You know what they say: Behind every chart-topping hitmaker — Drake, The Weeknd, Rihanna or Ariana Grande — is a Canadian record producer.
At least, that’s what it feels like ahead of the 2022 Juno Awards, where Canadian talents like Scarborough’s WondaGurl is up for Producer of the Year, and Toronto’s Mustafa is nominated twice for his album When Smoke Rises. At last year’s awards, Fort Erie, Ont.-born Murda Beatz was nominated in the producer category.
These three producers alone have had an outsized impact on pop music around the world. But they aren’t yet household names in Canada.
“I feel like coming from a different country in an American industry, you’re coming in a couple of steps back,” Murda Beatz, also known as Shane Lindstrom, told CBC News.
“So you have to work two times as hard as everyone just to kind of break into that industry.”
For many Canadian producers, the fruits of that hard work come in the form of extensive musical catalogues, which they can then sell to publishers — a potentially lucrative payoff compared to the slow trickle of royalties from streaming services over years.
Publishing firms are eager for the rights to some of the most popular songs of the last 10 years, betting that we’ll keep listening for a long time to come.
Prosperous era of Canadian output, music exec says
Murda Beatz got his start working with the ultra-popular rap group Migos. But before that, he was making beats in his bedroom at about 16 years old, inspired by his late father’s passion for music.
“It’s funny because whenever anybody brings up Canadian producers, everyone just thinks that there’s something different in the water we’re drinking,” the 28-year-old producer said.
WATCH | Murda Beatz on his career as a Canadian music producer:
Lindstrom’s producing credits are like a Rolodex filled with the biggest names in pop, R&B, hip-hop and rap. He produced the titular track from Ariana Grande’s Positions; Drake’s hugely popular Nice For What; and songs by Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Chance The Rapper and Lil Wayne.
The producer’s 285-song music catalogue, comprising songs written up to 2020, was snatched up by the Toronto-based music publishing firm, Kilometre Music Group (KMG), in January.
“I’ve built my catalog up to a point where I was very comfortable with it and I did a partial sale,” Lindstrom said, adding that he kept a lot of his music and is working on a second catalog.
I think we’re really known for that melancholy sound … we have just a little edge to our records.– Dom Dias, Toronto music producer
Canada is in its most prosperous era of popular music culture output, says Rodney Murphy, the president of artists and repertoire/acquisition at KMG.
He points to Drake, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber and Alessia Cara as five successful, prolific artists who have an entire subset of Canadian producers, songwriters and creators working with them.
“Other artists from around the world say, ‘Hey, I want that Toronto sound. I want that Drake sound, that Weeknd sound,'” Murphy explains. “So they’re coming here to work with the Boi-1das, the WondaGurls, you know, the Frank Dukes, the Murda Beatzs.”
KMG’s intention is to buy music catalogues from Canada’s top producers, and then reinvest the profits back into the Canadian music community, said Murphy, who is an alum of SOCAN, the Canadian music management organization.
In addition to Murda Beatz, the group has acquired full or partial catalogs by successful Canadian songwriters like Belly, including the hits that he co-wrote for The Weeknd, like Save Your Tears and Blinding Lights. They also have Dua Lipa’s Levitating in their repertoire, which was co-written by Yukon-born producer Stephen Kozmeniuk.
Other producers, like Mustafa, have worked with Camila Cabello, Usher and The Weeknd; and Calgary-born Illangelo is a Grammy winner who has produced songs for Alicia Keys, Majid Jordan, The Weeknd and Grimes.
Dom Dias, an up-and-coming music producer from Toronto whose work has received support from the likes of Calvin Harris, Major Lazer and Steve Aoki, said that getting local producers in writing sessions with big-name artists is key to the health of the industry.
“Labels and management agencies should really utilize the Toronto producers,” Dias said.
He notes that Warner Music Canada and Sony Canada, as Canadian affiliates of major American record labels, can facilitate meetings between local producers and international talent who are in Canada for a tour stop.
“Put them in a group, put them in a writing camp, get those artists in the studio, whether they’re here for two or three days and really try to bust out a bunch of records.”
‘There’s something timeless about a lot of our music’
WondaGurl, born Ebony Oshunrinde, has been making beats since she was a teenager for some of the most successful artists working today. She’s one of the producers behind Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money, Travis Scott’s Antidote, and Big Sean’s No Favors.
At this year’s Junos, she’s nominated in the Producer of the Year category for her work on songs like Drake’s Fair Trade and Faze Kaysan’s Made A Way. It’s the same award she won in 2021, becoming the first Black woman to do so.
A year before that, at 24 years old, she signed a global publishing deal with Sony/ATV and Cactus Jack, Travis Scott’s publishing house.
Alongside her work with international artists, the producer is known within the local music scene for making beats with Toronto talent like Nav, Jahkoy and Sean Leon. The city’s producers offer a distinct sound that attracts artists from all over the world, according to Dias.
“I genuinely think the best producers in the world come from Toronto,” Dias said, pointing to 40, Illangelo, WondaGurl and her mentor Boi-1da as producers who have brought a trademark Toronto sound to the world stage – attracting big names to “the 6ix” for studio sessions.
“It just shows you that these are massive movers and shakers that are taking our sound, our melodies. And I think we’re really known for that melancholy sound that you could tell that we have just a little edge to our records,” Dias explained.
“There’s something timeless about a lot of our music. Like, if you listen to [The Weeknd’s] House of Balloons 20 years from now, you will still get goosebumps.”
Cashing in on that nostalgia is part of KMG’s business model, said Murphy. According to the group’s website, they own rights to 10 of the 100 most streamed songs of all time — and over six per cent of Spotify’s “Billions Club”, which are songs that have over a billion streams on the music service.
Their Spotify playlist is a remarkable testament to the Canadian forces behind some of the most popular songs of the last ten years, including hits from Rihanna, Dua Lipa, Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and Drake.
“We are pretty bullish at Kilometre about investing in the modern hip hop and R&B classics because we think that these will be sustainable, and be the classic hits of the future, because in the end, we’re in the nostalgia business,” Murphy said.
“The music that you listen to now, or listened to in high school, or get married to and walk down the aisle to — that’s the soundtrack of your life.”