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Strange Brew: The Weirdest Canadian Pop Music From the ’90s and ’00s

Long before Drake and Bieber, the CanCon radio quotas allowed for groups like b4–4, Prozzäk, and the Moffatts to thrive up North. Um, wait … who? Prepare to cringe.

(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

I am really sorry, but I need to begin by doing something terribly un-Canadian: bragging. You’re welcome, America. For decades, you’ve been the leading beneficiary of my homeland’s biggest musical exports. We’ve given you the unimpeachable talents of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen, as well as the far more impeachable likes of Nickelback and Snow. We kept Pitchfork afloat in the early aughts via the sprawling indie pretensions of Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, and made Scooter Braun stupid rich by birthing Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen. Without Canada, Rose and Jack’s hearts would never have gone on, the Summer of ’69 would just be another season, and, of course, you wouldn’t have nearly as much chune for your headtop.

And yet, for every killer jam we’ve bequeathed to you over the years, there are at least a dozen more we’ve kept for ourselves. The Canadian music you know — your Shanias, your Avrils, your Weeknds — represents just the very tip of a floating 150-foot iceberg. If you’ve ever driven north of the border, turned on local radio, and wondered what all those strange, unrecognizable songs were alongside the standard Top-40 schlock, allow me to enlighten you: it was CanCon. That’s how we Canucks refer to Canadian content, the homegrown tunes foisted upon our channels as part of a government initiative to protect and promote our apparently fragile cultural identity.

In 1968, fearful of an onslaught of American and British artists dominating the airwaves, Canada introduced a new Broadcasting Act, which required radio stations to devote at least 25 percent of their popular music programming to domestic works. At some point in the ’80s, the minimum was raised to 30 percent, and it was bumped up again in 1999 to 35 percent, where it still stands today. The government determines a song’s Canadian-ness by using something called — and I really wish I were joking here — the MAPL system. No, seriously. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, to qualify as CanCon, "a musical selection must generally fulfill at least two of the following conditions":

- M (music): the music is composed entirely by a Canadian

- A (artist): the music is, or the lyrics are, performed principally by a Canadian

- P (performance): the musical selection consists of a live performance that is recorded wholly in Canada, or performed wholly in Canada and broadcast live in Canada

- L (lyrics): the lyrics are written entirely by a Canadian

The result is that Canadian radio stations, in an effort to meet their CanCon quotas, often wind up making nationwide stars out of artists that are not, and could never be, famous beyond our borders. (Note: Simply being a Canadian artist isn’t necessarily enough to qualify to be CanCon. Megastars like Drake and Bieber often collaborate with foreign songwriters and producers and record in other countries, so it disqualifies a decent amount of their work.) Sometimes the forced spotlight is a great thing, like in the case of beloved roots rock outfit the Tragically Hip — arguably the most Canadian band of all time, whose greatest hits include a song about the 1951 Toronto Maple Leafs and another about the line of longitude that separates Western Canada from the country’s Central and Atlantic regions . Without CanCon rules, they might’ve otherwise lost out on airtime to, say, Dave Matthews Band. A lot of times, though, it coerces the Canadian public into accepting middling, stale, ill-conceived, utterly bizarre, and/or just plain terrible records as genuine hits.

In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday on Saturday, we’re going to run through some of the weirdest, worst, most shamelessly derivative, and most distinctly Canadian music ever to hit the charts in the Great White North. And, of course, because I’m a self-centered, nostalgia-obsessed millennial, we’ll be focusing exclusively on songs that came out in the era I grew up in: the ’90s and early ’00s. (Sorry, Stompin’ Tom Connors. We’ll get you next time.)

b4–4, "Get Down"

Year Released: 2000
Peak Chart Position: no. 4, Canadian Singles Chart
Closest American Equivalent: 98 Degrees, except with Guy Fieri’s hair

Toronto boy band b4–4 is perhaps the finest example of the inherent weirdness of turn-of-the-millennium CanCon. The trio consisted of identical twins and another guy who could’ve been their triplet — already unnerving as it is — who wore pukka necklaces with proto–Pauly D spray tans and shellacked hair. Their hit song was a thinly-veiled ode to giving and receiving oral sex ("If you get down on me, I’ll get down on you"), but its accompanying video featured a small child finding a magical View-Master in a back alley that transports him to a hormone-charged beach where he flexes for bikini-clad women and then single-handedly beats the band at pickup basketball.

