My eldest daughter has really begun to show an interest in our family history. She has become quite adept at going online and locating documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and records relating to military service for our relatives from three, four and even, five generations ago. She uses this information to tell us all stories about the people whose decisions influenced how our own lives turned out. However, one of the areas of her family history that she finds to be a source of frustration centers upon me. She is constantly encouraging me to tell her the stories of my own life. I have not ever been someone who tooted his own horn so, for that reason, I guess I have not been as open about the stories of my past as she would like. So, let’s remedy that a bit today. To my darling daughter, Leah, here is a true story about a man who has gone on to be known as the “Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop music” and how his example helped me decide to become a school teacher. His name was Ron Nelson and this is the story of a time when our divergent paths crossed.
When I was in high school I began to find out what kind of person I was going to be as an adult. One of the things that happened was that I developed a reputation for being a writer. In those days, I was more apt to write plays or poetry than I was to write commentary, as I do now. I always used my friends as characters in these plays that I would write. Every spare moment of class time that I could wrest away from my studies was spent writing in my notebooks or scribblers, as we called them in Cape Breton. Fast forward to the end of my final year of high school, one of the traditions there was that every graduating class would have a story written about it that would be read aloud at the graduation prom during the dinner portion of the evening. I didn’t write the story for my class but I was one of the very first people mentioned when it was read aloud. In the story, it was being predicted that my future included becoming an author. When that was said aloud, many of those in attendance nodded their heads in agreement that this prediction stood a good chance of becoming true.
I enrolled in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto (now called Toronto Metropolitan University) in the belief that I would one day become a professional “script writer”. Because of the joy I got from writing plays and the positive feedback I received from everyone in high school, it seemed logical to my eighteen year old self that writing for a living was the way for me to go. I was one of only 100 applicants selected (out of 1200 who applied). At the time, my ego was such that I expected to be selected so when I was, I didn’t take it for the compliment that it was, I took it more as confirmation that I had what it took and that my experience in Toronto would mirror my experiences in high school. Oh boy! Was I ever in for a surprise!
I graduated from high school with a mark of 99% in English. So, I went into my first university writing class with much confidence. Our introductory assignment was to go to a movie theatre in Toronto, watch any movie our little hearts desired and then write a professional movie review (as if we were writing for one of the local Toronto newspapers). I went and watched a screwball comedy called, “Stir Crazy” that starred Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It was not the greatest movie ever written and I wrote my review accordingly. When I got my assignment back during the next class, I was shocked to see that I had been given a mark of 69%. That was a full thirty points lower than my high school English average! I had never received such a low mark in my entire school career! My head was swimming as I looked my assignment over and tried to distinguish my typewritten words amid the sea of red ink marks that littered my page. It turned out that I had tied for the top mark in the class for that assignment. That made no difference to me. My confidence was completely rattled right out of the gate. With that one assignment, I suddenly realized how out of my depth I really was and much harder I was going to have to work just to avoid failing.
As with many such things in life, I began to adjust and things settled down a bit. I developed a better study routine. I made connections with the new folks who were now my classmates. My professors got to know me better and I did likewise with them. However, I never quite shook off that initial feeling that I didn’t belong or that I wasn’t really good enough to warrant being there. What confirmed that for me was a second assignment (this time is audio class) that actually had nothing to do with how well I did or didn’t do. In fact, to be honest, I was relatively pleased with my own effort in my first audio assignment. But, what happened was that I was given the opportunity to see how high the bar was really set, as far as skill levels went. It was the day that a young man from the Caribbean named Ron Nelson chose to reveal himself as someone who would end up changing Canadian music history. It was also the day that I decided to become a teacher. Here is how it all happened.
In our audio course, we were not yet working in a digital media field as we would be today. Back in the early 1980s, everything was still recorded and played on audio tape. So, one of the first lessons we were given in the audio course was how to record ourselves onto an audio tape and then how to make seamless edits. Making edits required us to use a razor and physically cut the audio tape and then tape it back together. Our first editing assignment was to create a 30-second “K-Tel” audio commercial. For anyone unaware of what I mean by a “K-Tel” commercial…back in the 1970s and early 80s, there was a record company called K-Tel. Their thing was releasing compilation albums. Thus, whenever there was an advertisement for the latest record they were releasing, they would play thirty seconds or so of music composed of short segments of some of the songs appearing on the album, with an hyped up announcer speaking over top of it all. For our assignment, I had to use 6-8 songs, edit them together in some coherent fashion and then lay down a voice-over track on top of the music. I was able to do this and was fairly pleased with my product which I called, “K-Tel presents: Rock of the Commonwealth”! It was music from the British Commonwealth of nations. It started off with “Everything She Does Is Magic” by The Police (out of England). I followed that with “Cuts Like a Knife” by our own Byran Adams. I remember using “Six Months In a Leaky Boat” by New Zealand’s Split Enz somewhere in there, too. I think I got a B- for it and I was ok with that as it was the very first time I had ever worked with audio tape and the editing process.
