The year was 2009.
I was riding in my boy Justin’s car, going to a club, most likely late February. He started asking me if I heard about this guy who’s on Degrassi, he just came out with a mixtape, raps a lot about Toronto, and he’s about to throw a party with LeBron James. I was like “Huh? What kind of Toronto guy has reach like that?” The truth is, unless you were a hockey player or a celebrity from out of town, no one really noticed you in Toronto.
And I had never watched an episode of the new Degrassi so I had no clue who he was talking about. Anyway, I ended up forgetting about the conversation. Later that week Justin texts me to ask what I think about the mixtape and tells me it’s still available to download online for free. Click.
But before I get into why this mixtape was so special for the city let’s put things in perspective first.
Before the Drake phenomenon began, let’s go back one year to 2008. The year 2008 in Toronto was below average in terms of anything remotely newsworthy enough to put Toronto on the map. Toronto as a “mega” city turned 10 years old in 2008. Yes, the amalgamation of a series of boroughs where it still seems like they are separate cities altogether anyway. There was a massive explosion in the west end of the city. And Yonge and Dundas was turned into a mini Shibuya crossing. Oh, and the Jays sucked, Leafs sucked, and Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs. Hashtag typical. (At least Twitter had a good year)
It was still a dismal year for Toronto sports with the Jays, Leafs, and Raptors all missing the playoffs. However, there was something different about 2009 and I don’t mean the smell. Toronto had news! We didn’t get to host the 2008 Olympics but we were damn sure not going to miss hosting the 2015 Pan Am Games! Also how about all that H1N1 talk and the fear that only Batman could extinguish. Yes, this was the turn around year for Toronto — Hollywood was not going to use the city as a second rate New York ever again…who am I kidding.
And then a mixtape was released *N.O.R.E voice on Drink Champs*. Jay Z’s The Blueprint 3 debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts, Lil Wayne’s The Carter III sold 3 Million copies within the year, and The Game and 50 Cent ended their 4 year old beef — and then a mixtape was released *N.O.R.E. voice on Drink Champs*. And all of the sudden the buzz was born.
Toronto always had the C.N. Tower and Skydome
Outside of sports, the world really only knew Toronto for a couple landmarks. Growing up in Toronto, I often thought of Buffalo as being more exciting, partially for the fact that all of the good TV channels we had were the Buffalo versions from NBC, ABC, and Fox. Heck, the Walden Galleria was more exciting to me than the Eaton Centre. But now there was this guy from Toronto named Drake that was getting serious attention from the likes of Lil Wayne and Jay Z — 2009’s biggest rap stars. This was the equivalent to the Toronto Raptors getting their first U.S. televised game in 2000. Cue the holy shit moment.
When So Far Gone was released I was conflicted. On the one hand I felt like I had this secret gem that only a select few who really paid attention to rap music knew about — especially since at the time the mixtape was only available for download on the OVO blog for a limited time. On the other hand this thing was going to blow up. Like Maestro in ’89 but bigger, much much bigger. Sure it was a mixtape but who are we kidding, the thing felt like a polished album. I remember hearing “Best I Ever Had” on CHUM FM. A rap song, from a mixtape, on CHUM FM? And then Kanye West directed the video. All the while, this guy was from Toronto and he was not afraid to let people know.
Drake put Toronto on the map. Period.
Telling people I was from Toronto came with less explanation. Oh right, Drake, got it. Through the music the world learned about our streets, neighbourhoods, slang, and landmarks. And now people were wondering more; it was as if Toronto was this newfound city, Canada’s best kept secret. The world was finally seeing Toronto had potential to stand up with the likes of the New York’s of the world. Case in point last year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. I’m probably being overzealous here but fuck it, it’s my city. We hosted one of the best dunk competitions last year since the Vince Carter one and we’re still riding that wave.
And that’s word to Toronto.