Tapped into rap

🕔Mar 09, 2006

When Shae Morin swallowed his terror and stepped up to the mike for the first time, to face an expectant crowd at a UNBC coffeehouse, it was both a beginning and an ending.

What it ended was a long period of inhabiting the shadows. Morin, who is part Cree, was born and raised in Prince George by a broken family that was plagued by addiction. As an introverted teenager, he was frequently found “noodling,” or playing aimlessly, on mostly borrowed musical instruments. Instead of learning to play recognizable songs from start to finish, he was catching hell from teachers for drumming on any available surface.

Morin’s early 20s weren’t much different: during an unfocused five years in Vancouver, he dabbled in the culinary arts, took some sound engineering courses, struggled with the “linear” approach of music school before dropping out after a year, and discovered his own addictive personality. Up until a few months before his stage debut, almost no one, not even his mother, really believed he was a musician, much less a performer. Except Morin.

“I spent 10 years visualizing that moment,” he remembers. When the opportunity arose to show his stuff at a UNBC coffeehouse, he knew it was time to go. “There was no second-guessing it.”

At that coffeehouse in Prince George five years ago, Morin heard his own amplified voice fill the room, and within seconds felt the energy in the venue change. As the audience enthusiastically responded, something inside him spread its wings and took to the air—and has yet to come down.

“A lot of the appeal of hip hop is that there’s a confidence, a bravado about it. I tapped into that.”

Today, at age 28, Morin still gets nervous before performances. But he knows it’ll pass, because the world has offered powerful reinforcement that he is, finally, on the right path.

He has launched into an infectiously groovy rap, backed up by his musical co-conspirator Dave Decoine and the funky instrumental tracks Morin had produced himself in the recording studio he’d assembled himself.

They’d billed themselves as Versus: an allusion both to the sophisticated use of meter and rhyme that animates their style of hip hop, and the creative tension that has always existed between these longtime friends.

He’s performed hundreds of times since, including regional music festivals and the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, where he was invited to join a spontaneous group improvisation with highly accomplished performers.

He and Decoine have put out two CDs, and they’re close to completing a third. His music has made the top 25 on Canada’s campus radio play list, arguably the most accurate read of sophisticated young listeners of independent music. He’s sold his music, including a moving acknowledgement of Prince George sex trade workers called Look Her In The Eye, to two documentary films.

He’s marketing his own music online, and recently completed and aired a very personal 12-minute radio documentary for CBC Radio. Versus recently scored first prize at the Summerfest talent contest: a trip for two to Mexico.

“Morin shows skills and professionalism that competes with any rap artist in Canada,” says Christopher Earle, station manager at CFUR, the campus-based radio station at UNBC in Prince George.

Although Morin’s talent risked extinguishment by circumstance, it was a blast of faith and the pure fuel of his own creativity which gave it life. He remembers when his life took a U-turn.

He’d always written poetry, and was already emerging as a competent percussionist by the time he enrolled in a Vancouver music school. He was seized by hip hop and its juicy fusion of rhythm and wordplay.

“It appealed to me as a drummer, and as someone interested more in spoken word, texture, soundscapes, ambiance… than in ‘shredding’ on guitars.

“There’s a lot of sophisticated arrangement and composition in hip hop that many miss out on,” he continues, citing DJs like Shadow and Crush. “When I found that creative process, it clicked 100 per cent.”

His intent always was, and still is, to start a live band. But music school failed to supply the connections he needed.

“It’s hard to find open-minded hip hop people, who understand the esthetic of hip hop but have the discipline and mindset of classical, or jazz.”

Lacking like-minded musicians to realize the live, organic sound he wanted, he decided to learn the tools of the rappers’ trade: audio engineering, turn tables and sequencers. He recruited Dave Decoine, then a computer science student with no musical background at all, to join him.

“Dave’s very charismatic, outgoing, has a lot to say, very articulate and enthusiastic with words. He takes music very well,” says Morin. “I planted the idea in his head that he could be a good rapper.”

Today, says Morin, Decoine is venturing into composition, and his ability to freestyle (make up rhymes on the spot, on stage), exceeds Morin’s own. In addition to becoming an indispensable element of Versus, Decoine returned the favour by steering Morin toward a travel/internship program offered by the Vancouver First Nations Employment Society.

Morin successfully applied for, and completed, a six-month internship at a Japanese hotel. Immersion in that rich culture further stoked his creative fires, and so did a new source of inspiration: Akiko, a woman with whom he’d begun trading English for Japanese lessons after his return to Vancouver. Somewhere between verb conjugations and conversation, they fell in love… and decided to seal the deal. Almost three years ago, they married. Baby Jasmine was born in 2004.

“We now teach each other languages full-time,” he laughs.

Soon after becoming engaged, they all moved back to Prince George. When he and Akiko moved in with his parents, Morin set up a recording studio in the basement, to work on the Versus sound.

