They’ve recorded four studio albums, been nominated for two Junos, and regularly tour across Canada and around the world with an eclectic sound that melds roots rock with Inuit throat-singing. In the diverse pantheon of Northern musicians, the Jerry Cans are seen by many as the pinnacle of success. Yet, in the beginning, they didn’t have the slightest clue what they were doing.
“We didn’t know shit about the music industry when we started,” says lead singer and guitarist Andrew Morrison with a laugh.
The learning curve for the Iqaluit rockers was steep. They spent thousands of dollars flying to bigger cities for shows at festivals and in revered venues, only to find these opportunities didn’t provide much traction. They struggled to get airtime on radio stations that didn’t see their tunes as “marketable” to a southern audience. Corporate record labels wouldn’t sign them because they sang in Inuktitut instead of English, which was, as Morrison delicately puts it, “bullshit.”
But necessity breeds invention, and the Jerry Cans were determined to get their music out there. So, one night in 2015, the band decided to start its own label: Aakuluk Music.
“That was really just us sitting around the table, being like, ‘I guess we’re a record label now,’” Morrison says. “But we had learned all this stuff about marketing and what the industry requires, and we figured there’s a lot of other great artists here that we could share some of these lessons with.”
Seven years on, Aakuluk now represents six acts from Nunavut, including ‘Arctic soul’ group The Trade Offs, Iglulik singer/songwriter Terry Uyarak and the Jerry Cans themselves. The label assists artists with everything from releasing music to booking shows and doing promotion. Morrison has also just put the finishing touches on a professional production studio in Iqaluit and is set to travel as far afield as Germany and Mexico City this December to grow the label’s audience internationally.
There’s no question that Northern artists face higher barriers of entry when navigating an industry centered primarily in the south. A lack of studio and performance spaces and expensive travel costs are just some of these obstacles. To produce music and support artists in a meaningful way, record labels up here have to be resourceful and scrappy. And often, that means defying convention.
“When I have to explain what Aakuluk does in industry terms, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Morrison says. “We don’t make any money from the artists we work with. They keep the rights. Terry pays me with fish.”
But Aakuluk wasn’t founded on the promise of wealth. Instead, it was created to uplift artists and get more music from the Arctic out and into the world. Their true aim is “creating a community of support to address challenges and make sure that our artists, our friends, get heard,” Morrison says.
“I don’t care if we get four streams on Spotify, or if we go in the hole thousands of dollars. If we’re feeling good as a community about what we’re doing, that’s all we care about.”
Setting the Stage
If Chad Hinchey could offer any advice to Yellowknifers entering the local music scene, it would be to put themselves out there. It’s clichéd, he knows, but in a city where word travels fast, it goes a long way.
“There’s only so many venues in town, only so many shows, only so many opportunities to perform,” he says. “So, the best thing is to be patient with it. Then once you get that shot, make sure you prove you deserve it.”
Hinchey, a part-time DJ, knows this well. He used to make cold calls to bars in Yellowknife and pitch himself as a performer just to get on stage. Then flash-forward to this summer, where he closed out Saturday in the Folk on the Rocks beer garden as Cynergii for the second year in a row. “Sometimes,” he says, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
Nonetheless, Hinchey understands it’s a struggle for up-and-comers to make their mark. Two years ago, he teamed up with friend and fellow DJ Alec “Ranec” Raniwsky from Windsor, Ontario to found One North Recordings and offer more chances at the spotlight.
“We’ve got so many great artists and musicians all over the North, especially in Yellowknife,” he says. “We’re trying to shine a light on some of them, and hopefully get them in front of more people.”
One North takes a rather laid-back approach to operations, keeping its creative process open and accessible. An artist comes to Hinchey and Raniwsky with lyrics or an idea, and the two provide whatever support might be needed at that stage—whether that’s producing a song with their own equipment, getting a song onto streaming services, promoting it on social media, or all of the above.
The tracks have been coming fast and furious ever since. As of now, One North has close to 40 releases and has worked with 15 Yellowknife artists, many in the pop and hip-hop genres. (Hinchey and Raniwsky do everything in their spare time and pro bono.)
Perhaps most importantly, the label has already accomplished what it set out to do by creating more opportunities for artists to perform in front of audiences and develop a local following. They’ve hosted a showcase at Folk on the Rocks the last two summers with an open call for performers, and they’ve regularly put on shows across Yellowknife.
