It’s Thursday night around 8 p.m., and I’m walking along 8th street by the Barron Building trying to find this champagne lounge called “Untitled.”

Tonight Red Bull Sound select artist and fast rising Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier will take the stage at Music nightclub, so Red Bull has organized a small pre-show cocktail party.

After having to use street view on Google maps while I’m on the actual street, I spot the nondescript wooden door, and the even more nondescript wooden sign that says “Untitled.”

It feels like walking into a secret society meeting room like something out of Eyes Wide Shut. The inside is dimly lit and ornately decorated. Local jazz singer Deanne Matley is providing background music with a keyboardist.

I find the Red Bull rep and he tells me that the purpose of this event was to have a small get-together with key figures from Calgary’s hip-hop scene, and Jazz Cartier might show up later. I only recognize three other people by sight – I know them but they don’t know me. Everyone else seems to know each other though, so I spend about half an hour brooding quietly over this Red Bull cocktail the server just delivered.

At some point midway through my first complimentary glass of Prosecco Beni Johnson, executive director of 10 at 10, walks in. I had met him in the summer and we start chatting. Through him I meet the owner of Untitled, Nathan Newman. He’s about my age, cut, and wearing a blazer with a shirt that shows off his two chest tattoos.

I ask him if this lounge was inspired by the speakeasy revivalist movement that seems to currently be brewing in the city.

“Everyone gets that prohibition feeling when they come in,” he says.

However, as Newman explains, during the prohibition era mixology was substantially more lo-fi than it is today, the popularity of bath-tub gin being evidence of this.

And so, according to him, Untitled is actually inspired by the era that immediately came after prohibition.

“It’s 1930’s to 1950’s Miami and Vegas,” he says.

“Almost Gatsby, almost Victorian – the return of chandeliers.”

It’s almost nine now so I decide to start heading out to catch Eazy Mac, tonight’s opener. First, though, I decide I have to introduce myself to radio personality Drew Atlas who’s sitting nearby.

In Calgary in the early 2000s if you wanted to find new hip-hop music there were only two outlets. One was Rap City on Much Music, which was half-an-hour every night, and the other was “The Groove,” Drew Atlas’s show on CJSW. It ran from three to six every Sunday afternoon for seven years.

None of the major radio stations in the city played anything remotely resembling hip-hop. I think a lot of people in the city, and in middle America in general, were still skeptical of hip-hop’s artistic validity. To them it was still people talking over stolen music. Even though some of the tracks that Atlas would play were considered mainstream in parts of the United States, in Calgary it was counterculture. I’d listen in and be thrilled that at least hip-hop had a voice in the dystopian wasteland of early 2000s Calgary.

It’s hard to believe that in what seems like a short period of time we’ve gone from that situation to the scenario I’m currently in, with the world’s biggest energy drink company throwing a pre-party for a hip-hop show at a posh champagne lounge.

Now, I’m heading to see one of the figures who’s at the forefront of keeping this dynasty growing, locally-based rapper Eazy Mac.

This is my third time seeing him, the first was at last year’s One Love Festival, and the second was in November at Marquee. Between November and now there’s definitely been a visible shift in how he’s received by the public. Out of the three performances I’ve seen, this one had an unparalleled level of crowd interaction and crowd support.

I get to the venue close to 9:30, the time he’s slated to go on stage. There’s already a line up outside. Two men approach me as I’m standing in line, and one of them asks if Eazy Mac has started.

Based on my experience with Calgarians, I think it’s safe to assume that many others in the line came early to see Eazy Mac as well. I really don’t think this many people would show up almost three hours before a headliner unless there was a compelling reason to, and that’s precisely what Eazy Mac has become.

Inside the venue the dance floor is already about a third filled with people congregating in front of the stage. When Eazy performed at Marquee in November it was during their regular Saturday hip-hop night. I don’t think many people were expecting a live rapper to come on, so when Eazy began his set people seemed bemused but casually indifferent.

This time, however, people’s hands are in the air almost instantly. His fall release Music For The Visually Impaired has gained enough traction now that people are shouting the lyrics back at him. During the song “All Fall Down” he comes onto the floor and succeeds in starting a mosh pit at 9:46 in the evening.

A few songs later he brings out his performance signature, a half-ounce joint. Unlike his One Love performance, however, he’s deterred from lighting it by a bouncer skulking in the shadows nearby.

When his set finishes, people are chanting “Eazy! Eazy!”

A few minutes later I catch up with him, and he tells me that since November he’s revised his entire set to make it more high energy, similar to a trap set. It definitely shows, and I think this set signalled Eazy Mac shifting gears into a new level of notoriety and appeal.

Next up is Virginia rapper and recent Roc Nation signee Levi Carter. On recordings his tracks have a definitive cloud-rap atmosphere, with dreamlike beats that he himself describes as “galaxy trap.” In a live setting, however, he sounds incredibly similar to Kodak Black.

Carter’s set actually inspired me to listen to Kodak Black’s album Painting Pictures in its entirety. It has a lot more depth than what you would expect from an artist who’s become the lightning rod for all the ire of backpacker rap fanatics.

Despite the similarities, Carter’s set has all the makings of a good trap set – heavy beats and heavy crowd participation with multiple mosh pits starting.

Like Easy Mac, this show is also my third time seeing Jazz Cartier live in Calgary, with the first time also being at last year’s One Love festival. By now I’ve come to know what to expect from a “Jacuzzi” set, and it perfectly illustrates why modern rap music is rapidly outpacing dance music as the club soundtrack par excellence. Here are some of the things that happened during the set:

  • People actually crowd surfing during a rap set
  • People in business casual attire shouting the lyrics to rap music
  • Former emo kids with visible snakebite holes being generally turnt
  • Current emo kids with Myspace hair being generally turnt
  • Cartier climbing onto a wall and rapping on the top of a wall
  • Cartier horizontally crawling across the metal beams on the roof that hold the lights up

 

While all of these various stunts are happening there’s almost full crowd participation, with everyone in the now packed venue throwing their hands up, shouting the words, or being generally faded at 11 in the evening. This is the norm for Jacuzzi.

As this is all happening the one comparison that keeps coming to mind, ironically, is Lady Gaga. To this day people are still surprised to learn that in 2008 Lady Gaga played at Tequila nightclub on 17th ave. Local esteemed hard-hitting journalist Mike Morrison, author of Mikes Bloggityblog, was even there and called her a one hit wonder in his infinite wisdom.

Today, it seems unfathomable that such a significant figure once played at a mid-sized bar downtown. I have a feeling that in a few years we’ll be talking about tonight’s Jazz Cartier performance in the same way.

Words by Jonathan Crane

Photo by Bryan Chong/Redbull Sound Select

 

 

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