“We notorious. Ain’t nobody can bang with us,” Kardinal Offishall said in the opening line of Toronto’s most important rap anthem. Released in 1997, “Northern Touch” initially belonged to Red1, Misfit and Dj Kemo of The Rascalz, a British Columbia-based rap group who were the only hip-hop act— in all of the country—signed to a major record label at the time. The track, which featured rap veterans Kardinal, Choclair, Thrust and Checkmate, was more prominent than everyone involved. It helped to propel a movement that opened the doors for virtually every Canadian hip-hop artist from that moment onward.
Toronto’s hip-hop scene had been holding its own with artists like Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors garnering attention south of the border in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but overall, the scene was suffering due to lack of local support. The city didn’t have a hip-hop/R&B radio station, and record labels were baffled by the idea of having an “urban” representative on their teams.
The music video, under the creative direction of Director X — then known as Little X — was released in ’98. Both Kardinal and X were alumni of the short-lived Fresh Arts multidisciplinary program and catalysts for Toronto hip-hop’s movement in the 1990s. This also explains the plethora of cameos in the video; as every part of the city’s hip-hop scene came through, including a fresh-faced model whom we’d all come to know as Melyssa Ford.
The song initially dropped as a one-off vinyl release until the single became a massive hit. And even then, they still had to fight for the song to get the respect they felt hip-hop deserved. The group turned down their 1998 Juno award (think a Canadian version of the Grammys) for best rap recording for their third studio album, Cash Crop, since the awards ceremony didn’t television the rap category. The Rascalz added “Northern Touch” to the album in 1998, and the Cash Crop would go on to win an award at the following year’s Juno for the same category. The group accepted their 1999 award as part of the main broadcast, and performed the tune at the awards, a first for Canadian hip-hop; the glass ceiling was broken, as seen when looking at your playlist today (which we’re sure features at least one Canadian artist).
Twenty years later, and Toronto has since become the go-to for hip-hop, but “Northern Touch” was when the city had finally arrived. Dun kno.