WORDS AND PHOTO BY PATRICK JODOIN
When the Ottawa-based hip-hop collective BlakDenim was formed in early 2013, they immediately began competing in LiVE 88.5 FM’s Big Money Shot, a battle of the bands that promised major industry exposure and abundant radio spins.
Despite the unlikely odds of a brand new band making an impact in such a high profile competition, BlakDenim placed second, easily cementing them as one of the capital’s most ambitious new acts.
They quickly released their debut album and went on to play Bluesfest two summers in a row. This honour is rarely bestowed upon local acts due to the festival’s efforts to ensure fairness among the city’s many bands vying for a spot.
It should be no surprise that, with their recently-released sophomore album Complexus, the eight-piece band are wasting no time in setting their sights on further accolades. They’re after a Juno.
“I’ve been just putting it out there . . . I’m putting a little bit of pressure on the city,” says the group’s MC Precise Kenny Creole. “The Junos are here in Ottawa in 2017. We feel like we could get a nomination out of it . . . I feel like our sound is just different.”
The band is indeed hard to categorize. Their prominent brass component has drawn comparisons to Ottawa’s Souljazz Orchestra—sax player Zakari Frantz is featured on two cuts on Complexus. The combination of a live band with MC Precise’s powerful vocal presence and natural ability to engage a crowd has also led to some comparisons to The Roots. For some fans, the band’s harder cuts have conjured comparisons to Rage Against The Machine.
When some bands try to blend too many genres, it can fall flat but in BlakDenim’s case, it seems to work.
At the band’s Friday, May 13 release party for Complexus, they packed a diverse crowd of music fans into Maverick’s on Rideau Street. In three short years, BlakDenim has become a hometown favourite with an established, fervent fan base.
Their fans are a mixture of hip-hop heads and those drawn to the band’s live instrumentation. Influences range from jazz acts like New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty and Brooklyn instrumental ensemble Snarky Puppy, to Precise’s personal rap influences like Jay Z and Nas. The band’s vocalist, Erin Tomkins, cites Aretha Franklin and Ani DiFranco among her influences.
Precise was no stranger to Ottawa hip-hop crowds when the band got together. He had been making strides in the local scene with his group TruHalf since 2009, after returning to the city from Kingston, Ont., where he attended college.
Now, the BlakDenim project has exposed Precise’s thoughtful brand of relatable lyrics to a wider audience. His honest, motivational words have met their match with the immediacy of the band’s sound.
“We’re really chasing something,” says Precise. “A few of the things that keep coming up on the newest project, is that ‘you’ve got to push through, you’ve got to persevere; you’ve got to take the good with the bad.’”
Upon dropping Complexus, BlakDenim had just returned from a successful showcase at Canadian Music Week in Toronto. Their plans for promoting the new album include the logistical nightmare of lugging a tuba and a bunch of other instruments across the United States and Europe.
Despite their plans to spread the BlakDenim sound abroad, they will continue to call Ottawa home.
“We like it here, we all met here,” says Precise, “and this is where our biggest supporters are.”