According to its official website, Brandon, Canada is Manitoba’s second largest city. In 2011, it had a population of 46,061. Despite its small size – or perhaps because of it – Brandon was the perfect place for an independent rap label like Peanuts & Corn Records to thrive in the ’90s and ’00s. The oft-ignored corner of the country helped develop an underground Canadian hip hop scene and serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring MCs like myself living in the prairies.
The advantage of living in a small town and loving something obscure is that it’s even more exciting when you find other people with the same interest. “Tyler’s locker was across from mine and I noticed that he had a Public Enemy or a De La Soul poster in his locker and that pissed me off. It was like, ‘this is my shit,’” says rapper Patrick “Pip Skid” Skene, relating his first memories of Tyler “DJ Hunnicutt” Sneesby. “I took all the rap posters out of his locker while he wasn’t there and I put them in mine and when he was around, I would leave my locker door open so that he could see that I had confiscated his posters. Quickly after that, Tyler and I started trading tapes.”
“We’re talking about high school here, so going to bush parties and setting a pallet on fire and getting drunk, that was what you did on a weekend, right?” says Rod “mcenroe” Bailey, Peanuts & Corn label founder and producer. “What we did was mess around with music and watch weird movies, watch rap videos and skateboard.”
With an obvious musical kinship and shared eccentricity, the trio eventually tried their hand at making rap music themselves. The result was Farm Fresh. Starting out with just a Realistik mixer borrowed from school, Hunnicutt created pause tapes to use on stage while mcenroe rapped and produced beats which were occasionally accompanied by a live band. Pip Skid kicked oddball rhymes and hyped up the crowd.
The music they ended up making differed greatly from the rap they studied, crossing golden age hip hop production with a DIY punk ethos. Essentially, they were the Beastie Boys’ nerdy Canadian cousins. They rapped about aliens over jazzy scratch suites. They referenced Farley Mowat, the Canadian Shield and John A. Macdonald in their rhymes. Hunnicutt would rock a motorcycle helmet and kick himself in the head on stage.
“We were a novelty to people because nothing like that had ever happened in Brandon or Winnipeg [Manitoba’s biggest city]. There was nothing like what we were doing,” said Pip. “I think accidentally we changed the landscape of what a rap show could look like.”
Farm Fresh’s genre-bending ways found them playing shows with Winnipeg rock and punk bands like Propagandhi, Rheostatics and Red Fisher. But eventually they would cross paths with pioneers of that city’s burgeoning hip hop community such as Frek Sho, Shadez and Mood Ruff. With Bailey moving to Winnipeg for an engineering degree at the University of Manitoba in 1994, the wheels behind Peanuts & Corn were beginning to spin into motion.
“What Farm Fresh set up, the original incarnation of P&C [...] was ‘It’s funny and ironic that we’re from Brandon, Manitoba, and we recognize that and we’re gonna use it to our advantage,’” said Joe “John Smith” Comparye. “That turned into something a little realer a little bit later and I actually remember having a conversation with the fellas at one point where we arrived at the conclusion [that] the irony is only valuable for so long and now we have to embrace this as being real and who we are.”
The label started to expand beyond Brandon to recruit rappers from all over Manitoba that would make up the Break Bread crew: John Smith from Churchill, Yy from Portage La Prairie and Gruf the Druid from Winnipeg. They’d eventually add Birdapres from Vancouver to complete the classic lineup that would begin a prolific run of releases in 2001 and thrust the label onto the worldwide stage through the rapidly growing power of the internet.
Albums like Pip Skid’s Friends4Ever, John Smith’s Blunderbus or “in transit” and Gruf’s Druidry were favourites on websites like Hip Hop Infinity, an underground rap album review site, store and message board. I was a member, and I remember savouring every RealPlayer link I came across, gaining sudden access to a galaxy of alternative rap that was only a couple provinces away.
For fans of Canadian rap, Rascalz’s 1998 single “Northern Touch” brought together Vancouver and Toronto rappers, and was the single biggest catalyst to believe it might be possible to make it on a national (or even international) level. But with Peanuts & Corn, I actually saw a reflection of the Canada that I grew up in. These guys rapped about pulling an inside job on a Money Mart. They had anthems about returning empty bottles for change. They groused about boorish Americans coming to their province to shoot ducks – small town concerns that didn’t register out East, but resonated with people in the Midwest and across the web.
John Smith’s 2004 album Pinky’s Laundromat is emblematic of the P&C discography, a record that is insular almost to the point of exclusion. “Kinship of the Down and Out” shouts out a litany of obscure streets and avenues from Winnipeg’s north end: Mountain, Selkirk, Alfred, Arlington, Redwood, Salter, Aberdeen.
“I thought it was cool when rappers would mention very specific places or situations. New York was no longer just Times Square and the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. I wanna know about Far Rockaway because Pete Rock and CL Smooth are talking about it,” said John Smith. “This is where I’m from and I’m gonna mention it. If someone from out of town doesn’t get it, well, then they might have to take a step towards me and learn a little bit more about Winnipeg.”
Much of the Peanuts & Corn oeuvre taps into a singular feeling of introspection that can only come from being an outsider enduring the extreme isolation of Canadian winter. At the same time, though, there’s an undertone of strangeness that buoys the darkness, the jokes and clownish character studies of all-too-familiar hoser drug dealers and barflies serving as a reminder that the prairie experience is inherently a shared journey, no matter how outwardly lonely it may seem.
“Ultimately, we just started making music for our friends, like ‘I’m gonna make a weird song to make Tyler laugh.’ The self-deprecation, there’s a very Manitoban element to it,” says Pip Skid. “We would push these strange concepts... this constant push to make a rap song that sounds like a rap song but no one has ever touched that topic before. We were always pushing that way.”
For a collection of Farm Fresh and Peanuts & Corn highlights, check out the YouTube playlist below.
Rollie Pemberton is rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. He performed with Pip Skid and John Smith in 2005 and has appeared on several Peanuts & Corn related records. He served as Edmonton’s Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2011.
Header photo: Steve St. Louis