Great hip-hop can be tailored to both large arenas packed with tens of thousands of screaming fans feeding off of each other’s energy, or to small hole-in the wall clubs where there is no backing track, no band and no sampling; just a beat and furious rhymes being dispatched between them. Both are equally artistically valid and relevant, but there is a very important distinction between the two styles of approach. When you’re trying to make stadium rock, and that’s essentially what arena hip-hop really is, you’re undertaking the challenge of sparking a fire that will be able to simultaneously ignite one person to the next, inevitably producing a domino effect that will ultimately have an entire crowd lit up with momentum that nothing can stop. If you’re going for something more intimate, employing some of the simpler, more DIY-minded recording and production techniques of early rappers is probably a wiser route to take. Using a minimalist, almost subdued approach can create the feeling of being up close and personal with a performer, even if you’re only consuming their art from the comforts of your own home through a pair of headphones. And then we’ve got Toronto’s own Mike Ra. This guy is a rather curious case.
In his new track “Dogs,” Mike Ra uses a classic variation of hard funk styled hip-hop that is equally as boisterous and rousing as it is slightly muted and a little self-contained. Whether or not the duality in his persona is intentional I’m not personally aware, but it definitely makes for a rather jarring and exciting listen. I’ve been covering rap singles for a long time now, and I’ve always said that there isn’t anything that can really surprise me that people will put down in a track. I’m kind of eating my words with “Dogs,” exclusively because I never thought I was going to hear a track that I whole-heartedly believed could flex as hard as Drake’s dome-shaking power anthems and still maintain a certain vulnerability that exists solely in the underground clubs that produce more mixtapes than they do talented verses. It’s an epic discovery in a time where artists in the scene haven’t been doing much (if anything) differently in the last ten years.
Right now, as we verge on entering a new decade, what pop music really needs is artists who are going to create their own identity around themes and influences that haven’t necessarily been approved by the establishment, and in all honesty, will likely be straight up rejected for the next few years by most of the record-purchasing public. Don’t be alarmed though; this is a good thing. If we want hip-hop and all of music to evolve and grow more than it ever has before, we have to let artists like Mike Ra have a little space to cultivate their output and shape it into the sound that will dominate the charts over the course of the next ten to twelve years. This is a big moment, and with “No Dogs,” Mike seems poised to take hold of it.