craver, Surgen, Label and myself plus a few others. [Stompdown] is most well known because of the YouTube videos I started doing in 2005.
KeepSix: That’s about when me, Label and [Capital] Q decided to make Stompdown a piece of Ephin. It’s the graffiti side. Ephin was already our thing, but we were graffiti writers and we wanted our own little branch of it.
Graffiti artists Lesen on the left and Craver in 2009
Capital Q: I met Vision through my brother Label who told me there is a guy in Surrey, BC that has a very similar business called Ephin Apparel. So, I went and met up with him at his shop sometime around 2006; it wasn't long after the first meeting when we decided to combine forces and become one company.
The SDK logo was an idea I had [with development help from the artist Surgen and later Vaps] where I wanted to use the Canada flag in the logo and represent the underground people, the people that want to be known and respected but don't want to be recognized by face. So I decided to keep the maple leaf but add the balaclava to represent people like us.
A train car bombed by graffiti artist KeepSix from 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
KeepSix: We grew up as a crew. In the beginning, things were wild. I’m surprised we even made it out of that. I didn’t paint without getting fucked up for years. If I was out in the streets, I was getting high or drinking.
Capital Q: … quite a few of us have struggled with addiction.
KeepSix: It escalated. A lot of cocaine; a lot of crack and meth. It snowballed. That was a struggle. I painted graffiti for so many years fucked up, I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it again. I still do meetings and shit. That’s my life now: recovery. I didn’t know if I’d be able to continue graffiti. When I cleaned up, my love for it elevated. It’s coming up on five years [since getting sober] now.
Capital Q: I was there before, during and after [KeepSix got sober]. I would never turn my back on a brother no matter how low they get.
KeepSix: I went to Vancouver Island to a rehab facility. When I was getting out [in 2011] Craver and Capital Q met me out in Nanaimo [BC] and got me a plane back. We got in a car and they brought me to this wall and had a barbeque and a bunch of paint. That was fresh out of recovery. The whole crew was there. No one was drinking. It was total support. There’s a video.
The Rise of Snak the Ripper
Vision: Snak the Ripper became the face of SDK. That logo was designed before the rise of Snak. But it was very much around the same time we designed it. When Snak came out with the “What’s Street” video [in 2008,] he had the balaclava over his face; he was rapping and doing graffiti. People very much believed that was Snak in the balaclava because he became such a trademark. It fit so well. That logo basically became his face. That was him without us even knowing it.
KeepSix: Snak already had huge respect in graffiti. He was part of ETC graffiti crew, Engines to Cabooses. He was known coast to coast.
Perry Papadakos (Onyx and Snak the Ripper’s manager; 100 Mad and Stealth Bomb Records general manager): He’s actually one of the first—if not the first—western graffiti artists to bomb the Montreal Metro [around 2003.]
Snak the Ripper: My graffiti sucked. I was always the worst at graffiti, but I did lots of it. I did illegal shit. I wasn’t really an artist as much as a vandal. It was about more for me. It wasn’t about the biggest and beautifulest.
[The graffiti artist Smerk] was my best friend when I was in my teenage years to early twenties. He’s the guy who taught me how to paint. He’s like two years older than I am. We painted trains and went on crazy graffiti missions together.
Emcee and Stealth Bomb Records owner Snak the Ripper’s mug shot from a 1998 news clipping. At 16-years-old, he was arrested for 150 charges of mischief. After three years of court appearances, he got off of the charges.
[Lee Matasi aka] Avers was another big influence. He’s the guy who started Leeside [Park]—a tunnel in Vancouver, people had been painting for years. He skated and painted a lot. People still call it Leeside because his name was Lee. He was pretty legendary. I grew up painting at Leeside. That’s how I learned. I would go there to relax because no police would run up on you. The times I was in Montreal and Toronto [around 2003 to 2005] I would see Lee and we would stay together. He was floating about during the time I painted the Montreal Metro.
Lee was killed [in 2005]. He was downtown at a club in Gastown, Vancouver with his little sister and some of my other friends. Some guy pulled out a gun and started shooting in the sky. Lee is a lover not a fighter, but he was very outspoken. I had to stop people from beating him up before. He was like, “Oh yeah, you’re really fuckin’ cool with your gun, and fuckin’ shooting it in a populated area.” The guys chased him up the street and shot him.
KeepSix: One day [around 2005,] Snak hit me up on MSN. He was like, “Hey man, I got all these raps. Someone told me to get in touch with you with these raps.” I guess he heard we were doing the Ephin thing. It was already big back then and anyone who was into the underground thing knew about Ephin and Stompdown.
Snak the Ripper’s graffiti from 2003 in the Montreal Metro
Vision: It wasn’t until KeepSix brought it to my attention that this graffiti guy Snak was now rapping. We had to check this guy out. I heard him at first and thought his voice was tripped out. I didn’t know if I liked him at first, but it stuck in my head. I heard his song “Warning,” which ended up being his first video. That was dope. I asked him to come down to the Ephin shop.
