Photo: Ernie Paniccioli

David Strickland Redefines The Four Elements Of Hip-Hop 

Emerging from behind the scenes, the esteemed producer calls in old-school heavyweights including Def Squad and EPMD to light up Indigenous voices.

While his name may not be immediately recognizable, David Strickland is synonymous with modern-day hip-hop. 

The producer has been inconspicuously working behind the scenes, using his impeccable knack for production to bring big sound to big names. He’s worked with everyone from k-os and Kardinal Offishall to Divine Brown and Drake, with production credits on the Toronto rapper’s first three albums.

Born in Scarborough, ON; as an Indigenous Canadian, Strickland holds a deep connection to his roots running generations back along Mi’kmaq, Innu and Beothuk lines. This connection is one of the leading narratives on his latest creation, Spirit of Hip-Hop, a collaborative album that gives even DJ Khaled a run for his money, featuring an immaculate mix of Indigenous voices including Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Artson, and Que Rock, plus household heavyweights like Def Squad, EPMD, and Saukrates. 

Strickland’s perspective that hip-hop and First Nations culture run parallel is a refreshing take and provides some insight as to why Indigenous hip-hop has become such a notable sensation in Canada and beyond. Inviting legendary photographer Ernie Paniccioli of Word Up! Magazine (immortalized thanks to Biggie’s name drop on “Juicy”), they offer a sage perspective: “The DJ is the Drummer; the MC is the Storyteller, the B-boy is the Dancer and the Graffiti Artist is the Sand Painter,” Paniccioli professes in the album’s intro track.

Strickland’s artistic practice is rooted in Spirit Of Hip-Hop, and as he emerges from behind the scenes to share the teachings, traditions, and music of his heritage, rap fans all over the world are tuning in. We connected with Strickland who explained to us how a life in music isn’t so different from a life in quarantine and how his latest project, although it may have been a nightmare to mix, was a natural and organic coming together of important voices to tell stories that don’t get told nearly as often as they should.

Spirit of Hip Hop has such a solid mix of culture, activism, and classic hip-hop fun. Were you consciously trying to find a balance between these things while you were pulling it together or did it come organically?    

A little bit of both. I was trying to have a message, keep it fun, current, raw, and powerful but at the same time, a lot of it came naturally. The essence was there so it was just a matter of sitting down and doing the work.

Was it your intention to use the album as a narrative for discourse and awakening? What do you hope people walk away with after listening to the album?  

Yes, it was my intention, but I wasn’t sure if people would be ready for it or open to it. I set my release plan in motion and the universe set the stage. I’m hoping people learn from it and enjoy themselves in the process. 

What does an average day look like for you right now? Are you finding it easy to be productive during quarantine?

I have been in quarantine in general for a while, it’s a lifestyle. Hiding out and creating is what I do, so it hasn’t been much different for me. so I am finding it easy to be productive. I wake up at noon, freshen up, eat, pray and plan my day, make my to-do list, and bang it out. I’m all about getting things finished. 

I really enjoyed Ernie Paniccioli in the intro comparing the four elements of hip-hop to drumming, storytelling, dancing, and sand painting. I’m hoping you can speak to the correlation between hip-hop and Native culture, which is clearly at the core of this album’s themes.

Ernie’s teaching had a positive impact on my life and helped tie my vision together. The thing is, we need to move forward and we have all the tools. Hip-hop is a perfect medium to tell our stories and show the world how strong we are, and the album is a way of telling my story. Tell your stories. It’s time! 

Which of the four elements do you most connect with as a producer?

DJing. Because that is the element that brought me into being a producer. Doing things I never imagined I could do. But honestly, they all resonate with me in many ways especially the art of it all. It’s in my DNA.

How did you meet Ernie? Why do you think you two get along so well? 

I met Ernie through Que Rock while he was in Toronto. We have similar stories and worked with many of the same people and there’s just natural chemistry that we have which comes out in anything we do together. 

How did you go about selecting all of the amazing talent featured on this album? 

I selected artists over time and sometimes things changed, but it was more organic. Over time, it sorted itself out. Many of the artists I knew and had a relationship with already so we were already working on music together and this was an extension of that. 

There are a lot of talented Indigenous musicians in Canada. Who are a few up-and-coming artists that you think absolutely need to be heard right now?

Sebastian Gaskin, Que Rock, The North Sound, FxckMr, Wolf Castle, Violent Ground, Silla and Rise. 

What is one thing you wish you knew when you were first getting into music that you know now? 

I wish I knew how much mixing a song is like torture. Hearing it over and over and over. Sometimes by the time a song is released I can’t even listen to it for a long time. It’s a gift and a curse, because I love having a song before everyone else gets it.

What is next for David Strickland?

Anything is possible but I have no plan, no expectation. Creator guides me. I trust in that.

Spirit Of Hip-Hop is available June 29 via Entertainment One.