Interview: Ottawa’s MC, Atherton

I’m currently sitting on a Greyhound on my way back from a great weekend in Toronto, awkwardly typing away and trying really hard to drown out the snores from some guy in front of me. One of last week’s highlights for me was having the opportunity to sit down and meet Devin Atherton, an Ottawa MC who’s been making a name for himself and his music in the last several years. I met him originally a few weeks back at the ‘4in1’ Acoustic Park Session at which he performed some really impressive acoustic versions of his songs. He was kind enough to invite me over for a few beers, and we sat around listening to tracks and talking about music for a few hours. I don’t claim to be huge into the hip hop scene here, but I’ve always taken an interest in MCs who have something substantive to say. Following the footsteps of other Canadian rappers like Shad, Cadence Weapon and Classified, Atherton not only brings lyrical skills, but also intelligent and relatable themes that make his songs very accessible to listeners. Not to mention that he is his own boss, producing the majority of beats on his new album No Threat himself and guiding almost all aspects, from the artwork to which artists are featured. He’s also the founder of Ottawa’s Hip Hop Karaoke at Mugshots Jailhouse Hostel & Bar, and is a major personality in support of Ottawa’s hip hop scene and music community as a whole. It was exciting for me to be able to chill with him and discuss music, our respective projects, and life in general. To top everything off, we went out to a new establishment on Somerset called Union, which I have to say might become one of my new favourite spots. There we ran into some of his friends, including Jordan from The Love Machine and DJ Calkuta from Flight Distance, two groups which I hope to feature on Showbox in the near future. I have included a link to Atherton’s Bandcamp page where you can check out No Threat in its entirety, as well as the interview we had.

Interview: Atherton

Tell me a bit about Vinyl Tap and how it came to be, and how you hooked up with some of the artists.

Vinyl Tap in the beginning was a label, and the idea was to kind of go at it with a strength in numbers philosophy. Got all my friends on, we’re making music, doing things, to get behind one name and one symbol and just push the Ottawa music scene through that. It still is a label, in the loosest sense of the word, you know? It’s currently whatever I want it to be… an online magazine, it’s a promotions company, a fashion company – when I’m doing business, those are the two words that I hide behind.

With you new album No Threat, why is it special to you and how has it deviated from your previous work?

This album is extremely special to me because it’s more of me than I’ve ever put out. It’s my work essentially, you know? I did most of the music on it, wrote all the lyrics to it, had the concept of the title for it, I knew exactly what I wanted for the album art, the features on it I knew what I wanted, I really got to dictate everything from start to finish whereas before I had at least one other person working with me. So this was my most ‘selfish’ album, where I had the most control. I think a lot of artists have that, it’s my most egotistical album but also my most honest album.

How did you bring in some of the artists you wanted on the album?

Well they’re all just friends, everyone I approached to be on the album is someone I already had a loving relationship with already and are people that I respected musically. Patience from Flight Distance used to be my roommate, I’ve been playing shows with Whitney (Sound of Lions) and watching her blossom for years, Dave Wickland used to play in a band with me, Kilgore who recorded the whole thing and engineered it, produced my last record and produced the first beat on the album. So, you know, they’re all my friends, everyone on that album is someone I’ve made music with but that I also hang out with.

What were your experiences like at Canadian Music Week and NXNE?

I think the first festival I played was Canadian Music Week and that was in 2006, so six years ago, and then it seemed so overwhelming… it was the be all-end all. We were going to break through because of this festival. Being on the other side of it now, playing both festivals a number of times, I just look at it as a really good weekend to see great music and be a part of something greater than what I do. There’s lots of potential to meet other musicians. I’ve never gone extremely hard networking with people there, and I think there is more that I could get out of those festivals and people do get more out of those festivals, but I just like seeing some great shows and hopefully perform the best that I can. The last two years at NXNE I was given showcases, small club called the Painted Lady, and that was great because I could bring in friends. A few years ago I brought in The Love Machine, last year I brought Flight Distance, so it was just cool to bring friends on to a well-respected festival.

All-time, who is your favourite MC and why?

All time? Paul Simon. Paul Simon was the best rapper to ever exist. I love Paul Simon. Rhymin’ Simon, that’s who he is man. But the first rapper to ever blow my mind was KRS-One, and a song from his self-titled album called “The Truth”. It’s a song about Christianity, and about the obvious flaws in taking the Bible literally… he picks it apart. Some lines on it “What if Jesus Christ was shot in the head with no respect, we’d all have little gold guns around out neck.” It just made me think in a new way that I’d never thought before, made me realize the power of hip hop at that point – the power of words in a song. People are attracted by the beat or the rhythm, but the true hip hop fan stay for the lyrics and that’s when I was like ‘shit’ there’s something happening here… Not to say that image doesn’t hold weight anymore, because those are the initial things that attract you, you know? It’s like a girl, if she’s beautiful then you want to get to know her better and maybe find some depth to it. I don’t front, if a rapper wants to uphold a certain image then that’s great. If that attracts you to that rapper and gets you to listen to his or her music, then you find out whether or not it’s something you want to get into.

Do you find it tough to come up with good samples?

Well, other than the first beat which was made by Fresh Kils, Track one on the album, the rest of the album, tracks two through ten were completely sample free. That was a very enjoyable aspect, fiddling around in my room coming up with melodies. I mean when you put your mind to it, it’s so easy to make music. Especially if you’re by yourself, to be a one-man band. The possibilities with electronic music are ridiculous, which is why I think a lot of people can get into right away, and why there are so many rappers and beatmakers out there. You really just need a laptop and the ability to download and crack a program, you’re just a Youtube video away from learning how to do that (laughs). So for me, it’s harder to write the lyrics, because the lyrical aspect is a lot more personal and a lot more direct and I feel like at the end of the day that’s what I’ll ne judged upon. That’s what will attract someone to the music, that’s what will keep someone there you know?

What do you want people to take away from your music after listening?

My biggest hope is, at the end of the day, I hope they relate to it. I hope they’re like ‘shit, this is good’, I hope they can dance to it, but more importantly I want people to be like ‘hey, I could be friends with that guy’, you know? For me it’s just about relating, and understanding each other.