All photography by Loni Schick @Elle_Aye
Notes to Self are a long-standing Toronto hip-hop crew, comprised of rappers Roshin, his brother Swamp Donkey, producer/rapper/designer Bronze One, and of course, former World Champion DJ, DJ Dopey. Reuniting after a brief hiatus – after all, Swamp Donkey got married and had a kid – NTS are back in the studio together and making music (check their recent single with Evidence, “Nobody Recoil Remix”), as they intend to release a new project before the end of Winter, entitled Used to be Dark [RECOIL].
Now, if you caught my use of the word ‘crew’, as opposed to ‘group’, it’s because of the recent stigma cast upon industry cats gone plural. The hip-hop group is no longer deemed ‘convenient’, per se, in today’s industry, due to marketing concerns, artistic licensing, and directional conflicts. Nevertheless, there appears to be a minor ingredient the suits have overlooked. Good hip-hop music has, from its very beginnings, arisen out of struggle, not security, not to mention the brotherhood birthed as a community undergoes hardship – note to self #7500000.
Read the complete interview after the jump, bruh.
Roshin: So the greatest thing ever happened today. It wasn’t the Hype Machine thing. That was dope. The coolest thing was J-Ro from Tha Alkaholiks just randomly posted the song [“Nobody Remix”], and I replied, “Thanks for the support, man,” and he replied, “Support! Ya’ll are supporting real hip-hop.” [laughs] I was like, “You’re J-Ro. I grew up listening to you.”
Swamp: He’s in the video for “Nobody Remix”. He has a good cameo. He was probably like, “I’m in this. That’s really dope.”
I probably already asked you this, but was any of that video done in post, like the mouths of the artists?
Roshin: That’s the debate. A lot of people think the editing job was the craziest, and it was actually pretty crazy, but no, there’s a whole detailed superimposed mouth thing going on. It took a really long time. Some of them are real.
At this point in the interview, the table veers off-course into a discussion about Dipset.
Roshin: My dude just shot a video for Jim Jones, and the entire time the guy sat down and wouldn’t get up. He was all smoked out, smoking mad piff, and my buddy was just like, “Okay, dude, get up and move,” and Jim Jones was like, “naw, I’m going to sit here and smoke and you can film me rap.” [laughs] He wouldn’t get up for the video or anything.
Loni [my photographer]: We were just doing this shoot in Washington Heights, and Sen City and JR Writer were drinking mad nutcrackers they got from this lady on the street.
Roshin: What’s a nutcracker?
Loni: I asked them. They were like, “I don’t even know, man. We’ve been drinking them since we were kids,” and it’s like a mixture of a bunch of alcohol.
Swamp: What do you call it when you have a slushy and you put all different kinds of slushy in it?
Roshin: Swamp water.
Swamp: Is that what it’s called?
Roshin: Swamp juice. But the official term is swamp water, if you Wikipedia’d it, just saying. But… does Regina [Saskatchewan, Ontario, Canada] have a really weird hip-hop scene, because we went out there and did the weirdest show ever?
Dopey: It’s because of the homie that put it on. It was a weird fucking venue.
Bronze: It was kind of like a Steakhouse, literally.
Roshin: We did a soundcheck and there was a full table of-
Dopey: During the show there was a full table of people eating. [laughs]
Bronze: No, during the soundcheck. It was before Scratch had opened up so I don’t think there was a good venue yet.
Swamp: It was a very different crowd.
Dopey: They were big DJ fans.
Swamp: But it was a strange setup. It had like a step-up stage, like a half-stage, lower than this table.
Roshin: Picture a Bar & Grill with a dance floor, and then there was a stage.
Bronze: I had a cordless mic so I went out onto the dance floor, there were like four people dancing [laughs] and I went out and I was rapping with this girl. I started dancing with her. It was so awkward.
Swamp: Like he said, when we did soundcheck everyone was still eating. There was a full restaurant.
Roshin: There were a lot of 70 plus women at that restaurant before we went on.
Swamp: And none of them stayed after the soundcheck.
Dopey: I think it was our first show.
Swamp breaks off and begins singing a song from the radio.
Roshin: Are you hearing this?
Swamp: It’s Michael McDonald.
Swamp: Have you ever heard “Regulate”, Nate Dogg and Warren G, this is the song they sampled from.
Which one of you guys is the producer?
Bronze: Me. Book and I.
Roshin: Book is like the fifth member of Notes to Self. He’s not here.
Bronze: Really Elixir is the fifth member. He’s a visual artist.
Roshin: Book is like the sixth. You know the graffiti artist Elixir from Toronto? He does all those really dope characters, like the Kill Bill piece.
