NOW Magazine

A HIP-HOP ORAL HISTORY OF THE CONCERT HALL

LEGENDARY TORONTO PROMOTER RON NELSON MICHIE MEE, DREAM WARRIORS AND KARDINAL OFFISHALL ON THE 100-YEAR-OLD VENUE’S ENDURING LEGACY

- WORDS BY KEVIN RITCHIE | PHOTOS BY SAMUEL ENGELKING

❝T oronto’s Apollo,” “a mini-Caribana,” “the matriarch” of Toronto’s hip-hop scene.

Storied live music venue the Concert Hall is most often associated with 60s rock acts like Led Zeppelin. In the 70s, 80s and 90s it was a place to see punk, new wave, funk, dancehall, reggae and grunge.

Much less talked about in mainstream media is the role the 100-year-old venue at 888 Yonge played in laying the foundation for Toronto’s currently thriving hiphop scene.

In the 80s and early 90s, hip-hop parties were dispersed around suburban neighbourh­oods in community halls, schools, basements and rental places. But as the scene grew, the venue housed in the centrally located Masonic Temple at Yonge and Davenport became hip-hop’s mecca.

CKLN radio host and DJ Ron Nelson was the best known hip-hop promoter in the 80s, responsibl­e for bringing Public Enemy, Boogie Down Production­s, Roxanne Shanté, Salt-N-Pepa and Eric B. & Rakim to town. Hip-hop shows had happened at the Concert Hall prior to Nelson’s first show there, but he took the scene to a new level with multi-artist bills and rap battles.

Throughout the 80s, Maestro, Michie Mee, Dream Warriors and others establishe­d themselves on its stage, while the sound was supplied by sound systems/DJ crews like Sunshine, Kilowatt Sound and Chic Dynasty.

While hip-hop has endured, the Concert Hall faded out. The Masons owned and managed the building until financial troubles led them to sell it in 1994. Nelson left hip-hop and moved into reggae/dancehall promotion. CTV scooped up the property in the late 1990s and operated MTV Canada there, before London, Ontariohea­dquartered Info-Tech purchased it in 2013.

Info-Tech is installing a new sound system and relaunchin­g the Concert Hall as a venue during Toronto Jazz Fest later this month. In anticipati­on of the Concert Hall’s re-emergence, NOW spoke with artists, promoters and hip-hop fans about the most legendary venue in Toronto hip-hop history.

Christophe­r “Thrust” France, rapper: The Concert Hall was like the Apollo of Toronto. That stage made every prominent artist in our scene. If you couldn’t perform at Concert Hall, then you couldn’t get the stamp of approval from the city.

Motion (poet/MC/broadcaste­r): Hip-hop was very much an undergroun­d culture in Toronto at the time. The Concert Hall provided the space for people to come together and assert who they are, what they love and show how big the Black and people of colour community was across the city. It was key in growing the culture.

King Lou (artist/Dream Warriors): It was like a miniCariba­na. The Concert Hall became the ideology of growth for people in project neighbourh­oods.

Michie Mee (artist/MC): If Concert Hall was a girl, it’d be the matriarch of our scene, of our family.

Paul “Mastermind” Parhar (DJ/broadcaste­r): There was nothing glamorous about the venue. I was 13 or 14 at the time, and it was a little scary because the crowds were huge and obviously older. But once we got inside, we would just go upstairs and sit on the padded seats.

Jonathan Ramos (promoter, Ink Entertainm­ent): Ron Nelson was the epicentre of that whole hip-hop scene. Not only was he the biggest and most reputable promoter, he was also a DJ and hosted the biggest radio show, Fantastic Voyage, on CKLN, from 1 to 4 pm on Saturdays.

Kardinal Offishall (artist, A&R exec for Universal Music Canada): They would do an audio recap of the week before during Ron Nelson’s radio show. I can still see myself sitting in my living room listening to what happened at Concert Hall.

Ron Nelson (promoter/broadcaste­r): Hip-hop was so new, there weren’t a lot of promoters doing concerts. When things got elevated to a point where you needed a venue that could hold between 1,000 to 2,000 people, there wasn’t really much choice.

Ramos: Nobody wanted to give hip-hop promoters Friday or Saturday because the events were all-ages and there was stigma about violence. So concerts always ended up in non-traditiona­l spaces.

Nelson: The all-ages thing was part of the reason why the whole thing worked.

Thrust: Concert Hall was really the only large place that would rent to a Black promoter on a regular basis. It was the best because it was right downtown, and downtown was the middle ground.

Nelson: [The Masons] needed to make money and they weren’t judgmental. They basically let in anyone who seemed to have their ish together.

Craig Mannix (A&R manager, Sony Music Entertainm­ent Canada): In the 80s, the music scenes were much more segregated [than now]. You were either a b-boy or a punk or a mod or a rocker. Everybody had their categories.

King Lou: Once you went there, you knew right off the bat where certain guys were from. A downtown person, that’s different from a Scarboroug­h person, that’s different from a west-end person.

Ivan Berry (manager/cofounder Beat Factory Records): Where else were you going to get 2,000 people – the entire hip-hop community – screaming, yelling and dancing at your act because they were there with Biz Markie, Scott La Rock and KRS-One or Public Enemy. As a platform it was massive.

Thrust: Our scene at the time was 95 per cent Jamaican – Jamaicans that were into this new thing call hiphop. But they still had a Jamaican attitude, which is like, “If you ain’t doing it, we don’t want to see it.” Motion: As an artist, that was the stage you wanted to conquer. You wanted to be able to say, “Yeah, I did it.”

Michie Mee: It was raw energy. If we weren’t good, they would boo us. It was, “Let me tell you who I am,” and you had to prove it and perform it.

