Long before Toronto’s hip-hop explosion, the Notes to Self crew was planting the seeds of success. With a new album on the horizon, look for them to break through.
Who: Toronto hip-hop group Notes To Self brings together an experienced crew of contributors who are serious about their craft. Brothers and rappers Roshin and Swamp Donkey share a relaxed, on-point flow that comes from many years of trying words on for size. Producer, rapper and designer Bronze One dropped his debut EP, Just Add Water, in 2003 and went on to produce not only for Notes To Self, but also, as part of Book & Bronze, for artists including Brandy and Estelle. Notes’ DJ Dopey is a globally renowned turntablist who’s won numerous national and international titles, including that of 2003 DMC World Champion. The group’s fourth element is graffiti artist Elicser, a skilled writer and illustrator whose work can be found in streets, galleries and corporate campaigns alike. They’ve been at it as a crew since 2002.
“We function as a group, not just solo artists working together to all get ahead unevenly,” says Bronze. “We move as one, and we constantly keep each other on our toes.”
“I’d say that’s the most consistent push we get,” agrees Roshin. “For me, a huge part of being in a group is constantly having people with you who challenge your way of thinking.”
What: The members of Notes To Self pride themselves on studying the legends of hip-hop, and it shows. They connect past to present with artistry reminiscent of hip-hop’s golden era—balancing bouncy beats and grooves with humour and smarts—without limiting their sound or audience.
The group originally turned heads with feel-good releases including their 2006 Timbits mixtape, largely a tribute to J Dilla, and “T-Ode,” a 2007 collab with ace lyricist Abdominal.
Over the years, Notes To Self has toured with the likes of Dilated Peoples and Fashawn, opened for heroes Talib Kweli and De La Soul, and collaborated with hip-hop innovators including Evidence & Alchemist, D-Sisive, DJ Babu (Dilated Peoples), and Young RJ (Slum Village).
The group’s 2009 debut album A Shot in the Dark, released on England’s BBE label, was both musically adventurous and a big-time learning experience.
“I think the BBE release gave us a foot in the door towards a lot of things,” offers Roshin. “It definitely helped us get important people to pay attention more than they would have otherwise. Having the BBE co-sign made it a lot easier to get that initial listen; after that, it’s on the music.”
Says Bronze One, “The world is a big place, and the process was humbling. The international look was necessary for us; we needed to see what else was out there. We’re grateful for the experience, and its formal introduction to the game.”
Why: Notes To Self’s take-away from the experience has been focused around the DIY approach. They’ve made huge headway by developing new means of promotion, especially through a series of well-crafted videos and fresh, eye-catching merch.
Late in 2011, the crew released a jaw-dropping video for “Nobody (Remix),” for which Bronze One and a close group of friends sifted through a vast array of classic hip-hop videos to match visuals (and mouths) to Notes’ own song.
“I was sitting on some tapes a friend and I had recorded on to VHS when we were in high school,” explains Bronze. “My brother JR helped me organize and log them, then eventually edited and co-directed the video with me. Swamp categorized them, and applied math to the chronological madness we wanted to execute with our verses.”
The video was nominated for a Vimeo Award and has received over 75,000 YouTube views to date.
In January, the group followed with a fresh video for new song “All of the Above.” Filmed in the Canadian north during winter, it’s a beautifully shot black and white clip starring beards and beats. Both videos received widespread TV play and got nods from prominent hip-hop blogs including Okay Player and DJBooth.
On the merchandising front, Notes turned fandom into marketing last year with the launch of their ‘When I First Heard’ campaign. Starting with a t-shirt design that flipped De La Soul’s Stakes is High logo into ‘Notes to Self’ with an identical font, the campaign grew into a line of limited edition tees and caps that pay tribute to the group’s heroes.
“We’ve paid homage to those who have influenced our image and sound, all of whom have stood out from the rest at some point in their careers,” says Bronze, citing De La, Gangstarr, Beastie Boys, Souls of Mischief and the Roc-a-Fella camp as examples.
De La Soul themselves have since sported the gear, and Notes To Self partnered with New Era for some of the fitted caps. Notes’ fans keep a close eye for word of pop-up shops and new products. The band benefits from strong branding.
What’s Next: Notes To Self will soon release a sophomore album that’s been two years in the making. They’d initially promised an album titled Used to be Dark (Recoil), but the project has since taken a different shape. The hype around recent Notes’ videos sparked record label interest.
Though a release date has not yet been set, a deal was recently inked with an undisclosed American indie.
“They are becoming a staple for good rap in the US, and are slowly making a name for themselves,” says Bronze One, dropping a hint about the label’s identity. “They house artists we’ve worked with, and would love to work with, so the combination makes sense.”
“We’ve come a long way from our 2009 BBE debut,” he adds. “It’s been an arduous, and at times deflating, frustrating journey, but the highs outweigh the lows. We hope our next record reaches those in search of more good music, and gives us a greater platform to continue to produce it, because we literally get better with every song.”
Two supporting videos were just shot in locations ranging from Las Vegas to Windsor and Toronto’s CNE. The group is keenly aware that more eyes and ears are tuned to Toronto hip-hop than ever before.
“Any urban artist in the post-Drake era Toronto scene knows they have a much realer shot than they did before Drake broke that door down,” states Roshin. “The mentality in the rap scene here used to be more of a popularity contest between artists trying to be the biggest in Toronto, not necessarily thinking about their actual career outside of their hometown. I think Toronto artists feel they have a shot in a real way now and also have seen success come from a variety of methods. It was good to see that culture change.”
When & Where: Notes To Self is set to tour Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal with Los Angeles emcee BLU. Here, the full Notes crew performs Wednesday, September 5 at Revival (783 College, #COL), with $20 advance tickets available at Play de Record, Soundscapes, Homebase and online.
“We’re big fans of BLU, and I’ll learn as much as I can from him while we’re with him,” says Roshin. “We’ve done a lot of work with Cali artists to date, and that’s not changing on our new releases. It’s a great pairing; I think we’ll all leave with a bunch of new listeners.”
Fun fact: Notes To Self loves itself some ice cream. “Bronze and I are currently trying to settle a heated debate about who makes the best kind of Rocky Road,” says Dopey. “Häagen-Dazs or Baskin? We’ll let our audience decide.”