Bronze: Yeah, he was like the number one graffiti artist in NOW Magazine this year.
Swamp: He’s very accessible because he doesn’t do letters very much. He does cool-looking characters and stuff.
Bronze: He’s a Sheridan grad, and knows a ton about anatomy. He mentors kids now. He’s top-notch. We also roll with a dude named Adam who does a lot of the design for our branding. He did the J. Cole Pound Magazine cover. He drew that.
I talked to your boy Rittz the other day. Have you guys worked with him already?
Roshin: We brought him up for Droppin Knowledge. He was the first American headliner at a Droppin Knowledge show. We were responsible for bringing him up. We talked to him about touring Canada, but we want to make sure everything’s right first. That dude is the best dude in the world.
Swamp: That was his first show out of the States.
Roshin: That was his first show, I think, out of the South, because he hadn’t been to New York yet. He’s Yelawolf’s guy.
You guys working on any new projects?
Roshin: We’re working on a project coming out mid December, the 15th I think, called Used To Be Dark [RECOIL]. That’s going to have a lot of the joints we’ve been putting out, like “Mr. Polite” is on there with Fashawn, “Nobody Remix” with Evidence.
Bronze: “Nobody Remix” is now at 30,000 views, in three and a half days.
Dopey: We’re watching it go viral right now.
Tell us more about that video.
Roshin: Yeah, the video took off like crazy. Really that was Bronze’s idea. We all thought it was pretty ambitious, like we didn’t think it would be doable.
Bronze: I pushed it out my loins. It was a painful birth. It was a long experience. When I first thought of the idea, which was a month before I actually brought it to everybody, I wanted to make sure I could get my hands on all the footage. I had all the cassette tapes that we used. It was from my personal collection from high school of constantly taping rap videos. A couple tapes were Dopey’s as well, and then some from my friend, Abel. I lent the tapes to Abel at one point so he could compile for MTV. But I made the video with my friend James.
Swamp: Who’s the seventh member of Notes.
Bronze: [laughs] We have a really strong family. We’ve been at this a while, so the guys who really hold us down and support us we streamline. I mean, I have a Design degree, so that’s my background. I work with Adam on almost all the branding for Notes, and then we have James. I used to do audio for old films he used to do. I edited and directed the “Nobody Remix” video with him. We have Jabari too who did some stuff, and then my dude Book. Book and I are both managed in New York. We have a bunch of stuff on the go, but this is really my heart, this is my everything, for this to happen with Notes. As far as the video’s concerned, I was sitting on footage and I wanted to make sure I had everything we needed. Swamp was a big help in filling in the gaps. You give Swamp a task and he’s a problem solver that way.
He’s the closer.
Bronze: He’s the kind of guy you want on tour with you. He is your GPS system. We are never lost with this guy ever. We never look like goofballs in front of people. But that whole video was from VHS footage.
“Nobody Remix” was on an older album too, right?
Roshin: That’s an interesting part of it, because really “Nobody” was released on A Shot in the Dark, which is a project we did with BBE out in Europe. This would have been like the third video for that album, and we got to it super, super late, because the video was taking so long to make. We didn’t want it to just come out and be like a flash in the pan and be gone, because now we’ve got other videos we’re going to be releasing.
Bronze: The idea was that we were going to do a re-release of the project, because we felt that literally nobody had heard the project. I would get people hitting me up a year after the project came out, like, “Yo, I never heard this song. You’ve got a joint with Dilated.” But with the re-release, that’s where the title [RECOIL] came from. When we released A Shot in the Dark it was before Drake paved the way for us Toronto artists, so we were signed to a European label. We went with them, it took us a while to make the project, but it took them an extra year to put it out. There was a lot going on politically. BBE was just moving to Germany from London at that time.
Loni: What’s it like pouring your heart into an album, and then having to wait a year for it to be released? Didn’t you feel like you progressed so much in that time, and then it comes out and it’s almost like a misrepresentation?
Bronze: Oh yeah, we had joints on there which were stupid old. We had finished the “Yellow & Grey Remix” with Dilated a few months before we turned in the record. We had come lightyears, even just skill-wise, figuring out what we were supposed to sound like sonically. They were old joints, but the label liked the older material, because that was kind of where they were at. They’re a few years behind over there.
Swamp: They really celebrate the Golden Age of Hip-Hop over there. Like, some older artists still tour Europe even though they haven’t put an album out in ten years.
What about the Foot Notes releases?
Roshin: The way that Foot Notes stuff worked, it was like a culmination. We tried to do a journey through what we listened to throughout our career.
You have some stuff in there too.
