One of hip-hop’s foundational principles is repping your city, but it means something more when you have a hometown that is rarely recognized in the landscape. When Drake released his breakout mixtape So Far Gone in 2009, his hometown of Toronto had already been a hotbed for hip-hop talent, but despite the success of acts like Kardinal Offishall and K’naan, no acts had reached true superstardom in the United States. That all ended with Drake: “Best I Ever Had” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and he had star power from Lil Wayne in his corner. Just like that, Drake had become the most popular rapper in Canada’s history.
“Best I Ever Had” launched a record-breaking, unprecedented streak of 431 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. Since his 2009 classic, Drake has become the biggest international hip-hop star ever – and with his annual OVO Fest, a nickname like 6 God (Toronto is often referred to as “The Six,” because of the city’s 416 area code and the six municipalities that combined to make up Toronto in 1998), and the success of other Torontonians, he’s brought his city with him.
VIBE spoke to six people involved in, or who evolved with, Toronto’s music scene about what the project means for the city a decade later.
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Producer of Nicki Minaj’s “Moment For Life,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools,” and Drake’s “HYFR”
“I remember appreciating the sonic value of the project. Everything felt like a solid body of work. The records felt seamless. Records on that album even inspired my production, even a couple years later. There was definitely something special about the album. It’s really one of the first tapes that brought a lot of attention to Toronto. It really molded an identity that the city still holds.”
Founder of The Remix Project, a Toronto-based program to help level the playing field for young people from disadvantaged, marginalized and underserved communities who are trying to enter into the creative industries or further their formal education
“I feel like So Far Gone was received with open arms by the city. People were looking for something to rally behind and identify with. Everything was changing. Methods of distribution and sharing information were further opening up and people were trying to find/describe an identity for Toronto. So Far Gone helped do that in a way that was inclusive.
I feel the entire city was listening to that project when it dropped. Anyone that knew music, knew that that body of work was special, because it was special as a body of work. It was a cohesive project that welcomed people into an intimate world that hadn’t yet been explored in pop culture.
“Best I Ever Had” helped propel Drake to stardom. The ease and fun of the record had such an irrepressible energy. Production was brilliant and Drake was flawless there in delivering vulnerability with an unfiltered confidence. That said, to me, “Brand New” is really what opened the floodgates for Drake and changed everything, though. That’s the record I remember Toronto first really truly embracing and championing, then “Best I Ever Had” took it global. That speaks to Drake’s career a lot since. Confidently walking a line between brutal honesty and tongue in cheek fun, dominating pop culture while maintaining just enough “outsider” status and incisive personal commentary to remain cool and stay relevant.
Drake’s music has always felt very human to me. And that’s about the highest compliment I can pay an artist. ‘Cause what are we doing if not trying to express who we are, what we are doing here and explain the maelstrom or emotions we all have to navigate without a real map? Music is our compass and Drake’s courage allowed for us to honestly examine ourselves, and we love him for that.
It expanded Toronto’s urban cultural identity from being heavily Caribbean-influenced to encompassing the Caribbean identity while also becoming inclusive of so many different experiences. And that allowed so many new voices to participate authentically in this new emerging movement that before were trying to find their footing. It allowed for a city to stop rocking NY fitteds and to start rocking Blue Jays or the Owl. So Far Gone helped give identity and pride. It made people from here, proud to be Torontonian. It made others want to visit and see what the city was all about. Musically it influenced so many of North America’s top creatives today. Culturally, it put Toronto on the map and cracked America (and the world’s) curiosity enough to start a trickle and then a flood of deserving Canadian talent streaming into the global market today.”
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Producer of PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Sex On The Beach,” “Things And Such / Kehlani’s Freestyle,” “Freak In You,” and Drake and Future’s “Plastic Bag”
“I’d met and known Drake a little earlier from when he had just left Degrassi and that’s when we started working together. So, for me, I was always eager for people to discover how great he is, I just had no idea how big and monumental that intro would be. The hour it dropped I remember Solange and Kid Cudi tweeting it and that’s when I knew his reach and path. We all knew it was special, the world knew it was special. He took risks singing and making songs like no one was to stand out and prove he was creatively more forward than everyone. Before this project, I felt like he was proving he could out rap everyone at a time when everyone was listening to Little Brother. Now he was just proving he could make songs at the level of the best out and have fun while doing it.
Fortunately, our city isn’t swayed by how popular or how much money someone makes; it’s just about how good you are. Everyone took notice very quick that a shift just happened. He also skipped past all the politics and did everything outside the traditional industry system which was a big deal. Drake was the first big artist that might not need a label, which was unheard of at the time.
I remember Boi-1da hitting me on MSN messenger the first week “Best I Ever Had” entered the Top 200 Billboard charts. It must’ve been around No. 80, same time I had a my first No. 1 album on the charts. We were so young and just so hyped and congratulating each other for these “milestones.” Seems crazy now to think of Drake not on the charts.
I feel like what has it done for music, for how people put together rollouts, for songwriting and storytelling? It was pivotal in giving way to Partynextdoor and The Weeknd, and what would music sound like without those three?”