Snak the Ripper: It was crazy. [Vision] told me to grab anything I wanted off the walls. I went from looking like a total skid to wearing brand new clothes. I was a complete crack head and then I was clean. I was a rapper.
Caspian: When Snak came along, it was awesome. I was the top dog—doin’ features with Belly, I was on MuchMusic and performing in stadiums and doing big things. I remember the first time seeing Snak, he came into the Ephin store with KeepSix. He was excited. He knew about our movement and what we were about. Vision told me to come out to a shoot for “What’s Street” and support him. Things took off.
Snak the Ripper: Before that, I didn’t have a home. I had a backpack. I floated around to people’s houses. I had lots of friends—graffiti writers. Graffiti writers are skids. At that point I didn’t care. I would hop on a train and go to a different town. I didn’t care about having a house or a foundation and that’s what started my rap career—I was living with roaches and rats. I was a skeleton with skin doing drugs. I was a real fucking rap star; I just didn’t know how to rap very good.
Snak the Ripper in 2016. Photo courtesy of Loudphoto
Capital Q came out and [Caspian] came down and showed love [in the “What’s Street” video.] That was my first video with these guys—I was rapping and spraypainting at the same time. That shit had not been done before. At the time, that shit got 10,000 views in the first week. That was crazy.
Combined forces: Onyx and 100 Mad
Perry Papadakos: SDK guys are more graffiti oriented. 100 MAD is the music. 100 Mad is just a big network of guys who make similar music. It’s not a label or anything like that. It’s a flag. It’s a bunch of crews that are like-minded and fit. The 100 Mad family tree starts off with Jam Master Jay from Run-DMC. That’s how it all started for Onyx. [Members of Onyx] saw Jay in a van in traffic at Jones Beach, NY [in 1988.] They saw him in the van next to theirs and they were like, “Yo, are you smoking weed?” And they jumped into their van and smoked some weed with them in traffic, and that was it. That’s how it all started. They had a deal not too long after.
Fredro Starr (Fred Scruggs; Onyx co-founder; emcee): Jam Master Jay was Run-DMC’s DJ, but he brought the style to Run-DMC. He was a guy who moved from Brooklyn to Queens—kinda like what we did. We moved from Brooklyn to Queens too. He brought the style and the street into these guys. Once that happened, they took off with the fashion and the culture. Jay always told me a rapper always has to have a good logo. You have to have a good stage show and the other things that makes rap complete. When he met Onyx, he completed everything.
When you start a movement, it comes from nowhere. It just comes from the atmosphere. I just kept saying, “100 Mad.” Onyx is the mad face [in our logo.] I wanted it to be an extension of what Onyx was.
Sticky Fingaz of Onyx in 2016 representing their 100 Mad movement. Photo courtesy of Loudphoto
Sticky Fingaz (Kirk Jones; Onyx emcee): I invented the word 100 Mad … We got 100 mad niggas with us. Everywhere Onyx goes, they got 100 niggas with them. Our whole hood comes with us, globally.
Fredro Starr: Onyx was originally B-Wiz, Fredro Starr, Sonsee, and Big DS. But then B-Wiz got killed—he got murdered. Right there we were dealing with tragedy. That affected our music. B-Wiz was our producer and living in South Jamaica [NY] meant dealing with tragedy. It was all around us. When we came up, crack was rampant in the city. If someone wasn’t dying to a bullet, they were dying to a crack vile. Or they were getting locked up. We were walking a tightrope our whole life. That tightrope could have easily popped at any second.
Sticky Fingaz: Fredro brought me into the industry and then Jam Master Jay solidified it. “There ain’t no Onyx if Sticky Fingaz ain’t in it.” That’s what Jay said. But Fredro brought me into the industry on some big cousin shit. First Bacdafucup came out: 1992 is when “Throw Ya Gunz” came out, and then 1993 is when “Slam” came out. Boom: double platinum.
Perry Papadakos: I came into [100 Mad] in 2009 and basically helped restructure and rebrand it. I booked a show for [Onyx] in Edmonton in 2010. They went to Edmonton and a promoter put on Snak’s album in the car on the way from the airport.
Fredro Starr: I liked the way [Snak] sounded. He sounds like he’s trying to be Onyx or he was influenced by Onyx. I just heard the griminess in his voice and I wanted to meet him because I was starting 100 Mad. He had talent and I always respected talent. Whatever catches my ear or eye, I like to investigate. So I got his number.
Snak the Ripper: I was sitting in my living room doing whatever the fuck I was doing. I saw New York was calling me. I was like, “Who the fuck is this?” I answered it and I heard, “Yo, nigga, this is Fredro Starr from Onyx.” I was like, “Shut the fuck up. Who is this?” I thought it was a prank call so I hung up on him.
Fredro Starr: I called him back. I was like, “Yo, what the fuck are you hanging up on me for?”