Back in the day — despite all-time great cringeworthy lyrics like "I’m gonna make you come tonight … over to my house!" — b4–4 remained adamant in interviews that "Get Down" was a harmless ditty about "the give and take in a relationship." A few years ago, though, the twins — who now sing opera under their real names — finally admitted to Vice that the song is, indeed, about giving head. Which means that at my fifth-grade crush Michele’s birthday party in 2000, an entire roomful of 10-year-olds were permitted to jump up and down and sing loudly about blowjobs while our parents unwittingly laughed and took pictures. Gross.

I’d call it the most wildly inappropriate Canadian pop single of its era, if it weren’t for …

Ricky J, "No Means No"

Year Released: 2001
Peak Chart Position: no. 2, Billboard Canadian Singles
Closest American Equivalent: Fred Durst, but somehow actually worse

… this song. Oh man, this song. Where do we even begin? With all due respect to "Blurred Lines," Montreal pop-rap cheeseball Ricky J’s "No Means No" is the most despicable sexual assault anthem released this century. For proof, look no further than the chorus, a call-and-repeat, his-and-hers masterclass in non-consent:

(No means no)

But I really wanna hit it, girl

(No means no)

I can do it for a minute, girl

(No means no)

I just want to get up in it, girl

(No means no)

I can’t believe you never did it, girl

Yeesh. And yet, despite making me want to take cover in the nearest HR department, this charming number got tons of radio play and rose to no. 2 on the charts, most likely for the simple fact that Ricky J was lucky enough to hold a Canadian passport. One of the greatest failings of the CanCon system, bar none.

The Moffatts, "I’ll Be There for You"

Year Released: 1998
Peak Chart Position: no. 5, Canadian Singles Chart
Closest American Equivalent: Hanson

Let’s wash off some of the grime from that last track with something as sugary and squeaky clean as it gets. You probably didn’t know that Canada had its own Hanson, but honestly, back in 1998, I didn’t know that America had its own Moffatts. This song came out in such quick succession to "MMMBop," and featured such a similar basic formula — longhaired pubescent brothers singing sweetly about girls — that I had no idea they weren’t the same band.

Here’s a little tragicomic factoid for you: One of the Moffatt brothers resurfaced years later as a contestant on Canadian Idol, but didn’t make it out of the top 32. Canadian Idol!

Ashley MacIsaac, "Sleepy Maggie"

Year Released: 1995
Peak Chart Position: no. 13, Billboard Canadian Singles
Closest American Equivalent: Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance

At this point, you’re likely thinking, OK, sure, these songs aren’t great. But none of them are THAT different from American pop. Which is fair.

So allow me to introduce Ashley MacIsaac, a Nova Scotian fiddle-pop star — yes, you read that right — who broke through to the Canadian mainstream with this jaunty folk song featuring lyrics in Scottish Gaelic. I defy you to name me a single American fiddler with a top 20 hit, much less one sung in a near-extinct Celtic language. (And no, the guy in Yellowcard doesn’t count.) Case closed.

Rascalz Feat. Checkmate, Kardinal Offishall, Thrust, and Choclair, "Northern Touch"

Year Released: 1998
Peak Chart Position: no. 41, Canadian Singles Chart
Closest American Equivalent: Wu-Tang Clan

Yes, there was Canadian hip-hop before Drake. And no single track did more to bring the genre to prominence in the ’90s than "Northern Touch," the first domestic urban song to crack the Canadian top 100 since Maestro Fresh-Wes’s "Let Your Backbone Slide" hit no. 1 in 1990.

If you were trying to determine who won "Northern Touch," the obvious answers would be Kardinal Offishall — who went on to have a couple of cross-border hits, like the Akon-assisted "Dangerous" — or the guy behind the camera, Director X, who continues to churn out some of the biggest videos in hip-hop.

