In a city known for Drake and The Weeknd, Toronto has another artist outside the OVOXO family ready to break into the American mainstream. Palestinian-born rapper Belly is dubbed “Canada’s Godfather of hip-hop,” showing just as much love for T.O as the crew. It’s a claim that comes from a career as a songwriter/producer/rapper for a number of platinum hits, winning consecutive MuchMusic Awards for his videos “Pressure” and “Ridin’” in 2007 and 2008, and receiving the Juno Award (equivalent of a Grammy in the States) for his album The Revolution. What Drake has done to put Toronto on the map, Belly has done just as much, believing the focus to the city has been a long time coming.
“It was just a matter of time before we got noticed,” Belly said. “We’ve been doing this; it just took a minute for the spotlight to come up here.”
The conversation of the Toronto hip-hop scene ever blowing up in America isn’t such a hot topic anymore. Rappers such as Belly have positioned the city as a premier player in hip-hop. In November, Belly released The Greatest Dream I Never Had hosted by DJ Drama. The 12-track mixtape is his most introspective project yet, garnering new fans for Belly’s honesty in his raps. The project has fresh samples featuring the likes of Lana Del Rey (“Video Games”), as well as production credits by DannyBoy Styles and The Weeknd. It’s a melting pot of pill poppin’ confessions, marijuana sessions and deep reflections of women similar to Drake’s moody aesthetic.
“A lot of people through discovering me with The Greatest Dream I Never Had are starting to discover things I did in the past,” Belly said. “They are starting to appreciate a lot of the music that might have gone unheard through a whole bunch of people’s ears.”
Belly owes some of his new fanbase to The Weeknd aka Abel Tesfaye, who added his musical genius to the tape. “He was coming in and doing sessions with me. We were just going in and making sure this project got polished the right way,” he said. Songs like “Num8ers” and “Dreamer” carry the same echoic effects and sonic experimentation as The Weeknd’s trilogy. Belly refers to the whole OVOXO collective as “extended family,” part of a team of like-minded artists who are establishing Canada’s hip-hop identity.
“The Weeknd and [I] are cool, but Abel is my brother,” Belly said. “That’s the best way to break it down. Abel is somebody I can consider a close friend of mine.”
Though the Weeknd’s contributions is part of the tape’s popularity, its Belly’s ear for production and confessional rhymes that has drawn fans. Off the tape’s success, his focus has shifted to the upcoming sophomore effort Champagne Dreams and Marijuana Thoughts. “I Drink, I Smoke” is the album’s tentative single, featuring a second time collaboration with Snoop Dogg. For the album’s sonic direction, Belly wants to keep it similar to the tape, using the music as a therapeutic outlet to share his experiences with fans.
“I think a lot of my fans see me as a human being,” he said. “Rather than talk about all the things I could floss and all this, I rather talk about things that make us connect.”
In the meantime, Belly is planning to release a new mixtape in early January/February 2012, currently titled T.G.I.F. Originally called Thank God I’m Faded, but is contemplating changing the name to Thank God I’m Free. He has completed five songs for the project, hoping to drop another classic for Canada’s hip-hop hsitory books. For Belly, the consistent grind shows his not satisfied with just a strong debut. His “Rebellyus” movement has started with a stron cult following, but he’s after bigger things in 2012.
“I think my achievements lie with the people. I don’t think awards and accolades count as accomplishments anymore,” he said. “I think just to be heard worldwide is really what I’m going for.” –Eric Diep