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A Tribe Called Red, A Nation Called Halluci

With their highly anticipated third album dropping Sept. 16, Aboriginal DJ trio A Tribe Called Red continues to reinvent next-level powwow-inspired music. We Are the Halluci Nation features collaborations with John Trudell (Santee Dakota), Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and drum groups Northern Voice and Black Bear, among others.

From Left: DJs Bear Witness, Tim “2oolman” Hill and Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau. Submitted Photo.

It all started with a party – a place to play music and have a good time, Indigenous-style.

The year was 2007. The place was the Babylon night club in Ottawa, Canada. And two Aboriginal DJs—Bear Witness (Cayuga Six Nations) and Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau (Nipissing Ojibway)—created their first “Electric Pow Wow” party.

The evening was a sellout – a complete success, according to Bear Witness.

“Being Aboriginals, we came up with the idea of starting a party for the Aboriginal youth of Ottawa. We had no idea how it would go or how we’d be received,” Bear Witness says. “We both had our own club nights, but this was the first time we came together as Indigenous DJs.”

Nine years, an evolved style and a bonus DJ later, the group now known as A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) is set to release its third album Sept. 16, the highly anticipated We Are the Halluci Nation.

What was once a party for fun has turned purposefully political. Structured like a book or collection of short stories, the new album explores Indigenous rights on a global scale.

“We threw a party aimed at the Indian community, but it was inclusive. We had people of all ages and people from the gay and Caribbean communities,” Bear Witness says of their first party in 2007. The party’s still happening, but it’s grown into something bigger and better. “We took that response to heart and kept that feeling going to create an inclusive space for everybody.”

Chapter 1: Forging a New Sound

The music the duo played at their first party was a blend of electronic dance music (EDM), dancehall reggae and hip-hop. The two DJs performed under the name Red Handed and their “Electric Pow Wow” party became a bimonthly event.

“Because of the overwhelming support of the Indigenous people in the city, we wanted to give something back,” Bear Witness says.

“A year after we started, we got the idea of remixing pow wow songs with hip-hop beats.”

The DJ duo laid powwow songs on top of dubstep and breakbeat tracks and played the mash-ups at their events to great fanfare. Soon after, Dan “DJ Shub” General (Mohawk) was invited to join and help create original tracks.

A Tribe Called Red was born.

“We wanted something that would appeal to urban and rural First Nations people,” Bear Witness explains.

The phrase “A Tribe Called” has been adopted by many drum groups and communities. Bear Witness says it’s not unusual, for instance, to see jackets that say “A Tribe Called Mi’kmaq” or “A Tribe Called Bigstone.”

“So ‘A Tribe Called Red’ would be familiar to people who follow the powwow trail,” Bear Witness says. Their name also paid tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, a trio of alternative hip-hop artists popular in the 80s and 90s, “which would appeal to people in urban settings.”

Using “Red” honored the teachings of the medicine wheel, a powerful, spiritual symbol representative of many Indigenous people across Turtle Island,” Bear Witness says.

The DJs soon found the rhythms of grass dance and other powwow songs meshed perfectly with the beats of hip-hop and EDM tracks. They were soon creating their own rhythms and mixing them with traditional Native music. DJ Shub had been producing hip-hop tracks for 10 years and his expertise helped the band develop their new fusion of powwow, dubstep and hip-hop.

ATCR put free, original content on their SoundCloud page and the tracks exploded. Within a few years, they were getting millions of plays on SoundCloud and other digital media sites – all without a manager, record label or promotion, except word of mouth on social media.

“In the past, people had an idea that Indigenous music wouldn’t generate interest in the larger musical community,” Bear Witness says. “What we discovered was that the glass ceiling was due to lack of access to major labels and the network they represent. Social media allowed us to attract the right people to get us that access.

“In the past, people had an idea that Indigenous music wouldn’t generate interest in the larger musical community,” Bear Witness says. “What we discovered was that the glass ceiling was due to lack of access to major labels and the network they represent. Social media allowed us to attract the right people to get us that access.”

“We found we had the same interests and language as other oppressed cultures,” Bear Witness continues. “The idea that we were throwing a party that was more than just a party—that it had social ramifications, that it was community minded—helped us grow an audience. In the years we’ve been active, we’ve seen a big change in the dance community in Ottawa. People want kinship when they dance and listen to music; you don’t dance in a vacuum.”

