Beyond the 6 is a CBC Music series featuring hip-hop artists and scenes across Canada, beyond Toronto. This month we talk to Pabineau First Nation rapper Wolf Castle about his latest album, Da Vinci’s study, what he struggled with to release his latest four-EP project.
Tristan Grant is a flare of ambition. A few weeks ago, the Mi’kmaw rapper, aka Wolf Castle, from Pabineau First Nation in New Brunswick, won his first Music New Brunswick Awards after many years of nomination. He jokes about this over Zoom with CBC Music, but his pride is evident.
“I just had a big dream and I will never forget it.”
The dream was to practice hip hop full time. In his mid-20s now, he has been making music since he was 11, and focused on hip hop since he was 15, and released two full-length albums under his own name before adopting the name Wolf Castle.
Two more full-length albums followed, and this year Grant released Da Vinci’s study, the last part of his latest four-EP project titled Da Vinci Chronicles. Inquest lands like a record that comes into its own record, Grant’s delivery and writing is confident and sharp over beats and instrumentation that combine to be both imaginative and nostalgic. A socially conscious rapper who is also proud to be catchy and funny, Grant sounds like he’s just where he wants to be.
But despite his dream, work ethic and productive output, Grant has struggled with his place in hip hop and whether he really wanted to dedicate himself to it. Da Vinci’s study is the last piece of the puzzle that he has trained.
‘Just make your own beats’
Tupac and Notorious BIG were Grant’s main gateways to rap – “I just understood it. It felt like where I was in my life, and growing up on the reserve and also being a native, it just resonated with me” – but they was not his introduction to hip hop. His mother, a filmmaker, was also a rapper, as well as his uncle, who often collaborates with Grant now under the name Raphael de la Rez.
Originally, Grant did not know anyone who was really into the production side of rap, and he was concerned about the legality of samples – he would be able to sell and perform his music.
“And my mom actually just said, ‘Just make your own beats. Like, what are you doing?'” So he did, teaching himself to play the piano, use a drum machine, and cut up samples. On the lyric-writing side, his uncle informed strongly about his approach.
“He taught me to record myself and write songs and not be valuable at it,” Grant says. “Just write write write write write. Let’s have fun. Let’s do it.” (Today, Grant is working to make all of this more accessible to local indigenous musicians: he has partnered with Music New Brunswick to launch the NB Indigenous Artist Development Scholarship, sponsored by the rapper.)
Another family member would come into play when Tristan Grant became Wolf Castle: his cousin, Talon the Rez Kid Wonder, whom Grant calls his “secret sauce” of mastering, mixing and producing. But it was not until his teenage years ended that Wolf Castle took over.
‘I can explore parts of myself that I might not want’
Grant says there’s no great story behind the name Wolf Castle – he made an account on Reddit and thought the two words looked good together – but on his 20th birthday he switched to making music under the new name.
“It gives me a sense that I can explore parts of myself that I might not do if I were just myself, even if it’s me,” he says, emphasizing that the work he creates is still is very attached to who he is.
The Da Vinci Chronicles are deeply personal and include the EPs Next life (2019), D4rk Sid3 (2019), Gold Rush (2020) and Da Vinci’s study. Grant began working on the project when he graduated from university (major: theater; minor: art history), trying to decide if he really wanted to commit to music full-time.
“If you want to be a musician, this is your f – king time, you know?” he said to himself. “Now or never, brother. And what it gave me was an existential crisis,” he concludes, laughing. “Where I asked myself, ‘Why the hell do I want to be an artist at all?’ … and I’m just starting to ask myself all these questions to reconsider, as if that’s really what you want with your life? “
He took these questions to the Da Vinci Chronicles using “over-the-top Kanye levels of brash and raw and crazy” on the first EP, Next life, as you begin to explore the historical concept of Da Vinci’s myths about a Renaissance man and how it related to Grant’s ambition.
“I tried to be the best at everything or be the greatest or strive for it,” he says. “And the question was, ‘What does that even mean?’ … I related a little to myself as Da Vinci when I was a little into it for the wrong reasons.And then Inquest is like I’m killing that part of myself. So when it’s gone, who’s Tristan? Who is Wolf Castle when it’s gone? “
Grant says that who he is and where he comes from is at the heart of probably “every song” he has ever written, including one of the most prominent from Da Vinci’s study, “Welfman”, which is a rendering of the derogatory term “welf”, an abbreviation for “welfare”.
“When I went to middle school, it used to be an insult,” Grant says. His mother and other family members were on welfare assistance. “There was shame and guilt associated with it, and many people’s financial situation is completely out of their control.”
Over a sneaky beat rapper Grant:
From a rez with a plastic chandelier
Thrifty attire better than your peers
Life is harder than it seems
From the born slums it does not play fair
“All this is to say, okay, I grew up on rez. I grew up with First Nations. Everything that comes with it, I’ve had to deal with and I’m still dealing with it. And I will like to be someone who comes from that environment and that lifestyle and celebrates it because I was very ashamed of it for most of my life. “
The end track on Inquest, “Top Dog,” speaks to that celebration. It goes in in almost six minutes with a single, Succession-like piano copy runs under features from other Mi’kmaw rappers Flacko Finesse and Shift from tha 902, as well as family members and collaborators Raphael de la Rez and Talon the Rez Kid.
“I thought the best way to end it all would be not to think about the audience, not to think about what people want, because the most authentic thing you can do is just make a song for yourself and something. , you would love, “Grant says. “And I love really long rap cuts with about 50 people on.”
So who is Tristan Grant? He is a socially conscious Mi’kmaw rapper who elevates society and, like Wolf Castle, makes killer hooks and earworms while interrogating and deconstructing the status quo.
“I just have this thing inside me that wants to fight all that oppression and show the world that they do not want to keep us down,” Grant says. “We keep going. And maybe I could have become an environmentalist or an activist in some other way. But that’s what I’m good at. So that’s the way I do it.”
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