Thanks to Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” and Clipse’s “Virginia,” the hometown anthem has become part of any aspiring rapper’s arsenal. Which—as I wrote about in a recent column for Calgary alt-weekly Fast Forward—isn’t a bad thing. But it can become a bad thing. Because while it’s noble to celebrate your roots, we’ll be honest: Most city-centric songs are chock full of manufactured bravado, touristy lyrical content and, worst of all, terrible inside jokes. Still, not all city anthems are created equal—some evoke rah-rah hometown pride (as they should), while others simply embarrass. Below, from Arctic Bay to Quebec City, 13 of Canada’s best, worst, and strangest city songs.
ARCTIC BAY: UNKNOWN, “DON’T CALL ME ESKIMO”
Beneath dude’s placid, icy—get it?—flow, “Don’t Call Me Eskimo”’s a straight-up winner. There’s the funny parts (as in, “It’s our way of life, we hunt for seal / Back off Greenpeace, we just want a meal”). There’s the interesting—like the vid’s tundra landscape, its nods to Arctic Bay’s socioeconomic struggles, its ugly colonial history, and its anti-racist chorus. (“Black people aren’t negros / Don’t call me eskimo.”) See what we mean? This is a winner, and a fascinating peek into an 800-person outpost on the northern edge of Baffin effin’ Island.
CALGARY: TRANSIT, “CALGARY”
While “Crack City”’s a contender, Cowtown’s real anthem, if we’re judging by YouTube views, is Transit’s “Calgary.” And beyond a few terrible lines—Tran notes, at one point, that he’s originally from “a city called Victoria on Vancouver island / Full of lots of hippies and we shop on consignment”—the song’s what you’d expect: It’s about not being cowboys. Its video has a cameo from Calgary’s hip-with-the-kids-and-knows-the-Twitter mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Who, as Calgarians love to point out, is not, was not, and will never be Rob Ford.) Then, there’s a bridge sung by… Wait for it. C’mon, guess it. We dare you. You got it: Jann Arden.
EDMONTON: DEEZY THA DON, “REP YA SET”
This, essentially, is the song that’ll make Transit’s “Calgary” piss itself. When you Google Deezy tha Don, a Hip Hop Canada forum post is one of the top hits—and its subject line reads “780 Hood Shit.” That’s all you need to know: Here, Deez walks us through the streets of Abbotsfield, his busted-up Edmonton hood, while challenging other parts of the city to “rep ya set.” And when he’s not repping sets, he’s cooking crack (no, seriously). Revisiting that Hip Hop Canada thread, forum user Cannons calls it “Bait= Front Page, Puttin UR personal shit on BLAST, presenting UR street shit for the police to see! In this case,screaming that you slang crack, will shoot pigs & pointing straps to the camera while screaming out UR block is BAIT!” We agree, but still—who knew northern Alberta could do south Chicago so well? And to the point, how in the hell is Edmonton’s trap scene so accomplished? Kudos, Deezy.
HALIFAX: JOSH MARTINEZ, “GOING BACK TO HALI”
Before Josh Martinez became a Portland-based MC and record mogul, he was known as Matthew Kimber, son of reknowned Halifax journalist-cum-professor Stephen Kimber. In this LL Cool J-indebted anthem, the gravel-voiced Martinez, along with local faves Classified and Skratch Bastid, gives us a tour of his hometown: They’re spotted on the Dartmouth bridge and on the hilly Halifax Commons. They get wraps at the greasy-and-greasier King of Donairs. And, if we’re not mistaken—though we might be—they’re filming the video at Darrell’s, home of Halifax’s legendary peanut butter burger. Cheesy? Sure. Corny? Definitely. Delightful? Absolutely.
MISSISSAUGA: JAE DEUCE, “SAUGA CITY”
When we first came across this song, we thought it was called “Sausage City,” and assumed that this was gonna be a frat rap track. Boy, were we wrong. Mississauga may be the sixth-largest city in Canada, but if you’ll believe Deuce, it consists of one schoolyard, a spattering of cruddy ’70s-style highrise apartments, and an intersection consisting purely of condos. Guys, the Peel Region could do better than this.
MONTREAL: BOY6LUE, “HOMETOWN / GUNNIN”
Forget everything you hear about the Mile End, the Plateau, the Main, Arbutus Records, Arcade Fire, Cadence Weapon, Skip the Foreplay, or Foie Gras poutine. We like Boy6lue’s version of Montreal better: It’s all Canadiens riots, the Alouettes winning championships, and Expos nostalgia. (Though we suspect a few Quebec nationalist types might bristle at his claim that Quebec is “a province not a state.”) And is that Parc St-Louis we spot in the video, where the crusties and wasted McGill bros go to drink 40s? It is! Never change, Boy6lue.