David Dacks, Canadian music critic and artistic director of the Music Gallery, an organization that supports innovative musicians in Toronto, was an early supporter.

“I’d heard powwow music combined with dub-reggae and hip-hop before, in a limited and not always successful way,” Dacks says. “I’d never been in an audience like theirs. It was the first time I’d witnessed an ‘urban Aboriginal’ vibe – people from all over Canada, young, arts-oriented progressives, claiming their own sound and feeling.

“People were freaking out, practically crying tears of joy, because this sound was speaking so deeply to them,” Dacks continues. “When I interviewed Bear and DJ NDN, I was impressed with their maturity. They were able to savor this special connection with their audience – both leading and following them. They’ve inspired urban Indigeneity around the world, and we’re starting to hear international echoes of their work – even Kanye’s paying attention.”

Chapter 2: Nation II Nation

Their mix of traditional music and dance beats went global, with sold-out parties on two continents. A manager, Guillaume Decouflet, came on board. “He told us to make a compilation of the best tracks we’d done and put them in an album,” Bear Witness says.

An album meant reviews and award nominations.

Though the band continued to release free, downloadable tracks, their first, album, A Tribe Called Red, was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, an award given each year to Canadian albums of distinction, selected by a panel of music critics.

The album has more than 100,000 downloads.

From Left: Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau, Bear Witness and Tim “2oolman” Hill. Submitted Photo.

 

After the success of A Tribe Called Red, the band’s artistic vision expanded. They reached out to drum groups, asking them to write songs and create grooves that would become the foundation of a new kind of electric powwow music.

They got in touch with Robert and Joywind Todd of Tribal Spirit Music, a label specializing in the music of drum groups.

“We knew their music from SoundCloud and their concerts at local clubs,” Robert Todd says. “When they called, I was thrilled to be on board. We met Bear, DJ NDN and DJ Shub at a coffee shop. They had their kids with them and we hit it off. We let them have the tracks from the groups we’d recorded. They told us they weren’t going to pay a flat fee for the rights, the way many record labels do. Every group would get ongoing compensation and royalties, for as long Tribe did. We looked each other in the eye and knew who we were, and we’ve had a great relationship since that meeting.

“We also changed the way we recorded drum groups,” Robert Todd says.

Powwow music is usually recorded with one mic live off the floor, exactly as it sounds in a powwow arena, Bear Witness explains.

For ATCR, drum groups were recorded using a multi-mic technique by putting a bass drum mic on the bottom of the drum and a directional mic on the skin head, so the DJs could mix as much bass and flap as they wanted. Men and women singers were recorded separately, so the songs could be broken down and remixed. The new recording format also allowed the label and drum groups to mix their albums differently than before.

Released in 2013, ATCR’s second album, Nation II Nation, sold 15,000 copies. Among their list of accolades, the band won a Juno award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for Breakthrough Group of the Year in 2014.

“When we started the nomination process, we made a conscious decision not to enter the album in the Indigenous category,” Bear Witness says. “We created something that needed to compete on a national level with everyone else. We’re not saying the Indigenous category shouldn’t exist, but we wanted to compete with everything else out there. When we won, it was a bit of a shock.”

Chapter 3: We Are the Halluci Nation

In concert, Bear Witness, DJ NDN and Tim “2oolman” Hill (Mohawk)—2oolman joined soon after DJ Shub left the group on good terms in 2014—play the tracks they’ve created and remix them live. Their shows often include traditional jingle dancers or people in powwow regalia dancing bboy style. There’s also usually a backdrop of video collages that Bear Witness, a longtime filmmaker, creates to complement the music.

“I do live video mixes, using stereotypical images of Indians turned around to make something we can laugh at and make fun of,” Bear Witness says. “It’s challenging to the non-Indian audience when you confront them with the stereotypical images they see in everyday life. It may not sink in right way, but it gets them thinking that maybe the things they thought were funny as a kid may be racist.

“When people realize they’ve been seeing Indigenous people through the lens of colonialism, they have a different experience,” Bear Witness continues. “Common ground between Indians and settlers is hard to find. Even asking these questions can lead to arguments, but when they see the images, in a new context, the whole colonial thing comes apart.”

