how a prairie boy came to hip-hop

by Nehal El-Hadi

July 31, 2009

"Streams of consciousness flow from the mind
In the form of a rhyme as I open up my mental
Every single time it seems I'm taken on a journey"
- "Aftertaste", 80 Million Isms

Science fiction. Nelly Furtado. The Gulf War. Tallis Newkirk had quite a few things he needed to explain. Which he did. With more personalities than a mental patient, Tallisman explained how a prairie boy came to make hip hop.

And it went a little something like this:

Most would label you as a hip hop MC, but you're more than that. You've fulfilled a variety of roles - producer and arranger being examples - throughout your career. How would you define yourself?

I would categorize myself as an artist - the reason being that I think the things that define MC in the minds of most hip hop heads don't all pertain to me. There are boundaries that are set around the genre that I don't want to be confined to. I want to go beyond that. I want to do stuff that falls within the boundaries of what an MC does, what a producer does, what a rapper does. I want to go beyond that. I want to try experimental things. There was a big split in hip hop years ago when people started shying away from the term "rapper" because that was the Top 40 thing, but hip hop was culture. "Rap is something you do; hip hop is something you live," which is what KRS-1 said. For me, being an MC is no longer the goal; it's lost its allure as the goal. Along with that moniker comes baggage which has its roots in the materialistic side of the industry, as opposed to the artistic side of the industry.

What defines you as an artist?

I want to do things in hip hop that have never been done before. I want to contribute to the art form in such a way that I'm not recreating the hits that other groups make. I want to push the envelope.

I want to expand the genre. I want to make songs in hip hop like Jimi Hendrix made songs in rock 'n roll. I want to make songs like Marvin Gaye made songs. I want to take hip hop back to the time where it was accepted for us as MCs to express more than three emotions (anger, hatred, and lust) - which is where we seem to be floating around right now. If it's not "take your clothes off it's getting hot in here", then it's dis this person, dis that person, dis the other. I miss the days of Grandmaster Flash, Birthday Party, Freedom. I miss the days of the early De La Soul stuff and A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers.

So, what's now labelled as "conscious hip hop"?

I miss conscious hip hop. A lot of it was celebrating elements of the human being that we don't see celebrated anymore. And then again political and social commentary and consciousness, which seems to be lacking for the main part. Nowadays it's all degradation. Look at Marvin Gaye and modern day rhythm and blues. Marvin Gaye could create baby-making music with the best of them, but he could also create songs that were just masterpieces in terms of documenting the human experience.

What are you trying to accomplish with your music?

My focus is to make music that I can be proud of, that I like, and that I wouldn't have trouble playing for my kids or my mom. And if other people dig it, so much the better. I feel this artistic urge to create, and that's what I'm doing. If I make money doing it, that's a bonus - I don't really expect that I'm going to.

What is your background?

I was born in Alberta a long time ago. Long enough to be the parent of the kids that listen to my music. I've lived all over Canada - BC, Toronto, Halifax, Drumheller. I also lived for a year in Haifa, Israel at the Bahai'i World Centre. It was an amazing year. It was during the Gulf War - extremely intense. I saw SCUDS destroyed from my window as I was sitting in my safe room with the gas mask on, wondering if I was going to be killed. Learned a lot about the world and people that year.

Why did you move around so much?

When I was a kid, my father worked for various branches of the federal and provincial human rights commissions. After I finished high school in Drumheller (AB), my whole family was converging in Halifax (NS) because he was working in human rights there. That was a really intense job because of the racial tensions that plagued Halifax - Cole Harbour. It was there that I met and became good friends with Buck 65 and DJ Jo-Run, and a number of other Halifax artists.

I've lived all over Toronto. To start with I lived in Parkdale in a busted-up old apartment building next to a halfway house for people just out of the insane asylum. It was really a colourful place to live. Then I moved south and was living right on the corner of Queen and Spadina. I looked out my bedroom window over my fire escape onto the back of the Horseshoe and saw all these famous people. That's where the Rolling Stones always start their tours.

