Stew Jams puts the needle to the groove by creating musical soup for the soul in Vancouver’s hip-hop community
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Celine Pinget // Photographer
SRO’s, rabid rental rates levied by absentee slumlords, uncontrollable fires, a drug crisis and gang violence paint a portrait of the south Bronx in 1973. Somewhat reminiscent of Vancouver’s downtown East Side today, The Bronx was where DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican teenager,created an escape for a devastated community through music: hip-hop.
Gangbangers dropped their weapons to pick up turntables and microphones, reforming as the Universal Zulu Nation. Zulu jam spaces spread through the local community to spark a culture that changed lives. In 2004, the houses in the same neighbourhood were worth millions. You’ve heard the rest of this, or think you have.
“You have to know where hip-hop’s been in order to know where it’s going,” mused DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore in the 2001 documentary Scratch – named after the very technique he pioneered. Almost 45 years later, it’s precisely these historical fires that fuel the melting pot of Vancouver’s freestyle hip-hop collective Stew Jams. Spearheaded by Larisa Sanders with co-host Rupert Common and a full live band led by drummer Chris Cuoto, the Stew collective are stirring up just that — community empowerment through music.
It’s showtime underneath a haze of saturated blue light at the Red Gate Arts Society. Poised between the steady stream of verse flowing from the stage like the late September rain outside, Common takes a moment to acknowledge the work they’re doing here. “There’s so much more we can do if we actually come together,” he says, his eyes cast out like a net to the small sea amongst the crowd, “it’s just one step out of infinite steps.”
The ingredients for Stew are simple: musicians, dancers, DJ’s, emcees and artists that add to the vibration of empowerment. “Within hip-hop they’re all linked,” said Sanders. “There’s so much we can do together to influence each other.”
Stew Jams was founded by Rupert Common (left), Larisa Sanders (middle) and Chris Cuoto (right, photo by Trevor Tews)
Despite the co-opted, villainized or often mangled appropriation by the music industry, hip-hop reflects a deep origin in the culture of young, urban, working-class people of colour. Representation is an important issue for Sanders and the Stew crew. “In Vancouver there’s a bad rep on hip-hop, to the point where a lot of industry folks don’t want to work with—” her tone drops to sarcasm as her hands create quotes around the word—“hip-hop.”
Sanders describes the process for booking shows as a pay-to-play model where hip-hop acts are required to pay to perform should they not sell a certain number of tickets — something not present within other genres. Older business owners of these aforementioned venues who see hip-hop as music for ‘undesirables’ often refuse acts based on their misappropriated stereotypes. “It’s about money and their egos,” said Sanders. “It’s commercialized, corporate, all-male,” Common added. “You have these spaces, but no one is getting free in them. That’s not hip-hop.”
“Coming into the Stew Jams there’s not one ounce of that,” she continued, pushing her dark hair aside. “Hip-hop’s not mumble rap, it’s a movement, it’s about community, it’s about giving a voice to underrepresented voices.”
On stage, Sanders stands casually surveying the scene. The keys ring clear, the rhythm is driven by a thick scratch! of a hand sliding across a record.The heartbeat of Cuoto’s kick pedal thrums through the soup of sounds. Although everyone in the cypher demonstrates they’re capable of subtle wordplay, melody, and gentle arpeggios, they often beat the metaphorical crap out of the mic. Their words have purpose, not just power.
Stew welcomes first timers and well-known freestyle figures like Higher Knowledge of affiliated collective The Hip Hop Drop in East Vancouver, where Common also volunteers. Here, HK runs through rhythmic, fluidic prose, tossing out tales from his past as a former gang member. “We have a Stew collective that we kind of just call our family that comes out,” says Common. “The Hip Hop Drop really serves the community, too. HK is all about community building, about male accountability and anti-violence.”
Sound begins to trickle out as Sanders signals the band to hold formation. She introduces tonight’s featured act: Butterflies In Spirit, a collective of the family of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls utilizing the healing practice of dance. They’re led by Lorelei Williams (Skatin Nation Sts’Ailes), who serves as the women’s coordinator for the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre. “This isn’t just a dance group,” says Williams, “this is also a group of people who actively look for women who are missing.”
The Butterflies set the tempo, moving across the floor like fingers across a record. Indigenous hip-hop artist JB the First Lady aka Jerilynn Webster (Nuxalk Nation, Cayuga Six Nation) provides the words. She wields her voice as a battle cry: “I wanna walk the whole damn world,” Webster pierces through the speakers. “My stolen sisters, I’m looking for my sister, where did she go, why?” Her voice reverberates through the room with unrestrained, righteous rage, crying out for the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women of the last three decades.
With the First Ladies Crew she founded a decade ago, the act of rapping allowed Webster to reconnect with Indigenous oral history and her matrilineal voice. But the culture of hip-hop laid the groundwork with emcees as the storytellers and the keepers of history and tradition. The roots of hip-hop’s oral tradition as a voice for oppressed groups comes from the Malian Dogon people of West Africa and the nommo spirits. The nommo power of creation lies in the generative power of spoken language, in the animated genesis of words to transform objects and create life.
“It’s incredible how intention can actualize,” Sanders reflected, “we’ve created a safe container where people feel comfortable to just be vulnerable which is really important, and it’s set with a lot of intention.”
The factors leading to the creation of hip-hop as a necessary cultural entity are a stew of social, musical and political influences as diverse and complex as the sound itself. For people like Common, Sanders and Cuoto, they experience firsthand the transformative power of jam spaces in communities.
“Music and art are so necessary, and we want to be providing that in our city,” Common explained, his heartfelt words framed by loose curls against either side of his temples. “There’s so many people who come and they call it their church, they go: ‘oh my god, I needed this.’” Sanders offers a nod in solidarity, “it’s something they didn’t even realize they needed until they experience it,” Sanders added.
For the rest of the month, Sanders and Cuoto will travel through the east coast. They’re seeking connections and collaborations with other jam communities like Le Cypher and the Kalmunity Vibe Collective in Montreal. Ideally, even as far as collectives like The Shed in New York. “We want to elevate to the point [that] other people know about us as well,” said Sanders.
Her silhouette is soft, but her presence felt—poised against a backdrop of late summer flowers bathed in the ambient overcast grey. She acknowledges them for a moment, her eyes dancing from one to the next like a bee visualizing pollen. She knows communities like Stew, The Hip Hop Drop and theFirst Ladies Crew will continue to provide the pulse for healing and self-actualization within the city and beyond.
“As you grow, you naturally get bigger,” Sanders mused.
The Stew Jams are held on the last Monday of every month at 9pm at the Red Gate Art Society, admission by donation.