NELSON, B.C.: ENMITY, “REP IT TIL I DIE”
The population of Nelson, B.C., according to the National Post, is a haven of knit-shawl toting, aging hippies. Enmity’s chilled-out “Rep it Til I Die” doesn’t change any of those preconceptions. As far as we can tell, it’s about two related facts: That there’s no gangs in Nelson, and that it has the best weed in the world. Which… kind of makes us want to move to Nelson to start a commune.
NOVA SCOTIA: GHETTOCHILD, “WELCOME TO NOVA SCOTIA”
OK, so this isn’t technically a city song, but it does touch down on Sackville, Halifax and Africville (or, more accurately, the province’s historical ties to the underground railroad). More accurately, it’s a rumination on the less-than-well-documented struggles of African-Canadian communities in the maritimes. Or, as Ghettochild puts it, “The home of the brave, the home of the slave.” Rah-rah? Not quite. But it certainly is effective.
OSHAWA: MIC BOOGIE, “WHERE I’M FROM”
This Toronto suburb is typically painted as the living, breathing embodiment of People of Walmart. Realistically, though, it’s a blue-collar city afflicted by poverty, the decline of the automotive industry—thanks, GM!—and by rampant drug use. (The ongoing joke was that Oshawa “accessorized itself with unwanted babies.” OK, guys, that’s just mean.) But if there’s one thing Oshawa has—aside from the un-fuck-with-able Gennies—it’s an ability to laugh at itself. Case in point: 38-year-old emcee Mic Boogie’s city anthem might as well have been called “Dirty Shwa,” revealing that beneath all that grime, there’s plenty to love about this scrappy town. Like The Big Sexy! (R.I.P.)
OTTAWA: THE JOYNT, “CAPCITY”
Its neighbours to the east and the west—Montreal and Toronto, for those counting—call Ottawa “the city fun forgot.” The Joynt does little to disprove the rep of the Capital City (or “CapCity,” get it?!): He mostly talks about Ottawa’s weather, patio season, and how “taxpayer dollars stretch as far as you can see.” Heart! Be still! YouTube commenter onetallorder84 puts it best: “Voice of reason weighs in. Ottawa lovers, civil servants, average 30-40 something’s will like this. Fans of rap music with substance and merit, style and skill in the craft of wordplay, fully realized concepts and whatnot, will NOT like it.” Hear, hear. On a serious tip, though, we suggest the 613 adopt the New Swears’ “See You in Hull” as the city’s go-to song.
TORONTO: KARDINAL OFFISHALL, “BAKARDI SLANG”
While Drizzy pays plenty of lip service to his hometown, he never wrote a city anthem as definitive as Kardinal Offishall’s “Bakardi Slang.” That’s because Kardi didn’t focus on the Jays, Raptors, Yonge St. or the CN Tower—“Bakardi Slang” isn’t about tourism. It’s about explaining Toronto’s native dialect to outsiders. It’s about the blend of Jamaican, Trinidadian, West Indian, Guyanese, Chinese, Filipino residents that inhabit the city, beyond its condo-packed downtown. And it’s exactly what North York—sorry, NoYo—sounded like in 2001. AUX staffer Chayne Japal once commented that Kardi “should’ve been as big as Dizzee Rascal.” He’s right.
QUEBEC CITY: MC STEREOTYPES, “RAP DE STEREOTYPES QUEBEC”
As far as we can tell, this video claims that not much has changed in Quebec since the time of les coureurs de bois. So, for an English version of this video, please see “Waltz, Log Driver’s.”
WINNIPEG: WINNIPEG’S MOST, “WINNIPEG BOY”
Winnipeg’s Most, a trio of MC’s from Canada’s Windy City, first earned national ears when they were featured on CBC’s 8th Fire. “Winnipeg Boy,” in itself, doesn’t say much about the city, aside from the fact that, unlike the Weakerthans, they’re damn proud of being from Portage and Main. And instead of being all about lonely Dollarama cashiers, “Winnipeg Boy”’s video takes onto a tour of run-down of the city’s embattled North End, burger joints, pawn shops, and sketchy hotels. So, yeah, it’s a wee less twee than “I Hate Winnipeg.”