The 6th Letter Is Bigger Than Canada (and Canada Is Huge)
The Canadian rapper talks his upcoming mixtape, and is too political to admit that Joey Bada$$ jacked his swag.
The 6th Letter is 20 minutes late. I'm set to meet the rapper at a restaurant in downtown Toronto, and fortunately for me, the Knicks are playing the Raptors in a pre-season game, the first of many New York versus Toronto battles this year. The game is especially fitting because of how much both teams borrowed from each other during the off-season in order to compete at a higher level—an analogous scenario to the one 6th Letter finds himself in after three years of making music.
Of all the latent talent current steeping in Toronto, the 6th Letter has been brewing for the longest amount of time with no concrete project. He was only 18 years old when his debut mixtape, Go Green—a light-hearted and easy going listen over boom-bap production—dropped in April of 2011. That mixtape sparked a buzz in the Greater Toronto area that was then supplemented by 6th's heavy live performance circuit. He performed at nearly 50 events in 2011, opening up for every rapper who came to Toronto on a tour stop before the borders were cloistered-off to American artists for fear of violence.
He rode the wave of hype alongside the Bakers Club—a Toronto collective which consists of Raz Fresco, Brandon Chey, Lo Thraxx, Chill Will, and Brisk—helping those individuals find their voice in rap while 6th himself stayed in the background. Now, the 21-year old rapper is ready to have his coming out party on the back of his 23-song feature length mixtape NorthernPlayalisticGetHighMuzik, which is being entirely produced by Fresco.
His old school, THC-infused rhymes have received praise from a city that normally hates its native talent, and he's also attracted out-of-town tastemakers, and specifically Jonny Shipes—a New Yorker who founded the Smokers Club tour and online paraphernalia store. Shipes would go on to be instrumental in the rise of Joey Bada$$ and the Pro Era movement, leading some to wonder if he transplanted some of the Torontonian's ideas into a fledgling New York rap collective. Toronto's Bakers Club was less nostalgic and more splintered in their content, but the parallels between Pro Era were there. Boom-bap may have originated in New York, but its resurgence can be directly tied to the young rappers of Toronto in 2010—a full two years before Joey's "Survival Tactics" caught fire online.
When the 6th Letter finally arrives to the Mexican restaurant, he shares some edibles, so immediately all issues of punctuality are forgiven. Sporting a Wu-Tang sweater with a golden chronic leaf pendant around his neck, the wiry, bespectacled rapper tells me about his upcoming project, explaining how it's a culmination of influences. He also believes that it will justify his past couple years of silence. Because the fact is, NorthernPlayalisticGetHighMuzik is an album that could only be made by a Canadian rapper—one who sits literally on top of the biggest market for hip-hop music in the world and cherry picks his favorite influences. The mixtape is rooted in Eastern boom-bap technicalities, influenced by the West Coast's g-funk sound, and infused with prime Southern cadences—an album made by an artist with no coastal alliances.
As our conversation draws on and the edibles begin to kick in, the Toronto Raptors doll out punishment to the Knicks on the big screen. For fans of all-things-North, this could be interpreted as a moment to mark the start of a changing of the guard in the East—and for two art-forms as closesly entwined as basketball and hip-hop, I can't help but wonder if the same would hold true for our music scene. Or maybe that's just the edibles.
How was the A3C Hip-Hop Festival in Atlanta?
I was going to go to A3C but I got sent back at the border because I was being too honest at the wrong time. They asked why I was visiting and I mentioned that I was performing and they said I needed a visa for that. So I only made it to the Buffalo border.
Damn. Where do things stand with the creation of NorthernPlayalisticGetHighMuzik?
I started recording this project in December of 2011. It's about 75 to 80 percent done, I just have to tweak it and create some visuals to accompany it. Since I made Go Green, I've gone through a lot of shit in life. I finished high school and decided to work on my craft full-time instead of going to college, so I've had to deal with the consequences that came with that decision. But also, a lot of time was spent on me just trying to find my own sound and path in the field of music and just committing to what I want to do and refining my sound as much as possible. I reached a halfway point when I was recording this album and I had to take a break and recognize where I wanted to go with it. I haven't put out a project in a long time, so it's time for me to come with a full body of work that's cohesive.
