Soulful song goddesses, cutting-edge rappers, precocious kids, metal dudes, scribes of prose and poetry, rockers with a cause, unlikely hip-hop heroes and community activists are some of the labels for Eeyou Istchee’s newest superstars; the youth whose voices, songs and souls made it to N’we Jinan, a new Cree album made with the help of David Hodges.
Hodges, a Montreal hip-hop artist and youth worker, set out on a project just a few months back in collaboration with the Cree Nation Youth Council to do workshops in every community on music and sound recording while getting members from each community to record portions of the same song called “N’we Jinan.”
What happened, however, was entirely unpredictable. Hodges raves with tales of the unbridled talent he discovered and young Crees who managed to record not one but 19 songs an album that has shot to #1 on iTunes’ hip hop chart in Canada.
Speaking to the Nation about the project back in March, Hodges explained how a booking error actually wound up being fortuitous as working in the youth centre instead of the school led to meeting many talented youth right off the bat.
Though Hodges usually presents his workshop in schools as he did in many of the Cree communities, had he not shown up on a PED day, he most likely wouldn’t have met the many young Waswanipi artists who changed the course of this musical journey.
“I was supposed to show people how stuff was done in the studio and in my music videos but then when people started rolling in, I met so many rappers, singers and musicians that there was just too much talent in the room to not say, ‘Let’s create some music.’
“And it was Waswanipi that set the tone for the entire tour and that is 100% the truth. I didn’t know what the tour was going to be like or how it was going to unfold. We would just set up and find out where the talent was in the community and go from there, figuring out different ways to get that talent to come out to where we were,” said Hodges.
Lightening struck twice in Waswanipi, where Hodges recorded two incredible songs with the community members: “There is A Way” with Jonah “JayLyfe” Cooper, Selena Neeposh, Joy Kitchen, Tristan “T-Bone” Blacksmith and Alexandre Blacksmith. The second song was “Always Believing,” featuring JayLyfe Cooper, Tom Polson, Nakonee and George Ottereyes.
Hodges’ next stop was Oujé-Bougoumou, but the community proved to be a greater challenge. Upon arrival Hodges discovered that the place was literally a “ghost town,” as there happened to be a hockey tournament going on elsewhere.
“We came in and did a performance for the kids in the school to promote it, but we didn’t get a lot of interest from them. We ended up with only two kids who were interested that we picked up,” said Hodges.
Putting his ear to the ground to find out just who had it going on when it came to song, the community buzz was all about Kim Neeposh, the chief’s daughter who lives in Gatineau, but just happened to be in town that day.
As luck would have it, another guitarist who was attracted to the project knew Neeposh and was able to get her on board to work on a musical project.
“Kim is a very vibrant and vocal person with a real edge to her character as she is really into hip-hop. She knows what she likes and I couldn’t tell her anything beyond what she already knew about herself and so she was a really interesting person to talk to. Everything that came out of her mouth was passion about music, a want to be a leader and a desire to do music but never having the opportunity,” said Hodges.
The result of Hodges’ stay in Oujé was Neeposh’s hardcore hip-hop track, “Who’s Rez Is This?”
Also recorded in Oujé was “For the Nishiyuu Grandchildren” with Brenda St-Pierre and Israel Bosum-Diamond.
Next on the tour was Mistissini. According to Hodges, it was Mistissini that would change the face of the whole trip as it was at this point that the word about the tour had reached the rest of the communities.
This was partly due to the fact that shortly after arriving in Mistissini, Hodges met former Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff, who became a champion for the project and kept publicizing it via social media. It also had a lot to do with the video work that Hodges and his crew did there.
In Mistissini, Hodges met Angel Baribeau, a young teen with an incredible voice who recorded the track “Never Let Me Go” along with Roger “Cool Breeze” Neeposh, Joylene Brien, Patrick Loon and Kenneth Longchap. The video of Hodges working with these young Crees soon became a YouTube sensation and was picked up for national TV coverage.
“Never Let Me Go” brought the former Deputy Grand Chief was brought to tears when he heard it.
