Winnipeg's Most is getting lots of buzz. The three-man rap crew just scored a hat trick of hip-hop aboriginal music awards. Brooklyn, Jon C and Charlie Fettah all got prominent play in a Maclean's magazine piece about Winnipeg's gritty music scene and the city streets where gangs rule and crime pays.
Fans stop these guys in malls, teen girls swarm them at gigs. Their appeal blurs generational lines: Crowds include moms with strollers and parents with kids.
Meet the new heroes of a parallel, mostly aboriginal, world where police can be good guys and bad guys, too.
The artists bristle at the handle "gangsta rappers."
Lorenzo is a solo rap artist from Little Saskatchewan First Nation; his verses are reserve anthems.
"We're not out there with a sack of doorknobs. You know what I had a dude tell me? That I was saying the words that were in his mind. Only he couldn't say them. He couldn't find the words," Lorenzo says.
Back in the beginning, aboriginal rap was rough off the streets and some of it was tied to crime. That image is tough to shake, no matter how much rappers say the scene is cleaned up.
Jon C says police pulled him in for questioning two years ago before Winnipeg's Most hit it big. "I was true to the streets. I didn't say a word."
Jon C says the cops thought the rappers were a street gang and he was their leader.
Early gigs drew an unwelcome police presence; fans were carded for IDs, one club was surrounded. The rappers still get angry talking about it.
"They've laid off now," Jon C said.
Suspicion of police, after the triple shooting in the North End in October, doesn't surprise local rappers.
There is an atmosphere of fear in the North End that wasn't there before the two men died and a girl, 13, was shot in the abdomen.
The 45-minute shooting spree a week before Halloween is thought to be a random crime.
The atmosphere is what's different. And scary, Brooklyn and Lorenzo say.
The justice system and the police can't fix what's wrong, they say.
Lorenzo said the North End is no different than the reserve. "Say a car rolls and everyone shows up, they're talking -- the cops show up and nobody says a word. You don't want to..."
"Be a rat?" Jon C jumps in.
"Yeah," Lorenzo says. "It's almost the same code here in Winnipeg."
There are too many jails and not enough schools, Lorenzo says.
"There's only one way to go from the bottom. That's up," Jon C says.
Adds Brooklyn: "It's not just aboriginal kids in the North End who are suffering. It's everyone."
Some rappers say they may have to step up to help out; one idea is to sponsor a new private studio for kids.
"Can you imagine how many kids would be involved? It'd be crazy, man. We'd teach 'em music, producing, video, everything," Brooklyn says.
That's a sea change. You'd almost think the rappers were social workers.
"Hip hop and rap have been blamed many times for many years for everything from suicides to murders. I'm not delusional, I do recognize that rap has its issues and problems," Winnipeg rapper Pipskid says by email while on tour in Europe.
"But I believe the overall effect it has on Winnipeg's inner city and North End is incredibly positive," Pipskid says.
Pipskid is a social worker by day and a rapper by night.
"Working with kids in the inner city of Winnipeg and the North End, I always ask the question, 'Who is your favourite rapper?' The answers are always the same -- 2Pac, 50 Cent, Lil Wayne etc. But this year the answers changed. Now I hear Charlie Fettah, Winnipeg's Most & Young Kidd. Which I think is fantastic.
"These kids' favourite rappers in the whole world are the people that live a stone's throw from where that kid rides their bike or plays soccer. It's positive in a million ways," Pipskid says.
"To have role models in your own neighbourhood is incredible."
These days, songs pay tribute to victims of crime, to single moms struggling with poverty, to kids facing urban grit after a reserve childhood on gravel roads.
Jon C penned his first verse in 2004 after best friend P.J. was gunned down on Flora Avenue, a victim of gang violence.
Winnipeg is like Detroit used to be, or New York or L.A., Jon C says.
For much of the city's aboriginal population, North End and inner-city 'hoods are the new black ghettos.
"It's like what they said in Maclean's. They ridiculed the blacks in the States. Now it's like that for us," Jon C says.
Jon C's apartment doubles as a music and video studio for the local rappers. Half-a-dozen mega monitors are wired up to electronic boxes in one corner. The mother of all TV screens cramps out a tiny living room in the downtown highrise.
Winnipeg's Most has a recording company called Heat Bag Records, a double play on words with a cheeky message.
A heat bag is street slang for someone who scores himself out and gets caught by the police.
It's a logo they've outgrown, the crew says. Today's artists are tight, they share gigs, help each other out and they present a united front to the public outside their fan base.
"Hip hop is not gang culture. It's an expression of yourself... Our goal isn't money. It's relief of the stress built up in your chest. It's therapy with a mike. Sure there's gangsta rap," Jon C says.
"But we're hip hop," Brooklyn adds.
Brooklyn says writing rhymes probably saved his life. He spent four years as a teen in youth jails.
If the province's hip-hop scene is on a fast track, it's been boosted by the influence of a single radio station, Streetz FM, a child of aboriginal station NCI-FM. At Streetz, one out of every five songs is aboriginal.
"They're finding they have an outlet they never did before," NCI-FM general manager David McLeod says of hip-hop artists.
McLeod says links to crime are a marketing tool.
"There is so much stereotyping of hip-hop music. Some people fear it. Because they don't understand it," McLeod says.
For more on Winnipeg's rap scene, click on website rap dictionary http://www.rapdict.org/Winnipeg.