The Pioneers of Powwowstep
A Tribe Called Red Move From Hosting Club Nights to International Acclaim
It’s not often that you come across a sound that’s truly unique—a sound that perks your ears up and causes your musical taste buds to tingle as they process the new and alien aural information they’re receiving.
Thus is the experience of your first time hearing A Tribe Called Red.
Based out of Ottawa, A Tribe Called Red is made up of three First Nation DJs that blend traditional pow wow elements from the drum circle, including singing, chants and percussion, with modern club music—dubstep wobbling underneath Cree singing, and EDM weaving in and out of the pounding of hand-drumming.
The result is a never-before-experienced type of music that the group has adorned “powwowstep.” They describe themselves as “the face of an urban Native youth renaissance,” and have captivated both Canada and the world.
The group’s debut self-released album A Tribe Called Red in 2012 was recently placed among the CBC’s “100 Greatest Canadian Albums Ever,” and their latest record, Nation II Nation, has earned them a spot on the Polaris Music Prize 2013 shortlist.
“The response has been out of control,” said Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau, one of the group’s founding members. “It seems Canada, as a whole, lets us represent them.”
Tribal Spirit on the Dancefloor
It all began when Campeau was bouncing at a bar in Ottawa and started DJing for fun, while future crewmate Bear Witness was DJing the same bar downstairs.
“Two Native guys DJing in the same building, obviously we got to know one another,” Campeau laughed.
The pair noticed that there was an abundance of cultural events all over Ottawa, but none to represent the local Native youth population—and they wanted to fix that.
“We wanted to throw a culturally-specific party,” Campeau said. “There’s tons of them in Ottawa; you have Jamaican parties, you have Korean parties. We wanted to have one geared towards but not limited to the First Nation population in Ottawa.”
The duo dubbed their parties “Electric Pow Wow,” and began sampling pow wow music and blending them into dubstep tracks, making the ultimate mash-up and celebration of their culture.
“We realized pretty quickly that we created this safe place for people, with students coming down from rural and isolated communities way up north who never felt comfortable going out in the city, feeling a little bit of culture shock,” Campeau said.
“So we created this comfortable space for First Nation youth to come out and have a good time.”
The third member of their crew, DJ Shub, is a two-time Canadian DMC champion. He was invited to join one Electric Pow Wow night and was welcomed into the group soon after.
“Dan [Shub] is Cayuga, the same nation Bear is from,” Campeau said. “He was amazing [at Electric Pow Wow], we ended up asking if he wanted to join the crew, and he moved from Fort Erie to Ottawa. That’s when we started producing our own music.”
Reclaiming Native Viewpoints
Ever since expanding beyond the nation’s capital, the group’s beats and ideas have spread like wildfire. From the start, the aboriginal communities in Canada and abroad showed great support of their music. In the past year they’ve embarked on international tours and received widespread recognition for their work.
“The aboriginal community owned [our music] very quickly,” Campeau said. “They really embraced that it represented them.”
A Tribe Called Red is a vocal supporter of the Idle No More movement in Canada, the “peaceful revolution to honour Indigenous sovereignty.” The group released a single, “The Road,” to specifically support the cause, which can be found on their newest record, Nation II Nation.
“It’s fantastic, it’s a really exciting time. Idle No More is our civil rights movement,” Campeau said. “Seeing people rally together, and the flash-mob round-dances, is so powerful. We’re all a part of it.”
But the group has been political even before the rise of Idle No More—their debut album featured a song called “Woodcarver,” that tells the tragedy of John T. Williams, a Native woodcarver in Seattle, Wash., who was shot in the back four times and killed by a police officer in 2011, with no apparent provocation.
The haunting track retells the story through distorted news reports over mournful chants and cries, and was the group’s way of taking action and allowing Williams’s story to be heard on an international platform.
“The [dashcam] video went viral. It was super sad and really traumatic, but at least it was caught on video,” Campeau said. “We thought, ‘this cop is gonna get the book thrown at him.’ And then the court case happened and he was let off scot-free, he just walked away. That’s when we got mad.”
“It’s like it was saying, ‘now it’s okay to kill Indians again.’ It made us super upset; we said we have to do something. We felt we were able to tell people this story through ‘Woodcarver,’ and people in Europe who normally wouldn’t have heard of it were going to hear about it now.”
A Tribe Called Red has also made their stance clear on racial stereotypes, speaking out against sports teams using the name Redskins, and calling out venues that host cowboys-and-indians themed events.
The DJ trio recently released a statement asking non-Native fans to refrain from going to their shows wearing plastic headdresses or sporting “warpaint” on their face. The band refers to the get-ups as “redface,” and finds an equivalent in showing up at a hip-hop show in blackface.
“Just don’t do it, it’s offensive,” Campeau said. “If you’re coming to our show, don’t dress in a mock-up version of what you think that First Nations are supposed to look like. This colonial idea that we’re from the past is such a damaging sort of idea. So just be yourself, like you’d go to any other EDM show, we’re just a group.”
“This colonial idea that we’re from the past is such a damaging sort of idea.”
—Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau
Nation II Nation
Nation II Nation was released on May 7 by the Native record label Tribal Spirit Music. The album heavily collaborates with other aboriginal singers and artists, whose tunes were provided by the label and remixed by the group.
Tribal Spirit Music not only opened their catalogue to the group, but even altered their methods of recording to better suit sampling and mixing.
“Normally the way a pow wow is recorded is a boom mic in the middle of the drum circle,” Campeau said. “They asked if we wanted anything recorded differently, so we requested acapellas and separate tracks. They changed the way they were recording their music to help us be able to remix it easier.”
The result of sampling a variety of Native songs is many different languages appearing on the record. According to Campeau, it varies with every song, and makes for a lot of overlap between First Nations.
“You know, you’ve got two Cayuga guys and an Ojibwe guy, remixing an Ojibwe group, that’s singing in Cree,” Campeau laughed.
Some Native guest stars on Nation II Nation include Eastern Eagle, an award-winning group of Mi’kmaq singers, the Chippewa Travellers, an Aniishinaabeg family drum group from Ontario, and nearly half a dozen more.
Campeau’s favorite track off the new record? Hint: It’s a pun.
“I would have to say NDN Stakes. That song bangs,” he laughed.
“The spelling, NDN, is used by First Nation youth everywhere, so that spelling is very specific. And Indian steaks is fried bologna,” he explained.
“NDN Stakes also means the stakes have never been higher, and it’s also about staking the land. There are a lot of ways you can look at it.”
A Tribe Called Red will be playing at Osheaga on August 2, at the Piknic Electronik stage from 9:45 p.m. to 10:45 p.m.