As momentum for the project built, parents also caught the fever. They encouraged their kids to take advantage of the opportunity at get creative.
In Mistissini Hodges gave a young Cree the chance to take over as producer for a track because he felt that Jason “DJ Arrow” Swallow had something new and spectacular to offer.
“He is so talented that I told him that I really wanted him to produce the next track. He came in and produced it with guitarist Noah Cheechoo, a youth worker who is into heavy metal. He came in and we just sent everyone out because this was the night for the older guys. We spent from 11 pm until 2 am just creating this song and finalized it on the spot after 3-4 hours of work,” said Hodges. The result was “Smash Bros,” a track of metal-infused hip hop that has since become widely popular.
Moving further north, Nemaska wound up being one of the most productive stops on the trip as it actually generated three songs for the album.
None of this could have happened however without the help of Cree rap duo, the NorthStars, comprised of Elton Salt and Gary Joly, two individuals who Hodges described as leaders among the youth as well as musicians and rappers who were really trying to do their thing.
During the Nemaska visit Hodges and his partner found themselves in a scheduled morning power outage without having had the time to shower or eat. Not knowing what to do, they followed the advice of other community members.
“It was like survival of the fittest. We were told that there was a place where people could just go and cook for free and this was where we met everybody. The NorthStars were there as were so many other people from the community. This was my first experience scrambling eggs next to a skinned beaver that was being cooked.
“I had a sudden epiphany about how we were all turning off technology and connecting around this fire. We didn’t need it at that moment to persevere as people and to communicate,” said Hodges.
This would later serve as songwriting inspiration, once the power was back on. Meeting later that day with Salt and his stepsister, the motivation for the music came from having such an organic experience with the people of Nemaska.
In Nemaska, Salt became the first performer to record his lyrics in Cree, something Hodges had hoped for.
By the end of the Nemaska visit, Hodges left with three tracks: “New Generation” with Salt, Tonya Jolly, Tanya Wapachee and Keith Lacroix; “Alright Then” with Salt, Lacroix, Gary “Maestro” Jolly, Tyra Tanoush, Precious Jolly and Isiah Wapachee; and “Put My Love In You” with Salt and Geraldine Wapachee.
In Waskaganish, Hodges was anxious to meet and work with cherished Cree gospel singer Francine Weistchee. He managed to track down Weistchee and tell her that he was honoured to meet her – to which she laughed – but Hodges did not end up recording with her.
Instead Weistchee wound up talking to Hodges about her children, in particular her daughter Neesha Shecapio who did end up participating on the album.
“When I asked her what ‘Waskaganish’ meant, she said that it means small house. I thought that was such a great concept for a song, because our souls and our characters are like a small house and we have to open the doors to share who we are with the world.
“So what we wrote about was how we are like Waskaganish and we want to share who we are with the world. We want to open our doors and share what this culture is about,” said Hodges.
That track, called “Small House,” features Neesha Chanan-Shecapio, Shaidean Mianscum and Ronita Kitty.
While in Waskaganish, Hodges also met Miranda Blueboy, another well-known singer in the community. Sitting down to see what would come out of a session with her, Hodges said a unique gospel song began to emerge.
Later on in Wemindji, Hodges met Joshua Iserhoff again, with whom he had planned the whole project. After playing the gospel track, Iserhoff added his own vocal tracks, adding even more depth to the song. The end result was “Looking To You.”
Also recorded in Waskaganish was “Wolves”, a track with Jake Turner, an incredible guitarist who had just moved to the community a day earlier. Turner’s guitar work would later be used on various other tracks.
“Wolves is a song about being a wolf and coming together in a wolf pack and us becoming the hunters,” said Hodges.
Moving on to Eastmain, Hodges said what stood out the most about the community was the vibrancy of its rambunctious youth, particularly a cute eight-year-old named Mallory Gilpin.
“She literally attached herself to me, followed me around and did everything that I was doing. She became like my sidekick while I was there,” said Hodges.
Gilpin would later become one of the youngest performers on the album, singing a verse on “Rolling Down James Bay” along with Junior Cheezo, Marvina Cheezo, Daisianne Moar, Shania Moses and Jordan Herbert.