Roshin: That’s where the catch comes in. That would get played on radio stations or podcasts in Europe, and it was put together by Bronze and Dopey. You can listen to it in a chronological order since we started being a group, like back in the day. I was a kid still. It leads into the more current music. That stuff was really cool. It’s interesting to see what’s going to happen when we put out this project, because we’ve come a long way. We went kind of M.I.A. to some extent, after the album came out because of some personal issues. But sonically we’ve really established an evolution in sound. I don’t think we’re going to alienate any fans. If you were a fan of Notes to Self on the last album, you’ll continue to be a fan.
Who are the fans exactly? How would you describe your fan-base?
Roshin: I think a great deal of our fans are the ‘backpack’ fans. A lot of our people in the States come from Cali.
Dopey: I think we’re still kind of figuring it out. I think we’re getting a better sense of who we attract. I know we do attract a lot of DJ people because of my presence. I wouldn’t necessarily think that it’s all backpackers. We’d like to think of our music as pretty versatile.
Swamp: I think on the first album we had the song with Dilated and the song with Evidence, it was an inroad into that world and that world is a very hip-hop world. They care about the culture tremendously, and are very serious about it. I think it’s not until your music gets a wider spectrum and you can travel and see who your fans are. I mean, hip-hop is still hip-hop but the people who like it are very different. It’s not as exclusive anymore. You don’t have to be entirely dedicated to it.
Yeah, people don’t even think of hip-hop when they say they like Drake anymore. They just figure themselves fans of Drake, not hip-hop, per se.
Swamp: And I would say Drake is very polished and poppy, but he’s 100% hip-hop. Any rapper would tell you that. That’s really where he comes from. He’s just doing it in a more contemporary way.
And obviously Notes to Self is more than just the music. What are some of your side hustles?
Roshin: Such is life. Dopey is the resident DJ on Canada’s MTV Live, which wasn’t even a job a couple years back. We were just talking about this before you got here, Dopey’s Twitter followers are 14 and 15 year old kids and they’re not following Notes really. They know Dopey from MTV. It’s a completely separate world. We want to unify it as much as we can because when it comes down to it, we’re a family. We move like a unit.
The hip-hop group isn’t so common anymore either.
Roshin: Not at all. You can name them on one hand, the prominent rap groups around right now. You’ve got Pac Div, Kidz In The Hall- It’s hard to stay together, and there’s a lot more fighting than you would imagine, because not everyone has the same mind. People have the same end goals but you’re still butting heads because people are creative and stick by their guns. Staying together as a group has been trying by itself, but I think you can see in the music how much thought and effort and sometimes anguish goes into it. Most of the time, it comes down to, we love making music together and it sounds best when we all make it together. We’ve been blessed to have dudes who are multi-faceted in the crew. Bronze, who wears many hats, and has a Design background, he’s a great video concept person, great producer, great rapper. Swamp is like this all-man, fill-in-the-blank kind of guy who can finish up stuff. He’s the most reliable dude in the world, and he’s hilarious on the mic and incredible. Me, I just rap, I don’t do anything else.
Swamp: That’s not true. Roshin has been writing more hooks. He’s been doing choruses, he’s been helping us promote and strategize.
Bronze: He’s giving the interview right now. [laughs]
Roshin: Well, you’re eating so that’s by default. When I start eating you can talk again. I believe you can be stronger as a unit. You might be paying four times the amount of plane tickets sometimes, but it’s still better.
Bronze: This is a complete family, man. This is ten years right here.
Swamp: It’s not just about one guy in our crew.
No Eminem in D12.
Roshin: Not to slight anyone here, but exactly. There’s not one guy the label’s pushing or anything.
Do you think that might have helped you more though, if there was a standout artist?
Roshin: If we had Em and he was already at that level? [laughs] When Dopey joined the group that was like the standout guy. For a long time there was the notoriety that we had the World Champion DJ in the crew. When we were touring cats knew Dopey more than any of us, but it wasn’t like they weren’t fucking with us. He was telling people about us and then they became our fans.
Loni: How’d you guys get hooked up with Fashawn?
Swamp: Well, Evidence and Fashawn are real tight. Fashawn was coming on tour here and we wanted to work with him, but Evidence also wanted Fashawn to work with us. He thought it would be a good fit, so Ev introduced Bronze to Fashawn on Twitter.
Bronze: It was Twitter and then I just called him.
Swamp: I remember when were talking to Ev and we told him how much we wanted to work with Blu. He was like, “Yeah, Blu is crazy, but you know who you guys should check out is this new kid Fashawn.” At that time they had put out one song together, I think.
Roshin: So by the time Fashawn came to Toronto, we had all listened to his music pretty thoroughly. It was crazy because Ev told Fashawn that Bronze was the best producer in Canada, and then we met after the show, because he had to leave in the morning. We still knocked the track out though.
