DJ Cosm and Teekay of Dragon Fli Empire/Photo by Tarik Robinson, dragonfliempire.com
ITZEHOE, GERMANY — What are a couple of nice, talented hip hop artists from Calgary doing in a place like Itzehoe?
Well, it’s a long story and (as I’m sure you’ve already figured out) I’m going to tell you about it.
First things first: What’s an Itzehoe and why wouldn’t Teekay and DJ Cosm of Calgary’s Dragon Fli Empire be performing here on Friday night?
Itzehoe (pronounced “Its-a-ho” — sort of like “It’s a boy!” but with the unfortunate connotation that the slang “ho” conjures up) is a nice little 1,200-year-old town somewhere between a half-hour and one-and-a-half-hour drive north of Hamburg (depending on the autobahn traffic). It’s a commercial and administrative centre for the surrounding mostly agricultural area, but it doesn’t have a lot else going for it.
Think Belleville, Ont., in other words, but about 1,000 years older. Belleville officially has a bit larger population but that’s only because it seduced Thurlow Township into an unholy marriage a few years ago. If you’re talking about the towns themselves, they’re pretty much the same size and share a lot of the same attributes.
Belleville and Itzehoe: Can you tell the difference?
If you find Belleville charming, you’ll find Itzehoe charming. If not, likewise not.
I’m not trying to put Itzehoe (or Belleville, for that matter) down here: I’m just trying to convey to you that Itzehoe is not a throbbing metropolis. It’s a pokey little town even though it has a quite-nice professional theatre complex and a homegrown circus troupe and the Kulturhof is pretty cool too (so maybe Itzehoe is a rung up on Belleville after all … but then Belleville has the Bay of Quinte on its doorstep).
No, I’m just trying to explain how unlikely a destination Itzehoe is for a popular, established hip hop outfit like Dragon Fli Empire (in the music business for 10 years, currently on their third European tour and with a fourth full-length album coming this fall).
They’re playing major clubs in places like Berlin and Oslo — and then hitting itsy-bitsy Itzehoe … but not nearby Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city and an arts-and-entertainment hotbed.
It’s sort of like a Canadian tour that includes Vancouver, Edmonton Winnipeg, Montreal — and Belleville (but not Toronto).
You get the picture.
And the reason for my curiosity?
Last week I was heading into a grocery store in an even smaller town about 10 km from Itzehoe when a poster on the store’s public bulletin board caught my eye.
Here it is.
You probably can’t read it, but what jumped out at me was the line “STRAIGHT OUTTA CANADA.” Here’s a closer look.
When I’m out of the country for a while, I become a bit nostalgic for things Canadian. Sort of like getting teary-eyed when a Stompin’ Tom song suddenly turns up on a Shanghai bar’s karaoke machine.
So, of course, “STRAIGHT OUTTA CANADA” pushed all my Nosey Parker and Canadiana buttons.
“What’s a hip hop outfit from Canada doing in a place like Itzehoe?” I asked a passing elderly shopper, who gave me the North German ice stare.
After unfreezing, the first thing I did was check out Dragon Fli Empire on the Internet.
I should point out here that my body of musical knowledge about hip hop is roughly the same as my body of musical knowledge about Gregorian chants — I know what I like, but don’t ask me to explain the difference between a melisma and a mixtape. So of course I had never heard of Dragon Fli Empire even though they’ve been around for a decade and are pretty big out west.
Turns out I like their music. Take a listen for yourself. Here’s a link to Mount Pleasant, the cut about a Calgary bus route that first got them noticed in 2002. And here’s a link to JELL-O Pudding, a new song by Teekay from his just-released five-track digital album, the TKTV Beat Tape. While you’re at it, check out the whole www.dragonfliempire.com website.
And the second thing I did was fire off an e-mail to Dragon Fli Empire in Calgary. Here’s what I asked them (and I quote):
“What’s a poster doing on the bulletin board of my local grocery store here advertising a gig in Itzehoe next week for Dragon Fli Empire “straight outta Canada”?