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“I remember being in school in Connecticut when it dropped, refreshing OVO’s Blogspot and it was late by like an hour or something. Had me trippin’. (Laughs) The cover alone let me know this was gonna be something different. “Love and Money” was almost like you can’t have both and find happiness. The moment I heard “Lust for Life,” it felt like Toronto.
If you had any sense in your body you knew what was about to happen. For a lot of people So Far Gone was their introduction to Drake. For me, seeing the growth from Room For Improvement to Comeback Season then So Far Gone, it just felt like he honed in on his sound. N***as were putting out mixtapes, but Drake presented a mixtape that sounded better than any album out. What he did is bridged all sides of the blog era on one project—Lykke Li, Santigold, Lil Wayne, Omarion, Lloyd and Bun B. (Laughs) Like, how does that happen and not come off forced? That’s also Toronto in nutshell.
I can’t speak for everybody, but as an aspiring artist I think it meant the world to a lot of us. When I finally went back in March you couldn’t escape it. So Far Gone is the blueprint to the Toronto sound. I modeled my first mixtape, Marauding in Paradise, after it. It gave kids like myself hope that somebody who did the same sh*t as us can take things to the next level. We always had it harder coming from Toronto and breaking into America. Fast forward 10 years later and a lot of the biggest records, artists and producers have come from Toronto. It was bound to happen eventually, but SFG changed the way the world saw Toronto as a city.”
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Owner of Lola Media Group, a full service digital, artist management, and artist marketing agency
“I think we all live in bubbles at times, work, school, family, etc. and the Toronto music industry was its own bubble. People made music and moves within that bubble and that felt like enough. Drake burst that bubble. So speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who was not just a fan or a regular consumer, I saw it both ways. I saw the dismay it caused among people who were not expecting this type of support for him, but I also saw how excited people were of the ceilings Drake was about to break. Once the tape dropped, it engulfed Toronto and music fans everywhere really. Everyone became a Drake fan.
From 2004 until about 2009 I used to write for HipHopCanada. I was the editor during that time as well, so I was very much aware of all the music coming out of the city and other parts of Canada. There were a few artists that had already created a wave for Canadian rap, ones that we all respected and admired. Then was a new group of artists; we were all in the scene together, coming up together in a way. Drake was just coming up then (2005-2007). He was focusing on his music career outside of his TV work, and he was a part of this new group as well. By the time So Far Gone dropped, he had already gained the support of local media, radio, tastemakers, but the drop of that project was like a tsunami hit the city (musically) and changed the landscape forever. What was coming across my desk at that point was mainly rap, just rap. Artists imitating the sound of what was coming out of New York or Atlanta or whatever, which didn’t really break south of the border. Drake offered something different, something everyone could bop their heads to, or relate to. He wasn’t just a “Toronto rapper.” I remember traveling outside of the country and hearing songs like “Houstalantavegas” or “Uptown,” or “Best I Ever Had” or “Successful” and thinking, “this is someone from my city these people are all listening to.” It felt like an extension of all of us. Honestly, it was an unparalleled feeling.
There was something special about it. People were playing the project in its entirety, not just one song or two songs. Kids everywhere wanted to be a part of the movement, wear the gear, etc. That’s when you know someone is not just making great music, they are creating a legacy.
This project allowed Drake to soar. Drake not only as an individual, but as a business, created incredible opportunities for Canadian artists. He sparked a conversation, and that conversation was, “Where did this sound come from? Who was a part of it? Are there others like him? Who else have we overlooked from this city?” And so, Toronto got on the map. People were checking for our artists and it felt good. Because now, Canadian artists can finally direct the conversation not just aspire to be a part of it.
This is not about So Far Gone but about “Replacement Girl,” the song Drake dropped with Trey Songz in 2007 from Comeback Season. I remember I was in Atlanta with a few other friends from Toronto when the video dropped. And I remember it came on BET in the middle of the day, I think it was Joint of the Day or something like that. And we all screamed like it was our video on TV. We recognized the people in the video. My friend Neeks was a dancer in it, we were like, “Yooooo, that’s our people!” It was the first time a Canadian artist of my era had been on BET, or just any U.S. media platform, and I was in the U.S. watching this, with my Canadian friends. I think we all called our friends like, “Oh my God, you’re on TV in America!!” How crazy is that? Now Canadian artists make up for a huge percentage of Billboard and Top 40 charts and No. 1 hits.”
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“A lot of people f**ked with it but there were also a lot of haters that underestimated Drake because of his career as an actor. Screwface capital. It was something that was coming out of the city that was able to achieve global attention. I remember hearing “Best I Ever Had” on the radio when I was living out in Florida and thinking, “Damn, a Toronto kid on the radio out here. Dope.”
I think it’s done a lot [for the city]. The Drake effect is something that’s very real. There were artists before him that laid down the foundation in the city; artists that were and are incredibly talented, that built this early hip-hop culture in Toronto. I think what Drake did was be able to grow beyond that and solidify a foundation for a long career, not just in Canada, but worldwide. A career that’s obviously stood the test of time. So Far Gone was the beginning in many ways for the rest of the world to embrace a part of our culture and city.”