Feature Interview: A Tribe Called Red
Bursting forth from Canada’s capital, native Producer and DJ crew A Tribe Called Red is making an impact on the global electronic scene with a truly unique sound. Since forming in 2010 with DJ NDN, DJ Bear Witness and two-time Canadian DMC Champion DJ Shub, the group has been mixing electronic music with traditional Powwow recordings, leading to the creation of an entirely new musical genre; Powwow-step. The group has been nominated for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize after their self-titled album debut in March of 2012, and have also been featured on NPR and in Rolling Stone Magazine and were also included in the Washington Post’s top 10 albums of the year.
A Tribe Called Red’s music is the contemporary Powwow; creating a dance and party sound that is culturally rooted in Canada’s Aboriginal traditions. Integrating political imagery and speaking out on Aboriginal issues, it is not only a vehicle for social change, but a new sound for the ever-expanding EDM scene.
A new musical experience is set to descend on The Tall Tree Music Festival in just over two weeks, with A Tribe Called Red headlining alongside Hollerado, Hey Ocean!, The Sweatshop Union and many more. I had the opportunity to connect with DJ NDN over the phone last week as the group literally stepped off the plane, marking an end to their North American Tour; this is the conversation that followed:
Em – Hi Ian (DJ NDN), I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with us here at Tall Tree.
DJ NDN – No worries, not at all!
Em – I’m going to go back to the beginning here, to get a better sense of where A Tribe Called Red draws their musical inspiration from, because you have an incredibly unique sound. There is no one doing what you are doing. It’s been classified as a fusion of hip-hop, reggae, electronic, dub step, dance hall with a Powwow mash-up and is inherently political. Where do you draw your musical inspiration from both individually and as a group? Who are some of your favorite artists?
DJ NDN – Well, we all grew up in different scenes. DJ Shub being a Battle DJ grew up listening to a lot of Hip Hop; Bear grew up in Toronto with a substantial West Indies population and listened to a lot of Dance Hall and Reggae. I grew up in Ottawa and listened to a lot of Punk Rock and Hip Hop…and in Ottawa in the early 2000’s there was a party called “Disorganized” put on by a group called Jokers of the Scene. They brought every big producer to Ottawa which really sparked the EDM scene there. That was a huge influence on me, and I definitely bring the EDM sound to what we do for sure.
Em – Who are your favorite artists?
DJ NDN – Like…ever?
Em – Yeah, like all time.
DJ NDN – I’m a big time Beatles and Johnny Cash fan. Bob Marley, Propagandhi…all kinds of stuff. I listen to everything!
Em – It seems that your favorite artists have been largely outspoken about global consciousness and human rights. Has it always been a goal to intertwine music and politics?
DJ NDN – First off, we’re all First Nations. There have been hundreds of years of legislation and genocidal attempts; attempts at assimilation to make sure that we don’t wake up in the morning. You know, I’m not supposed to be here right now, because of all of the legislation and policies that have been put in place since settlers arrived. The fact that I can wake up in the morning and brush my teeth is a very political statement.
Em – Whoa. Something that most people take for granted, the simple act of brushing their teeth, is to you as political as anything else. I want to touch on your individual cultural backgrounds, and how these translate into your music.
DJ NDN – I’m Ojibwe and Nipissing specifically. Bear and Dan are Six Nation Cayuga, one’s Upper and one’s Lower…I’m not sure which ones which (laughs). Their apart of the Iroquois Confederacy; Cayuga is one of the Six. I’m not a part of that. Our languages are as different as Chinese and English, and our traditions are basically polar opposites. I just wanted to express that we’re not all the same.
Em – Absolutely. I completely understand what you’re saying. On Vancouver Island the Tall Tree Music Festival is held on the Pacheedaht’s traditional land. There are immensely diverse First Nation cultural groups on the Island, let alone the rest of B.C., and Canada, and without a doubt have completely different cultural belief systems, languages and traditions. I’m picking up what you’re putting down one-hundred and fifty percent.
DJ NDN – Oh wow, right on.
Em – So, as with your music, your visuals are just as politically charged. You seem to integrate a lot of popular Hollywood imagery of Native American stereotypes. What are some reactions that stand out for you from audience members?
DJ NDN – It’s been great. I think you can read as deeply into it as you want…we’re basically playing music and putting up videos, right? People who come into our parties and start dancing don’t necessarily know that there going to see these images as well. Individuals are able to deduce and react to these images for the first time; not through a colonial lens, but rather seeing it for the first time as First Nations people see it. We’re taking these racist images of Aboriginal stereotypes and showcasing them during our show.
Em – Is there one image in particular that seems to garner more attention from audience members?
