Creo is a spoken-word poet and hip-hop artist from Toronto. I caught up with him after one of the Toronto Poetry Slam evenings and I picked his brains about the difference between rap and spoken-word, race poems, and the pressure of following Drake.
Explain to us about what happens at a poetry slam?
A poetry slam is a spoken-word competition. It’s scored by five judges, who are picked at random. The artists go up, say their work in front of the audience and then get scored. You’re not allowed to use props or music, and you have 3 minutes to tell your story. For every ten seconds that you go over, you lose half a point. The highest-scoring poets go through to the next round, and at the end of the night, whoever is the tightest poet wins.
How would you respond to the idea that some people see spoken word as predominately a platform for heavy issues such as race or sexuality?
Well, people will tend to be more open as performers and more accepting as an audience in the spoken-word scene. Because of that, it’s easier to write that kind of stuff because you know that after you’ve performed people will be okay with it. Rapping about heavy issues can be touchy and garner more clash.
However, one issue I do have, is that some people get on stage and are like, “here is a plate of my pain, and now I’m going to throw it at you, and you’re going to eat it”. That can get draining, and although some fantastic art has come out of darker issues, they are not necessary to make good spoken word pieces. When you’re a good poet, you can find things that everyone can relate to, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. I used to say I was tired of race pieces, and some of the time I really wouldn’t agree with some of the things being said. But recently I got some inspiration and created one myself, which is something I never thought I’d do. I probably won’t write another, but it was a great experience, and it’s a lot of fun to perform.
Speaking of racial issues, what’s your opinion on racial slurs in poetry & rap, particularly the ‘n’ word?
I actually got given a really low score by a guy on a poem once, and when I asked him why, he said it was because he didn’t understand it, and because I’d used the word “nigga”. For me, it was in context, but I can see that it can be a sensitive issue. I personally don’t have a problem with that word, as long as it’s not used offensively. It’s just a word, any word has a change of meaning at some point, lots of words change. For the longest time you couldn’t say anything on TV and now you can cuss. As far as using it in rap and poetry is concerned, it’s your words and you can say what you want, it personally doesn’t bother me at all. I wouldn’t run around shouting it, but if there is no ill-intention, I don’t think it’s harmful. I think that attitude is definitely a generation thing though, if you were to ask my parents the same question, they would really disagree with me.
What advice would you give to those wanting to get into spoken word?
As far as getting into the scene is concerned, you just need to dive in and go to a slam. There’s a big scene here in Toronto and I know it’s pretty big in London too. Someone will talk to you and most likely they will be able to help you out in some way. If you keep going, you’ll start seeing the same people, who are also poets, and it just gets easier and easier to become involved. I’ve made all of my connections through friends of friends at poetry slams. In terms of the poetry, just be yourself. You’re not going to get points for trying to be deeper than you actually are. Say what you actually think about and care about and say it in an interesting way; people will gravitate to it. I’d also recommend showing someone the piece before you perform, it makes a good stepping stone to performing it on stage.
What is the difference and the crossovers between rap and spoken word?
For me, the content is different in both, my poetry is not quite as personal as the music is, but also it’s just different- not everything has to rhyme when I’m doing spoken word, and that’s nice, there’s no actual beat I have to follow so I can mess around more and try different stuff. Rapping is more natural, so every time I write, it’s way easier than writing poems. With rap I talk openly about relationships, friends, family, but one of my biggest spoken-word pieces is one on race. When I touch on females in rap, it’s actually less aggressive than if I do the same with a spoken-word piece, which seems odd.
Have you ever written a poem about a specific girl and had it backfire?
Haha, yes. I wrote a poem about how I was pleased that me and this one girl didn’t work out, and she got really angry about it. I’m not very confrontational outside of the microphone so I guess it shocked her a lot. Eventually she was calm, but it had an impact on me and I haven’t performed that poem since.
You mentioned being called a role model. Does that make you wary about what you write or want to censor some of your material?
Kind of. You have to make sure you’re on your best behaviour of course, but having that audience also forces you to be the best you can, all of the time. You owe it to the people listening to be giving your best.
If people are visiting Toronto, where do they go for the best hip-hop scene?
King of the Dot is the first place I would recommend. That’s the epicentre of the hip-hop scene here, andlot of important people have and do go there, and it’s where you’ll meet everyone you’ll need to, especially if you’re into battling.
Explain for the benefit of those who might not know what the ‘Kendrick verse’ is all about?
What Kendrick did was to list ten of the best mainstream rappers in all of hip hop, and he’s friends with most of them. He then he said I’m going to murder all of you and make sure your fans don’t care about you. He was outlandish and controversial; a lot of people thought he was trying to stir feathers in a negative way. Really what he was saying is I want competition back and I’m tired of being humble. Truth is, If he didn’t mention you, you’re doing something very wrong.
What’s your opinion on what he did ?
At first I was like okay the song is 7 minutes long, this is an event. He got to the call out list and he said Jermaine Cole and I was like okay, you used his full name, and then I heard the rest and he singled out everybody. I’m happy that someone of his calibre and of his merit did that and brought an edge to the scene. It’s good to see some competition and people stepping it up. Whenever someone calls people out, they usually aren’t hot and no one cares, but Kendrick is the king, he’s allowed to do this and I’m glad he did. In a utopian world it will actually start a trend of trying. So far, I haven’t heard any replies that I like, because I don’t see their relevance, the closest thing was Meek’s but that’s about it.
What albums have caught your ear lately, and what are you excited for next?
I like Drake’s Nothing Was The Same. I wasn’t sure where he was going to go with it but I like it, I like how it’s solo heavy with not too many features. The strongest track in my opinion is Furthest Thing, and I love Pound Cake too. J Cole’s was good, Wale’s album was so good because every song was a different concept and they all somehow tied together. Jay-Z and Kanye both disappointed me, Jay-Z’s started out really strong, the first three tracks were okay, Holy Grail is really strong, but as soon as the Rick Ross joint came on it went down. I need new Childish Gambino album soon, so I’m waiting on that, and I’m interested to see what Schoolboy Q, Kendrick’s guy, does, he’s had some really strong singles so I’m excited for that.
Is coming from ‘Drake’s City’ daunting as a hip-hop artist ?
Definitely. The way Drake and The Weeknd broke was so fast and very successful. As an artist you feel pressured to compete with them. Even aside from them, Toronto is such a busy city in terms of talent, that in itself can be intimidating. But it’s definitely creating a solid scene, there’s a lot of good people here- everyone should be watching this city.
Creo’s latest video ‘Big Dreams’ is out now! :