After Toronto I went to my sister's wedding in Portland, Oregon and met a young lady there named Prudence. We fell in love and decided we wanted to get married, and she was going to school here in Regina. So I moved out here and struggled to find a job - it was the weirdest experience. So I decided I'd go to school too, and I'm studying education.

When did you decide that hip hop was your chosen path?

It's hard to say - the decision just evolved. When I was 9 years old, I went to Brooklyn to visit my father's old stomping grounds, and I was blown away by the city. It was the biggest city I'd ever been to - it was New York, where my dad grew up. I'd heard stories and I was just blown away. This song came on the radio and starts off, "Broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stage y'know they just don't care." I'd never heard anything like it. I couldn't believe it. I loved it. It was Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five, "The Message". Very shortly after I heard Rapper's Delight (Sugarhill Gang) and all I wanted to do was go to the record stores and buy these records. I went and bought some and I still have those records, twenty some odd years later. Every time we went on a trip to the States I was in the record stores spending all my money on whatever rap or hip hop records I could find. Then I met some really good friends at a Bahai'i youth conference. They were rapping and taking it seriously and they had music. I thought, wow this is something I really wanna do. And so I bought a little dinky keyboard and started making beats.

What really solidified it for me was when I was in Haifa with Varqá, one of the other members of Plains of Fascination - which was the Toronto group I was in. We were always rapping together. He got this CD and it was the first Dream Warriors CD. Varqá used to hang out with those guys and he couldn't believe that they had made it. That they had this CD out and it was on the radio - it blew his mind. He said "if they can do it, we can do it."

Anyone who's heard my music realizes there's a pretty strong spiritual influence. That's coming from me living my life as a Bahai'i, my take on the world filters through that. That's why I don't write songs about bitches, blunts and booze, y'know? It's not something I want to do. I don't want to perpetuate any stereotypes that I battle against daily, either. We heard Poor Righteous Teachers and were blown away by the way they incorporated the teachings of the Nation of Islam. And we thought, this is something that we need to do too. You can do that with teachings that people need to hear about.

And this is how Plains of Fascination came about?

Yeah. Before it was Plains of Fascination it was product KVA, which stood for Knowledge, Volition and Action. We released a little cassette single and had another 10 or 11 songs, a number of which ended up making onto the Plains of Fascination CD.

Was that was your first major hip hop project, or what else were you working on?

Actually, Haltown Projects in Halifax was sort of a collective - DJ Jo-Run and Buck 65, myself and Varqá, and we just came together. We'd make music every day, all day.

The first major release I did was with Plains of Fascination. We got rotation on MuchMusic and college radio across the country, and that was great. The weirdest thing was getting letters from people in Africa and Europe, and places where we'd never been, where they had our record. After Plains of Fascination, I started working with other MCs in Toronto and formed a collective called UNIT-e, which is something I believe hip hop needs. Unit-e was comprised of myself, Phatt Al, Troubadour a.k.a. Shimoda Pye, Louwop, DJ S.O.S, and a female MC named Potion (who's on my latest record). UNIT-e released 3 maxi singles. I produced half of Phatt Al's record and started working on what would become 80 Million Isms.
I also worked, unofficially, with Nelly Furtado. I produced a demo with Nelly for our duo named Nelstar. Some people heard this and saw her perform, took her up and made her rich and famous. And that was that.

How did 80 Million Isms come about?

The same way the next four records I'm working on will come about...just living life and looking for inspiration in terms of what I can translate into a lyric. Then I try to create music that sort of suits the atmosphere of the lyric. I put the two together and mash them up and it sort of gives birth to its own entity, and after there's a number of songs, I start getting a feel for what would fit well into this record or into this content. I had a concept for 80 Million Isms from the beginning: that hip hop was a microcosm of the world and all the good and bad could be found in hip hop. I guess that is, on the surface level, the concept.

The deeper concept is that "MC" is really a metaphor for "human being" - for a person, y'know? You could be the baddest MC, you could be the freshest MC - (but underneath) just be a really decent human being, a good person. To destroy wackness is the equivalent of doing some soul searching and rooting out the weeds that taint your character, and replacing them with more virtue and becoming a better person.