And since you guys have been around Toronto for so long, could you attempt to break down Toronto hip-hop, like if it were an organism, could you dissect the city into the different parts?
Bronze: I don’t think anyone has ever thought we were from Toronto, period. You’re finally giving the proper information that we are from Toronto. Normally we get that we’re from California because of our associations out there, with Dilated.
Roshin: The big difference in the last years is the success of Drake, 40, and those guys, and now T-Minus and Boi-1da, but before them there was a lot more screwfacing in the city. You had your camp of guys. You might have a big family of guys and people helping out to an extent, but there was a lot more cats trying to get on top of the city, rather than really trying to make a living, or trying to be an artist who can prolong his career. It was almost like a high school popularity contest about who could get on Flow 93.5 for the longest, rather than trying to have longevity and make good music.
It’s still like that.
Roshin: Not like it was, dude.
Swamp: There’s at least belief through Drake that you can become recognized.
Bronze: Hip-Hop lives in the North. Didn’t 9th Wonder say that?
Roshin: [laughs] He did. He’s very supportive, 9th Wonder.
Bronze: New York had its day, Los Angeles had its day, Atlanta and the South had their day, and now it’s our turn.
Swamp: For the longest time Toronto had this very respected group of artists, like Kardinal, Socrates, Choclair, and they were respected by American artists and stuff, but never broke through.
Bronze: They hovered on the line. Even k-os, he didn’t do big numbers down in the States. He could tour down there, but he’s no Drake
He couldn’t start a movement.
Roshin: Up here k-os was the shit. In Toronto if you saw k-os it was a big deal, even though you could just as easily walk by him on the street and he’d be like a regular dude. There wasn’t that breakout though, like, “I’m on top of the game now.” Kardinal had “Dangerous”. That was probably as close as we’ve come, and that was a million-selling ringtone. It was a huge song.
Do you think Drake’s success will help you guys?
Roshin: One hundred percent.
Bronze: It already has. You read half the blogs and they’re like, “Yo, these guys are coming out the same city as Drake.”
I’ll probably end up saying that. [I didn’t]
Or I probably already have. [I have]
Roshin: But that’s the thing. You see Drake’s success and his camp, The Weeknd included, and you don’t necessarily need to sound like them to be from Toronto. We want to be different, but have that mutual respect. Like, if you examine classic New York artists, not everyone sounds the same. You can tell they’re from New York maybe, but they’re not all the same rapper, you know?
Swamp: I have this whole theory. Drake’s extremely talented and he had a really good co-sign with Wayne, but then there’s Kardinal. He’s different and has this West Indian flavor. It’s hip-hop but it’s very different. It’s influenced by reggae. In the same way Drake is very different, and so was k-os. I think this helps our artists distinguish themselves, because for the longest time it was like, “What makes these Canadian artists different? What’s really different about them?” I mean, there’s not one sound of Toronto. Toronto is this super multicultural place, so the hip-hop can’t be just one way. It’s a lot of ways, and it’s became easier to explain it, like, “This is Toronto hip-hop because it’s not like New York hip-hop.”
It’s like trying to explain what a Canadian is. [laughs]
Bronze: And then there’s 40. 40 changed rap.
Roshin: Yep, one hundred percent. Like before 40 and Drake, would you see someone like Wiz popping off, who sings his hooks? Before Drake no one was doing that.
Bronze: I haven’t seen somebody do that since Kanye. It’s tough to try and explain that whole Toronto scene. It’s a giant group of different people and different cultures so you’re going to get very different music.
Swamp: Before though people never wanted to celebrate that they were from Toronto. That’s changed now because of Drake.
Where do you guys fit in?
Dopey: I’d like to think we’re that fucking supergroup that’s missing, that brings it back to the feel-good- I don’t want to label it Golden Era rap…
Bronze: Dopey did it when he won the World DJ Championships. He did it. So that’s what we bring I guess, a guy who’s already gone international. The dude’s been everywhere.
Roshin: I think we’ve always been a little left-field. I think we try to describe it as you start in the rap box and you push out of that, as opposed to the other way around. Because some people are making electro music that’s rap. We like to stay connected to hip-hop culture. I don’t mean on some four elements shit. I mean, we know where we came from. You watch the “Nobody Remix” video, you can’t really front like we’re not real hip-hop fans, because we are.
Swamp: I think what we have, because we’re a group, we have one producer, who has one producer he works with, which helps give you a sound, we have these rappers, not that many features, that’s what is different. Our albums have cohesion like albums used to have. I think that’s what we bring. We have a certain energy. There’s a feeling, like, “Oh, this is Notes to Self.” That’s us.
– By @petermarrack
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