I remember being a teenager living in Jane and Finch during the late 80s. The predominant music of the area was reggae. The dancehall sounds of artists like Supercat, Ninjaman and Shabba Ranks were everywhere.
You could hear reggae playing from apartment buildings, cars and parking lots everywhere. Hip hop’s popularity was smaller than it is now, but it developed an underground following and a strong sense of community. Groups like Stetsasonic, Whodini, Run DMC and Roxanne Shante were helping build on the early foundations of hip hop created by Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and others. But that was America and, more specifically, New York City. Toronto’s inner city at the time was dominated by reggae.
It made sense that Canada’s first hip hop star would come from a Jamaican background. Hip hop, after all, was a younger cousin of reggae music. The first parties that laid the foundation for hip hop culture were thrown in the Bronx by Jamaican born DJ Kool Herc. Bringing his sound system outside and playing music for the youth to enjoy themselves created the neighbourhood vibe that would blossom into a global influence.
The Importance of Radio
Michie Mee was the first rapper from Canada to be widely recognized for her rapping. In the days before the internet, it was difficult to find any hip hop or rap. Fans had to tune into college radio shows like Ron Nelson’s “Fantastic Voyage” to hear rap music. There was no Drake or Flow 93.5. There was no Youtube or Spotify.
The only way you could listen to hip hop was by going out and searching for it. Most record stores did not carry rap music. Instead, its aisles would be filled with pop, rock and heavy metal music. Popular “Black” music was considered R&B/Soul and was given limited space on retail shelves. It is not the same R&B hip hop fusion that we often find in the genre today but a variety of slow, soft love ballads. So understand, when we talk about Michie Mee, we are talking about a true pioneer.
Sitting at the back of 15 Tobermory Drive in Jane and Finch was the place my friends and I would all hang out. “Yo! Michie Mee was at Bristol House today! She rolled through in a Jeep to pick up a friend!” That is how our social media worked. To have people recognize your name and speak it, denoted that you were somebody. Michie was the perfect embodiment of Toronto hip hop. A beautiful young Canadian woman of Jamaican descent who spent her time away from the city visiting family in hip hop’s birthplace. Soaking in the New York City’s fresh hip hop vibe from the city and clubs like the legendary Latin Quarters.
The Gloves Come Off
Like many women before her, she entered a male-dominated industry and carved a place for herself through determination, talent and courage. Hip hop while starting out as party music always had a bloodsport element to it in the form of battling. To be considered a respected rapper, you had to be willing to stand in front of others and battle an opponent. If you didn’t have the courage to, you would never really be respected in its audience’s eyes. There have been many legendary live battles throughout the years. Including but not limited to Kool Moe Dee vs Busy Bee, KRS One vs Melle Mel, Craig G vs Supernatural – all face to face. No retakes.
Michie’s legend grew when she performed at the iconic Concert Hall’s “Toronto Vs New York” battle. She battled Sugar Love from Brooklyn in front of a live crowd. Halfway through her performance, she switched up her flow to a dancehall style, and the audience went crazy. She won the battle and cemented herself as a star.
A Star is Born
Michie Mee was the first rapper from Canada I ever saw perform on national TV. The show was something like Canada AM or Breakfast Television, broadcast on national TV. For an underground audience starving for hip hop, seeing Michie on TV gave us all hope and a sense of validation. She helped open doors for the Kardinal’s and Drakes of Toronto hip hop. By becoming the first Canadian hip hop artist to get a US recording contract; and work alongside the popular US artists of the time like KRS One, MC Lyte, Audio Two and Queen Latifah – she proved it could be done.
As hip hop grew south of the border, the Canadian music industry was still slow to embrace it. Canadian artists were creating great music. But there were no platforms to support them. Canadian recording deals, marketing, promotion and radio play were reserved for more traditional musical genres such as rock and country music. This left many homegrown hip hop artists feeling frustrated and excluded. In 1989, Black-owned Milestone Radio submitted an application to the CRTC to start a radio station that would cater to the city’s urban music audience. However, the application was passed over in favour of adding an additional Country Music station.
This led Michie Mee and several other artists, to release the 1990 song “Can’t Repress the Cause.” The song voiced artists’ frustrations with not having an outlet to promote themselves to a broader audience. This passion and determination set the table for Flow 93.5 – becoming the first commercial radio station in Toronto with a hip hop/R & B format.
Michie, through the years, has gone on to expand her horizons. From her alt-rock group Raggadeath to acting on CBC’s “Drop The Beat.” She has since continued to use her platform for social issues, such as justice, equality and fair treatment for black people. Much in the same way, artists like Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, LL Cool J and Krs One paved the way for Biggie, Nas, Tupac, Outkast and others. Michie helped open doors and lay the groundwork for Canada’s current hip hop boom. Many new artists may only know the names of Drake and Tory Lanez. Well, Michie Mee is their older aunty in the streets grinding at a young age that helped build the house they all live in. Canadian hip hop will forever be indebted to her as a cultural treasure and icon.
To hear Michie’s latest song, “Willing & Able” check on Soundcloud under Michie BahdgyalTV Mee. You can also find her on Twitter @MichieBadgalMee & IG @MichieBadGyalMee.