Spirituality and Calgary hip hop

By Andréa Rojas

It’s hard to have a conversation about Calgary’s underground hip-hop scene without encountering names like “Transit” and “Dragon Fli Empire.” These figures might dominate through their ubiquity, but what about those whose domain is located beyond lyrics, the ones who set up the other half of the sacrosanct union between words and beats? Producers, those who synthesize the rhythmic base of a hip-hop song, are underrated but indelibly important — especially in Calgary.

Scott Grubbe is an unlikely candidate for badass hip-hoppery, to say the least — the man who calls himself “DJ Transform” onstage is a thirtysomething-year-old stay-at-home dad, churchgoer, husband and De La Soul enthusiast.

What’s interesting about Grubbe is his choice to stay in Calgary and produce and DJ for the past 15 years. An unfortunate but real trend in YYC music is the standard pilgrimage to Vancouver or Toronto once one’s solo or band career shows a glimmer of promise — “[leaving] for greener pastures,” as Grubbe puts it. He’s perfectly all right with being a hip-hop producer who doesn’t necessarily enjoy rabid popularity in a country music city, though, and uses a sports analogy to explain it.

“If you look at people who are passionate about sports . . . they’ll play basketball in high school or whatever [but] the guys who don’t go all the way to the NBA, sometimes they’ll keep playing,” he says.

“It’s a passion, it’s a sport that they love and they keep going.”

Grubbe’s decision to keep Calgary his career base dovetails with his desire to circumvent hip-hop industry norms.

“Part of the whole concept of the [January 2012] album Anti Conformity [and] the concept of my name DJ Transform comes from Romans 12:2 in the Bible, and that’s ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,’” Grubbe explains. “Taking that in a musical sense as well, I’m not going to strive for that Top-40 sound so I can make money or whatever.”

Grubbe bases his beat production around sampling “golden-era” ’80s and ’90s hip-hop releases by artists like A Tribe Called Quest. This is a practice that, at the mass-production level, runs the risk of requiring an artist to pay costly royalties. Because of this, Grubbe struggled with issues of artistic integrity.

“I went for a little while where I stopped using samples and started making some beats without it,” Grubbe explains. “They were all right and there were some people that liked them, but I was just like, ‘Nah, this isn’t what I wanna make — I wanna make sample-based hip hop.’”

Finding the beauty in shuffling around sounds is something that grabbed Grubbe and refused to let go.

“There’s something that sounds like this, but when you chop it and rearrange it, you get little subtleties,” he says. “If you have a note followed by a second note and you chop them in half, then you’ve got still the sustain of that first note in that second note. Now you’re going to put it over here and rearrange them, and you get a neat little sound to it.

“When you’re sampling, you’ll get a little bongo in the background or something that you don’t always catch when you’re focused on the piano or whatever you’re chopping. You flip it up and listen to it later and you hear that it just sounds cool — the little pieces start to come out and come alive.”

So which sounds are his favourites to chop and screw?

“The artists that I sample, I’ll never give that up,” he laughs. “[Being secretive] is the norm when you’re on this ‘farm team’ level that I’m on, because if I push it beyond this, then I need to start shelling out money and hiring lawyers to clear all my samples, and I can’t afford that right now.”

Likening himself to 18- or 19-year-old NHL hopefuls isn’t a usual move for a hip-hop head, but for Grubbe, it works — and attests to his down-home humility. Right now, his main project is a series of “3Ps,” or three-song EPs. Anti Conformity is the first of the four slated to be completed by the end of 2012, consisting of beats and cuts featuring Transit and MC Playdough, who is part of the Texas indie hip-hop collective Deepspace5. Grubbe’s goal with the sonic series is to grab indie rappers from the U.S. and Calgary to “cross-expose” them.

“It’s kind of like an ADD, bite-sized piece of my music,” he says.

One challenge that presents Grubbe as producer, however, is marketing beats to a younger generation that’s more attuned to the lyrical component of rap.

“That’s part of why I’m getting away from instrumentals,” explains Grubbe. “As much as I enjoy those . . . I see that as a little bit more filler. My ‘A-game’ is when I can get an MC on there — I see that as an actual track. So drawing those MCs [out] on there . . . I’m trying to introduce the audience to different MCs and at the same time I’m trying to introduce my beats.”

Grubbe’s music is about far more than enjoyment, though. According to him, the substance of his music is realized through his spiritual connection to it.

“Music is a way to worship and be joyful,” he says. “It communicates with our hearts and it’s a form of soul food. It connects with our moods . . . there’s something about music, there’s a lot of potency to it. People can act with it.”

His experience at a “hip-hop church” in Florida solidified the expressive power of beat-making — and of hip-hop culture — for Grubbe.

“We are created as unique individuals and we should celebrate that within the church context,” he says.

Inevitably, he also struggles with being taken seriously as an artist by the hip-hop scene while being open about his faith. Conversely, though, he also had difficulty being accepted by his religious community.

“I felt like I had to conform to the church cult, but then I realized, ‘Oh, this isn’t the music I want to make — I want to sample,” he shares.

Although he’s far from living the conventional dream of a budding turntablist, Grubbe’s living his own dream without compromise.

“We really have to do what we’re called to,” Grubbe says.

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