Northern Touch

Liftin’ up ya shirt to expose the brief linenow you squeeze the six packto show yo body look so fineshe‘s laughin’ atcha sorry asscausethe more ya half classis the more ya‘ half assbut I won’t cock blockI‘m just a niggah chillin’wishin‘ for some millionsan’ wantin‘ to own buildin’sthough every false move you makeseems like you illin‘I just be observin’-- takin‘ it in.“


”I realize there’s pressure on me to make sure this hits off well, but I‘m not gonna let that dictate what I do,“ says Choclair, beaming across the table while curious onlookers at other tables glance anxiously in his direction. They know something’s up. And they know he‘s somebody, but who? Puff Daddy? Rahzel? One of the Wu-Tang Clan? Why else would this grinning young black man in sweats and the rest of his crew be given a prime spot in the middle of the patio?

Had these people any knowledge of hip-hop on an international scale, they might have realized they were staring at Canada’s crown prince of rap and the man hip-hop giant Priority Records is banking on to drop icy northern beats all over the map. Of course, it doesn‘t hurt that Priority’s head honcho, Bryan Turner, also happens to be a native of Winnipeg.

Three years ago, Choclair, then employed at a day-care center, was working the label he co-founded with Lee ”Day“ Fredericks called Kneedeep. Rushing to put out the single ”Father Time“ by Toronto MC Saukrates, Choclair recorded ”21 Years“ for the B-side, which featured Choclair‘s vulnerable lyrics detailing frustrations and struggles over Day’s melancholy beats. The enthusiastic response from Toronto‘s hip-hop scene edged the rapper on to a follow-up single, ”Just a Second,“ which landed him his first Juno award (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammy) for Best Rap Recording. Crewing up in ‘98 with Vancouver rapper Checkmate of the Rascalz and Toronto artists Kardinal Offishall and Thrust on the single ”Northern Touch,“ Choclair grabbed another Juno, and followed that with yet another Juno for his debut album, Ice Cold, earlier this month. The disc is about 20,000 units shy of going platinum in Canada.

Nonetheless, for the time being, Choclair (a.k.a. Kareem Blake), the first-ever solo Canadian hip-hop artist to sign with a major U.S. label, is relatively unknown by American hip-hop enthusiasts. But with the recent stateside release of Ice Cold, all that could change. Comparing Choclair’s smooth, lyrical flow to the likes of rappers Common and Ras Kass, both The Source and Vibe magazines have earmarked Ice Cold as one of the most anticipated drops of the new millennium.

The expectation surrounding Choclair‘s reception in the U.S. arises from bets on the rapper’s ability, and that of his production team, Toronto‘s The Circle crew, to finally bring the Canadian hip-hop community out of regional obscurity and into international prominence. In the past, other Canadian hip-hop acts such as Maestro, Michie Mee, Da Grass Roots and Dream Warriors have unsuccessfully tried to penetrate the American rap scene. Conventional wisdom holds that Canadian hip-hop productions just don’t sound American enough to be successful in the U.S. Perhaps an even bigger obstacle for U.S. acceptance is the sound of Canadian hip-hop voices; many Canadian rappers are first- or second-generation Caribbean immigrants who pepper their rhymes with inflections from Jamaica, Haiti or Trinidad.

Sandwiched between his personal manager and a publicist from Priority Records during a late-afternoon Sunday brunch at a restaurant in Hollywood, Choclair defines his style in a clipped Caribbean lilt that subtly betrays the 25-year-old MC‘s family ties to Jamaica. ”It’s hard to identify a Canadian sound,“ he says. ”Mine is almost like a West Indian soul, a musical-gumbo type of thing.“

Ice Cold features your typical guest spots by American rap heavyweights such as Guru of Gang Starr and Memphis Bleek, but for the most part Choclair kept in his own Circle -- that is, the Figurez of Speech crew (whose members include Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall and Solitair) united with Choclair‘s own Paranormal team. Keeping it homegrown, Choclair puts down his own funky tracks on ”Ice Cold,“ and features fellow Canadian homies the Rascalz on the gangsta-tinged ”Die Hard“ and Toronto homey Saukrates on ”Rubbin’.“ Displaying sinuous lyrical delivery throughout the disc, Choclair holds his own with Guru on ”Bare Witness“ and even better with Saukrates on ”Let‘s Ride.“

Choclair already enjoys a fan base of American rappers, including Gang Starr, who sampled Choclair for their 1998 hit, ”You Know My Steez,“ and Lauryn Hill, for whom the young rapper opened on her tour last year. But is America ready for a Canadian rap superstar? ”Why not?“ he chuckles. ”I think Canada has its own vibe. It gives hip-hop a new sound and a new life. It continues the diversity that made hip-hop so successful in the first place.“

Choclair appears with Rahzel and Mix Master Mike at El Rey Theater on Sunday, April 2.

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