Among the best acts to catch this spring concert season is A Tribe Called Red, a trio of aboriginal DJ-producers from Canada whose specialty is a kinetic mix of electronic dance music and traditional Native American singing and drumming dubbed "Pow Wow Step." The group regularly incorporates visuals into their show that splice and deconstruct pop-culture references to Native Americans in order to reclaim the images and draw attention to the often-racist depictions. Their 17-city stateside tour begins on March 12 in Denver, and includes stops at SXSW in Austin, No Jazz Fest in New Orleans and Movement Festival in Detroit.
I recently saw Tribe one frigid January night in New York City's East Village, where they brought a bit of their world to the annual global music showcase known as globalFEST. Throughout their set, deejays NDN, Shub and Bear Witness scratched and looped dancehall, dubstep and moombahton into songs like Northern Cree's "Red-Skin Girl" and "Cherokee People, Cherokee Pride" by Paul Revere & The Raiders. They were accompanied by friends Rhonda and Winter Doxtator, a mother-daughter duo that contributed traditional Native American vocals and a hoop dance in native regalia. The globalFEST performance seamlessly wedded contemporary and traditional elements, and it embodied Tribe's mission: to express who aboriginal people are today.
Tribe emerged from a monthly party organized by members Ian "DJ NDN" Campeau, 31, an Ojibway from Nipissing First Nation, and Bear Witness, 35, from Six Nations reserve, in their hometown, Ottawa. The goal of their "Electric Pow Wow" gathering was to create a space to showcase urban Native talent and culture. In 2009, hip-hop producer and turntable battling champ Dan "DJ Shub" General, 31, also from Six Nations reserve, was invited to perform at one party. He joined DJ NDN and Bear Witness in Tribe soon after.
Over the past few years, the act has gained wider popularity in and out of Canada. In 2012, its self-titled full-length debut was long-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize and landed on the Washington Post year-end Best Of list.
I caught up with A Tribe Called Red the day after their New York show and talked to them about their music, the Native-rights movement Idle No More and what's next for them.
Monika Fabian: What's your music-making process like?
DJ NDN: Dan knows how to work the programming because he's been producing hip-hop for so long, so we sit down around him and we all kind of be like, "Alright, change this, do this. Alright that doesn't sound so good, try this." So we all have a hand in producing the track, but he knows the ins and outs. DJ Shub: It's a lot easier than back when I was doing it by myself [in the beginning]. It's like I have two minds talking to me at the same time.
How did you incorporate the visual aspect to the group, Bear?
Bear Witness: I've been a media artist for 10 years now. My work has always been really music-driven, music-based. Before it was always about finding music that worked with what I was trying to do visually. So when Tribe started, it was kind of like a no-brainer. And bringing that into a club environment came out of my interest in deejaying. It was something that I hadn't really done much of before but I had some experiences with. Once we started the parties and they were taking off, it was just another aspect that we could add to it.
When you create more socially conscious tracks like "The Road" or "Woodcarver, [about an unarmed Native American man and seventh generation wood carver killed by a Seattle police officer], do you have a different mindset than with your other songs, or does it all come from the same place?
DJ NDN: Well, "Woodcarver" came out of extreme frustration. When I saw the [dashboard-camera] video, I cried. Like I was super upset but I was like, "At least it got caught on video and this guy's gonna get what's coming to him […] He's gonna get the book thrown at him 'cause there's video this time." And he got let off. And then that's when we said something has to be done. And that's what came out of that.
"The Road," on the other hand, we already had that track. I felt the spirit of what was happening and all this craziness with Idle No More that it'd fit perfect.
What are your thoughts on Idle No More?
DJ NDN: It's a civil-rights movement that's never been done yet for Canadian aboriginals. Super important. Needs to be done. There's going to be lots of growing pains. There already is. It's bringing out all of this racism. Like rain does to a lawn and worms come out, that's what its done to racism. It's pretty crazy. But it needs to be done—
Bear: There's been an ongoing civil-rights movement as far as aboriginal people go. It's just we're becoming stronger and that's where things are at. DJ NDN: And organized. Bear: Well it's been organized as well. DJ NDN: Yeah but not that quickly. You couldn't tweet "Yo, there's gonna be a flash mob in two hours, everybody come out" and then it happens. Shub: Social media has definitely played a huge part.
