Saukrates: Seasoned Veteran

Saukrates was born in Ottawa. And Mindbender was born in Toronto. It’s a funny fact that frames the first picture of many golden era memories we painted together when we sat down at the cozy Culvert Music offices off Queen St. West, on this overcast afternoon in September. Anyone who wants to believe they know anything about Canadian hip hop HAS to have some kind of higher education informed by the amazing artistry of the one and only Saukrates, aka Bigg Soxx, aka Amani, as of 2014. There is no question the Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop is Maestro Fresh Wes, yes. But if there ever was a Second-in-Command to me, a Destro to Maestro’s Cobra Commander, the Leader of the New School of the 90’s in Canada, and the first multi-talented local legendary artist to make me believe we also have what it takes, it would be Saukrates.

Hip Hop’s most magnificent decade would not have been the same without the eternal bangers Sauks dropped on the world, taking Toronto further forward in our almost-complete quest to receive international, and of course, cross-border respect. Before all the good things that manifested when one of Scarborough’s finest connected with Brick City King Reggie Noble, who could forget “Play Dis” featuring Common? “Ultimate Rush” with Heltah Skeltah was a fucking fireball: “better duck the wild pi-i-itch!” Timeless 12″ white labels with O.C., mixshow hits with Xzibit, and Masta Ace’s grateful relationship with Toronto continues to this day, but began around them times when big chunes like “Top Ten List”. At eight, you’re a sucker, seven a motherfucker! Youtube that if you ain’t knowing the dopeness. Saukrates was one of the first MCs in ALL of hip hop history, much less Canadian history, that made amazing beats too, and could also properly sing, harmonize and hold a sweet note, interchangeably between having the “skillz ta thrill”, to use the words of a teenage Amani, droppin his first track on Steppin’ Bigga Records.

Photo: Saukrates Amani EP

But being a true Canadian MC does not occur without learning to suffer through atrocious adversity. Let’s not even discuss the abysmal history of multiple major and independent record labels fumbling multiple opportunities to put out Saukrates albums. It hurts for good music lovers to think about. And almost beating Dr. Dre for “longest awaited album EVER”, Saukrates finally released his official debut LP ‘Season One’ in April of 2013 on FrostByte Media/eOne Music (his 1999 LP ‘The Underground Tapes’ is a rock-solid collection, but was more of a compilation of released joints). Many folks loved it, others: not so much. Yet Saukrates continues to grow (sharing his hit ‘On The Run’ with k-os, remixed as the eternal jem ‘I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman’), expand (like collaborating with Shadrach Kabango on ‘Stylin’), explore (producing ‘Say I’ featuring OVO’s OB O’Brien for a P.K. Subban-led NHL campaign) and express his one-of-a-kind kaleidoscopic creativity and unquestionable understanding of the craft of song.

‘Amani’ is the EP, and it once again features partner-in-crime, superstar/superproducer Rich Kidd, and a few other new comrades-in-arms. As my summer 2014 was coming to a close, I had just received a copy of “Kingdom Come”, the first new single off the EP, and personally, it made my sunshine season complete. Over a lushious bass and string sequence dancing amidst stuttering percussions, Sauks asserts his spitfire sensibilities and funk soul sensation self are back in effect for anyone who slept. Word to your mother and father time.

We took a trip down memory lane as we spoke, both old friends and supporters, it was a great conversation shared.

First, a little backstory: the crews were Nextraterrestrials. Half-Size Giants. Prodigeez. All of the people in Ottawa that were doing anything hip hop related… except for Clarence Gruff, who moved on to better things {big up One Dread Fred & Kokomo!} There was a talent competition where the winner would get studio time, money and a video, and the headliner of the show was Saukrates, who came to Ottawa with MarveL, if I remember sacred ancient hip hop history correctly. Regardless, all of us 90’s-era Ottawa-dwelling hip hop pioneers were above ecstatic to share the stage and do a show with Saukrates and Circle Crew royalty… even though the competition was rigged like fuck and the manager of one of the groups *cough* *HSG* *cough* turned out to be the main judge. But I digress. How far back does the legacy of Saukrates and Mindbender reach?

Mindbender: “…it was the summer of ’95!”

Saukrates: “We’re almost 20 years deep, you and me! I’ll never forget that show! To headline it? It was a great crowd out there… that was a great time, man.”

“It was awesome!”

“We didn’t feel like we were official. Clarence gruff left, yet they were an older generation. But, when y’all came up from Toronto? That validated us like: ‘Yo we GOTTA all come with our best!’”

