Globe & Mail: “Head-tax Hip Hop” features Trevor Chan and No Luck Club in Toronto Head-tax hip hop
Trevor Chan and the No Luck Club created a hip hop / mash up, titled “Our Story” that
addresses the head tax issue, using actual historic sound bites that
were racist descriptions about keeping Canada “White” and about the
threat of the “Yellow Peril.” It is the 2006 equivalent version
of a protest song.
Earlier this year on January 14, I wrote about their musical/oratoria montage: “Our Story” head tax sound bites and turn table hip hop by No Luck Club
Now the Globe & Mail is writing about them, as they invade Toronto,
bringing the head tax issue to the ears of Toronto's hip hop and just
plain head tax hip culture.
Head-Tax Hip Hop
Special to the Globe and Mail
November 3, 2006
'We don't want Chinamen in Canada. This is a white man's country and white men will keep it so." The speaker's voice, sampled from our not-so-distant past, is but one of many shocking historic sound bites that Vancouver instrumental hip-hop trio No Luck Club spread throughout the cinematic beatscape of Our Story on their just-released album Prosperity.
Using found sound from old educational records and documentaries, No Luck Club's founding brothers Matt and Trevor Chan assembled a politicized "head-tax mash-up" about Canada's former anti-Chinese immigration policies.
"It's us. It's what we're about. It's our history. No one talks about it, but it happened," Trevor Chan explains. "[Our parents] have got their heads down -- they're just working, working, working. But we grew up in a multicultural society, so we're of the mind that you have to say something. What the hell? We're the only race this has happened to."
The Chan family was personally affected by the Chinese head tax and subsequent Exclusion Act. Beginning in 1885 -- after the completion of the railway, of course -- about 82,000 Chinese immigrants were charged up to $500, roughly two years wages, to enter Canada. Then, from 1923 to 1947, the government banned Chinese immigration altogether.
"Our family was separated by the Exclusion Act. Our great-grandfather was to come over and then bring his wife and kids, but you weren't allowed to bring your spouse over for decades," Chan says.
He notes that his parents didn't really "get" their hip-hop take on the topic: "They said "Oh, that's kind of interesting.' But what they did get was the press that surrounded it -- we actually had a lot of coverage in the Chinese media."
Head-tax redress has been a hot-button issue, especially in Vancouver, after two decades of protests finally earned an apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the summer. The first three $20,000 compensation cheques went out on Oct. 20, but with the "symbolic" payments available only to the estimated 400 survivors and widows, rather than their descendants, the redress campaign continues.
When not providing the soundtrack for petition-signing parties, the Chan brothers and third member Paul Belen, a champion turntablist also known as DJ Pluskratch, have been struggling to get their music careers off the ground after their band name proved too apt.
While in high school back in 1989, the Chan brothers started their still-going-strong hip-hop radio show Straight No Chaser on Simon Fraser University's CJSF FM. Inspired by the cut 'n' paste sound collages of artists such as Coldcut and DJ Shadow, they eventually started recording their own music with Matt providing turntable cuts and scratches and Trevor working the laptop beats and samples. In 2000, they sent a demo to 75Ark, a well-respected American indie hip-hop label run by Dan (The Automator) Nakamura, best known for producing the first Gorillaz record.
"They got back to us a week later and said, 'Let's do something,' " Chan recalls. After signing a three-album contract, the brothers began working on a planned trilogy loosely based around the Chinese deities of good fortune.
But their luck proved fleeting when 75Ark folded the following year, just before their debut Happiness was set to drop. They found a new home with Ill Boogie Records, but soon after No Luck Club's first album finally came out in the fall of 2003, that label also closed its doors.
After adding DJ Paul Belen to their lineup in 2004, they got back to work on a follow-up album. But after so many label snafus, they decided to release Prosperity independently, although "it was a decision we made kicking and screaming, my friend."
This scratch-laden and beat-based sophomore opus further advances their virtuosic widescreen sound, bolstering their already eclectic retinue of jazz, funk, techno, classical and spy soundtrack samples with new Bollywood and Latin flavours.
Speaking of widening their geographic scope, the night after No Luck Club's CD release party at Toronto's Supermarket on Nov. 8, the trio will appear at the Rivoli to perform a world music show originally commissioned for the Vancouver Folk Festival.
"They probably thought we were going to take old folk records, throw on a drumbeat and start scratching over top," Chan says. "But we thought, 'Let's take our collage approach and expand it.' Usually we draw from funk and rock and electronic music, so we apply the same methods but take percussion from North Africa, combined with Indonesian gamelan music and throw in some Indian string instruments.
You create this crazy mess."
But though their album revels in Chinese culture through political sound bites and kung fu samples -- "people who watch Hong Kong films and know Cantonese might recognize some and be like, 'Oh my God, that's so badass' -- there's no Chinese instrumentation to be heard.
"This is something I really want to do, but I don't want to mess it up," Chan says. "Our grandfather and uncles do play traditional Chinese instruments so we did grow up listening to that. But I want to improve my production chops so that when we do create music using those elements, we're doing it a service rather than taking away from it," he says.
"We've got to represent."
No Luck Club plays a CD release party Nov. 8, 9 p.m., $6. Supermarket 268 Augusta Ave., 416-840-0501. The group plays a CBC Radio 3 taping Nov. 9, 8:30 p.m., $6. The Rivoli, 334 Queen St. W., 416-596-1908.