“I’m pretty proud of what our artists have done and where they’ve taken it,” Hinchey says. “All I want to see is the music scene continue to grow, and I think we’ve started to do that.”
He points to 26-year-old Nara Dapilos as one of the label’s biggest success stories.
Before joining forces with One North, the singer (who vacillates between pop and R&B) hadn’t recorded any music and had only performed at a handful of open mics. Now, she has four original releases and performed at BreakOut West, an industry event in Edmonton for concert promoters, in 2021. This March, she opened for rapper Crook the Kid—another One North collaborator—at Yellowknife’s Northern Arts and Cultural Centre. She also had her very own Folk on the Rocks set in July 2022.
Dapilos gives One North a lot of credit for helping her get here—and for being easy to work with.
“There’s no real pressure for you to put something out,” she says. “They’re not trying to profit off you or anything like that. They’re genuinely just there to support you with whatever you need, and I think that’s the best.”
The label’s artists have become incredibly tight knit as friends and regularly collaborate on songs and at performances. Both Dapilos and Hinchey say this makes for more versatile music by blending genres and skillsets, while doing away with toxic competition and making the city’s art scene a more cooperative place.
“When DYLN [a rapper on the label] played the Snow King’s Castle this year, pretty much everybody on the label was there to support him,” Hinchey says. “Everyone is cheering for each other’s successes.
“We’re in this as a unit.”
One North Recording Playlist...
"I Wanna Call You Mine" by NORTHWYNE X Kid Gali
"Hollywood AF" by CYNERGII
All Hail Hip-Hop
In a tiny studio set amidst the wilderness of Marsh Lake, Isaac Pumphrey and Dalton Moore sit behind a soundboard, putting the finishing touches on Moore’s debut EP.
It’s a deeply personal project for the 18-year-old rapper from Haines Junction, known better by his stage name, Mobb Diggity (a play on duo Mobb Deep and the Blackstreet song ‘No Diggity’). “I’ve been waiting for a long time to do something like this,” he says.
Of course, it wasn’t possible until recently. While the Yukon has long inspired folk singers and drumming groups, its contributions to hip-hop and R&B have gone relatively unsung. It’s not for lack of talent; there simply haven’t been any professional resources dedicated to such artists.
That’s why Pumphrey started North Gold Entertainment, the territory’s first (and only) hip-hop/R&B label, in 2020. As a lover of the genre and the people in it, he wants to see the Yukon’s hip-hop community get the recognition it deserves.
“My goal with this is to build something that gives artists the team and assets they need to succeed at a more professional level with their music,” says Pumphrey, who also DJs and raps as Pumpskii.
Over the past two years, Pumphrey, a graduate of the entertainment management program at Toronto’s Trebas Institute, has dedicated a lot of time to the cause. He converted a room above his parent’s garage into the aforementioned studio near Marsh Lake, investing a lot of his own money into the equipment. With four artists (five, if he includes himself) on the label’s roster today, Pumphrey single-handedly produces songs, distributes the music, creates promotional content such as headshots and music videos, and does all the digital marketing.
Thankfully, this hustle is paying off, with tracks from each artist available on streaming services. The crew has also become a regular presence within the local event and festival circuits. This summer, Pumphrey, Moore, and singer Princess Melia performed at the Adäka Festival in Whitehorse and Arts in the Park concert series this summer.
And one of the label’s proudest achievements, Pumphrey says, is a contest it hosted last year called ‘Expressions.’ With a grant from the territorial government, it awarded four emerging hip-hop artists $300 to produce an original song for release on the North Gold website.
“The youngest that we picked was 14 and the oldest was 18, but these were all artists that I never even knew existed,” Pumphrey says. “It’s crazy. There’s a ton of talent, and it’s just hiding out there.”
Mobb Diggity is a perfect example of this, as far as Pumphrey is concerned. Hailing from a town with a population of no more than 900 people, he’s been rapping since a friend first introduced him to the artform at age 13, starting out as a freestyler before eventually writing his own full-length songs. Titled Coming of Age and set for release this fall, his EP is the label’s biggest undertaking to date.
“He’s the face of the brand,” Pumphrey says.
For his part, Mobb uses music to work through his own experiences as a survivor of intergenerational trauma. This is captured over the course of Coming of Age’s seven songs.
