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David Strickland: My life in 5 beats

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If you were to draw a chart connecting all the musicians that make up the rich history of hip hop in Toronto, you’d find David “Gordo” Strickland at the centre of it. The Scarborough-born Mi’kmaw and Northern Cree producer/engineer has worked quietly behind the scenes for decades, whether producing, mixing or engineering records from the likes of Saukrates, Ghetto Concept, Jelleestone, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, k-os, Drake and more.

His new album is called Spirit of Hip-Hop, and on it, he connects that same lineage to his roots, featuring Indigenous rappers like Joey Stylez, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Drezus and Supaman as well as some of the Toronto and New York rap luminaries he’s worked with, including Saukrates, EPMD and Def Squad.

The album also contains a spoken-word piece from legendary Cree hip-hop photographer Ernie Paniccioli, who describes hip hop as the “reincarnation” of Indigenous culture expressed through 21st-century technology: “The DJ is the drummer, the MC is the storyteller, the B-boy is the dancer and the graffiti artist is the sand painter.”

For Strickland, it was important to show that “hip hop is the same as our culture,” he says. “We’ve been doing that and it’s not just Turtle Island. It applies across the world. When I put it together, I was thinking, a lot of our kids are not embracing [Indigenous] culture, they’re not raised in the culture, but they love hip hop. So I just tried to put it together and show them some self love, because it all is the same thing and we need to just love ourselves more.”

“‘Flagrant’ was at a time which was early in my career as far as being an engineer and getting into production. And that was a pivotal point in Toronto hip-hop history because that was Choclair’s first album. He was one of the first rappers signed to a major label in Canada. I actually have the master tape sitting right here, but we won’t talk about that.

“I was really getting into doing a lot of session work with guys like Saukrates and Kardinal, a lot of the members of that Circle family, and I remember that session. And the thing about that was, the chorus on that song, we didn’t have enough tracks to lay it properly, so we had to sample the parts. Saukrates was going in the booth and a lot of the stuff was done on the spot, so I had to sample the chorus, transfer it, program it, and then dump it back to tape to save track space. And that was one of the first times where I kind of felt like I was really involved in the song, as far as not just engineering it, but being a part of the production, being a part of the team. Saukrates is like my little brother and I consider all those guys family now, but at that time, that song was a turning point. I don’t even think I have a credit on any songs out of that, which is a whole other story. I dare anybody to tell me I didn’t engineer that song. I’m just gonna put that out there.”

“‘Blow Trees’ was produced by [Toronto’s] Tone Mason. I was in New York, rocking over with Red Man, and the beats were coming in. And Red was going wild because that’s what Red does. I was very privileged to be part of just watching that and the creative experience. I was a little shy sometimes around artists so I don’t want to just throw beats in that I’m hearing, but he’s also my favoruite MC of all time, and at that time, I was a champion for Canadian beatmakers. When that Tone Mason beat came in I was cheering for it. The thing about that beat is that it’s a Bob Marley sample, and that was not an easy task. There’s a whole story in itself of getting that cleared because at the time, the Marleys weren’t just letting anybody sample Bob. But Red and Meth was special.

“That whole experience was special. The reason that’s on that list is because it was all about pushing the Canadian producers and being there working with my favourite MC. I was telling my moms and dads, ‘It’s like, OK, you’re a Beatles fan, and then you get to do a song with the Beatles. Come on! Your head explodes.’ That’s what that song was for me.”

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