Saukrates: “Even Sekou was there, the drummer. He played with so many people. Ivana Santilli. He’s toured with many bands. But he played that same show, and I left a note with him… come to find our parents knew each other, because I was born in Ottawa, and influenced him to come to Toronto!”

“Word! So, fast forward 20 years… and welcome to ‘Kingdom Come’. Talk to me about the music itself. It’s fresh.

Saukrates: “On these four songs on Kingdom Come, I helped co-produce. Snaz did ‘Kingdom Come’. Rich Kidd did ‘Amani’. He did ‘FYEO’, but I helped along with the arrangement, and I did a few things. And Rich Kidd also did ‘The Big Bang’. We had to play some samples and some sounds, and I co-produced that as well. But those two guys used FruityLoops, and they’re really good at it. Them and Boi-1da. I’ve never heard anybody manipulate FruityLoops like that. Andreena does it as well. 9th Wonder. Some good shit.”

“I love that. The production has that classic, soulful, really rich bass that you always bring. You even talked about it a little bit in ‘Kingdom Come’, about your ‘sound’, and I was like ‘yeah, “the Saukrates sound” is always timeless and beautiful…’”

Saukrates: “Thank you, man. The guys I’m working with are not afraid to admit that I’ve influenced their style of making beats, based on that funk, and that right bass drop that obviously Gadjet helped mix properly, so people could actually get the right feel for what I was doing, so yeah.”

“The song ‘Hey Amani’ answers some unknown questions about your family and your origins and stuff, but what’s one thing you want all your fans to know about you that you feel like they still don’t know yet?”

Saukrates: “I think they’ll learn from the music. I mean: I don’t like to be literal, like I need you to know this, and I need you to know that. But, I start with: “Hey, this is my middle name and this is what it means.” I said it on the third verse, and kind of where I’m at in my life. But also, what I want people to learn from the body of work is that: I’m an eclectic artist, you know? So, you’re GONNA get color. You’re not gonna get just this one sound all the way down the line. And I want to be accepted for that. And recognized for that, because not everybody can pull that off. I think that’s one of my talents that I want to make sure everybody gets a feel for and knows. Okay, you want a little bit of everything, you can go to the Saukrates Shop.”

“Well, you do diversity very well. The way you were slicing some of the edits and the beats. I could hear it was a bit of the modern style of production…”

Saukrates: “Yup.”

“Like 15 years ago, cats weren’t doing that to samples.”

Saukrates: “You’re right. you gotta try to stay current.”

“Yeah, but you balanced it. You didn’t just abandon your style and try to jump on the OVO wave…”

Saukrates: “It’s a GREAT wave!”

“Yes! It’s a beautiful sound! It’s their texture of production, but it’s like you know: it’s not YOU.”

Saukrates: “No, it’s not. The beats that I chose for myself from other producers, I felt this time around kind of had to represent how it started, rather than where hip hop is going.”

“Amen. Thank you.”

Saukrates: “Because you hear a lot of guys out there who think they gotta do 40’s style of production to get on the radio, or to be respected. SOME of them get away with it. but they don’t get away with it with me. I’m like: c’mon man. You’re just copying an approach, someone else’s trend. I’m like ‘no, I want to go more with a classic sound’, which is trendy in itself. Keep it current, but like: tomorrow current, not like today current, not sounding like you following or trying to keep up with the Joneses.”


Saukrates: “So, it can be a challenge, but when you got the right artistic team with you, you can do it. I choose to take the high road, ha ha ha!”

“The beats on those four joints were like whooo!”

Saukrates: “I’m glad to hear this. All day, it’s been a good reception so far. And that’s what me and Culvert Music wanted to do, is find a way to stay current, have music coming out often… which is why we chose to release it in chapters. You get these 4 songs, let the people sink their teeth into that… and then BOOM! *snap* Here’s the next installment. Eventually, what we are working towards, me and my team, is all this becoming a part of an album called ‘Season 2’.”

“Yes sir, of course.”

Saukrates: “So, that’s kind of our plan. In a perfect world, it would all work out that way.”

“So, you been making music since long before the internet existed. and you are kind of private, but there’s a lot of exposure that comes from the way things work now. Are you comfortable with things the way they are now, and the ways of being a musician in the modern age?”