Which, in turn, makes you a better MC?

Metaphorically, yes, if MC = person. However, there's some really fantastic MCs out there that I wouldn't invite to my barbecue because I don't think they're very nice people. And there are some really great people who are stinking MCs, but whatever. That's the whole idea. We are on a journey of self-improvement through life, to become better people.

So was 80 Million Isms one stage of this journey?

Yes. When I finished the record it was really a springboard for me. It was the last record of this type that I was going to do. I was going to focus a lot more on the spiritual nature of human beings and let songs be born from that. Because I am a firm believer in that, that's where Tallisman is and is going. 

How did you get into the local hip hop scene?

It was bizarre - I missed the hip hop scene here in Regina for the first year and a half or two years I was here. Then last Hallowe'en I was at this little kid's party and met this DJ named Sasha, and his wife Michelle. They told me they were going to this MC competition at The State and I was like, "What?!" That was the second Got Skillz? (MC battles, DJ scratching competitions and break dancing). I couldn't not go. That was my introduction to the Saskatchewan hip hop scene, and I was amazed by what I saw. There was people break dancing, which is always good to see. I was blown away by the skills I saw here. I was happy to see what was going on and that there were DJ's with skills. I felt that I was coming into a scene that was nascent - that was still young and developing and raw, and hadn't been infected by the commercial BS and lust for the commercial success that I've seen in other places. It's still pure, to a certain extent. I have love for the Regina scene because it's where I am. Not just because I'm physically here, but because I see a lot of people out here who are doing it because they love it.

There's a lot of guys here with a lot of potential, there's a lot of guys here with less potential, and there's a number of guys who are just awesome. I hope everyone keeps going because it's all part of the Regina hip hop legacy and I love that. I'm happy to be part of that right now and I'm going to represent that to the fullest.

The nice thing about hip hop is you can create as many aliases as you want. I'm having fun with this one alias I've got - Farmer Browne.

And who's Farmer Browne?

I guess Farmer Browne is the influence of the Prairies on me. I mean, I'm a Prairie boy, I was born on the Prairies. And now I'm back after 20, 30 years almost. It just suits Saskatchewan. You represent where you are and we're in a land where there's lots of farmers!

So it's about prairie life?

It's prairie life. I've been writing songs about the plight of farmers and things like that. I hang out with some friends on one of the reserves and there's a whole ton of songs just waiting to be written about those experiences and about the reserve itself, but I'm not comfortable enough yet writing them. I don't think I'll ever know it well enough. I'll never be a First Nations person; I'll never actually deal with the prejudices they deal with. The glass ceiling, a.k.a. the reserve. I mean, I've dealt with a lot of prejudice and so I can relate to that element, but it almost seems that the prejudice I would normally feel or that I felt when I was in Halifax or Toronto is deflected here in Regina. I don't feel it quite as much although it was tough getting a job here.

The focal point of prejudice in Regina is Native people. It's terrible, but there are a lot of songs that are going to come out of that. I'm all for the eradication of racism and prejudice of all types and so there's going to be songs about that. There's gonna be songs about fun things and quirky things that me and my friends have gone through.

Farmer Browne is Area 306 hip hop. Everything. Stuff that's happening within the hip hop scene will come up out of that. Stuff about Saskatchewan will come out of that.

What's the Area 306 project?

The whole idea behind Area 306 was to create a compilation CD where all these artists would donate a track and $150-300 (depending on how many of us there were), and we'd go have a CD made. It would be square one, from there we move on. I've had problems rounding up artists who have recorded tracks ready to go. In the meantime I'll focus on things that I want to do, and if a number of people start getting tracks together we'll see what'll happen. Maybe in a couple of years it'll resurface. I'd like it to. I think it's about time.

The Anishnabe Posse, I'd love to have them on it, I'd love to buy more of their stuff, I'd love to see them do it. Infrared, Brad Basic, Ira, I-Alone - I can't wait till they've got stuff recorded. I'd like to see all of this documented. Truth is, most of these people - myself included - will probably never be the next Eminem, or Tribe Called Quest or whatever, but this is part of the Regina hip hop legacy and it needs to be documented, so it's not just hearsay.