As we went through the class and listened to everyone’s “K-Tel” effort, all were reasonably good. Some were a little better than mine. Some were not quite as good. But all were satisfactory, at least. Then it came time to listen to the tape from Ron Nelson. Ron was a quiet, unassuming kind of guy when we first met. But he was friendly and willing to work with anyone. That was important to a shy guy like me. While we were never best friends or anything, he was one of the first people to willingly sit beside me and talk with me, which meant a lot. So, anyway, we were all sitting in class listening to these K-Tel tapes when the professor came to Ron and asked for his. As shocked as I was when I received that 69% in writing class, I was just as shocked now in audio class but for the opposite reason. Ron’s K-Tel tape was brilliant! It was stunningly good! In fact, there were so many things going on in the foreground, the middleground and the background of his thirty-second tape that we actually listened to his tape multiple times just to try to catch everything that Ron had done. When it was finished, the professor asked Ron to walk us through how he had created such a masterpiece. So, I sat there, slack-jawed, as Ron Nelson began to reveal his magic. His tape turned out to be a forerunner of Hip Hop sampling which was to explode in popularity as the 1980s rolled along. But, at that time, it was relatively unheard of in Canada and it completely blew our collective minds! I still remember listening to Ron dissect his tape and re-assemble it. There was an “aw-shucks” aspect of his presentation but there was also a glimmer in his eyes that I will never forget. The only time I can recall anything like it was when I watched the movie, Amadeus and, in particular, the scene toward the end of the movie when a dying Mozart asks his rival Salieri to record his Requiem March for him because he is too weak to do it himself. In agreeing to do so, Salieri is given a peek inside the genius that was Mozart’s mind. *(You can watch that scene here). I felt that way as I listened to Ron Nelson speak that day. I felt as Salieri must have, too. For I knew after listening to Ron Nelson that I could never do what he had just done. His skill was at an unobtainable level for the likes of someone like me. It was a moment of reckoning.
I remember returning to my dorm room that night and realizing that I would never be a star in the broadcasting business. I had just witnessed a real star in action and the only future for me was to strive to be competent at best. To be, as Salieri lamented, a mediocrity. That was not an acceptable life goal for me. So, at that very moment in my first year of the Radio and Television Broadcasting course, I decided to switch to Plan B, which was to become a teacher. I decided to stick with the broadcasting course and see it through because having a degree was a prerequisite to get into Teachers College. In some ways, tempering my broadcasting ambitions made the next two and a half years more tolerable and enjoyable. The pressure melted away. I learned a lot. I kept up my marks and, lo and behold, a few years later, I was accepted into the Education Programme at the University of Western Ontario. Many of the skills I learned at Ryerson translated well to the classroom. Consequently, I was always comfortable being in front of a classroom filled with children. As life has turned out, I believe that being a teacher was my true calling after all. I am very proud of my career and of being able to spend time with so many incredible children, families and staff over the years. But, no matter how far from the world of broadcasting I strayed, I always kept an eye out for my pal, Ron Nelson. For, unlike me, Ron had a lot of ambition when it came to his future. He ended up achieving a form of greatness that I am happy to acknowledge. Here is his story and why it matters.