“When people realize they’ve been seeing Indigenous people through the lens of colonialism, they have a different experience,” Bear Witness says. “Common ground between Indians and settlers is hard to find. Even asking these questions can lead to arguments, but when they see the images, in a new context, the whole colonial thing comes apart.”

The new album, We Are the Halluci Nation, took nearly three years to assemble. ATCR fit recording sessions into their downtime between tours. Tracks were recorded across the globe with the band producing the final tracks at home in Ottawa. The songs swing in a way that’s not usual for electro music, with hints of rock, R&B and international folk in the mix.

“The goal was to avoid the clichés of EDM. There are no big buildups and giant drop-offs. We wanted dance music that was more dramatic, with more range of emotion and feeling,” Bear Witness says. “I’m a huge fan of concept albums with a beginning, middle and end, something more than a collection of dance songs.”

Collaborations on the new album include Tribal Spirit Music drum groups Black Bear, Chippewa Travellers and Northern Voice. The album also features OKA, an Aboriginal rock band from Australia; Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer who has performed with Björk; Canadian-Iraqi rapper Narcy; Canadian writer Joseph Boyden (Manawan First Nations Ojibway); Maxida Märak, a Swedish-Sami indigenous singer; Colombian-Wayuu-born Lido Pimienta, who incorporates Indigenous Afro-Colombian rhythms into her music; Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def); and the late poet and activist John Trudell (Santee Dakota).

“The tracks [Trudell] did for Halluci Nation were some of the last things he recorded,” Bear Witness says. “When we told him about the album, he sent us some recordings. We built the album around the ideas he gave us.”

Before he passed away last December, Trudell spoke to Native Peoples about his collaboration with ATCR.

“I like them because they’re a blend of ancient and futuristic,” Trudell said for a story in the July/August 2015 issue. “It’s evolution is how I look at it.”

Trudell was impressed with how engaged young, Indigenous musicians are in their communities, and how issues are addressed in their music. “That’s a representation of the evolution of our reality,” Trudell said. “It’s not politics. Not bullshit talking. Change can come with art. My feeling is that for us as Native people, our authenticity comes through our culture and art – it expresses the reality of who we are.”

Chapter 4: Not the End, but a New Beginning

The band has teased fans with dance-inducing and thought-provoking singles and videos from the new album, including the energizing “Stadium Pow Wow” and the title track “We Are the Halluci Nation,” featuring Trudell and his poetry (see video below).

“We wanted to put out something fresh before the album dropped,” Bear Witness says.

The “Stadium Pow Wow” video shows images of traditional dancers in regalia, as well as everyday urban life riding in cars, skateboarding and dancing in clubs. “It’s not officially on the album, but there is a surprise on the finished record,” Bear Witness says cryptically. “Let’s just say it’s not the last you’ve heard of that song.”

Nor is it the last chapter of ATCR’s epic story. Through their music and activism, Indigenous right and issues will be seen, heard and experienced.

“We started playing music to have fun,” Bear Witness says, “but the reality of Indigenous people has informed our journey. We don’t have the luxury to say we just want to have fun. We have a responsibility to our tribe to bring attention to the things in our community that don’t get much attention.

"We started playing music to have fun," Bear Witness says, "but the reality of Indigenous people has informed our journey. We don’t have the luxury to say we just want to have fun. We have a responsibility to our tribe to bring attention to the things in our community that don’t get much attention."

“My mother used to say, ‘Being an Aboriginal in the city is a political act.’ Everything is designed to make you invisible, so making music becomes a political statement,” he continues. “We don’t want to say, ‘We’ve survived’; we want to say, ‘We’re thriving.’”

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Watch the “Stadium Pow Wow” music video!

A Tribe Called Red Tour Dates

9/2       Syracuse, NY

9/21     Brooklyn, NY

9/23     Costa Mesa, CA

9/24     San Diego, CA

9/26     Los Angeles, CA

9/29     San Francisco, CA

10/4     Salt Lake City, UT

10/6     Denver, CO

10/7     Denver, CO

10/10   Durango, CO

More at atribecalledred.com/tour

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j. poet has been writing music features for Native Peoples since 2000. He contributes to a wide variety of print and online publications, including Downbeat, Magnet, Relix and Lone Star Music. He lives in San Francisco and enjoys good music, spicy food and the sound of foghorns.