There might be something in the water in Durham Region. In case you haven’t noticed, Durham, the municipality just east of Toronto, has been punching well above its weight in recent years, producing their share of hip-hop producers and NBA basketball players. With everything from Whitby to Oakville and north to York Region often referred to as “Toronto”, especially to outsiders, and the rise of Drake, The Weeknd and Tory Lanez, the moves being made in specific parts of the GTA sometimes go unnoticed. But today it’s getting a lot harder to overlook the run that Durham Region is on. In fact, if Toronto is the face of Canadian hip-hop and R&B, Durham might just be the backbone.
So how exactly did Durham go from Toronto area bedroom community to arguably Canada’s next cultural hotspot?
Strong network (aka the Pickering High Effect)
According to some, it all started at Pickering High School in Ajax, Ontario. Similar to how the 90’s wave of Toronto hip-hop, which included Choclair, Saukrates, Kardinal Offishall, Jully Black, Director X and Baby Blue Soundcrew, was born out of the Ontario government funded Fresh Arts program, Pickering High School was ground zero for the network that would spark the hip-hop movement in Durham.
Among the school’s former students are Grammy-winning hip-hop producer Boi1da, Grammy-nominated hip-hop producer T-Minus, Daniel Daley of R&B duo DVSN, manager-producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett, Drake’s go-to music video director and Director X mentee Karena Evans, and NBA player Cory Joseph.
According to Lennox Richards, co-founder of arts organization OPEN. and former Pickering High student, the lack of mentorship and immediate examples of success in their burgeoning town of Ajax is what inspired them to chart their own path.
“We all met in grade 9. When I say ‘we’ that’s including T-Minus, Boi1da, Cory and Devoe Joseph, and all the athletes who have gone on to do great things in the sports world. A plethora of talent have come through the Pickering High School doors. We didn’t have a generation ahead of us to show us how it was done. We were literally the only teenage group of people in Durham Region at the time. When I moved up to the east end from Toronto, it was literally fields that had cows in them. Now it’s completely built up with subdivisions, stores, and retail”, noted Richards. “There was always a big sense of community and if you were interested in it, you actually had the time to indulge in it. Someone like Boi1da, again, we’ve known him since grade 9. He was literally the person back in high school who was making beats on his computer and we would three-way each other and freestyle on the phone…We’ve all seen each other strive at what it is we love, put that extra sauce into it, and we never had anyone to see us do it right or wrong. We literally had our own path to create. It wasn’t just Pickering High. Literally, meters down the road, from the other high schools there was a lot of other talent that came out of Durham Region.”
One of those talents was former Dunbarton High School student Paul Jeffreys, the other half of DVSN.
Durham’s influence then extended further east on the 401 to Oshawa, Ontario when Evans and Burnett started working with another up and coming Durham talent named Daniel Caesar, who would go on to win the Grammy for Best R&B Performance for “Best Part” at 61st Annual Grammy Awards.
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Mentorship (aka reaching back)
According to fellow OPEN. co-founder, Nicole Chin, the second thing going for Durham is that established talents like Boi1da have stepped up to the plate in mentoring the next generation of local talent.
“The talent that we know in our networks that have come out of Durham are so willing to give back. I think that was one of the amazing things we discovered. They’re down”, Chin told SHIFTER. “They’re like, ‘I wish I had that when I was their age’. That’s been a driver for us. We have their support and they believe in the idea of it”.
The Missing Link (aka Space)
As Durham continues to grow and flex its cultural muscles, and stars like Boi1da help to mentor the next generation of local talent, there is still one factor missing from the creative fabric of the region—space. This is where OPEN. comes in.
Founded in late 2019 by Nicole Chin, Maryam Bayoumi and Lennox Richards, also known as RunWay Richards, OPEN. is a connected community of creatives who are provided access to industry experts, mentors and pathways to new opportunities. They currently host events, workshops and provide resources to empower those in the creative arts, with the ultimate goal of opening a physical space for their community to collaborate, learn and create together. Among their board members are Boi1da.
“OPEN. originally started from an idea to address an issue and a need that’s happening in Durham right now”, Chin explained. “It’s an issue of space and access. We know there are a lot of organizations out there happening in Toronto right now. You can shout out the Remix Project, Manifesto, things like that. They’re doing great things in the city and we looked at that and said, ‘Is that model accessible to people outside of Toronto’…It was always a dream of mine to bring that back to that side of the GTA and provide an opportunity for the young people to have access to experts, mentorship, and a sense of community.”
Richards added, “We realized it was an uptapped market. We feel like in the east end and in Durham Region there’s nothing of its kind where we can provide a space, or even starting out with events, where we can get the creative community to come together, whether that’s individuals interested in the music industry, film and TV, or creative arts through technology.”
Through the current crop of superstar talent and organizations like OPEN., Durham is poised to provide the next generation of local talent with the creative infrastructure they themselves never had, and according to the OPEN. co-founders there’s a new crop of hungry talent coming out Durham, including music producer Jordan Manswell, who are ready to take the baton.
“I think the fact that these big names came out of Durham region is giving the younger generation and the people who want to come up some confidence. Boi1da made it out of his house in Ajax. T-Minus made it out of his house in Ajax. These guys made it being out here so there’s no excuses. There’s no, ‘I live in the suburbs. I don’t have the ability to make it'”, Bayoumi noted. “They made it and now we’re even giving you the access to the space in case you don’t have access to the equipment, to the resources, the knowledge. That’s what we want to provide.”