Johnson fell in love with hip hop at a young age and after moving to Calgary, where he attended Mount Royal University for a degree in computer science and business, later switched to SAIT, where he graduated with an honours in the new media production and design program.
He also created a monthly event, 10 at 10, to help promote that style of music. Now he wants to build on the success of that event to create a hip hop brand that is known across Canada.
Johnson’s introduction to hip hop began in his toddler years, in part due to his babysitter playing Much Music on television. What he saw on television inspired him to create a hip hop performance for his sixth grade talent show where he and his friends re-enacted the Monstars Anthem from the movie Space Jam.
Johnson said he rapped the verse by LL Cool J, and while he and his friends were equally excited about the performance, it was Johnson who stood out and surprised his teachers.
“I remember even one teacher pulled me side after like, ‘You should pursue this,’” Johnson says. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I remember thinking back to that in high school.”
Johnson’s fascination with hip hop culture did not end there. He had always loved breakdancing, and practiced it by renting VHS tapes with his friends. Johnson then eventually formed a rap group called Rebel Alliance, with three of them, including Marty Loughran.
“He kind of took me under his wing, and showed me how he was recording stuff from his basement, making music,” said Loughran. Those basement recordings were necessary because, according to Johnson, there weren’t any hip hop studios in Fort McMurray at the time.
Johnson was around the age of 18 when his group got asked to go on tour for the Swollen Members.
“At the time, Swollen Members was like the Drake of Canada,” says Johnson.
They got the opportunity through DJ Nitro, a friend who worked at a bar. Johnson’s group joined Swollen Members on tour throughout Alberta and, on their last night, one of the managers spoke to them and told them they had a lot of potential, and that their talents were better suited for a bigger city.
Noting that, the group moved to Calgary.
The group performed small shows around the city. DJ Nitro also got them a regular gig at the then-The Whiskey Nightclub. He wanted the group to freestyle between the song breaks while he was DJ-ing.
Johnson explains that having DJ Nitro believe in the group’s ability was what helped create a cool unique night that went on for eight months.
“Nobody would even try to do that at like a big busy night club,” says Johnson. “[It was like], ‘Let’s throw a bunch of rappers on from Fort Mac, and see if they could keep the crowd going.’”
The group has since been renamed the Humble Giants. Members have come and gone, but Johnson and Loughran have remained constant, while Rick Cruz (DJ C-SIK) completed the trio just in time for their first performance as Humble Giants, in 2014. Since the group has performed at music festivals including Sled Island, One Love, and South by Southwest.
But Johnson has also been helping create spaces for others to perform.
That began when a friend of Johnson’s asked the group to perform at UBU Lounge for an open-mic showcase. Johnson knew many hip hop performers, so his friend asked Johnson to help fill the remainder of the ten available spots. Johnson designed the flyer for the open mic called the 10 MCs.
Because of his background in breakdancing, Johnson believed the 10 MCs showcase was very one dimensional. He says, “For me, I just wanted a place where, once a month, I could get together, be black, but at the same time just be a guy that loves hip hop.”
Johnson explained that, at the time, the nightlife in Calgary was frustrated by strict dress codes and its conservative, cowboy culture. But, he says, there are groups of people in the city that don’t “familiarize with just being a cowboy.” He wanted to create a place where people could feel comfortable in their own skin.
“That’s, honestly, one of the strongest pillars of what hip hop culture can do. It transcends race, religion, gender and allows people to really express themselves.”
The desire to create such a space resulted in the 10 at 10 showcase, where ten artists perform at ten o’clock for ten minutes.
Artist Ruben Young has performed at the 10 at 10 showcase more than once and said he will continue to do so until he dies.
“Whether you’re a developing artist or a successful proven artist, 10 at 10 is just a wicked platform to celebrate urban music culture and I want to be a part of that in Calgary,” says Young.
Johnson explains hip hop comes from the celebration of different ethnicities and minorities that have been oppressed. To Johnson, his showcase has never been about segregation. It has been about sharing each other's stories and owning up to what makes each of them unique.
By doing so, he shares his own story of “what a young black male can do as far as creating some opportunities for people.”
10 at 10 has also helped out other events happening in and around Calgary, such as recruiting artists Ruben Young and one of Calgary’s best live beat makers, Mark Gendy (who goes by the stage name of Egypt), to perform at Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40.
Another one of Johnson’s initiatives is Music Monday. Natasha Holiday, who used to MC the 10 at 10 showcase with Johnson, says Music Monday is a playlist used to “acknowledge that artists in the community are putting in the work” to build a Calgary hip hop scene.
In fact, Johnson describes the 10 at 10 showcase as step seven out of 70.
“The showcase, again, is just the celebration of hip hop culture here in Calgary… what’s happening under the scenes is about pushing the culture forward, so not just for Calgary, but for Canada as a whole.”
Holiday explains that many artists felt they needed to leave Calgary to find success. 10 at 10 succeeds, because it has created a hub where people who share a love for hip hop connect and grow in new ways.
10 at 10 has grown from its original start as a hip hop showcase to becoming 10X Music and Culture, better known as 10 at 10, the go-to hip hop platform in Calgary.
It’s brand that artists and hip hop lovers alike can refer to for news, events, networking and performances. Johnson’s main goal is to one day be able to say that 10X was able to take a local artist and help launch their recording career towards stardom.
In 2015, Johnson was — along with scientists, doctors and other visionaries —one of Avenue Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40. Along with his success, Johnson was cast to perform a spoken word anthem in ATB Financial’s “entrepreneurial” commercial. He has also become a board member for Music Calgary, a non-profit organization that helps promote, develop and represent the music industry in the city.
“I think that adding someone like myself will definitely help represent hip hop, R&B and soul, where it hasn’t been represented really in the past.”
As well as recently moving into the role of urban arts director at GlobalFest, Johnson is also hoping 10X Music and Culture will break into the festival realm within the next year.
The recognition and inspiration that surrounds Johnson demonstrates the true talent and passion behind the people who have helped with the growth of 10X.
“It’s cool ‘cause it does allow other people to understand or recognize that there’s some hip hop things that are happening here that are deeper than just entertainment value. That there’s really a core opportunity being created.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated Johnson was a nominee for Top 40 Under 40. It has been changed to state he was one of the Top 40 Under 40. The article has also been changed to include previous members of the Humble Giants.
- By Sofia Gruchalla-Wesierski