There is much to unpack from the cover of Rob Crooks' latest EP, Downtown '09.

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This article was published 18/12/2014 (2592 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There is much to unpack from the cover of Rob Crooks' latest EP, Downtown '09.

First, there's the cover art, which depicts a jagged lightning bolt blowing off the head of the Golden Boy, who is perched on the worse-for-wear dome of the Leg. Drawn by Patrick Skene -- a.k.a. fellow Winnipeg MC Pip Skid -- the image should be recognizable to in-the-know punk fans; it's a Winnipeg interpretation of the cover of the 1982 self-titled debut from pioneering Washington, D.C., punk band Bad Brains (the lightning bolt is striking the Capitol building on that one).

Then there's the title, a riff on Downtown 81 -- the 1981 film starring artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that examines the subculture of post-punk Manhattan.

Fitting influences, both, for a hip-hop/electropunk EP that takes an almost anthropological look at the gritty underbelly of Winnipeg's downtown nightlife scene. Winnipeg, Crooks says, is a punk-rock city. He was interested in its hard edges.

When he wrote these songs a few years ago, he was listening to a lot of Bad Brains and Black Flag and hanging out at a lot of dive bars with beer-soaked carpets, and all-night warehouse parties with a colourful cast of people.

"My social circle was bit bigger and maybe a bit stranger," he says. "I found myself experiencing the seedy side of Winnipeg's nightlife without even mcaeaning to."

His experiences weren't shocking, exactly, but they were altering. "When you're in it, not much surprises you --but when you're out of that lifestyle, these experiences seem alien," he says. "You can be standing outside the Albert smoking a cigarette and a fight can break out in front of you. Or someone can come from around the corner and say, 'I was just stabbed.'"

So, he started documenting it. "There was a quiet desperation about partying and that lifestyle that I was interested in," he says. Crooks describes Downtown '09 as something of a loose coming-of-age narrative, set against the backdrop of a city that felt cold, dark and broken. A city divided by class and race. A city that struggled. It's that side of Winnipeg that is reflected in the album's lo-fi esthetic, Crooks's rumbling, subterranean low end and spitfire raps. He's an incisive writer who's economical with words; there's power in his plainspokenness. Like its namesake, Downtown '09 serves as a snapshot of a certain time and place.

For his part, Crooks, 31, isn't so much into the party scene these days. "It's not a very productive way to live," he says. "When you get older, you start re-evaluating your goals. I'd rather be working on music or studying -- I've gone back to school. I'd rather be in bed by 11 p.m. and wake up early so I can do something with my day."

Crooks is already hard at work demo-ing tracks for his forthcoming album, due out sometime in 2015 via local imprint Disintegration Records. "It'll be quite different," he hints. "There's less focus on rapping and more singing. It'll be less aggressive."

Crooks says releasing Downtown '09 was "like cleaning out my closet, in a sense" but then he reconsiders his turn of phrase. "Maybe that's not the right way to put it. I was still proud of these songs and I wanted people to hear them."

Downtown '09 is available for free download now via Marathon of Dope.

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.