We Premiered a Video From Hellnback and Talked About Canada’s Indigenous Rap Game
“The violence and stuff that comes along with hip-hop distracts them from the music and conscious rappers.”
After 25 years in the music industry, Karmen “Hellnback” Omeasoo decided to take a serious shot at a solo career. Until recently, he was working a normal job to help support his daughter, Jaylin, with his fiancée, Lisa Muswagon. While the Winnipeg-based lyricist sold cars to pay the bills, he also spent most of his time daydreaming and writing bars. To say Hellnback is familiar with Canada’s hip-hop landscape would be an understatement. The Juno-nominated rapper was a founder of OG groups like War Party and Team Rezofficial. Currently, he is up for two Indigenous Music Awards for his breakthrough album FOE = #Family Over Everything. We have the exclusive premiere of the music video for the banger track “BTBB” produced by DJ Shub and featuring LightningCloud.
Verses from “BTBB” celebrate Canada’s hip-hop scene, founded in part by Hellnback. In his words, he took the music and lifestyle to “every reservation.” His crusade is now literal: he runs the 16 Bars Workshop, which sharpens kids’ writing and teaches them that not every rapper has to be a gangster. Hellnback promotes self-expression and backs up the message with his many successes. For instance, this year he recorded with A Tribe Called Red. As I found out during a recent phone interview, that collaboration was a long time coming and almost never happened after Hellnback walked away from music.
He talked about how humbled he is by his latest achievements; although, he also touched on Winnipeg’s systematic racism and the limitations inherent in the music industry’s Indigenous category. Hellnback also discussed his love of cooking. At one time he thought about using the money he would make from FOE = #Family Over Everything—which he had considered to be his last album—to start a food truck. Right now, it appears Hellnback will spend his time cooking up new music.
Noisey: You’re nominated for two Indigenous Music Awards. What’s it like having the nominations for best hip-hop album and best cover?
Hellnback: That’s my daughter, Jaylin, on my cover. That was Tyson Anderson’s idea for the album cover. The reception to the album has been humbling. I’ve been doing music for a long time, so to have my first solo project be met with such open arms, it’s a good thing.
What’s it been like breaking out on your own after setting the foundations for other artists for so many years?
It was evident that it was going to happen. All the groups I’ve worked with have done many great things—Drezus, Jay Mak, Big Stomp and Tomaslav Miradovic went and did their own things. It took a while for me because I had to find myself and get back into the music. Given all my history, I hadn’t made any kind of move since Rezofficial’s The Foundation album. Going off on my own has been fun. I just registered the company Hellnback Music. Everything is going according to plan.
You once said, “Sometimes we work on music so much we don’t realize the impact our music really has.” What impact has your music made over roughly 25 years?
A big one. When I started, there were maybe five Native emcees in the country and I always joked because I was working with two of them. This is before the internet type shit. We had to make the market. We were on the phone. We had late nights, sending stuff out and getting no response. Now, there are more people doing it. When we first toured on reservations, there weren’t any artists. And then there were breakdancers, DJs and emcees poppin’ up. The influence of everyone coming up made it happen. I don’t want to take full responsibility, but I was definitely there with the homies.
You’ve also said you hate the idea that you’re “good for a native.” That was when Team Rezofficial got a Juno nomination in 2008.
Yeah. On one hand, it’s a great thing to be honoured in that sense. On the other hand, we’re hip-hop artists. You put us up against Northern Cree and Buffy Sainte-Marie. They are absolute legends and it’s an honour to be in the same category, but we’re hip-hop artists. I want to be up against DL Incognito, Classified and Madchild. That’s where I feel we should be. We’ve been doing this for so long. It’s not sour grapes, but we’ve had No. 1 videos on RapCity on Much Music. I’m a hip-hop artist.
Speaking of hip-hop, in regards to your project the 16 Bars Workshop, in which you teach people about writing, you don’t want hip-hop to be a gangster thing.
There is that stigma; I’m not going to lie. Hip-hop is just taking off in Native communities, even though Natives have been in it since the jump. The community where I come from, my rez, some people don’t understand that it’s just music. The violence and stuff that comes along with hip-hop distracts them from the music and conscious rappers. It’s fun. They don’t see that. I go onto reservations with the 16 Bars Workshop to bridge that gap.
Maybe it’s art reflecting life? Do you see that on reservations?
Yeah, I do. But I also see a lot of kids imitating what they see. They’re not being themselves or trying to find themselves. I don’t judge anybody; I just try to show them there’s a different lane. You can get positive things out of it.
You come from Samson Cree First Nation [in the Maskwacis territory] in Alberta. You’ve been based out of Winnipeg for 12 years. Do you go back?
I go there to visit family and, this is going to sound cliché, but most times I go back because of a tragedy in the family. Lately, just for that.
What’s life like out there?
I grew up in-between. My mom was a really hard working and moved us off the rez. I lived in the neighbouring area and then she moved us to Calgary. Then around high school I moved back to Hobbema–they call it Maskwacis now. I started rapping. Life over there is just how it is. People give it a bad rap on the internet and in the news. It has bad things, but whole families grow up there. It’s not as bad as people think. There have been a high number of graduates. We have lawyers and doctors, but that’s not mentioned.
What about life in Winnipeg. It’s been noted as being one of the most racist cities in Canada.
It depends on who you talk to. It is a racist city. Sometimes you’ll experience some racial profiling. I just got off a plane–I’m not sure if I should bring this up! I got into an incident when I got off the plane. That’s all I want to say. It was directed at me and my fiancée. When it happens, it blows you back and all you can think is, “Oh my god. That was just racist. God damn!” It happens. Living in Winnipeg is great, other than that. If you look for success, you’ll find it.
Success like what you found with A Tribe Called Red.
Tribe, I’ve known them for years. I always thank them for hitting me up for work; it’s what ignited me to take it more seriously again. I’m not going to lie, back in the day I turned down work from them. I was in a bad time in my life when I didn’t care about music. A while ago I looked at the emails from them from before they dropped their first album. I apologized to them. We’re cool now. We started working. We have fun. They tell me I influenced them from back in the day of War Party and our positive message. Those guys are some of the most humble human beings I’ve met in my life.
You like cooking. Anyone who checks your Twitter feed can see that.
My fiancée loves everything I cook. I learned how to cook when I got injured in football when I was really young. I watched The Urban Peasant on CBC. It was this old white guy who would get drunk when he was on the show. One day he made bannock. I tried to make it and it turned out horrible. My late grandma wouldn’t let me watch her make bannock. Even to this day I don’t know how to make it. My fiancée is the best bannock maker in Winnipeg. I challenge anybody out there.
Devin Pacholik is a writer from Canada. He is on Twitter.