A Tribe Called Red: Electro hip-hop beats with a backstory
It began with a small club party and now they are playing big festivals.
A Tribe Called Red are a cutting-edge hip-hop and electro group comprised of DJs Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas and Tim “2oolman” Hill, who, more importantly than their love for hip-hop, share the rich heritage of Canada’s indigenous community, and its this that is responsible for their work’s great heft – their political lyrics discuss the systematic discrimination facing indigenous communities worldwide, and they form a rallying cry for self-improvement.
Paired with their thunderous signature production, their gigs leave you sweating and inspired in equal measure, and the UAE will experience this first-hand when they perform on Wednesday and Thursday as part of NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre’s new season.
With the group now in its 10th year, Bear Witness says he remains shocked at how far they have come, considering they initially began in Ottawa with the sole aim of performing for their indigenous community. “The whole thing just started with throwing a club night catering to our people. And very quickly we realized that we created something, a safe space for indigenous people to gather and celebrate within the landscape,” he says.
“The reaction was that we needed this. So from the start we felt like we were kind of servicing our community in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
However, the inclusiveness of their Electric Pow Wow parties became a sensation; the crowd and music connoisseurs were equally beguiled by their mixing of hip-hop and dubstep with pow wow – a native American style of music consisting of signature powerful drumming, cascading singing styles and communal dances.
The success of these events lead to the group releasing a trio of acclaimed albums with their latest being We Are the Halluci Nation.
The 2016 album is a career best for the group. It is a concept album tackling the scrounges of colonialism, capitalism, and racism from an economic and social perspective. With guest appearances from the likes of rappers Yassin Bey (also known as Mos Def) and Iraq’s Narcy – in the vibrant single R E D – the album is the group most rhythmic effort yet. “You know, there is a term that 2oolman uses in the studio a lot, and that is the drums have to ‘slap’. If they don’t slap, he says, that means, it’s not working. That comes from his hip-hop and Toronto background,” he says. “My background is more dancehall and jungle music, so that means it’s all about that massive heavy basslines.”
Despite the ruckus they cause on the dancefloor, A Tribe Called Red know their responsibility is to create tunes that are merely more than dance music. The fact the group rose from a social need has coloured their ethos ever since. Every song needs to have a purpose, and Bear Witness admits that this weight can be draining at times. “There are moments when it does feel heavy, and I think, why couldn’t we just be a party band,” he says.
“But I will say that having a purpose gives us an idea of what we want to achieve. That has enabled us to be free and to figure out what we wanted. As much as it can be difficult, it has also become a blessing.”
For a band whose songs discuss the social disenfranchisement of Canada’s indigenous population, it is interesting that the UAE’s Canadian Embassy has officially supported A Tribe Called Red’s Abu Dhabi appearance. While admitting that such a partnership may “seem weird,” Bear Witness praises his government for giving the band a free reign to express themselves. “We get held up as an example of the success of the Canadian project. We get recognised as an example of Canada, which is totally bizarre to us,” he says.
“But nobody has ever tried to silence us. No one has ever tried to tell us to take it down a notch or not to say something. Everybody knows that if you give us the opportunity, we’re going to say something.”
A Tribe Called Red will perform at the NYUAD Arts Centre on Wednesday and Thursday. Tickets begin from Dh50 from www.nyuad-artscenter.org