How one woman helped bring hip hop to Canadian audiences

Michele Geister translated her passion for hip hop into a TV show that broke new talent and set the stage for Canadian acts to dominate the international market
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on July 5, 2017
Nam Kiwanuka talks about the history of Canadian hip hop with Kardinal Offishall and DJ Starting From Scratch

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It’s hard to imagine that 20 years ago, Canada didn’t have a mainstream radio station that played rap music or R&B. While veteran Canadian male artists such as Kardinal Offishall and DJ Starting From Scratch (who I interviewed for The Agenda in the Summer) are well known, and Drake, K' naan and The Weeknd have dominated the charts south of the border, the domestic hip-hop scene owes a debt to a grassroots TV show called RapCity, launched in the late 1980s on MuchMusic.  The show, produced by Michele Geister, was an outlet that not only supported but broke new artists. Before RapCity, it was mostly college radio and local DJs who championed the music.

As part of my VJ duties when I worked at the station, I occasionally hosted RapCity and produced segments for it from 1998 to 2003. But the show began with an idea by Geister, a broadcast journalism graduate from Conestoga College in Kitchener.

Geister got her start at MuchMusic working as a master control operator.

“After much brainstorming one night after my DJ gig at the Taz (Tazmanian Ballroom in Toronto), myself and some friends came up with the name RapCity,” recalls Geister. “John Martin (program director of MuchMusic and co-creator of the NewMusic) liked it. Shortly after we found out that BET was doing their own show with the same name. Our spelling was a little different and John felt it was a non-issue.”

Geister had always wanted to get into production and had her own music show on community television. Once she working at MuchMusic, she began to volunteer her editing and post production skills on Fashion Notes and Indie Street, shows hosted by popular VJ Erica Ehm.

“I found Michele working in master control at MuchMusic, I knew the Montreal hip-hop scene and she knew Toronto's. We had equally strange music taste,” says veteran broadcaster Michael Williams and former host of Soul in the City and RapCity's inaugural host. “Michele and I would chat about music, the show I wanted to do.

“No one was sure of her skills fresh out school, but I believed in me and her together … so I fired my [Soul in the City] producer in the nicest way and fought to have Michele in the position. She had a great understanding of what I wanted to do and how to present it to me the way I wanted, I trusted her, and [she trusted] me. We were out to make history, and we did.”

Geister and Williams would remake Soul in the City, a show which was syndicated in 21 countries and which Williams says was “bootlegged” in the rest of the world. And they also worked on RapCity together, which Williams says Geister campaigned for.

“Michele was the missing link,” he says. “I could not have done it without her, as my partner in crime, collaborator, producer, editor, talent coordinator and friend. Without her behind the scenes controlling the 10 to 20 other people you need to do a proper television show. It is the best creative collaboration I have ever had. We did our best work with each other.”

On one occasion when Williams couldn’t make a trip to New York City to cover an event celebrating the first record release for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Will Smith (now an Oscar-nominated actor), Geister went with camera operator Gord McWatters.

They were able to conduct interviews with legendary indie labels Tommy Boy, Jive, Def Jam and Sleeping Bag, plus cover a release party showcasing Kool Moe Dee.

She was so worried about missing anything that they didn’t take a break and only took cat naps in the taxi between each location. The day would end after 11:30 at night with an interview from Kurtis Blow, who had the “first rap hit on a major label.” Her only regret was that she was too exhausted to take Blow up on his offer to take them clubbing after the interview was finished. 

“One of things that I did was get out and document the scene whether with a Much cameraman or a small camera I was shooting myself,” she says. “So I was all over following the early acts from Toronto and the rest of the Canadian hip-hop nation, or visiting acts — wherever they went.

“It was extremely important to me to capture all the elements of hip hop with respect to the youth movement and culture. The producers, MCs, dancers, graffiti artists, managers – all of it.  In the same way I felt driven to give a voice to that art and energy that really wasn't getting the exposure anywhere else on the levels that [our shows] could expose.”


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On another trip to NYC and this time with celebrated cinematographer Basil Young (and brother of VJ Master T), Geister invited her student intern Little X to meet them on the set of a video shoot. The intern — a talented artist — was in his final year of high school and used the opportunity to network with the video’s director, Hype Williams (who’s worked with Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G and Guru). X would become Williams’ storyboard artist and is now known as Director X, the name behind Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” 

“Producing Soul in the City and RapCity made [Michele] one of the most important figures in music,” says Michael Williams. “It gave her a platform to help artists, teach artists, and introduce artists to Canada and the world.”

Geister recalls a trip she took with Michie Mee to Kingston, Jamaica, Michie’s country of birth. Michie was in town to record with the local producers.

“At the airport there was this kind of undercover exchange going on between her and some young guys in the parking lot,” Geister says. “When I asked what she was doing, she told me she was bringing her cousins VHS tapes of Soul In The City. The youth were literally starving for the music and I always tried to educate and inspire while entertaining at the same time.”

Before the advent of YouTube, RapCity airing on mainstream media, found an audience across the country.

“The show for me was about building the community, the artistry of the youth, an industry. I named an info segment we did 'Canadian Hip Hop Nation' kind of before it was even realized,” Geister says. “The editorial vantage point was to follow the music journalism style of The NewMusic but for hip hop and breakdown all elements of the music from its artistry to management to marketing.

“How did so and so get their break? What is the process?  We shared it all and incidentally when The NewMusic did air hip-hop stories it was because I was on the ground field producing to get what I wanted for RapCity but also for the exposure on [that show] as well.

“We made the careers of the Michie's, Rascalz and so many others that in turn inspired the next generation.  I was there shooting the Dream Warriors in a sold out Brixton Academy, with a Hi8 camera bringing back testimony that Canadian rap was international.  It was inspiration for the youth to see these images.  People were achieving their dreams."

 

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