TORONTO – Tucked away on a neighbourhood street in downtown Toronto, a meeting of eager creative minds could be hatching the next music superstar.
It’s welcome night for the 14th edition of the Remix Project, a mentorship program for young adults looking to enter Canada’s music industry, and while most of the new recruits are strangers the energy between them is palpable.
Organizers are feeling it too — they’re hot off the buzz of their latest alumni success story: four-time Juno Award nominated singer Jessie Reyez. Her career blossomed after she joined the program in 2014 and it’s here Reyez met many of the people who helped launch her career.
Remix Project prioritizes underprivileged and marginalized youth in hopes that by giving them guidance, production resources and valuable connections, they’ll be able to overcome some of the industry’s biggest obstacles. The participants aren’t just experienced singers and rappers, but also audio engineers, photographers, DJs and public relations managers looking to get a career foothold.
“Remix isn’t a place where you start doing music,” says Ritchie Acheampong, better known as producer Rich Kidd, who won a Juno as part of rap collective Naturally Born Strangers in 2015.
“It’s a place where… you’ve built your skill. Maybe you feel you’ve put in 5,000 of the 10,000 hours you need, and now it’s just like, how do I take it to the next level?”
A year before he worked alongside Drake on his breakthrough “Comeback Season” mixtape, Acheampong was part of the Remix Project’s first round of students in 2006. He now serves as mentor to newcomers.
Roughly 400 hopefuls applied to fill 45 spots in this year’s Remix music program. The leaders hand-picked the group based on their skills and ambition, and will put them through nine months of rigorous workshops and classes in their specialized field.
Twelve years after the Remix Project formed, its influence is becoming increasingly undeniable. Amid a renaissance in Toronto’s music scene — led by Drake, the Weeknd and more recently Daniel Caesar — some of the program’s graduates have found themselves among the most sought-after talent in the industry.
Francis Nguyen-Tran (who produces under the pseudonym FrancisGotHeat) oversaw the creation of Drake’s “4422” from the “More Life” album, and he’s a frequent collaborator with fellow Toronto-area rapper Roy Woods.
There’s also producer Ebony Oshunrinde, better known as WondaGurl, whose resume after Remix Project includes laying down tracks with Jay-Z, Rihanna, Big Sean and rap’s new generation of household names like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert.
Acheampong says with Toronto’s status among the global hip-hop community where it is today, there’s never been so much potential for locals artists, who once lived in the shadows of Los Angeles and New York.
“We’re in a generation where Toronto is cool to the rest of the world,” he said.
“These youth can come up and start making art that’s more reflective of the city — not taking anything from the South, West Coast or the East Coast. It’s about the north coast.”
The City of Toronto is among the believers in the Remix Project, having recently committed $200,000 to help grow the program as part of its economic and cultural development plans. Funds will go towards moving the organization into a new space on Toronto’s waterfront later this year.
Before that happens, the latest round of artists will be given the stage to prove themselves.
“This is a safe space,” Gavin Sheppard, co-founder of the Remix Project, tells the circle of participants.
“Throw it all out there, because you’ve got to get nine dumb ideas out before you get that brilliant one.”
The budding musicians gather together and one producer throws a beat he created onto the speakers.
Deandre Stanislaus is one of the first to volunteer a freestyle rap. The 20-year-old spits a few verses to the approval of the people around him. When he’s finished, another person throws their rhyme into the ring. The creative heat in the room is rising with each round.
Stanislaus, who raps under the name Lazz, says he hopes Remix Project will push him towards his dream of headlining a local show. He says in recent years performing music has dug him out of an emotional rut.
“There was a point in my life where I was really down,” he says.
“Pretty much I was living and breathing but I just felt dead inside. I started writing and recording at my friend’s house and finding that outlet. It was like a second life for me —that was a resurrection.”
Idman Abdul expects to find something different in the program.
She recently moved back to Canada after schooling in the United States, and says her “inherently political” outlook centred on social justice played a role in pushing her into music.
The 23-year-old hasn’t shown her songwriting work to many people, and hasn’t sang in public, but knows she has a unique perspective to offer.
“As a Muslim girl, a black girl, the child of immigrants here in Canada, when I sit down to write, it’s automatically gonna influence the way I look at song structure, look at the context I want to write about,” she said.
“Coming in and seeing how beautiful everyone is, how talented everyone is, and how ready everyone is to work and create — it’s contagious.”
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