As East Coast Music Association CEO Andy McLean said in our recent interview, the annual East Coast Music Awards, coming to Halifax from May 3-7, are an opportunity to discover something new.
Among the many musical showcases over the five-day celebration is the Breakout Stage at the Seahorse Tavern on May 5. Featuring some of “the most promising emerging and developing artists from around Atlantic Canada,” this is the perfect opportunity to discover your next favourite artist.
In this series, we check in with a number of the artists performing at the Breakout Stage. First up is alternative hip-hop artist Stephen Hero.
This interview has been edited.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m Stephen Hero, from Saint John, NB, and I make alternative hip-hop with an emphasis on class issues and working-class life on the east coast. My influences are wide-ranging, and I’ve played all types of music over the years, solo and as part of bands, but hip-hop is my first love and the music I’m the most passionate about, finding inspiration both in mainstream and underground rap. I’m particularly influenced by MF DOOM, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Cam’Ron and Danny Brown.
How do you describe your music?
Alternative working-class hip-hop anchored in hip-hop tradition but with an adventurous contemporary feel. I produce myself, but I also work with a variety of producers. I like sample-based alt beats, but I also play live instruments as part of my own production. Sometimes I like a traditional structure, but sometimes I like to throw out the whole concept and get a little weirder with it. I always like to keep humour and levity in the music even when the subject matter is serious, and I like my songs to have a bop to them, even if I’m trying to be a little more experimental with it. I think my music has some of the feel of Beastie Boys and De La Soul, my rapping is very influenced by DOOM and Cam’Ron, and I’ve been compared to El-P and Kool Keith.
How did you get into making music?
I was really into reading and writing from a very young age, and music started to interest me in the first or second grade. I played around with it a bit, learning songs from the radio and such, but when I heard hip-hop in the 4th grade, it struck me as a perfect combination of everything I was into. I got into it through the album No Way Out by Puff Daddy & The Family, plus different compilation tapes my dad used to buy from the sale racks for his van. I started writing and recording raps on a little tape player in grade 6 and never looked back. Eventually, I taught myself a few instruments and went on to learn basic engineering skills and production.
What was the best advice someone gave you when you started as a musician?
Hard to remember anything specific since I started so long ago. A lot of people had really bad advice, and a lot of people told me I was wasting my time. But when I started to go out to local shows and meet local musicians, although a lot of them were kind of crappy and selfish, especially on the industry side, I met some great artists who made a point to welcome me into the community. They were encouraging and told me to keep going. I don’t remember the first time I heard this, but someone along the line told me the difference between the people who make it and the people who don’t is that the people who make it didn’t quit.
What or who inspires you as a musician?
The city of Saint John, my family, worker solidarity, and more than anything else other music and art. I am a person who listens to music basically all my waking hours; I study it, it’s everything to me, and I just want a small place within it.
What are you working on musically right now?
I always have a lot on the go. Right now, I’m preparing singles to be released once a month until the end of the summer, some are self-produced, and some are collabs with producers. I’m also working on some video projects, and I just started a residency with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick to create climate crisis-themed work through a short series of workshops with a community organization. I’m also finishing an album.
Tell us about the new album.
Last fall, I was awarded a creation grant from ArtsNB to create an album exploring urban legends of Saint John and using that theme to examine class disparity issues in our city, among other things. The album is in the mastering stage, and we’re shooting music videos and preparing a zine. The artwork was created by the artist Benjamin Allain, and I’m so excited to reveal it. Musically it’s my most adventurous album yet, with production handled mainly by me but also by Brydon Crain, a brilliant producer and member of the incredible band Motherhood. There are some melodic elements, live instruments, off-kilter sampling and a ton of storytelling.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My plan is to be performing more often and for bigger crowds, continue to build my career and expand my fan base, and hopefully make my best music. I plan to work with the same team but hope they’ll all get paid a little better for the work. I’m open to possibilities, but as long as I’m still making music full-time, I’ll be content with that.
What advice do you have for other aspiring musicians?
Be patient, be open-minded, learn to take criticism but don’t let it stop you, and understand that all criticism isn’t created equal. And be realistic.
What can fans expect from your live show?
A fun time! Sometimes I worry my explanations of what my music makes it sound super self-serious, but it’s not, we have a lot of fun on stage with crowd interaction and danceable beats, and we make sure to keep it fun and keep the humour in the room. Come dance and yell with us.