Dalton Higgins Has The Pulse On Toronto's Rhythmic Beat
As an author, journalist, programmer, and publicist, he has had a major impact on Canada's urban music scene. In this interview, Higgins reflects upon a fascinating career and the ascent of domestic hip-hop and R&B artists.
By Kerry Doole
Dalton Higgins is a genuine renaissance man in Canada's urban music scene. An acclaimed author, journalist and lecturer, he has worked as a concert presenter, a multi-disciplinary arts curator, artist manager, and a public relations strategist.
It is that latter role that has kept the Toronto-based Higgins busiest in recent years. Operating with a staff of four, Dalton Higgins Publicity has a client roster concentrating on Canadian hip-hop, R&B, and contemporary dance music, and it is an impressive grouping.
That list includes well-established stars Kardinal Offishall and A-Trak, plus such fast-emerging artists as Jazz Cartier, Allan Rayman, Clairmont The Second, Maylee Todd, Allie, Husser and Gilla.
Interviewed over coffee recently, Higgins reminisced about his fascinating career and updated us on the current activities of his roster.
Raised in a Jamaican-Canadian family in the Toronto area known as Little Jamaica, Higgins grew up surrounded by reggae via his record collecting father. "I have an encyclopedic knowledge of reggae by osmosis, through him," he says.
His musical explorations were confined to playing sax in middle school and upright bass in Grade 9, before studying English literature and mass communications at York University. "I did a joint program with Centennial College at the same time, a book and magazine publishing program," he recalls.
"From that two-year diploma on publishing and having written six books, you could say I'm a book publishing geek. I know the inner workings of that industry, and I'm well-versed on what it takes to get a book into the marketplace."
Freelance journalism followed, with Higgins writing on music and black culture for such publications as WORD and Toronto weekly NOW, and US publications Vibe and The Source.
He formed Dalton Higgins Publicity seven years ago but had plenty of prior experience as a publicist. "I was booking shows at Harbourfront Centre for nearly seven years and publicising those from the early 2000s, in addition to doing publicity work with the Women’s Press - Canada's oldest English language feminist publisher - and Canadian Scholars Press Inc.”
One such event at Harbourfront would have a significant impact on Higgins. "Will Strickland from UMAC (Urban Music Association of Canada) and I did a showcase at Harbourfront in 2007, and we booked a young Drake.
"Back then he was only known via acting on Degrassi, but what amazed me was the audience that came out. All these screaming teenagers. That's when the light went on, 'this guy is going to be a phenomenon.'"
Higgins later wrote an unauthorised biography of Drake for ECW Press, Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake. Published in 2012, it was the first book on the mega hip-hop star.
The Drake experience solidified Higgins' belief that "star quality that can't be bought or taught. He had that spark. You can't create that, you either have it, or you don't."
It is the search for that intangible spark or star quality that now drives Higgins in this role as a publicist. "If I don't see that world-class potential, then my company is not for you. It won't work. We are in it to turn you into an act that is going to sell out shows and generate a lot of streams. If we don't, that's a colossal failure on our part. It is not about the dollars; it is whether we can take you from A to Z."
As an author, Higgins has written six books. The list includes Much Master T, a look at the life of the popular MuchMusic VJ, plus two examinations of hip-hop culture, Hip Hop World and Rap N’ Roll: Pop Culture, Darkly Stated. Fatherhood 4.0 is a cross-cultural exploration of that topic featuring such Canadian personalities as Mike "Pinball" Clemons, Broken Social Scene's Charles Spearin, soccer star Dwayne De Rosario, Fucked Up's Damian Abraham and best-selling author Lawrence Hill (Book of Negroes).
Higgins' next book will be Afro Lit, an anthology to be published by Dundurn Press. "It looks at pop culture through a hip-hop prism, and it will be issues-oriented too, tied to race, class, gender, sexuality, and digital culture. It will be forward thinking, as we are trying to project where the culture will go," he says.
"Futurists predict trends before they happen, and that is a lot of what I do. From publicity to writing and producing fests I'm good at latching onto things before they go huge."
Higgins can back up that claim with some strong examples. "I produced K'Naan's first real concert in Feb 2005. I saw that star quality with him. I got him the cover of EYE [a Toronto weekly], and he signed with Paquin through that."
