If the Standing Rock protesters need a soundtrack, they have one in A Tribe Called Red. The Ottawa-based trio of First Nations DJs and producers have been fusing bass-heavy dance music like dubstep, trap, and moombahton with pow wow chants for nearly a decade.
Last month, they released their third album, “We Are the Halluci Nation,” and will play The Crocodile on Wednesday.
The group is no stranger to Seattle, having graced local stages on nearly every one of their recent tours. While Seattle’s strong music scene is a factor that would bring an eastern Canadian group this far west, so are the Pacific Northwest’s demographics.
“There’s a crazy huge indigenous population there that always comes out to our shows every single time we come out,” the group’s Tim “2oolman” Hill, a Mohawk of the Six Nations of the Grand River, told the Globalist.
On a visit to Seattle in 2013, I went to check out A Tribe Called Red for myself at Barboza. The show was my first nightlife experience in the Emerald City – and I was blown away by the energy that the region’s Native contingent brought to a dreary Wednesday night in April.
A coterie of young Native guys commanded the center of the room as they stomped and moshed in unison through the set. It felt as much like a basement punk or metal show as it did like a DJ set. And while I’ve never been to a pow wow, based on how A Tribe Called Red describes their concept, it must have felt like one of those too.
The group emerged in 2008 after founders DJ NDN (Nipissing First Nation) and Bear Witness (Cayuga First Nation) met while working at an Ottawa nightclub. Canada’s capital brings in a sizeable crowd of indigenous students who come from nearby reservations to the city’s universities, and the pair realized that while there were other identity-based parties in town, like a West Indian night, nothing catered to their community.
The club night, known as Electric Pow Wow, caught on like wildfire as the crew tapped into an unmet need: a safe space for indigenous people to party. “It was an act of gathering indigenous people […] That’s something that really has never been done before aside from a pow wow,” Hill said.
Soon, the group began producing their own remixes and original tracks. They’ve since recorded three albums and won Breakthrough Group of the Year at the Juno Awards (Canadian Grammys) in 2014. Their new release features a string of cross-cultural collaborations: Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, soulman Saul Williams, Colombian songstress Lido Pimienta, and Iraqi-Canadian MC Narcy.
But the most prized voice hits close to home: American Indian Movement activist John Trudell, part of the 1969 All Tribes’ takeover of Alcatraz.
Trudell passed away in last December, shortly after bestowing the album with its double entendre title in his opening poem: “We are the tribe that they cannot see / We live on an industrial reservation / We are the Halluci Nation.”
A Tribe Called Red’s rising star as musicians has also put them on the forefront of indigenous activism. In 2013, they had to ask their fans to stop wearing “redface” costumes, like Native American headdresses, to their shows. DJ NDN was threatened after encouraging local sports teams to change racist names.
But on the whole their efforts have proven successful, especially with wider cultural changes afoot. Music festivals have started banning headdresses, and the crowd at A Tribe Called Red’s shows will call someone out if they commit that act of cultural appropriation.
“We’re all starting to see a shift going on right now in the consciousness of North American people.”
“It’s even to the point where we personally don’t have to deal with it anymore, it’s our fans that will deal with it,” Hill said. “We’re all starting to see a shift going on right now in the consciousness of North American people.”
Solidarity with the Standing Rock protesters, which has gone viral in recent weeks, is one example. But A Tribe Called Red is quick to point out that the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline is nothing new – from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Australia, the world’s longest running indigenous protest, to North America’s “Idle No More” movement sparked by a scourge of homicides afflicting indigenous women.
To spark government action in 2012, a female First Nations chief went on a six-week liquid-only hunger strike while camped out in a tepee on an island across from Canada’s Parliament Hill. The bold move took place in A Tribe Called Red’s backyard and they recorded “The Road” in tribute.
The group has amplified its message by life on the road, a relentless touring schedule that took a toll on third co-founder DJ Dan “General” Shub. Also a Mohawk, he stepped down in 2014 and was replaced by Hill. The two are both from the Six Nations Reservation in Ontario, but Hill counts among his mentors Seattle beatsmith Jake One, a regular presence at the group’s local stops.
The upcoming 19-city tour, which starts in Portland, is heavy on Northwest locales: Bellingham, Victoria, Vancouver, and a string of inland British Columbia towns. For these shows in one of the heartlands of North America’s Native American and First Nations communities, A Tribe Called Red are bona fide superstars, drawing fans from rural reservations several hours away from the gig.
“Just having it there in front of them, three native dudes playing club music, is something that they look forward to,” Hill said. “They get the sense that this music is for them. It’s for the indigenous crowd.”
This post has been updated to fix a passage that confused Yassin Alsalman AKA Narcy with Yasiin Bey AKA Mos Def