A Tribe Called Red
Tim Hill is a Mohawk tribe member from the Six Nations reservation outside of Toronto. On one hand, when he joined A Tribe Called Red, he didn’t expect that the DJ trio would end up playing such a major role in conversations about race, unity, indigenous visibility and cultural appropriation. On the other hand, he said last week in a phone interview from the reservation, “Honestly, when you are in any role, actually, just being born around here, you’re born political.”
“The whole system is never made for us,” he added. “It’s made of tools of other people, higher up. … We never have expectations that politicians are going to be super responsive to what we have to say.” He added that it was only 40 or 50 years ago that indigenous Canadians were punished for speaking their own languages.
As a person who can speak Cayuga, and as a person who finds himself onstage behind a turntable a lot—whether it’s at a community hall in Ohsweken, Ontario, or The Independent in San Francisco, where the group’s 13-stop tour kicks off this week—Hill feels like it’s his responsibility to hold Justin Trudeau accountable to meeting the commitments he made to indigenous Canadians as part of his election campaign. More generally, he sees his band as having the responsibility of speaking up against the lingering effects of colonialism and in favor of unity.
“When it comes down to it, as far as indigenous people go, we all were colonized the same whether it’s in the states, in Australia, in Norway with the Sami people [a.k.a. Laplanders],” Hill said. “We all want the same thing, which is basically human rights.”
Hill, who joined the group in 2014, said that it formed in 2007, after an “electric powwow” trend started in Ottawa. At first, there were dance parties for students at native centers, where DJs played EDM.
“A couple shows in, they mixed a powwow song with a dubstep song,” he said. Soon, Ottawa had a small but enthusiastic “powwow-dub” scene, which A Tribe Called Red sprang out of. Hill’s band mates are the two original members, Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas, who is also a filmmaker, and Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau, who was previously in a punk band.
The band has toured internationally and collected a handful of Juno Awards (basically the Canadian Grammys) and Canadian Independent Music Awards.
So, are powwow and dubstep good bedfellows? Hill said this: “What we’re doing is just mixing dance music with dance music. Dance is a huge part of culture in general. When it comes to the music side of things, there’s a natural fit.”
It really does come off as an easy combination, similar to how the Pogues proved that ’80s punk and Celtic trad are practically twins, and it’s nearly impossible not to dance to.
For their eighth and newest album, We are the Halluci Nation, the band layered in some hip-hop and brought in collaborators including Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Iraqi-Canadian journalist and hip-hop MC Yanci, and poet John Trudeau, whose words they used posthumously.
Hill said people are listening—not just to the music but to the message.
“We all want to be better human beings now,” he said. “I like how many people want to be involved in this conversation we’re having.”