So what is it starting to sound like?
This project reflects everything that I was surrounded by growing up, from the Reggae music to the '90s rap that my parents raised me on, like Wu Tang, Tribe, Busta. My music is like a collage. I take some pieces from all the music I've ever enjoyed and then I sprinkle elements from every day life into it. The weed I smoke, the clothes I wear, the people I interact with in Toronto. Everything has managed to find a way to be represented in this album.
You mentioned a lot of musical influences from all over the States. Is it hard to keep everything sounding authentic with so many varied styles?
You need a balance. I love the West Coast mainly for the weather, the weed, and the g-funk sound. Lately I've been into a lot more West coast stuff—even though the East Coast boom-bap is where I came from. As I got older I started getting myself into Canadian hip-hop because it was literally surrounding me. K-os, Ghettosocks, Saukrates, all of those guys had a huge influence on me. I'm trying to come forth with my own genre based on what they did. If you listen closely, you'll hear the mixtape reflect the North from everything to the production techniques, all the way to the cadences.
How do the members of the Bakers Club interact amongst themselves?
Everyone in the Bakers Club helps each other and pushes each other. Raz Fresco produced this entire album with me. We give each other pointers, lyrically and production wise. Every time anyone in the Club creates something, that propels the rest of us and pushes us to be better.
Talk about your relationship with New York tastemaker Jonny Shipes.
With Jonny Shipes, I reached out to him because I saw what he was doing with the Smoker's Club cinematic shit and I wanted him to hear my music. One time I saw him post his email and I sent him stuff to get a response. He sent me back emails saying he liked my shit and that I had potential. A month or two after that, he gave me the opportunity to open for the Smoker's Club tour with Smoke DZA, Mac Miler, Big KRIT, and Currensy. That was the moment everything clicked and I realized that I could do this shit for a living. I still remember the date. It was October 1, 2010.
Pro Era came after Bakers Club and was impacted heavily by Shipes' influence, right?
I feel like we have a lot in common but I wouldn't say Pro Era are swagger jacking us, but there are some similarities between our crews. I'll leave it at that.
Who would be your ideal collaboration?
For someone to hit me up and ask me to hop on their song it would have to be Big Boi. His flows are imppecable. When it comes to me trying to conjure up cadences, Big Boi is one of my biggest influences outside of MC Eiht.
If I could create any song I wanted with anyone I wanted on it, it would be a track with all the members of Bakers Club, K-Os, Saukrates, and Drake.
People have this notion that creating music in Canada is easier because of government grants. Do you think that government funding has any impact on the art created?
I'll put it this way. If you rely on a grant to make music that's cool, but when you struggle to create your art, that makes it more authentic to me. A bunch of my homies have home studios and we rent studios sometimes and most of the videos we shoot don't have a budget. But that makes the finished product better to me.
So what's your end goal? To be as popular as you can independently or to sign with a major?
There are so many different avenues I can use to reach my destination, but right now I don't know whether I want to stay independent or go mainstream and become a label rapper. People stop me on the street all the time to say they like my music. One time, some random dude tried to freestyle battle me and we ended up starting a little cypher outside of McDonalds. So I know I have the buzz to be popular locally, but I want more than that.
Do you think it's possible to find success if you just stay local for long enough?
It's possible to find some success here. Toronto can be your homebase, but you can't become popular nationally by becoming popular just locally, like you might be able to in Atlanta or Chicago. My mom was born in Jamaica and moved here. In fact, my mom was going to live in Flatbush, Brooklyn with my dad, but she changed her mind and came to live over here. It's crazy to think how different things might have been if New York was my home instead of Toronto.
Why do people from the US not look at us like a major hub of talent?
As silly as it sounds, it's because we're Canadian and people just don't take us seriously.
Slava Pastuk is Canadian but we take him seriously. He's on Twitter — @SlavaP