King Lou: We didn’t have a lot of money to go out and buy expensive outfits that the Americans would be showing in their videos. We would draw, colour and paint on clothes. All these things became expression­s. No stores made it – we made it. Nelson: I was seduced by people who had money and wanted me to take it to that next level. The very first time I did the Concert Hall, one guy who I thought was a pimp and another guy who was my head of security had financed the first Monster Jams. It was a hip-hop showcase of sound systems and eventually artists.

Mastermind: I met Ron at the radio station and became part of his street team. He was way ahead of the curve when it came to promoting.

Thrust: Ron promoted his concerts the way labels started doing street promo. It was planned months in advance. We had a grid of the whole city and went from the east and to the west end. We met up downtown to get flyers and hit every major bus stop where high school kids were.

Ramos: I grew up in Brampton. We’d always make the trip downtown, but you took your chances. Would the artist show up? Would they get paid? Would security be proper? Or the artist would perform for 15 minutes, and it’d end in fights. That’s where Ron came in. I can’t think of a show where Ron never delivered [unlike other promoters].

Mastermind: I watched what Ron did – the people he hired, what he got those people to do and how he ran security, how he ran his door. He had his parents selling patties and pops. He was also the DJ and the host.

Nelson: You prayed to God everything went as planned – and that nobody robbed you. I had a giant safe I brought with me to lock the money in. You had to do everything yourself. My parents served the food. We had long lineups and we’d go through a hundred dozen patties in one night.

Motion: The energy started before you even got to the front door. Those steps that led up to the Concert Hall would be full of people, going down the sidewalk into the street. The anticipati­on built as you tryna get into those two front doors – or the back door, depending on how you rolling. Thrust: When you came out of the subway you would hear the windows shaking from the bass four blocks away.

Michie Mee: As soon as you came out the subway, you’re looking to see how long the lineup is. Who’s at the back door? I loved the back door because I was always one of the cool girls who could get in.

Nelson: The back door was where the gangs would terrorize my events by gathering up in that area and trying to break in. If somebody opens that back door for Michie Mee, then all of Regent Park is gonna jump in.

Mannix: Of course you had your tensions, but back then there was no gunplay. You had your odd fight with fisticuffs.

Nelson: When they started to get out of control and gather around the doors, it became a big problem for security, and then the police came into it. I had so many meetings with police regarding the Concert Hall. I had to go to court when they accused me of selling liquor, which I never did.

King Lou: Backstage were all these different people with abilities and powers, but nobody knowing how powerful or the possibilit­ies of where they could go.

Nelson: Hip-hop has always been mostly guys, but there was a lot of women in the scene. Motion was representi­ng back in the day. D-Shan, Fly K, Mischievou­s C, Cool K from Kilowatt sound system. Berry: Michie’s secret weapon in a battle was to start breaking down to dancehall or reggae because the Americans wouldn’t do that. The DJ would change the music from a hip-hop to a dancehall beat and the crowd would go berserk. [The song] Jamaican Funk sounds the way it does because it came out of the concept of battling.

Michie Mee: When we did our set, the reggae would be so prominent you could hear the transition even louder through the system. You’d feel that the reggae bass was different than hip-hop. It added another layer.

Berry: The battles were the epitome of emotion because you had something to say. That’s where you had beef.

Michie Mee: The New York vs Toronto [battle] was the most famous event at the Concert Hall. There was nothing for the audience to gauge you by, so you had to entertain. The other female MC [Sugar Love] said, “You want this bitch over here to win?” And the whole crowd said ,“Yeah!” I was just happy to get the recognitio­n, to have won, to be a part of the scene and to still go on.

Kardinal Offishall: The first time I heard the [hip-hop/ dancehall] mash-up was organicall­y from Michie. That’s just a fact. A bunch of American acts used to combine hip-hop and reggae as well, but that became the norm for Toronto.

Motion: When Public Enemy came, I was part of the Unity Force, a Black youth organizati­on. Ron would have us come up and speak to the crowd and address what was taking place in the city – whether it was police shootings of youth, different protests, riots on Yonge Street.

Mannix: The Public Enemy show [in 1989] was different because it was the first hip-hop show at that venue that I went to that was not primarily Black.

Nelson: I didn’t understand why a guy came to me after the show and said, “Are you Ron Nelson?” I said, “Yeah.” And he handed me a cheque for $7,500. “What’s this?” He goes, “For T-shirts.” Every single white kid had bought a friggin T-shirt. Black people didn’t do that. We didn’t have that kind of money. That was the first realizatio­n to me that there was a brand new market.

Michie Mee: Ron was the common denominato­r between everybody. He was a DJ. He was the promoter. He had a studio. We depended on him. He was the one who gave us the confidence, specifical­ly me, to be okay with who you are as an immigrant.

Kardinal Offishall: I did the launch party for the Kardi Gras album at Concert Hall. We did a live, almost twohour podcast about the history of Toronto. I also had archivists scan flyers, blow them up and put them around the building. I wanted to bring those vibes into a modern time.

Nelson: The Concert Hall separated Toronto from the rest of the country. The rest of the country did not have Ron Nelson doing hip-hop like a drug addict does drugs. Year after year after year, it became an integral part of people’s lives.

See extended version at nowtoronto.com. kevinr@nowtoronto.com @kevinritch­ie

 ??  ?? This page/opposite page: a selection of flyers advertisin­g promoter Ron Nelson’s hip-hop shows at the Concert Hall.
This page/opposite page: a selection of flyers advertisin­g promoter Ron Nelson’s hip-hop shows at the Concert Hall.
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Promoter and radio host Ron Nelson
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