The song has become one of the standout tracks because of its bluesy flavour, a sharp contrast to the hip hop/urban tone of most of the album. This “traveling song” was written for all the Cree who so often find themselves on the road.
“We ended up passing around the mic and keeping it very blues-oriented. We did group vocals about ‘rolling down James Bay’ and then everybody individually got a verse. We even got Mallory, my sidekick, on it. We gave the mic to whoever wanted it and had some of the shyest kids open their mouths and have their voices on it,” said Hodges.
Also recorded in Eastmain was “It’s All About,” a track that literally emerged from the discussions that Hodges had with the youth that day. “The song is about the things that are going on in the community, with the youth expressing their emotions based on the struggles of everyday life,” said Hodges.
“It’s All About” features Jesse Mayappo, Saraly Hester, Julianne Mark, Jonathan Matt, Selena Weapinacappo, Tina Brown, Bruce Gilpin, Claude Weapinacappo and Junior Cheezo.
In Wemindji, Hodges recorded two important tracks: “Paint the Hills,” a reference to the English translation of the community’s name, and “Creespect.”
“We did ‘Creespect’ because that was what one of the kids wanted and though everyone laughed at him, I told him that it was the best concept ever. The song was about respecting your Elders and respecting the land and the kids were so down with that concept,” said Hodges.
The track “Paint the Hills” features Roselyn Matches, Christian “Wizard” Stewart, Roberta Hughboy, Whitney Miniquaken; while “Creespect” features Jeremiah Mistacheesick, Silas Katapatuk, Nathaniel Vaillancourt, Christian Stewart and Leslie Mayappo.
In Chisasibi, Hodges said he had an incredible experience as he got to work with Sigoun Wapachee, a young girl the local youth kept calling a “Cree Rihanna.”
While Hodges was trying to track down Wapachee, he met Cree Rising, a popular local band that has opened for numerous traveling acts that have played Chisasibi. Together they wound up working on an instrumental that would become the foundation for the song done with Wapachee.
“She is just so talented, it’s insane! There were so many other rappers who came out but it was her that wound up just carrying the song. That song is called ‘I Believe’ and it’s arguably the most commercial on the album,” said Hodges.
After weeks on the road and track after track of musical gold in the bank, a weary Hodges finally made it to Whapmagoostui only to have what he described as one of the most meaningful visits on the tour as the community is known for its traditional culture.
While Hodges spoke about the energy of the community’s embracing youth, the other advantage that he had was finally getting to work with Juno-winning artists, CerAmony, made up of Matthew Iserhoff and Pakesso Mukash.
It was actually at Iserhoff’s behest and careful guidance that Hodges was able to rap in Cree for the song “N’we Jinan”, the track he had originally set out to record throughout the communities. While he struggled with the language, Hodges said he did the verse phonetically. Iserhoff’s musical magic did the trick. “That guy can do everything,” Hodges enthused.
Also recorded in Whapmagoostui was “Nishyiiu and Me,” a track that Hodges sought to turn into a “masterpiece,” if only because he had wanted to give every kid who wanted to work on the track the opportunity to do so.
“There were two girls who were really like the gifts of the community, Jade Mukash and Maggie Sandy Jr. Maggie is a really shy girl who wound up being interviewed by CBC while we were there, but she was so intelligent and beautiful and when she stepped out into the studio she was harmonizing as though it was just innate to her. Jade had an arts background and was also such a great singer. Jade helped us wrap up the song and brought it to a whole new level,” explained Hodges.
Hodges said it was Iserhoff and Jade Mukash who finally completed the stellar track with a memorizing chant that ultimately gave it an addictive quality.
Since finishing the tour and releasing the track on iTunes, it has not only become a hip-hop chart-topper but also the pride of the Cree nation, showcasing what was once very unknown talent to the world.
All of the proceeds from the album are going into a fund to bring Hodges back to Eeyou Istchee for another tour next year to see just what kind of gems emerge when these youth step into the studio once again.