DJ NDN – Back to the Future III. You know that scene where Marty McFly goes from the 1950’s back to the 1800’s and the Doc says “if I go 88 miles per hour, I’m going to run into those Indians.” And then he says “Don’t worry Marty, if I go 88 miles per hour the Indians won’t even be there.” Later in the film, when he goes through time, and reaches the 1800’s there is this scene with actual marauding Indians who attack him. He screams “INDIAN,” and throws it in reverse and takes off, while the Indians are chasing him. When people see that, they always say “oh my god, I never even thought about it being racist until I saw it being played by you guys.” It’s giving a new focus and a different lens to see these stereotypes that are out there.
Em – Just look at Disney…but that’s a whole other discussion entirely. With that said, I wanted to touch on this whole head-dress situation at parties and festivals. You see people wearing faux headdresses all the time. Apart from being culturally ignorant and grossly inappropriate, what is your stance on this? Do you ever call people out?
DJ NDN– Yes absolutely, absolutely; we can’t stand it. It’s Pan-Indianism again. It’s robbing us of our nationality. It’s robbing me of being Ojibwe and robbing Bear and Shub of being Cayuga. Cayuga’s don’t wear headdresses but their lumped into being Indian and it’s cheapening. These headdresses are imitation and they’re fake. They are representing a very stereotypical racist idea of what we are. I can’t stand it personally. We have had discussions on our Facebook page and on Twitter and it has sparked all kinds of conversation, with some being harder to deal with than others, but at least conversations are happening about it.
Em – Absolutely. I really like your stance on that. I hope that by having larger discussions with your fans and the music community that the wearing of these faux headdresses becomes socially inappropriate and a thing of the past. With that said, let’s move on to a more positive note!
Em – Your music transcends all backgrounds of people, but what do you think it is doing for North American aboriginal youth? You’ve been quoted as saying that you have a responsibility to keep it going, which is incredibly significant. Where do your responsibilities lay at this point?
DJ NDN – When we started the Electric Powwow we wanted a one-off party. In Ottawa there are many culturally specific parties that go on all the time. You’ll have your Jamaican parties, your Korean parties, South Asian parties and that kind of thing. We wanted to throw a party for First Nations people, and it was an over whelming success. It sold out with a huge line to get in, and I didn’t recognize anybody. I grew up in the Native community in Ottawa and I didn’t recognize anyone at this show, which is crazy! I realized that it was a bunch of Aboriginal youth from rural communities in Ontario and Quebec who came to Ottawa for school but never felt comfortable going out. After we created that space, these students realized that they needed this; coming into the city is a pretty big culture shock. They were vocal and said that we had a responsibility to keep it going.
DJ NDN – Yeah, I know! For me growing up in an urban environment, and like many Aboriginal youth, we never knew what it was like to grow up on a reserve. I’d spend summers on the reserve because all of my Cousins were there and my Grandma was there. My parents ended up moving back when I started college at 18, so I never really lived on a reserve at all, although I did spend a lot of time there. I grew up urban, and there was never anything that we could call Native and urban (apart from ourselves)…you know something happy that I could look up to. There were rap groups, country singers and blues singers, but that’s all angry sad music, right? There wasn’t anything that was just dance music, which is always considered pretty happy. There wasn’t anything that I had to look up to like that. I wish that I had something like A Tribe Called Red to listen to while growing up in the city; something that has become a soundtrack to the urban experience of Aboriginals today. I hope that the youth, especially in urban settings feel like our music can represent them.
Em – Ok, I want to talk about this quote that I read in the Washington Post describing your concert: “It felt like a nullification of physics, a rebuke of empire, a protest, an epiphany and above all a party.” I read that and had to marinate on that for like fifteen minutes. To say that about a show you just played is incredibly powerful.
DJ NDN – (laughs) that was Chris, the writer. He was actually the drummer from Q and not U, I don’t know if you knew that…I think that’s crazy. Ya, that’s his writing…he’s an incredible writer.
DJ NDN – Well (pauses), we never feel like we’re empowering people. What we are is unapologetically First Nations. You know? We’re just doing what we do and doing it very unapologetically. We will refer to the settler nation and we will refer to colonization. We want to create a dialogue and it simply needs to happen.
Em – So, I have one final question for you.
DJ NDN – Oh yeah, what’s that?
Em – I have to ask everyone this question, in true Tall Tree spirit: if you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?
DJ NDN– I’d be a birch tree personally. It was a huge part of Ojibwe culture; we would make so many things out of it. Yeah, that’s what I would be. I like birch bark art. (laughs) That’s funny.
Catch A Tribe Called Red at Tall Tree Music Festival this year, June 28-30th.