They met by chance, started making party music in a tiny downtown Ottawa club, caught the attention of a nation, and found themselves at the artistic fore of one of the world’s largest Indigenous-led civil rights movements.
Now, the members of Aboriginal DJ trio A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) – recently shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for their sophomore album Nation II Nation – are soaring to new heights as their unique trademark “Powwow step” brand of electronic music and undying commitment to the Aboriginal rights movement, particularly on Turtle Island, is earning them a global audience. Mixing club beats (dubstep, house, techno, dance hall reggae, to name a few) and traditional Native American drumming and singing, ATCR have earned admiration from all corners for their creativity in making music no one else is, and at such a crucial point in time.
When I heard their music for the first time, about a year and a half ago, I hit up ATCR’s website to find out who they were. To my surprise, I found DJ NDN (Ian Campeau) on my computer screen. Campeau and I graduated together from a secondary school system in suburban Ottawa (Odawa, as the Ojibway child of Nipissing First Nation sometimes calls it) that taught us little to nothing about Aboriginal history. Campeau and his family, however, maintained a strong connection to their First Nation roots. Still, I was curious as to how the tall, Aboriginal, tattooed punk rocker I remember from high school wound up in North America’s most exciting new DJ collective, speaking eloquently to people and media about Aboriginal rights while A Tribe Called Red’s music swiftly and unexpectedly became part of the soundtrack for Canada’s urban Aboriginal population and the Idle No More movement.
Campeau and I chatted by phone on Wednesday, on the eve of ATCR’s debut Island performance. On Thursday night he, Dan General (DJ Shub) and Ehren Thomas (Bear Witness) will take the stage at Dusk Ultra Lounge on George Street in St. John’s, very likely to an excited dancing frenzy of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal fans.
In conversation with Ian Campeau, a.k.a. DJ NDN
Justin Brake: What was it like growing up and going to school in suburban Ottawa, where Aboriginal culture was barely talked about?
DJ NDN: Before I went to high school I was in drum groups and would hang out at the friendship centre and whatnot, and I’ve been going to the Odawa Powwow since before I was born, basically. And I’d go back to the reserve every summer and hang out, so I was always connected to First Nation through my mom and through going to the reserve every summer and Christmas and whatnot, cause that’s where my family is. I have like 80 cousins, six aunts, two uncles, my grandparents live there too.
JB: Were you DJing in high school?
DJ NDN: No, not at all. I was in like punk bands and stuff like that in Ottawa, doing coffee houses and stuff. Which is cool because that’s how I know Jeremy Gara who went to Sir Wil (Sir Wilfred Laurier High School, a high school down the road from our, St. Peter’s Catholic High School), and now he’s the drummer for Arcade Fire. We used to play coffee houses together, and that’s how we know each other.
After (drumming for) Ripcordz, I was working at Barrymore’s in Ottawa as a bouncer, and in between bands and stuff…I’d play my music in between (sets). Remember 80s night at Barrymore’s?
DJ NDN: So they had that going, and then they started a 90s night and asked me to DJ just by me knowing music, pretty much. So that’s when I started DJing. It was probably like 2005.
JB: How did you meet DJ Shub and Bear Witness, and how was Electric Pow Wow born?
DJ NDN: Bear was a DJ in the Aloha Room downstairs of Barrymore’s, so that’s how we knew each other. Two Natives working in the same place – they get to know each other pretty quick. So we became friends, and we just wanted to throw a party at Babylon, next door, that was geared toward but not limited to the Aboriginal population of Ottawa. So we started flyering at just the schools, the native resource places for students at Algonquin, Ottawa U, and Carleton U – they all have native student areas, so we’d flyer there.
And the first one was met with this huge resounding turnout. It was insane, it was packed. Packed with people I didn’t know. It was packed with First Nation people I didn’t know, which kind of freaked me out. *Laughs* Growing up in the community I thought I knew everybody. And what it turned out to be, (they) were students from isolated and rural communities coming down for school, and with huge culture shock, going from tiny, isolated reserves to a pretty big city, they never really felt comfortable going out until we created the space. We created this area that had other Native people there, which made them more comfortable in the situation and getting into the city.
