“We are not a conquered people,” declares poet/MC Saul Williams on “The Virus,” from the new A Tribe Called Red album, We Are the Halluci Nation.
It’s a powerful, politically charged statement on an album that is full of powerful, politically charged statements, culminating in what is easily the most urgent, important and — most of all — enjoyable album from the groundbreaking DJ trio, which consists of Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill and Bear Witness. We Are the Halluci Nation has all the elements of an important album, but ATCR never lets that weight pull down the moments of pure catharsis and frenetic joy throughout. You won't find any of the buildups and drops that have become so cliché in dance music; instead, the whole thing is a combination of climaxes, a constant, whirling mix of vocal elements and four-on-the-floor beats, interspersed with moments of sombre reflection on the state of indigenous peoples worldwide.
Since the group's debut in 2012, in which the trio combined indigenous drum group samples with house music elements to pioneer a new genre of music altogether called powwow step, ATCR’s stature has continued to grow and expand in such a way that it seems like its members could have asked anyone to contribute to their third album. But this isn’t a collection of headline-grabbing guest features, despite the fact that Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), currently in legal purgatory in South Africa for travelling on a World Passport, delivers one of his best outings in a decade on the track “R.E.D.” Instead, the group opted to work only with like-minded artists, including Tanya Tagaq, Saul Williams and Shad, but also late poet John Trudell, indigenous Canadian singer-songwriter/MC Leonard Sumner and Toronto-based Colombian singer/producer Lido Pimienta, who also uses her music to confront pressing issues, such as safe drinking water.
Over the past two albums, ATCR has made ample use of drum group samples, but on Halluci Nation, Campeau, Hill and Bear Witness worked first-hand with those groups — Black Bear, Northern Voice and Chippewa Travellers — to create a more organic-sounding collection of songs, as if this is the album they’ve been working to all along.
It especially shows when all of the elements come together, such as on the previously released “Sila,” featuring Tanya Tagaq, and “R.E.D.,” which features Iraqi-Canadian MC Narcy and Black Bear. On “How I Feel,” featuring Sumner, Shad and Northern Voice, it’s particularly affecting when Shad raps, “You don’t gotta tell me how you feel/ 'cus I can see it in your eyes/ You don’t gotta tell me the pain is real/ 'cus I can hear it in your cry,” which perfectly drops into a spine-tingling vocalization (or cry) from Northern Bear.
Throughout the album, we also hear from a narrator named Jack, who is calling from an “Alien Nation correction facility," a representative of sorts for a history of wrongs but who only seems to have hope for the future.
“Can you hear it Charlie?” he asks at one point, addressing Chanie Wenjack, a boy who escaped a residential school in 1966, only to die on the railway tracks attempting to walk the 650 kilometres home. “Like a strong heart pumping, that’s the sound of 500 years and all of us still drumming.” With what A Tribe Called Red achieves here, it feels as if the drumming has never been louder.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG