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FIRST PERSON | With the birth of hip-hop, I found a fashion and cultural identity that I could call my own | News from Radio-Canada

This first-person piece was written by Duke Eatmon, a music columnist in Montreal. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please visit the FAQ.

It was 1979 and I was driving with my parents from my great-grandmother’s house in the Tétraultville neighborhood east of Montreal to our digs on the other side of town at Notre -Lady-of-Grace.

“Now what you hear is not a test, I rap to the beat, and me, the groove and my friends will try to move your feet.”

Rapper’s joy by the Sugarhill Gang from New Jersey came on the radio and my parents and I were impressed. The song is considered the first commercially released rap record.

But we weren’t impressed because they were rapping.

Having attended James Brown concerts at the age of three with my parents who were young and hip, we were used to hearing lively discussions set to music. Brown, Pigmeat Markham, The Last Poets and Isaac Hayes have all rapped on some of their records. Rap was an old black American slang dating back to the 1930s. In hipster jazz parlance, it meant exactly that: talking.

What really amazed my parents and I about this funky song was that it was 15 minutes long.

It wasn’t until just two weeks into 4th grade that almost everyone knew the lyrics word for word. I dove into hip-hop culture with my friends like it was our own punk movement.

It has changed the way we dress. I wore suede pumas, in every color I could find on my trips to New York, with big laces. Adidas shell toes were worn without laces at all. The jeans had to be Levi’s or Lee’s. Lee’s pinstriped jeans earned you a bonus in the fresh department.

We wore designer Cazal glasses, ski masks (I still don’t get it), sheepskin jackets or coats with the matching Yosemite Sam hat, and Kangol hats that looked like the lid Sherlock wore Holmes.

My friends Larry, Winston, Jason, Carlise and the entire block of Sherbrooke Street, between Benny Avenue and Cavendish Boulevard, had all been bitten by the hip-hop bug.

And there was this name, Butcher T. The local legend was cutting up records, as they used to say in hip-hop.

In 1983, Montreal hip-hop fans like me were fond of one of his mixtapes.

I became obsessed with this mysterious local DJ who rocked every party and was considered the best in Montreal when it came to rap.

Butcher T brought the art of the break beat loop to Montreal after discovering the technique at a party in Queens. (Submitted by Anthony Scharschmidt)

I finally met Butcher T in the summer of 1984 at Trenholme Park in NDG. It was the Saturday of the Caribbean Jump Up, now called Carifiesta.

At the end of the parade, there was always a party. One of my friends yelled at me, “Butch is on 1 and 2!” I ran to see him play.

I was blown away. Butch was cutting the new hit single human drum machine by the Disco 3, who would soon change their name to the Fat Boys.

Butch strummed, cut, looped and wound the record with the incredible ease and precision he had demonstrated on the Club 980 – the Saturday evening radio show on CKGM hosted by Michael Williams – and on all those mixtapes I traded my lunch for.

But beyond his mind-blowing platinum tricks, it was his physical appearance that struck me.

He was light-skinned, tall, thin and – apart from his time on the turntables – discreet. He looked like an older version of me.

Two men pose for a photo.
Duke Eatmon and Anthony Scharschmidt, aka Butcher T. (Submitted by Duke Eatmon)

I was 14, he was 20. Butcher T was a superhero I could relate to. He could easily cut records and defeat opposing DJs in the name of musical justice.

I have long been fascinated by the sexual and social revolution of the 1950s called rock’n’roll and the rebellious music that led it. And my favorite musical era is the counterculture of the 1960s. But Woodstock happened two months before I was born.

Even though I loved dancing and was one of the funkiest, afro-sporty eight-year-olds you’d ever seen, I was ten years too young to be allowed into Studio 54 in New York or even at the Lime Light club in Montreal.

With hip-hop, I had a fashion, political, social, cultural and musical identity that I could call my own.

As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, CBC Montreal takes a look at the past, present and future of Quebec’s hip-hop scene, starting with the key figures who helped spread the culture across the province and Canada.

CBC Montreal’s conversation on hip-hop in Quebec will continue with a special “Golden Era” edition of The bridge on September 23.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians – from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner with raised fists, with the words “Being Black in Canada”.

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