From that we basically just wanted to start playing music that was for the crowd that was showing up, so we started mashing up powwow music with contemporary club music at parties. And they knew we were playing for them so everyone would scream and holler and have a good time.
So Bear and I have been doing this party since 2007, and then we caught word that Shub was the Canadian DMC champ, and Native, and from the same reserve as Bear. So we invited him up to do a showcase, just to do his routine basically. And we connected right away; he’s a hilarious and fun and awesome guy. And then we asked him to join not too long after that, and that’s when the production started happening and we started making our own tracks. The first one was Electric PowWow Drum, and it took off from there.
JB: You recently told the Montreal Gazette there was a point when you realized there was no soundtrack to the “urban Aboriginal experience”. So when people started responding (to the music)…how did you guys interpret that in terms of how you decided to gear the music that you were making? And when did ATCR become something that was tangible and that could last a while?
DJ NDN: I don’t know the exact point. There was one of those a-ha moments where we’re like, ‘This party is bangin’, these people know that we’re playing for them’. It’s mostly an Aboriginal crowd. So everyone in the crowd knows that this is happening for them in the city and they appreciate it. Everyone owned it right away, everybody knew what we were doing, knew it was for them, and it was owned very quickly by the community, which is the best thing that could happen, ever. So when they owned it is basically when we were like, ‘OK we’re on to something, we need to keep making this music, we need to keep having these parties, and we need to speak out and we need to talk about certain things that need to be talked about.
JB: And then Idle No More happened and you guys sort of became the soundtrack to it, really. Could you see that coming or was it something that just happened?
DJ NDN: Yeah, it was something that all of a sudden happened. I was there from the beginning. There was a frenzy on social media about a bunch of chiefs going to Parliament, and they were gonna go in and try to talk…so I was like ‘Oh my god, I gotta go check this out,’ so I got in my car, ran down and watched that whole thing unfold. And then after I went to every rally that was happening on the Hill and that sort of thing.
And right away, when things started happening we were getting Tweets – personal and to the group – and people were being like, ‘You guys need to make a song for this movement.’ So everyone turned to us right away, waiting on us to make a song for this, and we actually already had a track made, which eventually we called The Road, and so we just pre-released it in support of Idle No More and Theresa Spence and her fast.
JB: Idle No More peaked, I guess, like all social and political movements – there’s a climax, and it’s not to say that they end; they have lasting effects. This one was really unique and news of it spread around the world really fast because it was an Indigenous-led movement in a rich–
DJ NDN: –colonized–
JB: –western democracy.
JB: I’m interested in your thoughts on the movement as a whole, where it has led us to now, what its future may be, but also what you see TCR’s role as people who, as artists, were at the forefront of it?
Idle No More, A Tribe Called Red, and the whole Washington Redskins thing, and standing up to that and trying to change that – this is all new. These are all things that are getting attention, because I feel that they’re all happening to the first generation that wasn’t forced into residential schools. So for the first time we’re able to say stuff like this. So that’s really important to acknowledge, that the timing is right for all this to happen. As for our role, every civil rights movement has its soundtrack, has its artists, has its people behind it that are backing it up in every artistic way and in every political way…and we’re just really happy to be a part of it. And it’s really, really good to see this civil rights movement happening for us right now, as Indigenous people.
JB: There was a lot of talk of this summer being Sovereignty Summer, and there was a lot of hype…but things haven’t picked up like the way it was at the peak of Idle No More–
DJ NDN: –Yeah, I think they’re going to … The Idle No More movement that was happening before – I think it was just a testament of how quickly we could organize, and how quickly we could get together a peaceful round dance and that sort of thing. You know, it takes 40 minutes with one Tweet and you’ve got thousands of people in the Edmonton mall doing a round dance – it was just fantastic. So social media kind of levels the playing field.
