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Toronto, What Does Your City Sound Like?

Toronto, What Does Your City Sound Like?

Posted by Dalton Higgins on March 31, 2014

Is there a definitive style, sound or genre you could argue the city of Toronto has invented, originated or popularized, much like Chicago could claim house music, Houston chopped and screwed, or Detroit techno? What makes Toronto’s electronic music scene tick? Or do Torontonians just do a darn good job of mimicking musical trends found in other major metropolises? I was looking to dig into some of the aforementioned debates and subject matter while viewing the documentary Toronto Sounds, directed by Victor C.H. Fan, and didn’t exactly come back with any layers of analysis tied to my queries – the film’s title is slightly misleading – but what I did come back with is a snapshot of what goes on in the minds of a few of the movers and shakers in the local electronic dance music scene. When I say “electronic music” scene, I use that term very loosely as one can go off into many tangents when distinguishing between the plethora of sub genres that fall underneath the electronic music umbrella (e.g. garage house, techno, trance, drum and bass, dub step).

Toronto Sounds does a capable job of positioning the DJ as being the centre occupant of the dance music universe. For example, despite some of the revisionist histories that crop up in hip hop culture for example, the DJ was always front and centre and comes before the emcee. That’s how we ended up with seminal group formations like the two-time Grammy-winning DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, or street rhyme innovators Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, where the DJ’s either commanded or shared top billing with the emcee.

The role of the DJ in modern music culture has and will continue to be feverishly debated given the sad newer reality that everybody and their fourth cousin thinks they are a DJ now. Every city and town I’ve been in over the years claims dozens of faux DJ’s who are taking away revenue generating opportunities from genuine DJ’s who are actually quite skilled at the craft. I’m not sure if we can partially blame the DJ Hero video game for this odd trend. However, when filmmaker Fan sticks this great quote in the film: “A DJ is a person who plays music for others, so we are all DJ’s...but we are not all good” he is asking us to ponder whether the role of today’s DJ has been diminished by the bushels of wannabe DJ’s who play at parties, clubs and concerts, much to the chagrin of true music enthusiasts. Just hang out in a room full of DJ’s and mention the term “Celebrity DJ” – virtual fighting words for our knob-twiddling brethren. I’m not sure who invented this concept, but I can tell you that I’ve had some so-called celebrity friends get paid quite handsomely to perform a DJ set despite admittedly sucking very badly at the craft.

As various DJ’s (Aadil, Kevin Cheung) and cultural critics (Benjamin Boles) do a fair job of breaking down some of the realities of partaking in the contemporary electronic music scene, some very valid points are raised concerning the viability of the music form. To say that electronic music undertones help shape all kinds of songs we hear, across genres, in the commercial realm today, would be the understatement of 2014. One need look no further than Daft Punk, a French electronic duo who recorded arguably the most dance-friendly commercial pop anthem of the year “Get Lucky”.

As far as the more traditional aspects of DJ culture is concerned, interestingly, vinyl record sales are booming, experiencing an increase of 32% in sales for 2013, whereas CD’s are becoming great drink coasters (sales declined 14.5%). And is it just me or do people seem a lot more willing to pay upwards of $40 to hear a DJ play tunes (while furiously bobbing their heads) for hours on end, as opposed to listening to a “live” band play some new selections. Or never mind all of that, perhaps DJ’s are the new “live” musicians du jour?

The profound tales of a few Canadian electronic music success stories are interweaved throughout the film, to give the viewer a snapshot of the on-the-ground realities of performing in, and helping to develop an electronic music scene in Toronto. DJ/producer/remixer Michael “Deko-ze” Babb who grew up in Saskatoon, and who’s been known to play Pride Toronto’s annual closing party rightly explains that “a DJ can really create or destroy a night within a very short period of time”. While relaying a story of how his first DJ mentorship with Techno Tom came about, the film touches on the relationship between the electronic music scene and LGBT communities (e.g. he started DJ’ing at gay bars in Saskatoon for specific reasons).

Likewise, the producers of the hugely popular Toronto Sunday outdoor DJ-based Promise parties at Cherry Beach, David Macleod and Irving Shaw share some of their insider views on what it takes to be a promoter of outdoor electronic music events in the city during the summer months. Being a long time music promoter myself, I can tell you that when Shaw and Macleod regale the viewer with tales of them spending their free time wondering about weather forecasts and other such matters, it might sound unusual to a non-promoter, but if Mother Nature co-operates with your event, it’s the difference between us promoters and our vendors making good money and/or fighting to break even. It’s true, I’ve been a closeted unpaid weather specialist and meteorologist for years.

Outside of lightly touching on some of the other debates that permeate DJ culture: hustling to get gigs that pay and extend beyond free drinks; bedroom DJ’s with no connecs equals no cashed cheques; how “digging in the crates” for hours on end to find that perfect slab of vinyl might be a foreign concept to some of today’s youth; the film cuts between shots of live PA’s and archived performance shots of electronic music scenesters all the way from Toronto’s Deadmau5 and I Am Robot and Proud, to German and African-American innovators like Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock. 

Toronto Sounds is bookended with quotes and audio-visual snippets from Toronto classical pianist iconoclast, the late Glenn Gould, which might seem confusing at first, and might lend itself to the overall feeling of the film which at times feels fractured in its narrative. That being said, Fan’s raising of important questions regarding electronic music culture in cinematic form is timely and topical. When even the Juno Awards starts formally recognizing electronic music (which they began doing in 2011), this means electronic music impacted The Suits. The Awards ceremony has been viewed by many as being way behind the curve regarding what’s trending. The 2014 Juno Awards felt like something out of the 80s, reflecting a Canadian music world (and wider TV landscape) where diversity and black music doesn’t really exist in any significant way. For a film that aimed to explore “how electronic dance music has become the sound of a generation in this city” Fan would have had to have interviewed a lot more sources, but for a short documentary that clocks in at 27 minutes, he covered ample ground.

Toronto Sounds screens as part of the Reelworld Film Festival

Sunday, April 13, 2014 - 2:30 PM

Cineplex Odeon First Markham Place Cinemas - Theatre 10


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