Perry Papadakos: Eventually, [Onyx and I] went to Niagra Falls, and I was chilling in the parking lot and out walks Snak. I had no idea who he was. I thought he was a promoter. And that was it. We did our first show, Snak put me in touch with the SDK guys and that’s when we started working. They asked me to book the Stompdown tour [in 2010]. We worked really well together, and we’ve been like that ever since.
Fredro Starr: I didn’t know nothing about SDK. [Snak] told me about it when we went to shoot the video [for “Vandalize Shit”] with him, we saw what they were doing. We went to Surrey. I went to the Ephin store, met his home boys and caught the vibe of what he was doing and their movement.
Vision: Growing up listening to Onyx and literally bumping their shit all the time—I remember when Onyx and Wu-Tang did the collaboration song together, we played that constantly. Feeling like Onyx was ten worlds away, we never had it on our mind.
Snak the Ripper: Shit branches out and gets big. That’s from touring and meeting people. The meeting of Stompdown and 100 Mad just made sense.
Sticky Fingaz: The relationship between SDK and 100 Mad is still growing. It’s still budding and hasn’t fully materialized. It’s on it’s way but it hasn’t reached its peak. The volcano hasn’t erupted yet. It’s still young.
Bringing Up New Talent
Vision: Over almost 14 years, this is by far the best we’ve done lately. Our artists names are out there all over the world and we’re now starting to see what this thing can do and put money in people’s pockets. That took a long time.
Perry Papadakos: Onyx travels all over the globe and they've met a lot of younger, up-and-coming acts over the years that they felt they could help [and recruited them into 100 Mad.] There’s Snowgoons, a production team from Germany and Denmark. That’s DJ Illegal, Sicknature, Det Keller and JS Kuster. Onyx’s first album released in 10 years [#WakeDaFucUp from 2014] was produced by Snowgoons. In about 2013 we were in Holland and we did the song “Panic Room” with a Dutch group called Dope DOD [made up of emcees Skits Vicious and Jay Reaper with DJ Dr. Diggles]. That video did really well. It hit a million [views] really quick. There’s the rapper Sick Flo [formally Ric Flo] in Atlanta; [Canada’s Indigenous rapper] Drezus is fam; and the [Canadian] singer Jaclyn Gee.
We brought Merkules in about six months before Snowgoons. Merkules used to hang out at the shop—the Ephin store in Surrey. He was like the guys’ little brother.
Vision (Ryan Wiese), founder and co-owner of Ephin Lifestyle Holdings Corp.
Merkules: I was just a fan of the collective and the music when I was very young. I would hang around the store. I was the kid that [the others] would say, “Hey, go clean the floor!’” Vision was a big influence for me because after hanging around them for so long and seeing the progression, I wanted to be a part of it, but I was just so young at the time.
Snak the Ripper: Merk would send me messages [asking] how to rap. I kinda sent him some YouTube tutorials and he caught on quick. He’s a natural. I read his lyrics and they were fucked up. He came to one of our shows for a Caspian video release. He wasn’t old enough to get in. We told him to walk in like he owned the place. Puff your chest out and do it. He walked into the club and it changed his life. Next thing you know, he’s got a fake ID and he’s coming to all of our shows.
[Merkules] came to one of my shows in Whiterock [BC] one time. I forgot the lyrics to one of my songs and I saw him rapping them. He came on stage and rapped the entire song. That caught my attention. I started bringing him on tour as my hype man.
Snak the Ripper and Merkules in 2016.
Merkules: Eventually, I got a chance to go into the studio for the first time [when I was still called Merk Mikz.] I was 16-years-old. We went downtown to the studio [in Vancouver.] We got into the booth and Snak was showing me how it works. I was super excited. We made our first song [“Walk with Me” in 2011.] It was kind of ironic because in his verse for that song, Snak said, “In my neighbourhood you could get shot or stabbed bein’ in the wrong place at the wrong time.” As I was leaving the studio that day, I went to a house party, and then on my way home, I ended up getting stabbed in a random attack in Surrey.
Snak the Ripper: Merk got hacked up in the face. He got fucked up.
Merkules: These guys had ski masks on and had bats and machetes in their hands and that’s our logo. I can understand how there’s some irony there. I never really thought about that till now. I got hit over the head with a bat. I was unconscious. I got sliced from the side of my mouth all the way up my cheek with a switchblade.
Snak the Ripper: I almost think it was good for Merk. It got him off of the path of some of his homies. It kept him indoors. He had anxiety and shit after that. He was just sitting in his room writing raps. That’s why he got good at rap because he dedicated his time to it. A similar traumatising event happened to me when I was 16. I blew half my fucking hand off with a pipe bomb I learned to make from Smerk. That’s how I got the scar under my eye. A piece of shrapnel missed my eye by a fragment of a millimeter. After that, I felt weird. People were looking at me weird. Traumatic experience brought me to where I am now. Same thing happened to Merk. We’re a bunch of well-developed fuckups.
Devin Pacholik has poured his sweat and tears into this. Follow him on Twitter.
The real names of graffiti artists and some affiliates have been kept anonymous.