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Interviews

Eternia & MoSS

The Hardest Sell in Rap

Eternia MoSS Most of Canada’s best-known rappers have become successful by bucking hip-hop conventions. Drake tempers his hip-hop braggadocio with introspection; K’Naan puts American gangsta rap in stark perspective with his tales of Somalian violence, and k-os is as likely to collaborate with an orchestra as with a DJ. But the Ottawa-born Eternia is taking on the deepest-rooted conventions of them all.

"She’s a white, female Canadian – not exactly the easiest sell when it comes to hip hop," acknowledges her producer, MoSS, who has provided beats for the major-label likes of Ghostface Killah and Raekwon. Nonetheless, the first time the self-described "hippie record nerd" with a penchant for obscure prog-rock flute solos met the powerfully outspoken rapper, he had an epiphany.

It was 2007, at a gig in Winnipeg where the number of performers matched the number of audience members, and Eternia was prowling the small stage as if she were in a packed arena. MoSS recalls, “I saw, first and foremost, an unbelievable performer. I’m like, ‘I think I can make [music] with her and we can actually turn heads.’” Three years after that fateful meeting, the duo’s aptly-named album-length collaboration, At Last, featuring Eternia’s raw rhymes – both intense and close to the bone – and MoSS’s acid-drenched, multi-layered production, is hitting stores today.

The album is being released by U.S. label Fat Beats, who first held talks with Eternia in 2005 but were apparently “nervous” about her skin colour, her gender, and her country of origin. Since then, she has earned considerable respect in the hip-hop world, by holding her own on tracks and on stages with MCs of various races and nationalities, and winning over audiences from Mexico to Australia with her sass, wit, and typhoon-like energy. As well, over the course of her and MoSS’s six-month search for a record deal last year, something unexpected occurred: it actually became cool to be an MC or producer in Toronto.

“There were times when we felt like that was going to happen in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and it didn’t,” says Eternia. Sitting on a Parkdale patio in Toronto with MoSS, she recalls living in Connecticut as a budding MC in 1998 and seeing the Rascalz single “Northern Touch” in heavy rotation on urban channel BET. “It was a Canadian anthem, and it was like, ‘Now’s our time!’ Nothing. Maestro [Fresh Wes] killed it internationally … Nothing.”

But now, MoSS points out, labels are turning their attention to the T-Dot, and tastemaking blogs are showcasing tracks by emerging Toronto MCs. “In the past you would never see [the headline] ‘New Toronto Artist’ because everyone was just going to skip by it. I see it all the time now, and apparently it’s a draw.”

There are two important factors involved in the city’s rise to international hip-hop relevance. One is the increased availability of cheap music software over the last few years: “I started to see the Toronto scene flourish,” says MoSS. “People started to learn how to use the tools that were available to them. I saw a community effort.”

The other factor, of course, is the meteoric ascent of charismatic actor-turned-rapper Drake. His success – fuelled by talent, internet hype, and the ability to cross over to pop radio – is opening doors for a generation of Torontonians, be they bedroom-based beat freaks or old-school, dues-paying crate-diggers and wordsmiths.

Eternia and MoSS fall firmly into the latter camp. Both in their early 30s, they were drawn to hip-hop at an early age, before it became commercialized. Growing up in Ottawa, Eternia (a.k.a. Silk Kaya) was inspired to rap by her brother and father’s NWA and 2 Live Crew records; she left home at 15 and lived with various relatives and friends around Ontario and in the U.S., dedicating herself to hip-hop and honing her rhyming skills. Returning to Toronto in the late ‘90s, she ran open-mics for independent MCs and, as a Ryerson student, hosted a hip-hop radio show. MoSS (a.k.a. Jason Connoy) grew up in Brampton, where he was turned onto hip-hop by a neighbour; he recalls being the only kid on his high school hockey team who would adulterate his heavy-metal mixtapes with the likes of Juice Crew and Boogie Down Productions. His early career as a financial analyst bankrolled his passion for hunting down obscure records in stores across the globe; five years ago, he gave up the 9-to-5 to make beats full-time.

The duo’s pedigrees give them certain advantages over MySpace sensations: MoSS mines beats from LPs so obscure they haven’t yet hit the internet (and hence can’t be sampled by any except a select, dedicated few), and Eternia’s prowess live is renowned – the awkward phase that Drake is currently going through as a live MC is something she evidently ironed out in her teens.

Eternia also brings a wealth of often-painful life experience to her rhymes. After a few hard-hitting, boom-bap cuts showcasing her densely-crafted wordplay, At Last becomes intensely personal. Against MoSS’s moody backdrops, she raps unflinchingly about struggles with alcohol, sexual assault, abortion, and how father (called a “reputed underworld kingpin” by the Ottawa Citizen) “tried to kill my mother this one time / I was still in the womb.”

According to MoSS, “People may say to themselves, ‘It’s a female rapper; I can’t relate,’ but that’s what makes it intriguing. … She’s not tiptoeing around the beat; she’s just telling it like it is; she’s not glamorizing it; she’s not trying to make it cute and cuddly. To me, this album is like a documentary.”

“I would like this to be more than my personal diary entry,” says Eternia. “I would like to inspire a discourse of change and awareness.” Being an outspoken female – and feminine – MC (she’s designed a T-shirt that reads “My favourite rapper wears a skirt”) – has brought her into uncomfortable contact with hip-hop’s often sexist culture: “It’s not irregular for someone to do a verse for me and have to reference ‘chicks’ in some kind of dehumanizing way.” Even one or two of the guest artists on At Last drop verses using lazy stereotypes. It’s disappointing, but ultimately it puts Eternia’s own rhymes – more aware, thoughtful, and creative – in a brighter light.

“When I’m on stage, I say, ‘I’m a walking anti-stereotype!’ I like to question how people compartmentalize things in their heads – and they all do.”

— Originally published in The National Post, July 2, 2010

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