By Chris Penrose
Dropped from Virgin? Turning his back on his major label persona and returning to the Choclair of his earlier years? These are the rumours and questions circulating with his newest single “Back Where I Stayed” in heavy rotation, and his new album Flagrant about to drop.
What these rumours reveal is that no matter what he did or said, sold or didn’t sell, he would be scrutinized, criticized, condemned, and praised. That’s the burden of Canada’s first emcee on a major with international distribution. Should he have been the one? Did he serve us well in that position? These are the questions that divide us on two sides of a fence of scorn and praise.
Four years after releasing Ice Cold, the debates are of little consequence. His stint at Virgin is over, the majors are now signing other ‘Urban’ Canadian talent, and the history is just that history.
Choc’s first reply to the rumors, questions, and where people stand is aloof. It’s not a big deal to go out and change everybody’s mind on what happened. I’m still here, I’m still kickin”. Yet, he quickly adds in the next breath that, “We decided not to go with an extension at Virgin.”
Having suffered a sophmore jinx with Memoirs of Blake Savage selling only a fraction of what Ice Cold sold in it’s first month, one could easily see where the rumours of being dropped come from. Choc’s admits, “Yeah, we didn’t make the same numbers and with any business, if you don’t make the projected numbers, something has to change”, but he insists that, “it was that things were different from when we started at Virgin.” Now on the independent label, Greenhouse Records, owned and run by his camp, Choc’s explains the move, saying, “As far as Greenhouse is concerned, that’s why I left Virgin, to set up all of that. Things are still cool. We still have a relationship with EMI we’re distributed through EMI.” Not a regression, Choc’s explains the move to Greenhouse as a step up from the major deal matrix: “We don’t look at ourselves as Indie. We control ourselves as a major. With how artists are perceived and notoriety that they get, and what we’re gonna get and just how we promote our music. We’re a big record company.”
The second rumour, of Choclair’s moving away from the label persona back to his original self is also brushed off as a misunderstanding. It’s not even like I went in a different direction.” He explains that, “I explored a bit more with what I really wanted to do which was to make music, to make Hip Hop music”. He adds that, “we went in a Hip Hop funk direction, and I don’t think people were really ready for it at the time.”
Surprisingly, Choc’s attaches a huge significance in Canadian Hip Hop to the second record: “The last record was a gateway record to what you’re hearing now, you’re hearing with the Big Black Lincoln, we’re hearing with some of the funk records. People are gonna go back to it. Like people go back to the first, I’m not comparing, but they go back to the old N.W.A. records when they talk about gangsta rap. In Canada, they gonna go back to Memoirs of Blake Savage when they’re like, ‘What was the first record that had shit like that going on.”
Another source of rumours is the hook on the new single, “Back Where I Stayed.” The hook says, “You don’t have to worry, I’m comin’ / back to where I always should have stayed.” Immediately Choc’s declares that, “ ‘Back Where I Stayed’ means I’ve never changed.” Recognizing the perception that ‘he is now back to where he was before, where he never should have left,’ he contends that, “I’ve been the same guy since.” Reflecting back, he says, “It’s been eight years people have seen me since ’95, watch me grow and watch me come into who I am. They saw the Ice Cold. They saw the Memoirs. They saw the hits, and they saw the misses. I’ve always been consistent with who I am. The things I rapped about have never changed.”
Of the new album Flagrant, Choc’s says, “it’s Hip Hop, it’s always been about Hip Hop. It’s Choclair. It’s not about what the current trend is. It’s about me making good music with people who make good music, which is the fam, which is the circle.” For the last album, Choc’s is convinced that “people didn’t get it.” For the new album, he is assured that, “people will get it.” So love him or hate him, or somewhere in between, Choclair is blazing another trail. When no Hip Hop artist were fully embraced in the world of the majors in Canada, he was. With everyone trying to get in that open door, he left where so many are trying to get to. He has established a name and an image, and is now blazing a new trail the major indie; small in substance with the impact of a giant. Older, wiser and as hungry as ever, stay tuned for what will be an interesting struggle to take the music and the business to locations yet unreached.
What remains central is the love for him, and the place of home in his music claiming that his focus is on, “Taking a stand and claiming something Toronto. This is my city. I was born here, I represent this city. Before it was cool to represent this city, we were representing this city. Toronto is our city, and I’m representing this city.” Aware that he is steadily etching himself into Canadian Hip Hop history, he notes that, “When I’m gone and I’m finished rapping, there’ll be someone else that’s the new focus and that’s cool cause there’ll be people like myself, The Dream Warriors, Michee, Maestro, and all the other crews that have put it down for the city that will have made it easier for this guy to blow up the spot. We are setting this thing up big … It’s a huge movement, and with Greenhouse, I don’t think people are really going to be ready for what’s about to happen”.