“It’s not like Canada as a whole is pumping out hip hop at a furious rate,” says Andy Bernstein, aka MC Abdominal. “Toronto’s still probably the hub of Canadian hip hop–I might get in a lot of trouble for saying that, but it’s just the biggest city and a lot of the infrastructure is here, the record labels and whatnot. For me, this has been the easiest place to base my career.” Abdominal acknowledges Canada’s fertile hip hop enclaves from coast to coast, with particular respect for Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax, but clearly, there’s no place like home. The hard-working MC came up in the Toronto scene of the '90s, when finding gigs wasn’t always easy, especially before hip hop got a real foothold in Canada. But he has good memories of the early days, even his very first gig with DJ Serious.
“We played in this shitty little pizza restaurant in Ajax, outside of Toronto, and I was petrified, literally holding my lyrics on the pages. At the end of that gig, the whole place erupted into this huge fight, Serious and I were the only people not fighting. That was my introduction to the world of live music.” Abdominal went on to make his name on such collaborations as Ill Culinary Behaviour, an LP by the U.K.’s DJ Format. He’s since toured abroad, and recently emerged as a solo artist with an album called Escape from the Pigeon Hole on Do Right Music-though “solo” isn’t exactly accurate, given the formidable presence producer and players Format, DJ Fase (Abdominal’s live DJ), the Ugly Ducklings’ Young Einstein, Jurassic Five’s Cut Chemist, DMC champion DJ Dopey and the band Notes to Self. As its title suggests, the record busts out of hip hop conventions with adventurous sounds and subject matter, including a celebration of Toronto called “T.Ode,” featuring an introduction by Mayor David Miller. But despite being a hub for hip hop, the Toronto scene, in Abdominal’s opinion, hasn’t particularly progressed.
“I hate to say it, but it’s almost like it’s regressed,” he says. “On the one hand, there are some people making a bit more noise internationally now than back when I started out, but on the other hand, there’s not that one unified movement,” he says, recalling a regular event called Planet Mars—organized by Abdominal’s friend Planet Pea (who mixed his album), the event showcased new DJs and MCs from all over the city, and gathered them under one roof. But aside from the health of the scene, the shadow of the American industry, and Canadian artists’ response to it, plays a huge part in homegrown hip hop’s success.
“For a long time, Canadians were basically making watered down versions of US hip hop,” says Abdominal, “so why would someone from here or anywhere buy that when they can just go to the source?” Conversely, U.K. artists have managed to forge their own identity in hip hop, infusing it with Jamaican music, dance music and other sonic strains that make their culture distinct. The US will always be hip hop’s ground zero, but a combination of homegrown sounds and homefront support is helping to set the overseas scene apart.
“In the U.K., they tend to support their own a little bit more than we do here, and there’s magazines to support that and radio shows that play all that stuff,” Abdominal says. “I think that’s starting here, but we could probably learn from them. “The key is to be confident enough—you know, you hear this theme about Canadians in general—but the key is to come up with our own voice, and I think people like K-OS or Buck 65, that have had that degree of success, are out there doing their own thing, and that’s getting noticed. The more we can do that, the better.” Though he hasn’t hit the commercial heights of fellow Torontonian Kardinal Offishall, Abdominal is getting noticed for several reasons, not least of which the song “Open Relationship” on Escape From the Pigeon Hole. The track details his love experiment with an ex-girlfriend, singer and labelmate Elizabeth Shepherd, who not only approved the intensely intimate lyrics, but lent her vocals to the track. “I was a little worried,” Abdominal admits. “It’s one thing for me to come to terms with exposing myself to that extent on record, but it’s also her life that was in there.” Clearly, he and Shepherd remained friends following their amicable break-up, and recording the track nearly a year after the fact made the situation less tense. That said, the experience wasn’t entirely stress-free.
“It was a little strange, to be honest, doing the actual studio session. And we did the record release party here in Toronto, and she came up and sang the song with me, so that was weird, with the family out in the crowd.” Shepherd is not a regular feature of Abdominal’s live show. What has recently become part of his on-stage spectacle is a track called “Breathe Later,” a highlight of Escape From the Pigeon Hole, but one that’s so physically demanding that’s he once went on record saying he’d never attempt it live. Even recording the rapid-fire rhymes required some physical training. “I knew it was gonna be hard to get it, even in the studio, so yeah, literally, for two months leading up to the session, I’d get up every day and it became part of my routine. First thing, before I took my dog out, I would take fifteen minutes and just try to get kick that verse over and over. “I haven’t actually pulled it off live,” he admits, “but I just go for it and get as far as I can get in the verse. That’s what we’ve started doing, and I’ve been getting closer. It’s not like, if I only get to twelve bars, people are gonna pelt me with rotten vegetables. They can see the effort ’cause I’m usually fucking purple in the face at that point. But I’m hoping that, one of these days, I’ll be able to nail it.”
MC Abdominal's track "Pedal Pusher" has been nominated for the 2007 SOCAN Echo Prize. You can hear all nominees and vote at www.echoprize.ca .