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Bringing Hip-Hop Back to Canada (Except It Never Really Left)

09/27/2013 12:51 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

Something big is coming this way. No, it's not another jackhammer building a condo on Queen's Quay, it's the 2013 Red Bull Thre3Style World DJ Championships. This year, I have the terribly difficult job of having fun for a few months straight; I will be judging live sets from across the country in our qualifying heats (including last night's event at The Guvernment in Toronto), and then again in November for the World Finals, where for 24 DJs will come together to compete for the title of 'World Champion'. But DJ competitions -- and world champions -- are not new to Canada. In fact, Canada has a deep history of boundary-pushing competitive DJing, churning out some of the world's most recognized names in the field.

If all of this sounds confusing to you, let me break it down. Currently in its fourth year, the Thre3style World Championships are relatively new to the DJ world. However, the idea of DJs competing against each other or 'battling' is not. Its roots can be traced back to 'sound clashes' between rival sound crews in Jamaica as far back as the 1950s. Two different crews would set up their sound systems at either end of a dance and take turns playing sets in an effort to win the crowd over and be crowned the champion sound. Programming, sound quality and track selection, including songs specifically made for the sound crew called 'dub plates', would all factor into the battle, while the crowd would cheer for the side that they felt to be mashing up the dance.

Pick up the needle and skip ahead to the mid-eighties: a radio show and remix service called the Disco Mixing Club (DMC) decides to hold a competition at a DJ convention in the UK. DJs were given 6 minutes to showcase their skills using vinyl on two turntables and a mixer. Word spread quickly and the competition began attracting international talent, including revered American DJs, DJ Cheese (Word Of Mouth, "King Kut"), and 'the green-eyed brother, brother with the green eyes', DJ Cash Money in 1988, who had a huge hip-hop hit on his hands at the time with "Ugly People Be Quiet". These DJs were already competing in similar competitions in America alongside legends like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Joe Cooley, but this overseas exposure seemed to up the ante. DJ competitions were becoming a global affair.

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Red Bull Thre3style | Toronto Qualifiers

Following the names on some of their favourite records, Canadian DJs wanted in on the action as well. The DMCs and other battles started popping up in Canada in the '90s, bringing out veteran club (and 'bedroom') DJs from coast to coast looking to take their style and sound further. By the mid-90s, Toronto's DJ Grouch, DJ D-Scratch and DJ Lil' Jaz (collectively known as Turnstyles), began to make waves outside of the country as a DJ crew by showcasing skills and techniques that rivaled those at the top of the podium, like New York's Grandmaster Roc Raida and The X-Ecutioners. But it was a young Montrealer by the name of Alain Macklovitch, or DJ A-Trak, who would mark Canada's place in the international ranks first, and in a big way. In 1997, at the age of 15, A-Trak became the first Canadian (and youngest DJ ever) to win the DMC World Championships; a win that would garner the attention of Californian scratching God DJ Q-Bert and eventually land him a spot in his Invisibl Skratch Piklz crew alongside legends Mix Master Mike, D-Styles, and Shortkut.

Alain's success had a huge impact on the DJ community north of the border. With Canada officially on the map and interest in battles soaring, DJs from coast to coast (including the author of this article) were practicing like mad; brushing up on their mixing and scratching skills, forming crews, and entering a bunch of different DJ competitions. The national battles were chock full of talent and a wave of eager beavers was exported. Calgary's DJ Pump, Vancouver's DJ Wax, and Toronto's DJ Jr-Flo and DJ M-Rock all made noise on the international circuit. Toronto's DJ Dopey was most successful after A-Trak, bringing home the same world title in 2003 with a very creative musical and technical style.

As their names continued to gain notoriety through competition, many of these DJs branched out and applied their skills to other aspects of the craft.

Creating music groups, producing records, and rocking club nights became great ways to further their careers outside of the competitive world. So great, in fact, that their participation in the technically-focused, 3-to-6-minute routine-based events was dropping, as the competitions seemed to be moving in a direction more technical that was, for some, less musically rewarding. Technology was advancing, and it was becoming easier and easier for creative-minded DJs to realize their ideas outside of the battle world; in many different parts of the music industry, even well outside of the hip-hop realm. A-Trak began working with Kanye West, crushing crowds the world over, while producing dancefloor-friendly EDM tracks and starting his own label, the still-very-relevant Fool's Gold. Jr-Flo had Toronto's club district on smash and formed the multi-genre group Keys-N-Krates (currently signed to Steve Aoki's Dim Mak Records). Dopey joined MTV Canada as their official DJ alongside his duties in the rap group Notes To Self.

Club nights and dance parties became bigger and bigger, and so did the DJs. The seeds of today's EDM stardom were sown and things were escalating quickly. A-Trak was now much more known for his club tunes and parties than his "Get Your Freak On" routine. The interest in the traditional DJ battle scene was fading. New DJs were not interested in spending the time to craft a 3-minute power routine, but rather an hour of bangers that would smash any party. But what was left to fill the void, or better yet, contribute to the current scene in a new way?

Adding a twist to a classic concept, Red Bull organized a one-off event in Vancouver with five of its top DJs with a simple concept: play a skillful, fun, 15 minute set and play at least three genres of music and whoever rocks the party the hardest wins. Thre3Style. The night drew a sold out crowd and was the talk of the town (and country) in the weeks after. The winner: Mat The Alien, a DJ who had ironically never competed in battles, but was known all over Canada for his eclectic sets and great club nights. That buzz brought on a nationwide event a couple years later, which incited jealousy among DJs from other countries, and in 2010 Thre3Style went global with 10 DJs from around the world competing at Paris' legendary Elysee Montmartre (hi, Black Thought) for the title of World Champion. France's DJ Karve took the honours with a set that enveloped all of what had been defined as the judging points for Thre3Style: skills, creativity, track selection, stage presence and crowd response.

The event has since grown to include 24 countries and a week long of events, including headliners from around the world who showcase and judge the field of global contestants. This year, from November 4th to 9th, it will come back to its roots in Canada, this time in Toronto, a city that hosts a legendary DJ scene and multicultural musical heritage. And it is exactly that; a party that celebrates where the DJ culture has come from, and where it is going. For Canada, a new DJ will be in the spotlight. For the world, a new champion will be crowned. Get some sleep now, while you still can.