Interview: Juno-Nominated A Tribe Called Red

Published in Indian Country Today Media Network | February 26, 2014 | Circulation: 300,000 unique monthly visitors

A Tribe Called Red, from left: DJ NDN, DJ Shub, and Bear Witness. Photo by David P. Ball

A Tribe Called Red, from left: DJ NDN, DJ Shub, and Bear Witness. Photo by David P. Ball

On February 4, A Tribe Called Red, a Canadian DJ trio who have pioneered their own genre of Electric Pow Wow or Pow Wow Step music, were nominated for two Junos, Canada’s premier music awards.

The crew are eligible for hardware in the categories of Breakthrough Group of the Year and Electronic Album of the Year.

Made up of DJ NDN (Ian Campeau , Anishinabe), DJ Shub (Dan General, Cayuga) and Bear Witness (Bear Thomas, also Cayuga), the Ottawa-based group was formed in 2009, launching a self-titled full-length album a year later, which made the cross-genre Polaris Music Prize‘s longlist. Their newest album,Nation II Nation, bumped them onto that prize’s shortlist last year as one of Canada’s Top 10 albums of the year. A Tribe Called Red will find out whether they’ve won a so-called “Canadian Grammy” when the Juno winners are announced March 30.

As they embarked on a cross-Canada tour, ATCR’s Ian Campeau spoke about the band’s breakthrough, his successful campaign to rename the Nepean Redskins youth football team, plus the camaraderie of being on the road.

DAVID P. BALL: Could you talk about your two Juno nominations?

IAN CAMPEAU: Yes, it’s another very extremely exciting moment in our careers. It’s awesome. We can’t be more excited.

You did not enter the aboriginal category — could you talk about that decision, because obviously for a lot of Indigenous artists that’s a key way of getting their music out. But why did you decide to not go for that category?

It was a discussion and a conscious decision to not apply for that award, only because we felt that we wanted to be in competition with other music that is of the same genre, as opposed to being put into a category because of our heritage. We don’t want to take anything away from the Aboriginal Music Award — it’s fantastic. But we just didn’t think it was fair to choose between our album, (St:olo, Ojibwa and Métis singer) Inez Jasper’s album (Burn Me Down) or (Sta’atl’imx nation) George Leach’s album (Surrender). They’re all brilliant. You can’t compare a hard rock album with an electronic album and tell me which one’s the better album. We decided to opt out from applying from the aboriginal category.

You guys had modest beginnings as a group — you used to work out of a recording studio on DJ Shub’s back porch, south of Ottawa. What’s the process like when you mix your beats, when you find the traditional pow wow music — how do you decide as a group how it’s going to look?

Well, a lot has changed since [the days of mixing tracks] on Shub’s back porch! Now we’ve got to book a lot of studio time. For the next album, we’re going to be doing a lot of collaboration with a lot of contemporary Native artists — and non-Native artists. It’s going to be a lot of studio work, in studio and recording live performances to remix and put together. A lot of creating beats and ideas on the road, on the laptops we tour with. When we get the ideas down and they’re solid enough, we go into the studio.

You guys have spanned a lot of genres within the Electronic Dance Music frame — you had some Dubstep beats on your first album, some more mellow stuff, you’ve moved into the Trap terrain that’s a little bit harder sound. Where are you heading now — what might your next album sound like?

We don’t really know yet! It’s all still developing. We’re still in the ideas stages. We really want to develop these songs that we’re working on with people, with them — as opposed to just making the song and then saying, “This is how we want it to sound” and just putting it out like that. We actually want to work with the artists we’re working with to create a song together.

The way that you bring in traditional music creates this really interesting conversation in your music. A lot of successful indigenous artists are very focused on the message. It’s like topical folk music, blues, rock, or a lot of hip hop for instance — indigenous hip hop like Tru Rez, Team Rezofficial, Eekwol, Kinnie Starr. What is it that’s unique about having dance music as your method? There aren’t many club nights or parties where you’d find indigenous music for indigenous people.

What sets us apart from a lot of rap and blues and country — that’s another big genre that First Nations people tend to gravitate toward — is that all of those styles of music come from a place of anger and sadness and despair. Blues, country and hip hop are very real, true struggle music. Whereas dance music is about dancing — it’s about being happy and dancing. It’s funny, because that sort of attitude married with the idea of pow wow is juxtaposed really well: Pow wow is about dancing, being happy, meeting new people and hanging out with friends. When we first launched our Electric Pow Wow parties, I was really excited that was the kind of feel our parties had.

You’re on tour now — heading west, and then down to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and then after that playing dates in California, before heading to France for a couple of weeks, and getting back to this continent by the end of April in time to play Jazzfest in New Orleans. (Click here for tour dates.) What’s the experience like on the road with you guys? It seems like you have a great time, — and make fun of each other a lot!

Yeah, the camaraderie is next-level, I’d say. I’ve seen these guys more than I saw my family last year on tour. We were home for three months out of 12. It’s really good. The road is awesome.

The song “The Road” was an Idle No More track — can you talk a little bit about your own personal activism? For instance, you had a hand in getting the Nepean Redskins to rename themselves the Eagles. Could you talk about the attention that brought, and what drives you? That seemed like an unwinnable battle, and yet they actually backed down and changed the name.

Yeah, I’m ecstatic. That’s been a three-year project. It ended on a great note. It’s redeeming. Finally, people are talking about different issues that need to be talked about. The Native-non-Native relationship needs to be discussed. We need to start talking about it, and it seems that social media at least means we’re able to have these conversations and discuss why using terms like “redskins” for youth football is inappropriate, and why wearing headdresses to concerts is inappropriate. It’s quite exciting.

Finally, you’ve worked with rapper Angel Haze somewhat recently, on a track that mixes some of your beats — it’s actually called “A Tribe Called Red.” How did that collaboration come about?

Angel is half-Cherokee. She reached out on Twitter, and we just started talking there. She asked us to send her a beat, and that ended up being the beat on the album. At the same time, we met the producer of her album earlier through mutual friends. So it kind of all just worked together pretty well. It was pretty serendipitous.

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