Higgins was involved with Toronto rapper Jazz Cartier from an early stage. "I remember bookimg him to do a show at [small Toronto club] The Garrison, and I've watched him take off in the three years since, going from zero to 100 and winning a Juno Award."
He notes that Cartier will release his official debut album in 2018 via Capitol. "It is pretty much complete, and it will change the game. World look out!"
Another major success story for a Higgins client is being written by Alternative R&B artist Allan Rayman. "He has 75 million-plus streams and is nominated for a Juno, but he has a DIY mindset. Whether the industry takes notice or not, we'll do what we do."
Higgins observes that helping acts like Cartier and Rayman break out "is one of my areas of expertise. Taking the raw material of acts that are world-class, based in Canada, and taking them to where they're selling out large venues and generating cover stories. That is my company's niche, and that is what gives me the greatest joy."
One publicity client with whom Higgins has a long history is Kardinal Offishall. "I wrote one of the first stories on him, for the Daily Gleaner in Jamaica, I've written bios for him, and I manage his publicity in Canada.
"He has a high ceiling. For instance, Dave Chappelle's New Year's Eve special recently had a Kardinal song wrap the show. Kardinal hosts and DJs parties in Toronto where you'll see people like PK Subban and Dave Chappelle at the bar."
Higgins expects big things from Kardinal Offishall's Celebrity Marauders project this year. "It is like a travelling sound system DJ crew that collaborates with big-name artists. I can't leak too much, but there'll be some big names attached coming up."
Higgins also has high hopes for Montreal artist Husser. "I have that Jazz Cartier feeling with him, that je ne sais quoi. He's going to go large; it is just a matter of when. You heard it here first!"
Although many of his clients are now breaking nationally and internationally, Higgins isn't reluctant to criticise the Canadian music industry establishment for being slow to recognise and promote domestic hip-hop and R&B artists properly.
"Now we have Nielsen Soundscan telling us that 25.4% of the most consumed and streamed music is hip-hop and R&B, and I think the gatekeepers and a lot of the traditional music industry need to pay stricter attention to that, from an A&R standpoint, signing acts, and from a marketing and publicity standpoint. Urban music is the driver of today's contemporary culture. That is no longer open to debate."
"With Canada now we still have a lot of crosses to bear. One of my clients, Jazz Cartier, won the Juno for Best Rap recording last year and his acceptance speech was interesting. He was thrilled and honoured to win at age 23, but he was standing up there and saying 'this segment isn't being televised.'"
"You look at the impact of Drake and The Weeknd, and Tory Lanez going platinum in the US, but that is not reflected in the infrastructure here. It is still very problematic for a lot of young acts in their 20s who are attempting to navigate the Canadian music industry. It is very perplexing to them."
Higgins would like to see more support on the booking side. "I'm part of a movement trying to get some of these so-called urban music artists - rap, electronic R&B, soul - attached to good booking agents. What we see happening with a lot of our clients is that they're getting bookings in the US all the time and Europe, but then you can't even book tours in Canada?
"That's just weird cos they're based here. They are proud to be Canadian, but they aren't getting any respect in their backyard. What these acts are doing is a wakeup call to the industry. We will do what we do and put up big numbers, whether the industry recognises that or not. It would help if they did."
Higgins has also had previous experience in artist management and is currently co-managing soulful singer/songwriter Chloe Charles. "She just signed to a UK label called Kowloon, and she will have a big project through them in 2018. She's going to be a superstar," he predicts.
A career highlight for Higgins was working on the Jamaica to Toronto project. This started as an album from the Light In The Attic label, Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967 - 1974, and became a popular concert attraction, featuring veteran Jamaican-Canadian artists.
"I booked it at Harbourfront and got them cover stories, and the project blew up. I toured it across Canada, including the Montreal and Vancouver Jazz Festivals."
Look for Higgins' multi-faceted career approach to continue. "I'm a textbook polymath," he explains. "I strive to achieve mastery in different fields, and I've always been that way. If I were just the author guy cranking out books, that wouldn't do it for me. I need different things going on to keep myself stimulated."