A Tribe Called Red formed in Ottawa in 2008 when DJs Bear Witness and NDN got together. A short while after Canadian DMC champ, DJ Shub, was added to the group, and the new mashup sound of Pow Pow Step was created. A Tribe Called Red have been throwing ‘Electric Pow Pow’ parties in Ottawa for the past few years and they have been a wild success. Initially geared towards Aboriginal youth, they soon spread and now attract anyone who is a fan of this exciting musical genre.
I caught up with Bear Witness to learn more about the group. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy.
Can you walk us through the group’s early days? How did A Tribe Called Red get its start?
A Tribe Called Red started out around 2007 – it was me and DJ NDN working on mash ups and remixes. DJ Shub joined up and we started doing our ‘Electric Pow Wow’ shows. The crowd reaction was insane, so we just kept doing it. It was a very important thing to provide something like that for Aboriginal youth (these parties) were well received and we even heard about entire families listening to our mixes together. It had cross generational appeal.
Your sound is completely unique and it marks the birth of a new genre.. Pow Wow Step. How was that sound born?
It was a direct reaction to the wonderful support we received at the early stages. But, the first time I ever heard anything like Pow Wow Step was through a french Canadian group, it was the first time I had heard this kind of music done ‘right’, and not cheesy. We took that inspiration and made our own tracks and the people went nuts at the parties.
How do you source the traditional Pow Wow samples that you use? Do you dig through crates of old material, like Hip Hop DJs, or do you use more recent recordings?
We use mostly recent recordings from current artists. Tribal Spirit music label has opened up their entire music library for sampling. The arrangement is that we use any samples from current artists – and to give back we remix a song from that artist / group which they can put on their albums. It is an exchange of music.
A little while back we were invited by the UCLA Anthropological department to come and work with archival wax cylinder recordings. We chose some material from the 1930’s and created General Generations. It was a really amazing experience to get to work with those historical documents.
Have you come across other artists that have picked up on the Pow Wow step sound? Anyone making comparable music to you these days?
There are some people making similar music out in West Vancouver with the same club vibe and similar visual accompaniments as us.
An artist from Monterrey, Mexico got in touch with us and told us he has been remixing his traditional music with dance music, like we do. He’s using Mayan / Aztec samples. Very cool.
A Tribe Called Red has been getting love across the world. Are there any surprise ‘hot spots’ internationally?
We’ve gotten a lot of love internationally, it is great! We’ve played in Europe this past fall and that was amazing. A big surprise there was the reception we got in Edinborough, Scotland. It was a crazy show, a tone of people knew our songs and were asking for specific tracks to be played. It was wild. My favourite show during our time in Europe was in Greece at the Womex music festival. It was the first time they had a “DJ Selection” and the world community that came out was so cool. It was amazing to be a part of that.
Your Idle No More anthem ‘The Road’ is excellent and it has been getting a lot of play. In your opinion, what is it about the Idle No More movement that has gotten so many people engaged, and many for the first time, in the issues of First Nations people?
The thing about this movement is the way it grew – organically. There was nothing in the mainstream media about this for a long time. Then – it exploded, and this was because of social media and people using it to share details and information.
A lot of people connect with this because it is a turning point, and the conversations are starting to take place. It’s time.
What is it like in Ottawa these days with the backdrop of Idle No More and Chief Spence?
It’s been nuts! Especially leading up to the talk with Chief Spence. So many Aboriginal people spent time and money to travel to Ottawa to show their support. It was beautiful.
Living in Ottawa, it was amazing to see Aboriginal people regular basis.. at the corner store.. at the hotels.. everywhere. You could feel the energy in the air.
Your 2012 self-titled debut was released online as a free download, and it spread like wildfire, receiving critical acclaim and eventually a well-deserved Polaris prize nomination. Where do you guys stand on the ‘free download’ vs. ‘paid purchase’ debate?
Just starting out like we did, we didn’t need a label or money to make music. We made our music on laptops in the living room – it cost virtually nothing. So, we didn’t need to make a profit from that release. We gave it away because it didn’t cost us anything.
This is where, I think, the industry has been headed for a long time – you don’t need support or money to make music. At the same time, with CD sales and everything, you won’t make money off your record. You make money off merch and touring.
That being said, we did charge for that first album in a way – we took email addresses. We now have over 25,000 emails in our mailing list. That was our payment. We are able to communicate with people who like our music a few times a year to build those relationships.
I see how it is. So, instead of money you are taking our time when you make us read your forwarded spam and ‘give us your bank info to transfer large sums of money’ type emails?
What have you been listening to lately?
I love the latest Santigold album. That was all around great. I also love CeeLo. As a DJ, I’ve started listening to music differently. I listen for a few seconds for samples or a taste of a song and then I move on.
What does 2013 have in store for the group?
We are playing a few shows now, and then we are going on a bigger tour in February that will lead into the summer. We have a bunch of Canadian dates lined up, as well as a lot of shows in the US, including SXSW and the New Orleans Jazz Festival. We are also going back to Europe for a while.
Recording wise, we are planning on recording and releasing two new albums – another Pow Wow album in the spring sometime, and one later on in the fall that will be a collaborative effort with some friends.
That is a packed schedule. You are also a respected video artist, how does that compare to making music?
It is connected. When I started out making music, made visuals to accompany my sets. And, when I started focusing on art, I made music to accompany the visuals. I’ve been a DJ for 18 years, and I’ve done art for the past 9 years. It is rewarding in a different way because it is solo work for me. Everything I do musically is a collaborative effort, and the art is something I do on my own when I have time. Between the music. I have a solo exhibition at the University of Regina coming up.
Thanks, Bear. We look forward to having you in Hamilton.
Thank you, we are excited.