Starting at the Bottom — Recognising Jay W. McGee and his role as a Canadian Hip-hop pioneer.

Jay W. McGee — photo courtesy of Naomi-Faith Grenier-Fielder.

COVID has claimed one of Canada’s unsung hip-hop pioneers. On January 8, 2021, Jay W. McGee, a Juno-nominated r&b and gospel singer, passed away in Flint, Michigan. McGee lived and performed in Canada for 25 years and collected numerous accolades throughout his career. However, McGee should also be recognised for another accomplishment.

Since 2016 I’ve been attempting to locate the earliest examples of hip-hop culture in Toronto as part of my doctoral research in media studies at Western University. As a result of this investigation, remarkable information appears to be absent from histories documenting Canadian hip-hop — McGee recorded what is likely Canada’s first rap record in 1979.

In fact, McGee recorded some of the earliest hip-hop recordings anywhere, not just in Canada. While they didn’t have nearly the same impact as those by local legends Michie Mee, Dream Warriors, or Maestro Fresh Wes’s platinum-selling “Let Your Backbone Slide” — let alone Drake’s multi-platinum successes — McGee’s early rapping efforts show that he helped plant a Canadian flag firmly in hip-hop’s soil long before the rest of the country took notice.

The last several years have seen an increase in scholarship on Canadian hip-hop. Perhaps most notable is the Northside Hip Hop Archive headed by Mark V. Campbell, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Campbell leads a team that has curated photographic exhibits and archived historical records of Canadian hip-hop culture in its many forms. Recently, Campbell and fellow hip-hop scholar Charity Marsh co-edited We Still Here: Hip Hop North of the 49th Parallel.

Also of note is the Views Before The 6 podcast. Hosts Big Tweeze and Thrust have interviewed numerous builders of Toronto’s hip-hop scene — a treasure trove of local hip-hop oral histories.

I propose adding McGee’s name to these historical archives.

James Wesley McGee was born and raised in North Carolina where, at the age of four, he began singing in church. In 1968, he started work at General Motors in Flint and often travelled to Toronto to soak in the city’s nightlife. So impressed with its music scene, McGee relocated to Toronto in 1974 and began singing on numerous projects and performing with bands such as Salongo and Crack of Dawn. When I interviewed McGee in the summer of 2017, he remembered:

“That was back in the days of Brown Derby and Al Steiner’s Blue Note… I was working for GM, and all of a sudden, after about 6 years, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t hard work or anything, it was the call of the music in me. And I knew Toronto was a hotbed for, you know, you could live in Toronto and make a living. The city had that many clubs, that’s what moved me. I didn’t really know about the musicians until I got there, then I realised that was a bonus.”

While working with producer Vezi Tayyeb, owner of Kensington Sound recording studio, McGee met George Lewis, who, with his wife Monica, owned Monica’s Cosmetic Supplies. For decades, the couple has maintained a firm presence in the Eglinton West neighbourhood some call “Little Jamaica.” Dubbed “The Record Man,” Lewis also sold and distributed reggae music in the shop’s basement. That would soon change though, as a musical trend had caught Lewis’s ear.

In September 1979, a trio of rappers from Englewood, NJ, called Sugarhill Gang released “Rappers’ Delight.” Before Sugarhill’s debut, rap music and hip-hop culture were largely confined within New York City. The single’s unprecedented success, however, introduced hip-hop to a global audience, including Canada.

Lewis saw an opportunity and hired McGee to rap over a rhythm track created by local musicians. McGee’s energetic rhymes include standard rap boasts about his ladies, Cadillac, and vocal prowess. He even adds a lyrical barb directed at the “Rapper’s Delight” trio:

“Now I heard about Sugar, I heard about Hill, and let me say they got no skill.”

The result was “Ladies Delight,” an obvious nod to Sugarhill, and released on Monica’s Production Records.

There are many reasons why this record has been overlooked by historians and hip-hop fans alike. The most obvious is its mysterious nature. Neither McGee’s name nor those of the musicians or a release date are printed on the label. Instead, the song is credited to “Mr. Q.” However, the date can be determined based on a review in the November 17, 1979 issue of Record Mirror, a British weekly merely seven weeks after “Rapper’s Delight” appeared in the September 29 issue. Remarkably, McGee recorded “Ladies Delight” within this small window of time.

McGee, who adopted the Mr. Q pseudonym for his rap recordings, quickly followed up with “DJ Style,” “Rapping Time,” and “Party Rapp.” When examining the backing music tracks, a chronological pattern emerges. “Ladies Delight” interpolates Cameo’s “I Just Want to Be,” released in June ’79. “DJ Style” is based on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Till You Get Enough,” released in July ’79. “Rapping Time” adapts Shalamar’s “Second Time Around,” released in August ’79. McGee remembers:

“Yeah, it was kind of a trend that caught on with a lot of artists… a lot of them took popular tracks and rapped to [them]… We were in on the beginning of it… right on the heels of most of that stuff — trying to catch the trend.”