What's your opinion of Canadian hip hop in general?

I don't mind commercial hip hop. There's some that comes out that I really dig. And I'm happy whenever the underground artists that I love become commercial artists, because they're finally able to make some money off their art form, doing what they love. I'm ultimately happy when they remain true to the art and not become true to the money.

I'm not the type of person to dis any genre or bracket of music just because that's underground, and I'll dig it 'cause it's not commercial. With that said, I'm really happy about all the success that Canadian MCs and rappers are getting, like Kardinal, Choclair, Swollen Members, K-Os. I'm really liking what I'm hearing from K-Os...content, music. I think he's got his head on right.

What I don't like is Canadian artists mimicking American artists. If I want to listen to Mobb Deep, I'll go and buy a Mobb Deep record. I'm not going to Mobb Almost Deep from Scarborough. I don't want to listen to KRS 3, 4 and 5, I want to listen to KRS-1. I like originality. That's why, right now, my favourite Canadian artist is Buck 65. He's completely doing his own thing. I just love that.

I see a lot of people who think they are God's gift to hip hop - but they're allowed to think that. I thought that at one point. 80 Million Isms: "the answer is me. the question? Who's the greatest emcee?" I don't think that anymore - I think Sage Francis is the greatest MC!

But isn't that arrogance all part of being an MC? The hope that believing you're the greatest will become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I don't think it is. I think that's the general consensus. But I don't think that it necessarily has to be. Yeah, they hope. The problem is that MCs say it so much it sounds like they're trying to convince themselves. That's what I love about Sage Francis' latest record, "Personal Journals". This guy doesn't rap about how good he raps. How good he raps shines through on its own. Buck 65 does a lot of that as well. And I hope to do a lot of that.

You're also doing some producing here?

Well, I'm recording my brother's band Geneva. They're rock & roll, pretty hard and damn good. And I'm doing some work with Despistado (previously Catalyst). But really, I'm focussing more on my own stuff. I don't mind doing cameos but I don't really want to go out and start producing for other people and what not all the time, 'cause I'll just lose the love for it.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on four albums of my own - that's time-consuming. The first album is going to have a lot of remixes of the Plains of Fascination stuff - the working title is "God Thought". It's an album that's diving right into spirituality. It's going to be for people who are looking for some sort of spiritual content to their music. I think music is a spiritual thing, but the industry isn't. I don't think that hip hop is a godless entity, and that's what this record is going to be about - human spirituality and hip hop music.

There's the Jenegrew album, there's "God Thought". But my favourite album that I'm working on right now is called "Abduction Theories". I'm a space fanatic, I'm a sci-fi freak. I don't care what it is, give me Star Trek, give me Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999, Space Odyssey 2001, Galaxy Quest, Spaceball, Aliens. I love space movies - Contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It doesn't matter. I love space, so I'm writing an album all about space. A sci-fi themed album.

So the next four albums are under the Tallisman persona?

That's where Tallisman's heading, in that direction

What about Farmer Browne?

Farmer Browne doesn't care (laughs). He's just there to put words together and have fun making rhymes and beats. Of course he will be conscious, and he won't degrade women or perpetuate any prejudice or racism. But he's going to have fun, and he'll battle maybe here and there. Farmer Browne is part of a group with DJ Sets called Jenegrew. Jenegrew's album's working title is "Prairie Dog Headgear". And I'm working on one another album, it might have Tallisman, it might have some T.Luv-ski, might have some Farmer Browne. It's all me, I guess.

So how many personas are there?

There's lots. There's tons of personas. Most of them haven't come out yet. It's just allowing another avenue.

Tallis recently performed in both Potter McMuck and the Mittens, and Tallisman and the Next 100 Years, at the Flatland Festival. Watch for more appearances by his many personas.

By Nehal El-Hadi for SaskMusic. Originally published June 2002.

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