This story is from the fifth issue of CBC Music Magazine. To download the full issue for iOS — including the mapping of Grammy-nominated album Native North America and a look into the rise and fall of the Canrock revolution — click below. (For Android devices,click here.)
Without Michie Mee, there might never have been Drake.
While October’s Very Own brings unprecedented attention to the Toronto scene by focusing the world's sights on the 6ix, it was Michie Mee who made sure their sights could be set on Drake at all. She became a known Canadian hip-hop name when the idea of hip-hop artists hailing from Canada was almost unthinkable.
But if you’re reading this, it’s not too late to acknowledge the woman who inspired the Canadian godfathers of hip-hop. Michie Mee was the first Canadian hip-hop artist to sign a major label deal in the U.S. and her breakthrough release, Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style, celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend.
Released in May 1991 when she was almost 21, Michie Mee and collaborator DJ L.A. Luv's seminal album put the definitive stamp on Michie Mee's legacy.
“First Priority and Atlantic Records was ready to sign a Canadian act or just a hip-hop artist,” said Michie Mee. “They had already En Vogue and MC Lyte and their roster was full of black women, so here comes another one, of Caribbean descent coming from Canada so it was something for them to hold on to and get involved with.”
At the time, Michie Mee was part of the Beat Factory crew headed up by Ivan Berry who would go on to various record industry positions in Canada.
“[Ivan Berry] followed through with the business behind the deal and came and got me at Martha Eaton Way [apartment buildings in Toronto] and I signed my contract in the lobby,” says Michie Mee. “And the next thing I knew, I was on a record company and we had made history in Martha Eaton Way.”
Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style combined Michie Mee's unique approaches to the genre. While she lived in Toronto, her aunt lived in the Bronx, so a teenage Michie Mee, born Michelle McCullock, would often connect to the birthplace of hip-hop through frequent visits.
Additionally, she drew extensively on the dancehall music of her native Jamaica to insert into her rhymes. As an artist making her initial creative forays in hip-hop's nascent recording era, a conscious decision to combine these two styles made her clearly stand out.
"That was our social media, our title,” says Michie Mee. “Anything we could promote to the public, any power we had was in our title."
Given that Michie Mee emerged in the late ’80s, this approach was entirely necessary. Hip-hop artists from the West Coast were just beginning to be accepted while MCs hailing from Southern cities like Atlanta — a modern-day hotspot — were barely on the radar. An MC from Canada was seen as an oddity to American hip-hop artists and audiences, while Canadian major record labels were often either unaware or dismissive of domestic hip-hop talent.
Additionally, the genre was dominated by men, yet Michie Mee's perseverance and dedication to her own style earned the respect and collaborations from hip-hop luminaries like KRS-One and Scott La Rock of Boogie Down Productions as well as MC Lyte, inspiring other Canadian hip-hop artists.
These included Maestro Fresh Wes, often referred to as the godfather of Canadian hip-hop. He first met Michie Mee backstage at a show organized by pioneering promoter Ron Nelson at Toronto’s infamous Concert Hall.
“I believe it was 1985,” says Maestro. “She bodied the stage and I’m like, ‘Wow, OK. OK, this is about to get real right now.’ Without Michie there would be no me. That’s the queen right there, understand what I’m saying? All I really did was follow in her footsteps. I just did it my way,” Maestro adds, laughing.
“She was rocking with Beat Factory. Beat Factory were what [Drake’s label and team] OVO is today. I wanted to be down with Beat Factory. I wanted to be down with how Michie was doing it, how she was shining. Everything I did I just copycatted. But I did it my way. When I saw her do her own video, [it was like] ‘Shit, let me do my own video.’ When I saw her on a show called Electric Circus, I’m like, ‘I gotta get on Electric Circus.’ So, all I did was follow those footsteps right there.”
Michie Mee undoubtedly fashioned a blueprint as to how Canadian hip-hop artists could get their music heard. By the time she began recording her 1991 album, Michie Mee had built her rep as a teenage rhyme wunderkind in Toronto's hip-hop scene and was closely affiliated with Sunshine Sound Crew, the most respected sound system in the city at the time.
She also recorded songs like “Victory is Calling” with MC Lyte and “Elements of Style” with KRS-One and appeared in Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” video.
“She was always the first to take it to the next level,” says Maestro. “When she got her deal with [First Priority/Atlantic Records], even if it was just a compilation thing with MC Lyte and them, we thought that was huge.”
One of those compilation tracks proved to be the building block forJamaican Funk: Canadian Style’s sonic template.
“‘On this Mic’ was the first song that I got to reflect my West Indian heritage with the third verse being all reggae toasting,” says Michie Mee. “So that was me. That was where the seed was planted, [where we thought] we may have to include a little reggae side on the album. That planted the vision.”
Consequently, one side of the album was dancehall- and reggae-focused while the other side was derived from New York-centric late ’80s hip-hop, an approach that was not the norm at the time, but was true to Michie’s creative urges.
"My strength was in reggae, my strength was in hip-hop,” she says. “And my strength was in the dancehall scene. So you had to produce a record around me. There was no telling me or making me do something I didn't want to do, so it was a natural progression to being introduced worldwide."
Michie took that global perspective to heart in making the record, and the fact that two countries are referred to in the album title is no accident. To work on Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style, Michie Mee adhered to her ancestral origins by travelling to Jamaica to record with popular dancehall artists of the day like Pinchers and Shabba Ranks.
"I had to go back to the heavy hitters in Jamaica and if I was going to do a reggae and hip-hop album, I had to have American producers who were heavy in the scene,” says Michie Mee. “We had to have Jamaican producers who were heavy in the scene and we had to have the Canadian production and talent that was heavy in the scene."
While the album’s diasporic sonic ambition was admirable and ahead of its time given today’s wilfully rampant meshing of regional sounds in the genre (an artistic approach in which Drake revels), from the label’s perspective it presented a marketing dilemma replete with gender-related handwringing.
“[The album] was sitting on a shelf. We didn’t sit there and say ‘Oh, my God, it’s on the shelf for a year.’ We finished it in ’89 and it came out in ’91,” says Michie Mee. “We knew that there was En Vogue and MC Lyte [on the label], all of us at Atlantic Records. [The question was] ‘How are they gonna put all the girls out?’ That was still the story. It was a matter of industry infrastructure figuring itself out how to market urban music. ‘What are the girls gonna talk about? How can we sell them? How can we make them all different? Or do we want them all being the same?’”
These machinations did not affect the record’s significance: it earned a Juno nomination for best rap recording in 1992. It’s clear by looking at the tracklisting on Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style that despite the respect and recognition she had garnered outside of the country, Canada was important to Michie Mee — even though it would have been easier and more fashionable at the time to obscure her homebase and pass as an American MC for international recognition. Song titles like "A Portion from Up North," “Canada Large” and the inimitable title track “Jamaican Funk: Canadian Style” meant that she felt it was never an option.
“I’m a very proud Canadian, before I was a Canadian citizen,” says Michie Mee. “I was pleading with how Canadian I was and how proud I was ’cause that’s where my heart was so I knew who I was very young, regardless of paperwork. I knew my job was to do music and represent Canada.”
Watch Michie Mee’s interview from the 2011 CBC Hip Hop Summit, talking about her inspirations, aspirations and the evolution of Canadian hip-hop.