Toronto’s hip hop history runs deep. A new photo exhibit puts it on display

Project T Dot, a love letter and celebration of The 6ix’s once simmering and now explosive hip hop scene by Toronto photographer Ajani Charles.

Lining the exteriorwindows and walls of Toronto’s city hall are photos of faces that have been the building blocks for the city’s most vibrant musical culture, hip hop.

The snapshots are part of “Project T Dot,” a love letter and celebration of The 6ix’s once simmering and now explosive hip-hop scene by Toronto photographer Ajani Charles.

“Toronto’s hip-hop community and culture up until very recently has been slept on,” Charles told the Star. “We have thought of ourselves and other hip-hop members have thought of us as being underdogs, and maybe lacking in the drive and talent that Toronto truly has.”

Charles’ project has been 16 years in the making. It all stemmed from his origin point as a photographer. He had been suffering through an existential crisis while attending Western University when he was invited to a rap battle at El Mocambo in 2006 by his lifelong friend DJ Docta, the DJ for King of the Dot.

“I started documenting the rap battle and was so inspired and energized by the images that I captured. The rappers that were performing, there were breakdancers there, and I got very excited observing them and capturing them,” Charles recalled.

Ajani Charles is a Toronto based photographer with a new installation on display at Nathan Phillips Square. Project T Dot has been 16 years in the making.

Replete with many of the community’s largest figures since the mid-2000s to now, “Project T Dot” offers a scope of the city’ship hop that is pre- and early Drake a scope that is often overlooked globally.

The scene in Toronto, now recognized as one of hip hop’s capitals, involved many people figuring out how to create a sustainable ecosystem financially and otherwise, according to Charles.

“Many people have been instrumental in terms of bringing Toronto’s hip-hop culture to the masses and audiences outside of Canada like Kardinal Offishall, Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee and artists that practise through other mediums like art, dance, et cetera,” Charles added. “But it wasn’t until 2009 when Drake began his ascent to superstardom (that) Toronto started to get the acknowledgment that I believe that it deserves as a hip-hop mecca.”

Charles emphasized that the story of Toronto hip hop goes beyond rap music and that is showcased in “Project T Dot.” Figures like legendary graffiti artist Skam, Manifesto festival co-founder Che Kothari and even the inside of the Get Fresh store all make an appearance, underlining how expansive the culture was and is.

Shot in colour and edited in black and white, Ajani Charles' Project T Dot xhibit draws on a level of nostalgia. It's an eye-opener for many, but also a captured memorial for some.

Shot in colour and edited in black and white, Charles’ exhibit draws on a level of nostalgia. It’s an eye-opener for many, but also a captured memorial for some.

“There’s so many venues that were popping in the early 2000s that don’t exist today. For example, the entire entertainment district no longer exists,” he explained. “So there’s just so many nightclubs that simply don’t exist anymore, like a Tonic nightclub, Fluid nightclub, Cheval, et cetera. Many venues where members of Toronto’s hip-hop community would congregate.”

For Charles, the photo exhibit is just the beginning. “Project T Dot” is set to become a mini-documentary and book in the next two years, he said, through which he will explain Toronto hip hop from the perspective of people he’s photographed.

“Toronto hip hop represents the cultural diversity of Toronto, maybe more so than any other subculture in Toronto. There are so many different types of people that make up Toronto’s hip-hop scene. I think Toronto’s hip-hop community has been instrumental to creating, or contributing to, what we know Toronto as.”

“Project T Dot” will be on exhibit on the outside of Toronto City Hall until June 30.

Demar Grant is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Demar via email:


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