Perhaps McGee’s most interesting lyrics are in “Party Rapp” in which he explicitly name-checks “T.O.” and Mississauga:

“Some people like to call T.O. the city of the future

But just a week or two ago, they called it plain peculiar

On the edge of Toronto sits little Mississauga

And just in case you didn’t know Miss had quite a saga

Let me make it plain to you what happened that night

A train derailed when engines failed, it really was a sight

Chlorine gas was leaking everywhere and choking everyone

The only choice that people had was to pack up and run”

McGee was recalling the 106-car train derailment and chemical spill that occurred on November 19, 1979. The “Mississauga Miracle” — most likely named so because no one died — caused 200,000 people to be evacuated.

Despite emerging alongside some of rap’s earliest commercial recordings, it’s easy to surmise why McGee’s “Mr. Q” releases have remained in the shadows for decades. Aside from their mysterious nature, the records may have been poorly distributed and marketed in Toronto. Case in point, numerous members of Toronto’s hip-hop scene, whom I have interviewed for my research, remember Michie Mee, Maestro Fresh Wes, and Dream Warriors, who made their recorded debuts between 1987–90, as among the first wave of local hip-hop records — not Mr. Q.

Also, “Ladies Delight” appeared years before a recognisable, cohesive hip-hop scene existed in Toronto. That didn’t appear until the mid- to late-1980s, due largely in part to the tireless efforts of Ron Nelson, host of CKLN’s “Fantastic Voyage” radio show, whose numerous concert promotions regularly brought the city’s hip-hop fans and aspiring artists under one roof. In 1979, where could one enjoy hip-hop in Toronto? There were no “hip-hop” club nights, radio programs, or sections in the local record stores. A “rap” or “hip-hop” category simply did not exist. Furthermore, at the time, many popular Black musicians were categorised under the umbrella term of “disco,” regardless of genre — similar to today’s “Urban” category or “race records” of the 1920s-1940s.

Aside from his recordings as Mr. Q, McGee recorded several projects under his real name. One of his best-known works is the 1982 single “When We Party” from the LP Over and Over. The song was a hit in Europe and even garnered McGee an invitation onto Top of the Pops, the UK television program comparable to American Bandstand. Unfortunately, McGee couldn’t make the trip due to a lack of finances. “When We Party” remains a favourite among soul aficionados today, particularly in Europe, where Germany-based Légère Recordings released new material by McGee in 2015 and 2020.

McGee dedicated most of his career to gospel and r&b. In 1990, he received a Juno nomination for the ballad, Another Love In Your Life.” But McGee returned to hip-hop on occasion, particularly on socially conscious themes. In 1986, he noticed crack cocaine’s arrival in his Regent Park neighbourhood, compelling him to write “Crack Attack.” He recalled:

“At the time, it had just started… I had noticed people on it and didn’t know what it was. Most of the street girls, they would be walking, and they couldn’t negotiate their steps. And then I found out what it was. I just developed a real dislike for it…everywhere it went, you know, it was just devastation. I always like to make statements that can possibly make somebody think and to help swim in the right direction.”

In 2016, McGee addressed Flint’s severe water crisis on “Don’t Drink the Water.” For McGee, it was about giving back to the community:

“If you have a mic in front of you, and you don’t use it to try to help somebody, it’s a waste of time… I’m about trying to help people, and sometimes they say, ‘Well, it gets you in trouble.’ But I don’t care. To me, it’s worth it. If I can help somebody, that’s the main thing.”

McGee also shares a strange connection with rap superstar Drake. The liner notes in McGee’s 2002 gospel CD I Hear Foot Steps state that the recordings took place at OVO Studios in Toronto, McGee’s home studio. The acronym stands for “Our Very Own.” However, Drake uses the same acronym for “October’s Very Own,” his record label and clothing line — a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by McGee. On 2017’s “OVO,” McGee raps:

“OVO just letters, but some bomb, bomb letters / OVO just letters, but they’re sweet if you can get ‘em.”

“Everywhere I look, I see my logo, and I’m upset about it cuz we both know/ that I was first to use it in the T.O.”

McGee returned to Flint in 1999, where he continued to perform and record while working for the city’s Mass Transportation Authority. He also became an ordained minister and an author. As a singer, McGee will be remembered for his powerful voice, extensive recording career, and ability to write and perform various musical styles. McGee, as Mr. Q, should also be recognised as a pioneer of Canadian hip-hop.

Canadian Black music history is surprisingly under-researched and documented. Regarding this story, the under-representation of Toronto’s Black music history is alarming given the city’s large Caribbean diasporic population, annual Caribana celebrations, Black music traditions, and the fact that two of the world’s most popular artists, Drake and The Weeknd, call Toronto home.

McGee is just one of perhaps hundreds of Black musicians in Canada whose contributions have been overlooked, hidden, or ignored, and acknowledging their achievements and influence is long overdue.

PhD candidate in media studies at Western University — based in Toronto — nscobie@uwo.ca