Is Toronto’s music scene segregated by race, class, & geography? The NICE show hopes to change that

EDITOR’S NOTE: NICE is a new curatorial collaboration between two veteran music promoters: independent presenter Dalton Higgins — a well-known figure in the hip-hop, reggae and African music scenes — and Jonathan Bunce a.k.a. Jonny Dovercourt, Artistic Director of Wavelength, long-running champions of Toronto’s indie/punk/experimental community. The aim of NICE is “to present a live musical experience that better reflects the demographic and musical realities of Toronto.” The first NICE event happens this Thursday, April 24 at Tattoo Queen West (567 Queen St. W.) and Dalton and Jonny got together to explain their thinking behind the event to Spacing here.

Dalton Higgins:

Is the Toronto music scene as forward-thinking and progressive as some might say it is? I’m not convinced. The silos between genres — which tend to break down along race / culture / class lines — is the pink elephant in the room. Case in point: When I brought the legendary Jamaican Brit renaissance music raconteur Don Letts (The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite) to Toronto for his first ever visit, he was amazed about how segregated the local Toronto music scenes appeared here, across genres.

To see reggae and rap, I’d have to drag him to the west end of the GTA; to check out some “indie rock,” it’s Trinity Bellwoods; electronic music downtown; to see African, we’d have to go in the east/Danforth. I booked him to DJ at The Drake Hotel and he was like, “this sucks, we’re right downtown mate, where are all the reggae and electronic heads?!” And this is the guy who introduced the punk world to reggae, and shot documentaries on Sun Ra, Gil Scott Heron and Franz Ferdinand.

Well, this NICE collaborative promoter Masterplan thingy with my dawg Jonny serves as my ode to Letts, except remixed, more “Electro-Rap-Reggae meets the Indie Rockers Downtown!”

Jonny Dovercourt:

When I first heard “Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown” — the Don Letts compilation Dalton just referenced, which showed the influence of reggae on the London (UK) punk scene of the ‘70s, it blew my young mind — and as a lifelong Toronto music booster, of course the first question I asked myself was, “why couldn’t this happen here?” With our legendary cultural diversity, Toronto seems primed to be a musical melting pot, but instead we all seem to be stirring different cauldrons. It’s nobody’s fault, I think it’s more structural — there isn’t one place where we can all play together. Venues and festivals here are still really genre-rigid;  you have indie-rock bands on one stage, hip-hop acts on another, electronic DJs on yet another, and culturally specific “world music” tucked away on the other side of the proverbial parking lot.

To me, this seems to reflect a hidden cultural conversatism in Canada, which belies our outward social liberalism. The attitude being, “ohhh no, people won’t like things they don’t think they like, so let’s not risk anyone feeling awkward.” I only imagine what would happen strictly in terms of musical innovation if there were more opportunities for people from different scenes and background to get together and collaborate. If you compare the music industry to the tech sector, there’s way less emphasis on innovation in music — maybe because it’s assumed that music that takes risks is going to be “experimental” and thus unlistenable and unsellable — but this isn’t necessarily the case. Look at Complaints Dept. — who are headlining our NICE collab on Thursday — and are celebrating the release of their new EP. Their membership is made up of people from the reggae, punk, ska, hardcore and jazz scenes, and they can set a room on fire!

Speaking of rooms, we’ve also decided to stage this show at a venue that might seem an unorthodox choice: Tattoo Queen West, formerly known until recently as Tattoo Rock Parlour, at Queen and Portland. Yes, the place that downtown indie rockers would have written off as “cheesy” or just for “d-bag 905ers.” In some ways, we’re taking the risk of turning off Wavelength’s core demographic of 25-34 downtown leftie music nerds, who wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere with a whiff of “Entertainment District.” But not only has Tattoo been rebranded as a non-genre-specific new live music scene, booked by veteran hip-hop/R&B promoter Jonathan Ramos — so don’t worry, no one’s going to force you to do a Jägerbomb upon entry! — but it’s also the most centrally located venue in the city.

And that’s really important in terms of bringing people from different communities/neighbourhoods across our huge city together: we need to rebrand downtown as “central meeting place” rather than “cultural headquarters.” Culture is originating in all sorts of oft-hidden pockets throughout the city, but there still needs to be a central, accessible forum where we can all come together to experience it. Now NICE is just one show, on one night, in one nightclub, and we’re not going to possibly redress all these structural imbalances in one night — but hopefully we can demonstrate how good music can cross boundaries and create an awesome collective experience that couldn’t happen anywhere else but Toronto.

NICE launches Thursday, April 24 at Tattoo Queen West (567 Queen St. W.) with performances by Complaints Dept., Most People, pHoenix Pagliacci and Montreal’s Ought. More info here.