When I was in my first year of university and was learning such life skills as doing my own laundry properly and being able to cook basic meals, Ron Nelson was creating his own radio programme called Fantastic Voyages that aired weekly on the Ryerson campus radio station, CKLN. This radio station was more than the usual campus radio station because of its geographic location in the heart of downtown Toronto. So, even though it was primarily run by Ryerson students such as Ron, it broadcast to a potential audience over one million people. Fantastic Voyages was a radio show that was dedicated to the emerging genre of Hip Hop and, as such, it was the first show of its type anywhere in Canada. In order to provide some context as to how fresh and original Ron’s idea was…this was a full three years prior to Hip Hop supergroup Run-DMC teaming up with rockers, Aerosmith, to record a funked up rap version of the song, “Walk This Way”. That video gained lots of airplay on music video stations such as MTV (in the US) and Much Music (in Canada) and really helped introduce Hip Hop into the mainstream of the music world. But, years earlier, my classmate Ron Nelson was introducing Hip Hop to Canada’s biggest city while I was learning how to not burn my Kraft Dinner. The response to Fantastic Voyages went through the roof. For a while, ratings for Ron’s show were strong enough that they showed up with those of existing AM and FM stations throughout the city. That had never happened before to CKLN nor has it happened since. Buoyed by the positive reaction his programming was receiving, Ron began extending his reach by organizing local Hip Hop concerts and “Battle of the Bands”-type affairs. In a world where representation matters, Ron Nelson was giving people of colour in Toronto a chance to listen to their own history being put to music, to see successful people of colour singing songs about their own struggles and aspirations and, most importantly, he was giving wannabe rappers a venue for them to practice their craft and refine their skills. In doing so, Ron helped launch Hip Hop as a musical form in Canada. Not long after graduating from Ryerson, Ron opened his own recording studio. The first Canadian HIp Hop stars such as Maestro Fresh Wes and Dream Warriors recorded there. As the 1980s and 90s rolled on, Ron worked with everyone involved in Canadian Hip Hop, as well as many huge US acts such as Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Eric B. & Rakim, Ice Cube and Queen Latifah. It is not for nothing that many people refer to Ron Nelson as “The Godfather of Hip Hop” in Canada.
This brings us to today’s song, “Northern Touch” by Vancouver-based Hip Hop stars, Rascalz. I have often been critical in my music posts about modern Hip Hop being needlessly explicit (in a sexual sense), often times profane for the sake of being profane and also being steeped in misogyny. As the new century dawned, Ron Nelson, too, grew disillusioned with the state of Hip Hop (especially in the US) and allowed Fantastic Voyages to come to a close. He kept his hand in the game by producing a radio show dedicated to reggae music, which was also close to his heart. But, for a while, the Canadian Hip Hop scene grew quiet. Almost a decade or more went by between the original hits of the Dream Warriors and Maestro Fresh Wes and the next wave of Canadian Hip Hop artists to emerge. Of those who did, most were Vancouverites or else, they hailed from the Greater Toronto Area. The song, “Northern Touch” was written by Rascalz but was always intended to be a collaborative effort between as many of the main players in the Canadian HIp Hop scene as was possible. As a result, verses were personally written and performed by artists such as Choclair, Thrust, Kardinal Offishall, as well as Checkmate. The result is the banger track, “Northern Touch”. This song ended up winning many Rap-oriented Juno Awards. It was also used as one of the theme songs for the Toronto Raptors basketball team the year before they won the NBA Championship in 2018. *(Watch the Kardinal Offishall remix here). For many, “Northern Touch” has become the official anthem of Canadian Hip Hop and has been widely praised for its swagger and positive energy.
You never know when a moment is going to come along and change your life. For me, one of the most significant was Ron Nelson’s little K-Tel compilation tape and his explanation of the creative process behind it. His genius allowed me to quickly see that my own creative talent and passion would be better served elsewhere. I do not take that as a failure on my part. Instead, I am grateful to Ron for allowing me to pivot early enough in my life so that I could start helping children sooner. Ron Nelson has no idea that he had a role in the direction of my life but he did. We don’t always get to choose our own destiny; oftentimes it is destiny that chooses us. I was destined to help children and tell stories that bring pleasure to others. Ron Nelson was destined to change the face of Canadian music in a culturally significant way for so many people who had been under-represented before his arrival on the scene. Yet, for a short time, he and I sat in the same chairs in the same rooms working on the same assignments. Whenever I hear from a former student about something special going on in their lives, I smile and feel as though I traveled along the path that was meant for me. Whenever I hear a great song like “Northern Touch”, with all of the confidence and pride and swagger it entails, I believe that Ron Nelson traveled down the right path for him, as well. To do so is about all one can hope for in life. Congratulations, Ron, for everything you have accomplished in life. For what it is worth, I am proud to know you even in the small way that I do. Thanks for bringing your best to all that you have done….starting with that K-Tel project for Professor Keast. 🙂
The link for the video of the song, “Northern Touch” by Rascalz, Checkmate, Kardinall Offishall, Choclair and Thrust can be found here.
The official website for Rascalz can be found here.
The official website for Checkmate can be found here.
The official website for Kardinal Offishall can be found here.
The official website for Thrust can be found here.
The official website for Choclair can be found here.
The official website for Ron Nelson can be found here.
The official website for radio station CKLN in Toronto can be found here.
Finally, the song, “Northern Touch” namedrops the city of Vancouver so, the official website for the city of Vancouver can be found here.
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