While Winnipeg's hip hop scene is swelling, one of the scene's most inimitable exports is stepping back from the stage.
Mike Skwark is three years into making DIY hip hop (performing as smrtdeath, lil death, little seth and sethany), but his reception in the city has been frosty at times.
"I think to the average hip hop fan, one look at Mike is like, 'Oh. No thank you,'" said David Schellenberg, the co-owner and talent buyer at The Good Will Social Club.
The 25-year-old's sound is less Wu-Tang and more Future, but Skwark says he's just as influenced by Sum 41 as any of the big names in hip hop.
"I'm not really too concerned with the tropes of rap. I spent a lot of time messing with them to get where I am," said Skwark. "Some people, who are like a little older, maybe don't get it and think they're like the gate-keepers of hip hop, are trying to be like, 'Look at this guy. What a freak.'"
Skwark's video for Buzzsaw has as much glitter and mani-pedis as it does switchblades and rims.
"I like painting my nails, and I'll wear makeup here and there and dressing however. It's fun. It's more interesting to me than if I wore a shirt that said 'hip hop' and baggy pants and a flat brimmed New Era hat. That's not sick," said Skwark, who recently capped a small collaboration with LA-based clothing line ABVHVN.
Schellenberg remembers a trip to MoSo Fest with Skwark and the vibe when they got on stage.
"That was a pretty surreal experience because we got up on stage — I was DJing for him — and everyone was like, 'Nope! I don't want any of this,' — just the very first thirty seconds. Then, after, we were taking pictures with people. People were shaking our hands. The headliner was talking to Mike about how much he dug his shit," he said.
Skwark said after that show he saw a Facebook post from someone who admitted they mistook Skwark for a sound guy, and "then he blew my mind."
But Skwark isn't actively seeking out local bookings anymore.
Instead, he's grinding out as much music and as many videos as he can and getting nods from major underground hip hop outlets like Elevator Mag.
"That's the cool thing about doing stuff online. People will hear one song and just be like, 'Yo this is sick, here is 30 beats. Do you want to use any of them?'" he said. "I used to play more shows here … it was kind of a band style … and now I haven't been playing shows. I've been just focussing on making like 100 songs and 100 videos."
The market for the type of music Skwark makes isn't big, and it's infinitesimal in cities like Winnipeg.
"Mike sort of is part of a larger community that's more based out of more cultural meccas like Toronto or New York City and some Scandinavian countries, too, that have all sort of had this internet culture boom and internet hip hop artist boom," said Schellenberg. "Stuff like Yung Lean and Kitty, Hot Sugar, Antwon, Big Baby Ghandi – people who produce these really great videos and sort of use that as their leverage to try and pursue the greater market."
Local artists like Joanne Pollock, Venetian Snares and Ghost Twin, are marketing themselves similarly, he said.
"I love the city, but we're a little bit slow on some things, and so sometimes, it takes higher powers to convince us that things are cool and worth going to," said Schellenberg.
But forgoing local shows in the mean time comes at a cost.
"It's hard to raise money to fund your project if you don't have any sort of draw locally, right? A band like Royal Canoe can play a hometown show and play something like the Burton Cummings … and have 500 people out at $20 a ticket. That's a lot of money," said Schellenberg. "It's a nice sort of thing to buy your plane tickets or buy your van to take your project elsewhere."
Skwark's focus is international, but he's still getting calls to be on local shows, and recently, he did a track for the Winnipeg-made movie Lovesick.
Royal Canoe's Matt Schellenberg called him up to work on the project, which was eventually nominated for a Canadian Screen Award.
Skwark said he was so busy shooting videos and making music with his team (which includes Avery Stedman, Dylan Houghton and the Toronto-based AudioOpera) he forgot about the project until he got a call from a friend at a screening in Toronto.
"Definitely, I'd like to make it the thing that I do. I'm trying to grind really hard. I've put out, I don't know, 20 songs this year and probably like a couple videos already this year," said Skwark.
Next, Skwark is wrapping up production on his EP sethany, due out in June.