Hip Hosers

It's late--11 p.m. Toronto time--but Doc's apartment is still buzzing with activity. "I'm working with a group called Final Chapta," says the producer from a phone in his home-built studio. "Tyson's making a beat right now for Meesah, his fiancée. She's part Trinny and part Spanish. And she can sing her ass off."

There are enough Trinidadians in Toronto for the term "Trinny" to be understood as affectionate slang, and Doc's loose circle of techno and hip-hop bohemians is at least tight enough for one to assume he's talking about producer Tyson Kuteyi. But what's puzzling is the fact that Doc's Sourpuss Studios is booked at such late hours on a Friday. Ever the host with the most, this 26-year-old MIDI maestro doesn't even charge for home studio time. "It's a complete cooperative. People come in and they cook meals, bring drinks, and clean up after themselves. This is what it's all about."

The cozy hull of Sourpuss is where Doc co-composed and recorded the just-released Breath from Another CD with 19-year-old chanteuse Esthero, whose Björk-esque timbre and Sade-like delivery make her one of the most remarkable underheard voices in pop. The album is a sculpted work of sample-pop that flirts with acid jazz and Garbage-rock, only to plunge headlong into a brighter, hookier trip hop. (Call it trip pop.) And it may help turn American ears toward a thriving Toronto-based 'Nuck-hop scene.

In fact, Doc is a longtime Twin Cities musician who relocated to Toronto only four years ago. The guitarist's performance with Esthero and a full backup band at the Quest on Wednesday is a grand homecoming of sorts. Known here as Martin McKinney, Doc grew up in St. Paul, playing in punk bands from the age of 14. A mate in the group Blind Approach jokingly christened him Dr. Martin one day (after the shoe) and the "Doc" tag stuck. He played for years in St. Paul's answer to Fishbone and Living Colour, Soul Reaction, as did Malo Adams, who later went on to front acclaimed funk-rock howlers Tribe of Millions.

"I remember being home three years ago," says Doc. "Malo was on the cover of City Pages for Tribe of Millions. And Jeff Bailey, my old bass player in Soul Reaction, was on the cover of the Twin Cities Reader [for the Hittite Empire acting workshop]. I was broke as hell in Toronto, and here everyone was doing their thing. And I'm like, 'Damn, I should move back here.'"

Doc had moved to Toronto after winning a free trip to the 1993 World Series and subsequently falling in love with the city. "It was different, in that there'd be a gazillion black folks but you didn't know whether they were Trinny, Jamaican, Nigerian, or Somalian. A lot of the kids who are my age or younger are first generation Canadians." Caribbean culture is so pervasive, in fact, that soca and rap have even parented their own subgenre, rapso, while the yearly celebration of the Trinidadian carnival, Caribana, draws thousands every year. "Man, there's crazy calypso," says Doc. "You know that kid Snow is from here, right? I met Filipino kids who can chat like Beanie Man."

Doc quickly enrolled in college and began exploring the potential of his sampler and 8-track system, which he'd brought along with him from the Cities. "I had my studio set up and I was spending eight hours a day working on music when I wasn't doing the school thing," he says. "School got sidetracked as soon as I met Abacus."

"Abs," as he calls him, was a house/techno DJ who introduced Doc to members of Toronto's slightly smaller hip-hop community, a connection that led to a stint playing bass with a touring Canadian rap show. Because of the scarcity of instrumentalists in the dominant turntable-based Caribbean and house scenes, Doc--a rap enthusiast who could actually play bass and guitar--soon found himself in high demand. "Those circles are very exclusive," he says. "And since everyone can use a live bass player, I was very non-intimidating. It made networking easier."

Having left behind a supportive and diverse community of St. Paul jazz and rock musicians, Doc found himself re-creating that atmosphere in Toronto, though this time with electronic music-makers. "It was funny how similar the vibe was between Toronto and Minneapolis/St. Paul. People are really laid-back here, and it really has that Twin Cities type of feel. It was easy to get along with people. That's what attracted me most to the city." Even so, after only a year, he began to consider a run for the border.

"When I first met Esthero, I was butt-ass broke and thinking I should go home, make some money, and then come back," he says. "But then I met her and I was like, 'Wow, this is worth staying for.'" His manager had put the two in touch, and Esthero invited Doc over to her place to play him some of the music she liked at the time--My Bloody Valentine, the Verve, and Curve. "I was like, 'Eh? I dunno,'" he says with disparaging laughter. "And then she played some of her songs with her roommate on acoustic guitar and I was like, 'Wow, she has a real cool voice. It's different.' We got together, and it just clicked."  