So do you see yourselves as organizers with your music?
DJ NDN: Of the movement, no. Bear: We've always used Tribe as a way to raise awareness of aboriginal people and who we are now—who we are as contemporary people. So we could continue to use Tribe in that same way around what's happening in Ottawa and what's happening with aboriginal people around the world.
Your new EP, "Trapline," is more hip-hop oriented. Was that a deliberate decision or did you step back afterward and notice it?
DJ NDN: That's kind of how it was. We had it already made—different edits of different tracks. [We] just wanted to go into the trap scene, you know what I mean? Just like that whole trap style got pretty hot pretty quick so with all these trap edits we just kind of had them and was like, "We should kind of put them out there somewhere somehow." Bear: It's also just the way production, media, and music's going right now. It used to be you were a jungle producer or a house producer and that's what you did and you spent all your time just crafting that one sound. Now it's more about different sounds that come up to be like the sound of the moment but it's about your own personal flavor that you put on that.
You've collaborated with other DJ/producers, like Mexico's Javier Estrada, in the past. Who else have you worked with? What other collaborations stand out for you?
DJ NDN: We have a track with Das Racist. I think we're sitting on the last Das Racist track ever right now, which is pretty crazy. We sent them a beat and they sent it back with their verses on it—Heems and Kool A.D.'s verses—and then they broke up. It was like days before they announced the break-up.
We remixed Nelly Furtado. Again, they're kind of just sitting on that too. They haven't put it out yet either.
Bear: That's one of our major projects right now: working on a more collaborative project, mostly with other aboriginal artists. The people who've kind of become our family over the past few years.
Like who? Who should people know more about?
NDN:Wab Kinew. Even though everybody knows Wab Kinew as being this anchor and almost ambassador for First Nations people to non-First Nation people in Canada. He's hosted a bunch of shows on the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people in Canada. He was like a CBC reporter.
He did all kinds of stuff but he's a rapper and he was one of the first native rappers that I ever heard that made me proud about being First Nation in Canada. He was in a group called "Dead Indians" in the '90s.
Who are you listening to these days?
NDN: It depends on where I am. If I'm in the house, I'm listening to the CBC. I don't know, I guess the whole trap scene. You gotta keep your ear to the ground. Angel Haze--I'm listening to her a lot. Got turned on to her the last time we were here. Blew me away.
Shub: "Gangnam Style." [Everyone laughs.] This track you've probably never heard of yet. My son loves that song, knows every dance move to that song, so that's all I hear. I love it.
Bear: It's too bad because it used to be Michael Jackson and he'd dance and now it's "Gangnam Style." I came into music as a fan. But the further I've gone into [making] music, the less I listen to it for pleasure. So I just get really focused into certain aspects of music when I'm DJing. Right now, it's the part of the EDM trap scene that's gone more melodic, and it's like trap love songs.
Give me an example.
NDN: That Kito remix— Bear: Kito is awesome in general. NDN: That Kito remix of Jay Z and Kanye's "Who Gon Stop Me?"
What's next for you all?
Shub: We're just working on the new album. We have two albums coming out: one, hopefully, that's coming out in the spring and then one that's coming out in the fall. Doing a couple of local shows that so that we can focus on the album.
Is it a huge priority for you all to keep making music and putting out albums?
Bear: Definitely to constantly be making music. At first, we never thought about putting out an album. We made tracks, put them on SoundCloud, made a video and put it in on YouTube. We never thought further than that. It was our manager, Guillaume Decouflet, who was like "You guys have to make this an album." And that really changed stuff for us.
Once there was a package that people could talk about, could be reviewed, could be put on lists and charts; that changed everything for us. So even though we're not charging for the album, it still an object that people can talk about. I think that's the use of an album now.