Saukrates: “Yes and no. I like it because it gives people who never had an avenue before to get their music heard. It was hard for us back the day, because you know we had to press vinyl and get it in the right hands to legitimize your material, and that’s what we did. Now, there’s less legitimacy in the material that’s uploaded, but at least more people get the opportunity, so it kinda balances itself out. Without that opportunity, a lot of artists who are kicking ass today wouldn’t have been able to do it, without the use of the internet, you know. A lot of talented guys wouldn’t have even seen the light of day without the internet. So, I’m happy for that. I’m also happy for that because it helps to keep guys like myself, or Kardi… or Dr. Dre, afloat, because as long as we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re okay. Because, it’s easily exposed. Plus with me, I’m constantly working with new artists, up and comers… and it keeps you young! Keeps you in tune with what’s going on. And like I said, not necessarily the trend, but the feel of things and how to carve out your own niche. B you see the bombardment on the internet, and that can piss some old school guys off, cause they’re like ‘well, they don’t deserve that space!’ But, the truth is: that space is yours as well! If you’re coming from 15 or 20 years ago, that space is yours as well. So get up and join in! Join the party! Don’t be at the pool party in some jeans and a hoodie, sitting on the sidelines there. Jump in the pool, nahmean? It’s good and bad, but it’s better than bad. It’s closer to good than it is a problem.”

“Word. So, do you think your son’s going to be a musician, or does he have interest in other stuff?”

Saukrates: “He’s interested in other things. He LOVES music. He loves my music. But he loves a collection of different styles of music. He keeps his phone loaded. He gets into old school too. He knows a couple Biggie songs off by heart. Loves Biggie. But actually making the music is not actually his calling YET. Loves playing sports. but he’s really into graphic design. He’s into his gaming. He pays attention to whats going on on the internet on YouTube channels, and there is a niche for these things if you develop them early stage in a kid’s life in life, so it’s not really wasting a kid’s time playing video games all day… he’s maybe learning how to become a part of that system, so no. But he has great rhythm! Put him on a keyboard and give him a kick and snare and he’s got his pattern down. He’s got great rhythm! So maybe by about 19, 20 years old, maybe he’ll say “yo, I want to do it!’ Or maybe he’ll already have started himself and he’ll be like “hey dad, listen to this…”, who knows?”

“Or: “hey dad, I just made a videogame AND made the soundtrack to it.””

Saukrates: “Exactly, exactly.”

“So, you did ‘Heaven’ with Nas and Jully Black and Agile, and that was one of the most amazing cross-border collaborations of all-time. OF ALL-TIME! The final song on one of Nasty Nas’s most important albums… wow, what an honor. That song is a timeless classic to me. As a Saukrates fan, I felt it was truly amazing, my original favorite Canadian MC collaborates with my favorite American MC of all time. Yes!”

Saukrates: “Yes, I felt that way when he first came out. He’s always been one of my favorites to this day. He influences me to stay sharp with my rhymes. When I need inspiration for who I need to compete with, Nas is one of the two or three. like Nas, Jay, Andre 3000… I need to kinda keep up with those cats.”

“So, who do you think is the biggest collaboration for you? What is your biggest creative achievement?”

Saukrates: “That was one of them, for sure. To be called in like that, and to have Jully kind-of connect the dots, was amazing. To be flown in. Me and Agile being flown in to get to meet Nas and spend time in a session? It’s kinda hard to believe where you are. Meeting Redman, meeting your hero, blew me away. Absolutely. Cause I was the biggest EPMD/Redman fan on the planet. And then 9 years later, getting to be respected for your music by your heroes? And then I get to meet Erick a couple of days later, after I meet Redman and signed a contract to get the ball rolling… it was absolutely amazing. ‘WKYA’: Erick Sermon did the beat. Rockwilder did the original. I got to meet Rockwilder and that blew my mind. Xzibit. Meeting Xzibit in L.A.! We’re still like best-of friends, we’re like cousins. That blew my mind. It still does, to this day. Whenever I’m out in L.A., I stay at his house for a few days. I sometimes can’t believe where I am, but then we get past that and we just have a good time, you know… play video games, eat steak and potatoes, and shoot the shit. Actually, all those U.S. collabos: Common, Pharaohe, they all blew my mind… Ace and O.C., Heltah Skeltah, they were all surreal to me.”

“You took everything forward. You gave us vision and hope, and you planted the seeds for honestly, for what’s happening now.”

Saukrates: “Ha ha, happy to do so!”

“Anyone who knows the history of music here would agree. you know, Toronto is arguably the center of music in the world right now.”