But for me, the MVP of this video is Scarborough, Ontario, emcee Choclair — mostly because I was 7 when this joint came out, and his name sounded like my favorite pastries and he mentions watching Monday Night Raw in the first line of his verse. Choclair would eventually drop a couple of half-decent solo records, make the trillest music video ever filmed on the streets of Toronto, and earn a permanent spot on my Top 5, Dead or Alive by sometimes replying to my tweets about him.

Prozzäk, "Sucks to Be You"

Year Released: 1998
Peak Chart Position: no. 25, Canadian Singles Chart
Closest American Equivalent: Gorillaz

Much like I couldn’t tell the difference between Hanson and the Moffatts, I was severely confused when Gorillaz dropped "Clint Eastwood" in 2001 and everyone praised Damon Albarn for reinventing himself behind an animated façade. But didn’t Prozzäk already do that like three years ago? thought my salty middle school self.

Prozzäk was the cartoon pop side project from a couple of dudes in the Philosopher Kings, another CanCon band that was actually pretty great. They might not have correctly predicted that Trump would become president, but I firmly believe that their song "Strange Disease" is better than anything on Humanz. Shots fired.

Swollen Members Feat. Nelly Furtado, "Breath"

Year Released: 2002
Peak Chart Position: no. 1, MuchMusic Top 30 Countdown
Closest American Equivalent: Black Eyed Peas

Here’s a classic case of a CanCon outfit managing to rope an actual, honest-to-goodness Canadian star into a collaboration. There is no plausible explanation for a post–"I’m Like a Bird" Nelly Furtado agreeing to work with this cornball rap duo and appear in their pseudo-horrorcore music video other than the simple fact that they’re both from British Columbia. It’s the musical equivalent of when an actor makes a massive blockbuster, and then an indie flick they filmed before they were super famous gets released immediately afterward — like Midnight Special coming out after Adam Driver had already been in Star Wars.

Chantal Kreviazuk, "Before You"

Year Released: 1999
Peak Chart Position: no. 2, Canadian Singles Chart
Closest American Equivalent: Sarah McLachlan … no, wait, she’s Canadian. Er … Alanis Morissette. Dammit. Wow, we’ve really got the "Lilith Fair–esque singer-songwriter" corner on lockdown, eh?

The opposite of the Swollen Members–Nelly Furtado effect is when a beloved CanCon figure is given a chance to shine by a Canadian artist who’s broken through down south. That’s what happened when Drake had Chantal Kreviazuk sing the backing vocals on "Over My Dead Body," the opening number on his instant-classic 2011 sophomore record Take Care. (Apologies for the obligatory 6ix God worshipping from this Toronto writer.) The minute I read her name in the liner notes, I flipped out: My childhood celebrity crush landed a guest spot on the year’s hottest rap album! I’m honestly a little surprised and disappointed The Boy doesn’t have a tattoo of her on his back yet.

Our Lady Peace, "Superman’s Dead"

Year Released: 1996
Peak Chart Position: no. 17, Canadian Singles Chart
Closest American Equivalent: Soundgarden

In the ’90s, Canada was home to a glut of mediocre-to-good alt-rock bands with bad-to-terrible names — like Moist (which, gross) and the Tea Party (which unintentionally became a lot worse/funnier around 2009) — who never quite made it beyond our borders. My favorite of the bunch was Our Lady Peace, largely because frontman Raine Maida’s distinctive falsetto-y whine was really fun and easy to mimic on long car rides.

On a related note: Maida is actually married to Chantal Kreviazuk. Lucky bastard.

Spirit of the West, "Home for a Rest"

Year Released: 1990
Peak Chart Position: N/A
Closest American Equivalent: Jethro Tull

It’d be a crime to end this list with any other song. Although this boozy sea shanty was never officially released as a single, it was voted the 22nd greatest Canadian song of all time in a 2002 CBC Radio poll.

That reputation stems from its unofficial status as the compulsory end-of-the-night song at every Canadian wedding I’ve ever been to. Seriously: If you’ve never been piss drunk at four in the morning, linking arms with random strangers and hopping around on one foot while belting out "I’M SO SICK FROM THE DRINK, I NEED HOME FOR A REST," you haven’t lived.

God, I love my country. Happy birthday, Canada.