“Main thing I’m interested in is how this European tour happens for a couple of hip hop artistes from Calgary — have you done shows in Europe before, do you have connections, how did the tour venues come about — Itzehoe, who ever goes to Itzehoe?”
And I got a very nice reply from Tarik Robinson (Teekay), one half of Dragon Fli Empire. We weren’t able to arrange a telephone interview because of the mad rush to get from Calgary to Europe, so I’m just going to reprint some of Teekay’s e-mail here. It explains pretty much everything .
DJ Cosm/Adam Hicks (left) and Teekay/Tarik Robinson (right)/Photo by Allison MacDonald
So Dragon Fli Empire is just myself “Teekay” (Tarik Robinson) and “DJ Cosm” (Adam Hicks). We’ve been making music as a group for 10 years now and our early claim to fame was a song called “Mount Pleasant” about my life observations while riding Calgary Transit over a lively beat. This song got us unprecedented exposure for a Calgary hip hop group up to that point. We became favorites on CBC Radio and had some small exposure on Much, played some great festivals around the country and opened up for a lot of our hip hop idols. After our initial local and Canadian buzz we started to make some noise internationally with projects that released on labels in Japan and Finland.
We did our first European Tour in May 2011. It started with one festival in Chambery, France. They knew about us from a vinyl project we had self-released in 2005. Our song from that project, (an ode to headphones) became a favorite at their parties and they wanted us to come over. They couldn’t afford what it would take to get us over there in terms of flights & travel but put us in touch with an independent booking agent who had some connections. I was able to tap some connections as well and together we pieced together a 10-show headlining tour of France, Germany and Switzerland.
The first tour went extremely well, it was one of the most amazing experiences in our musical careers up to that point. So we did it again in February of this year (11 shows in France, Germany and Switzerland) and are doing it again now in August/September (7 shows in Germany, Denmark and Norway).
It’s definitely breathed new life into our desire to keep pushing on and we will be releasing new projects with an increased focus on this market because of how much they embrace what we do. We don’t really make money touring but we don’t lose money either. And that’s not too important regardless.
The style of hip hop we make is considered a throwback to the ’90s and has a lot of jazz and funk influences. There is definitely more appreciation for that over in Europe. It’s honest expression from two guys who grew up in Calgary and love the culture of hip hop. I have a day job as an IT guy at an engineering company and Cosm is taking a PR degree at a local university. But we still make space in our lives for the love of music.
As for Itzehoe, our booking agent had dealt with the group of guys who are organizing the show there a couple months ago for another tour and said it was one of the best experiences she’s had. The guys are trying to rejuvenate their town with these shows, not profit-driven and have a pure love for the artform. I had no idea previously this town existed but they are going all out in promoting the show and I’m sure it’s going to be amazing. The group from the other tour that came through said the crowd reaction was incredible and they were chanting their name in the streets afterwards. They don’t get hip hop acts from across the pond often in Itzehoe.
That’s how Teekay and DJ Cosm are coming to Itzehoe on Friday night. They started the tour on Wednesday in Wiesbaden, part of the metropolitan Frankfurt area in central Germany, then on to Leipzig in eastern Germany tonight (Thursday), Itzehoe tomorrow (Friday), then the Danish university town of Aalborg on Saturday. After a few days break, DFE plays Oslo on Sept. 6; Kassel, Germany, on Sept. 7 and Berlin on Sept. 8.
In Itzehoe, they’ll be playing at a club called Atzehoe because the nickname of club owner Guntram Horst is “Atze.” Everybody in these parts knows “Atze from Itzehoe” — as Teekay said in his e-mail, he’s part of a group “trying to rejuvenate their town with these shows.” He’s very active in the cultural life of the community. Atze operates a couple of other businesses in Itzehoe, including the only legal bordello in town (as far as I know) — but that’s another story.
I’m trying to make e-mail contact with Teekay again to find out how the start of the tour is going. If and when he gets back to me, I’ll give you an update.