Saukrates: “And it’s going to stay that way for a while. Because it’s not just hip hop. Indie rock, we’re killing it. Dance music: killing it. Even the fashion industry. And it ain’t stopping!”

“Word up, I feel the exact same way! So, who are some of the new cats that you’d like to rock with? You work with Rich Kidd and Sonreal, but are there some new school American cats that you haven’t collaborated with yet?

Saukrates: “Yeah, I really like Kendrick Lamar. Joey Bada$$, young kid reminds me of myself with that 90’s sound that he brings. That joint with Preemo was just my shit. There’s these kids outta Dallas called ADD, not a lot of people are familiar with. They’re still indie, but they’re funny guys, and they kinda strike me as a Dallas version of Outkast, ’cause they got this great feel, but their lyrics are humble and braggadocious and natural, honest, so yeah… to name a few, yeah Kendrick and Joey Bada$$ really catch my attention.”

“So, how much does Gadjet influence your sound and your sound quality? Because your aesthetics of Saukrates are just amazing. It’s classic music, I know you’re classically trained, it’s just beautiful, pristine music. I just wanted to know, how important is it to you where you record, and do you have a ritual, like ‘yo, it ~can’t~ go out unless it sounds like…’?”

Saukrates: “Yes. Yeah, because of years of being with Gadjet. For sure. That’s how you learn how to make that kick and snare rock. How to have the bass in the right place. How to keep your vocal clean. Also how to keep things simple, you know? Because we used to rock on the 1-inch reel, and you only get 16 tracks, and one of those tracks is left for SMPTE, to sync all the machines together. So, you really only get 15 tracks, it’s not like Protools today where you get unlimited. So, how to keep it simple, and how to keep the snare and bass rocking, and making everything find its place. I didn’t go to Trebas (Music Institute for the Arts) but I might as well have gone to Trebas times ten, because he was teaching them kids, but when me and Kardi and Ro Dolla came in there and we spent time… I mean, we’d even be able to go get the keys from the secretary and let ourselves in, and we would learn how to use the room. He trusted us that much, after teaching us how to do it. So, he plays a huge role in how things sound now for me. Even if he hasn’t mixed the record. For sure, things gotta be clear, crisp, and I find that even when I’m recording at home and I’m doing my own rough mixes, I won’t let anyone hear it until I get my vocals sitting somewhere where you could actually buy that as is. And that definitely comes from setting your levels high, setting the bar high. And that’s where Gadjet runs through my veins. For sure.”

“So, a while ago, I saw a tenative tracklisting for a Drake/Cash Money project once that said there was a song called ‘416 featuring Saukrates’. Is this true or false, and do Saukrates and Drake have any unreleased music together in the vault that the world hasn’t heard yet?”

Saukrates: “It’s false. I think it was generated by a tweet Drake sent out when I went to see him and 40 last year while they were working on his ‘Nothing Was The Same’ album. 40 calls them “super-fans”, people who come up with the craziest ideas just to be a part of their movement. I must admit it was flattering, ha ha! But, not true. Me and Drizzy had done a lot of work before he sealed his deal with Cash Money, so yes, we do have some cool joints in the vault. Him and I will have to see if and when the world will ever get to hear them.”

“WOW. I can only hope we are all so lucky. So, what did you really feel about the critic’s and public’s reception of ‘Season One’, your official debut album? Some people complained about the amount of singing on the album, but you’ve always been a MC that could sing. What positives and negatives did you take from the release of ‘Season One’?”

Saukrates: “‘Season One’ was my second solo album. So much had happened since ‘The Underground Tapes’ in 1999. I didn’t change my style, but added new ways of getting my point across. I think there was some disconnect between then and now. Not all Saukrates fans had been able to witness the whole trip. In the end, it seemed to be 50/50 feedback: half expected the classic Soxx boom-bap, and half enjoyed the slice of Big Black Lincoln-esque approach.”

“Will there be another Big Black Lincoln album, or possibly a Circle Crew album to honor the legacy of Fresh Arts?”

Saukrates: “Great question! I ask myself the same thing at least twice a year. The answer is: I don’t know. It’s more likely that a second Big Black Lincoln album get done and released, than a Circle album. It’s sad to say, but people grow and tend to drift apart. One good thing about both cliques is: I’m proud to have a been a part of the movement AND we’re still all friends and family for life! Look out for re-pressings though, for sure. There’s way too much material that I believe didn’t get its chance to shine across the world. Peace!”

Saukrates Season has returned. Get yourself ready for a hot winter.

by Addi “Mindbender” Stewart