With the reserve system, every reserve is out of walking distance of any town or city on purpose, right? They put us there so we have this outta sight, outta mind situation, and that’s why it took so long for our civil rights movement to happen. You had the African American civil rights movement in the States in the 60s – they were living in the cities, and there was like a line that you don’t cross in the city because one side’s African descent and one side’s colonial descent, and they were constantly clashing, so they were able to agitate each other enough to erupt into this civil rights movement really quickly and ignite it. Where, us, it’s taken up until now because we didn’t have a level playing field. Now with the advent of the Internet and Facebook and Twitter and that sort of thing, we’re able to confront racism, able to confront colonial and settler ideals and views on First Nation people, and we’re able to react to it, which we were never able to do before without the Internet because we were outta sight, outta mind on the reserves.
“Now with the advent of the Internet and Facebook and Twitter and that sort of thing, we’re able to confront racism, able to confront colonial and settler ideals and views on First Nation people, and we’re able to react to it, which we were never able to do before…” – DJ NDN
JB: A lot of conversations popped up during Idle No More and have been ever since, one example being the people who started showing up at your shows with their faces painted red, or in regalia or with headdresses – people dressing up – and you told the CBC, I think it was, that at least it’s an opportunity to have a conversation. One conversation I’m curious about is, what kind of response your music has received from non-urban Aboriginal people and communities?
DJ NDN: The only negative comment we’ve had was from an elder who said she was weary about us using the term ‘Powwow’ where alcohol was served, but it was followed up really quickly with, ‘I really like what you guys are doing.’ We explained to her that in an urban setting this is where you gather to meet to dance and talk and meet new people, see old friends and that sort of thing, just like a powwow ground… But we got embraced by the rural communities, people on reserves. The label that we sampled from and that put out our album, Tribal Spirit Music – they’re touring the powwow trail, so they’re going to different powwows and selling our CD, which is fantastic. So it’s opening up our music to the powwows. And from what I’ve been hearing on the trail (is that) our music’s being played everywhere, so it’s been really, really embraced by the powwow culture and the people on the trail.
JB: What was it like to have access to a library of powwow music to use on Nation II Nation? It must have been an enormous amount of music to sample from.
DJ NDN: It wasn’t just enormous – they were at the point where they were recording new albums. So, again, timing was everything. We were able to request, while (groups) were recording new songs, if they could do one take or one push-up of just a capella, or separate the tracks – like the female singers in the back and the drum singers in the front, and that sort of thing – which has never happened in powwow music before, where you separate tracks like that. There’s usually one boom mic in the middle, so linking up with those guys was fantastic – it was the best thing that could have happened to us.
JB: How did you decide where you wanted to go with this second record? When you put out the first album not many people knew the name ‘A Tribe Called Red’, and by the time Nation II Nation was released–did all of that attention and the energy you got from the response to the music and the first album affect how you were going to make the second record?
DJ NDN: No, not at all. It did put more pressure on us, good pressure, to make different types of music – so there’s a lot more house on there, there’s different styles of music on it than on the first one. Like, you have dub step and that sort of thing. So it did put pressure on us to think outside the box, but it was good pressure. Now we had deadlines, now we had specific music to work with. We didn’t have to scour through all the powwow CDs we had before; we asked for specific songs with a capella, so they’d go and record it and that sort of thing. So it was a way more focused album, I think, than the first one, which a lot of people seem to understand and appreciate.
JB: With A Tribe Called Red getting so much attention, and with the press giving you significant coverage, you must be answering questions about stuff you’ve been thinking about your whole life – and now there’s finally an opportunity to have a voice and people are actually listening. Is there some kind of a felt responsibility that comes with that attention?
DJ NDN: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Like I said, we’re having a civil rights movement, and the fact that we’re able to articulate the problems in our communities and the reasons for it, and confront racism and explain to people that wearing headdresses at our shows and stuff like that isn’t acceptable, and that sort of thing – we’re able to have conversations like this. And I think from our popularity, people turn to us a lot to see what’s alright and what’s not alright, and we don’t mind being those people to say what’s right and what’s not alright, to us anyways – our views on it. We don’t mind being ambassadors to First Nations people.
A Tribe Called Red performs at Dusk Ultra Lounge on George Street Thursday, July 18. Doors open at 10 p.m. and they take to the stage at 12:30 a.m. Admission is $10 and it is a 19+ event. For more information, visit A Tribe Called Red’s website.
Click here to download A Tribe Called Red’s debut, self-titled album free.