Esthero was a new arrival in the big city. Hailing from a small town in southern Ontario, she was raised on a diet of her older brother's rock 'n' roll hand-me-downs. "He played me the Cramps and the Gruesomes and all sorts of punk bands when I was, like, 7," she says in her distinct, wispy voice. "When I was really young he used to give me his Twisted Sister tapes and to this day I'm just a huge Twisted Sister fan."

Though she dipped in and out of alt-rock--from Björk, the Pixies, and Jane's Addiction to more obscure artists like Medicine, Mercury Rev, Aphex Twin, Spiritualized, and Massive Attack--Esthero managed to retain a love for Bowie, Sly Stone, and that semantic quagmire formerly known as Prince. "I'm a huge Prince fan, and I'm not just saying that 'cause you're calling from Minneapolis. I wrote "Die, Mayte, die" on my Purple Rain CD when he got married."

When the artist not-yet-known-as Esthero was 15, she left home without acrimony or ceremony. At 16, she dropped out of high school and moved to Toronto. "I just had fire in my belly," she says. "I was living in a fucking town of 2,100 people and I wanted to make music. I think there's a need to retain your anonymity when you're young, to be faceless and have no history and then reinvent yourself."

When she wasn't making cappuccino or flipping burgers, she soaked up the city life, occasionally wandering down to the local café to play her songs. The name Esthero came to her on one particularly lonely night. "I was alone and I started having these really fucked-up anxiety attacks where I couldn't sleep at night. This TV station would always play 'late, great' movies and one night there was this movie about a girl named Esther who kept trying to commit suicide. They put her in an insane asylum, and her friend, who was in there with her, hanged herself. Esther has the last line in the movie: 'If I am to be the hero, then I cannot fly from darkness.'

"I just thought that was really cool and I felt better. It had something to do with everything that was going on in my life at the time--being 16 years old and being by myself. 'Esthero' is an anagram for 'Esther the hero' and it represents something I'm trying to direct myself toward, something more positive."

For a teenager still finding her musical voice, meeting a budding studio wiz like Doc was a godsend. Doc, on the other hand, knew right away that he'd found the kind of strong personality and voice that makes songs come alive. But their debut album took form slowly. Breath from Another was recorded in fits and starts in Doc's bedroom, bathroom, and basement over nearly two and a half years. During this long gestation period, Doc's expanding studio became a stopover for a diverse cross-section of Toronto's electronic musicians. Doc appropriated the work of various scenes, persuading producers, DJs, MCs, and musicians to contribute to the album-in-progress.

The tracks were nearly complete before an intense bidding war led the Sony subsidiary label, Work Group, to sign the duo last summer for what is reported to be a fat sum of money. "I get to pay musicians now," Doc says. "I can put together a band and I can put out other people's records." Doc even nabbed dance-music legends such as dub-reggae vet Mad Professor and hugely influential U.K. drum 'n' bassers Talvin Singh and DJ Krust to remix his aural cocktails for 12-inch. From out of obscurity, the duo now dances along the precipice of stardom.

It's a strange position for both Doc and Esthero to be in. Esthero is a relative newcomer to the electro and hip-hop scenes through which Doc moves with some ease. For his part, Doc is still thought of as an American outsider by some music critics who wonder what the signing hype's about. But neither plans on taking the traditional route of successful Canadian acts and packing up for L.A. "Not that they pushed the issue," says Doc, "but in the beginning the record label was saying that it would be a lot easier if we could move out there. And I was persistent in saying, you know, this is where I get my inspiration from."  

Doc keeps his ties fresh with family and friends in the Cities, and he enlisted Minneapolis filmmaker Phil Harder to direct the album's premiere video, "Heaven Sent." But both Esthero and Doc see Toronto as the place to be, and they're eager to give shout-outs to other unheard talents: Shug, 2 Rude, Kardinal Offishall, Socrates, Choclair, the Rascalz, Abacus, and Don Ray, to name a few. "God, there's so many, eh?" she says, sounding, if only for a second, like that arch-hoser Doug McKenzie. "Oops, you just caught me saying, 'Eh?'"

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