Almost no one, not even his family, still believed he was a musician. It was something he’d done mostly privately, emphasizing improvisation over rote learning of cover tunes, i.e. not learning to reproduce other people’s material exactly as they play it, note for note. One day he went upstairs with a CD and played one of his new songs for his mom. “She was surprised. She had no idea that I knew how to do that!”

Typically, he makes several recordings of himself, improvising on several different instruments—guitar, saxophone, harmonica, drums, bass, violin. Using sound-editing software, Morin chops and applies effects to these tracks, adding layers upon layer to produce a completely new musical product. Occasionally, he adds music phrases from other recording artists to the mix (a common hip hop practice which rides a legal line if permissions haven’t been granted), but he’s moving away from this—preferring to play all the instruments on his own tracks.

I first encountered Versus in August last year, at the Robson Valley Music Festival in Dunster, B.C., where Morin and Decoine put on an incredible show: artfully winding their positive, catchy lyrics around handcrafted beats, wielding their silver-tongued charms with easy bravado and an effortless command of the stage, and transforming the mostly youthful, energetic audience into a gyrating mass of dancers.

One detail that caught my eye was Decoine’s t-shirt, which proclaimed: “I am my own role model.” I noticed him backstage after the show, offering hearty encouragement to a couple of young teens who’d come seeking autographs.

That scene hinted at what my first really good listen to Combat, the first Versus CD, confirmed: Versus stands out from many of their hip hop counterparts, in that their message is all about empowerment. Positive, affirming, empathetic, and slyly humorous, they offer an enticing alternative to lyrics obsessed with guns and gangs in America’s inner cities.

“I’ve seen so much ugliness, gross stuff in the world. Why make more?” asks Morin, adding that most people, spoon-fed “junk food music” by the likes of MuchMusic, think that’s what hip hop is about. “I’m making the kind of music I’d like to hear.”

For Morin, music is a powerful means of connection with youth at risk. He started Project Hope, a weekly evening program in Prince George where youth can watch or learn breakdancing or freestyle rap—as well as native crafts and games. He now runs the Hip Hop Java Shop, a program that employs eight at-risk youth in a concession at the Youth Centre. He’s regularly hired to appear at workshops on bullying and racism, delivered in schools and on reserves.

Doing this, he says, almost feels like a responsibility.

“I didn’t have any resources when I was an at-risk youth. I can identify with what they’re going through,” he says. “If you’ve gone down a road and seen that it leads to a dead end, you kind of feel compelled to say something when you see others heading there.”

But what is the source of all this positivity, after years of hiding his light from the world? Morin answers without hesitation.

“My relationship with God,” he says. “Without question. Everything I do comes from that.”

That Morin is deeply spiritual would surprise many, because he never, ever proselytizes or tries to convert someone. “If you ask me about my faith, I’ll tell you. But I’m not going to force it down anyone’s throat… I think it’s more about how you act.”

Nor does he see any need to market himself any differently because of it. “I’m Christian. And I’m an artist. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed.”

His relationship with God began while watching his parents undergo a deep transformation. As Morin’s mother so colourfully relates in his CBC documentary, she realized she’d hit rock bottom when she found herself poking around in a city dumpster looking for a syringe to deliver her next fix. For her, there was only one way up.

With a new spiritual focus, she and her husband reinvented themselves and their commitment to each other. They built a successful “bed and bannock” business, which offers a highly valued home away from home to residents of Fort Ware, the isolated Tsek’ene reserve 570 kilometres north of Prince George.

Shae’s observations of his own parents’ transformation, coupled with the experience of moving in with them temporarily with his wife, helped “heal a lot of wounds,” he says.

Morin is an arguably less visible breed of Christian. He rejects utterly the idea that people need institutions and rules to mediate their relationship with God. He and Akiko occasionally drop in at Prince George churches seeking spiritual nourishment, but are sometimes put off by messages of judgment—for example, of their decision to live together before marriage.

The usual Christian take on same-sex marriage is equally alien to him. “It doesn’t affect my marriage, so it’s none of my business,” he says.

In Morin’s view, churches go wrong when they mind other people’s business. To him, this explains the cultural disaster of Canada’s residential schools and First Nations, who weren’t asking for any institution to intervene in their relationship with the sacred.

So unimportant are religious trappings to Morin that he can’t tell you the exact denomination of the church he and Akiko got married in. “Church is a state of mind,” he concludes. “God is down with everybody, and everyone’s relationship with God is their own business.”

Clearly, Morin is minding his—and reaping the benefits. The thorns of unhappy circumstance have been replaced by the fruits of his own creativity, focus and faith.

“I’ve made up my mind to try to use my craft to provide for my family the best way I can,” he says. “I put myself into it 100 per cent and trust that I know what I’m doing.”

© Larissa Ardis 2006