“Music has helped me become a better person, so I wanted it to be an auditory journey of someone evolving,” he says. “At the beginning, you can [hear] how rough my mental state is, and how I wasn’t dealing with it that well. Then by the end, it’s where I am now: just being grateful and loving everything about what’s going on and what I’m doing in my life.
“I know music can save lives, because it has many times for a lot of people,” Mobb says. “And if my music can save at least one life, then that’s what it’s about.”
North Gold Entertainment Playlist...
"Mobb Diggity Freestyle" by Mobb Diggity
"Static" by the North Gold Crew (PUMPSKII, Mobb Diggity, & Little Boe)
"good enough" by Princess Melia
Making a life in music
Ask Thor Simonsen about Hitmakerz, and he’ll tell you that creating catchy Inuit pop music isn’t his music label’s first priority.
At first, it seems like an odd thing for a label executive to say. But soon, a bigger, more ambitious vision takes shape—one centered around stimulating economic development and creating sustainable careers in the arts.
“The North is such a strange economy with such a small consumer base,” he says. Combine that with the absence of proper music infrastructure (Nunavut doesn’t even have a territorial music association) and the territory’s notoriously high costs of living, and a career in music at home can seem impossible.
“[Hitmakerz’s] goal is to help artists do what they love to do and… share [that] with audiences around the world, and, at the same time, make money off that to be able to support themselves,” says Simonsen, who grew up in Iqaluit but is now based in Ottawa. “Then, at least they have the choice [of] whether they want to leave or stay.”
“I want to help keep money in the territory. And not just any money, but happy money made from doing something good.”
It’s an altruistic vision that’s propelled Hitmakerz since 2016, when Simonsen (a self-taught producer) first joined forces with his late-friend and fellow artist Kelly Fraser (known for her viral 2013 Inuktitut cover of Rihanna’s song ‘Diamonds’) to host songwriting and music production workshops in schools throughout the territory.
“We would do these workshops and we’d meet artists in the communities,” Simonsen says, “and it became this cyclical way to discover artists, then to help develop them.”
Eventually, it gave way to what Hitmakerz is doing now: getting aspiring artists “export-ready.” The small team provides a myriad of supports, such as access to recording equipment, professional development and mentorship, and financing through grants and bursaries. In turn, those artists can stay and record in their home community and supplement their incomes off the royalties and licensing of their music, just traveling for the occasional performance.
The label currently works with 10 artists across the territory, from Iglulik to Arviat, and has a long list of projects to its name. In fact, Hitmakerz is planning a concert in Iqaluit this October to celebrate the release of five new albums, complete with sponsors, set designs, and a group song. “It’s going to be the best party ever,” Simonsen says.
One of the label’s most seasoned artists is Looee Arreak from Pangnirtung. The singer already had three Inuktitut-language albums and two decades of performing across Nunavut and Nunavik under her belt when she signed with Hitmakerz in winter 2021 for some help with marketing.
“I’d been watching Hitmakerz for a couple of years, because they’ve been doing great work with young people and have a good energy,” Arreak says.
A year into the partnership, and Arreak says it’s been “nothing but positive.” She’s been able to further her career—even snagging a Juno nomination this year for her work in the ensemble of a nationwide virtual opera called Messiah/Complex. She’s just released an Inuktitut children’s album called I-Pi-Ti-Ki, with an accompanying colouring book.
Now, she hopes to use her experience to help other artists on the label. “I can advise them, even provide mentorship,” she suggests. “Whatever is needed, I can bring a lot to the table. I always want to be a benefit to whatever I’m getting involved with.”
In May, Hitmakerz took home the Community Impact Award at the 2022 Capital Music Awards in Ottawa. Simonsen describes it as both humbling and an honour. “I don’t want to pretend like we’re some big shot label, because we’re still just a bunch of kids running around,” he says. “I think it’s just been a lot of really small steps."
Still, Simonsen and the rest of the Hitmakerz team are proud of what they’ve achieved in the past six years. And they’ve kept their sights set high. “I want to bring a Grammy back to Nunavut.”
"Sikungilunga (When I Close My Eyes)" by Joey Nowyuk
"Takunnanguaqpunga" by Looee Arreak
"Nukakuluga" by Angela Amarualik
"I Wish I Was A King" by Aocelyn