by Broose Tulloch
Best known as the host of Up To Speed on CBC Radio Manitoba, Ismaila Alfa is also pioneer in the Winnipeg hip hop scene, where he continues to be major music force. Born in Zaria, Nigeria to Nigerian and Manitoban parents, Ismaila and his younger sister Aisha, grew up in a culturally diverse home. One that moved from Nigeria to Australia and finally to Winnipeg to stay in 1984.
Alfa has always been involved in the community, particularly the Afro-Caribbean Association of Manitoba, and was the Folklorama youth ambassador for the Afro-Caribbean Pavilion in 1989. Shortly thereafter, he got his break as one of the openers for Maestro Fresh Wes at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre, where he met and joined local rap crew Frek Sho.
Stylus: How did you first get involved in the local scene? Take us back to the early years of Peg City hip hop…
Ismaila Alfa: My entry into hip hop started in basement battles. There were a few well known crews and battle rappers in the city back in 1990. They were all older, but I suspect weren’t as infatuated as I was with the art form. I would spend hours free-styling to myself at school, at home, and at work. I showed up at a show at an old hall called Casa Bueno. Some friends convinced me to get up and rap on stage when the opportunity presented itself. When I hit the stage it was as if every emcee in the building could smell blood. A cipher was soon formed with each rapper taking their turns attacking. Not only did I survive but put my mark on the community as a force to be reckoned with. Frek Sho, the crew I would come to represent, helped set the stage for Winnipeg hip hop. We were part of the Canadian hip hop explosion, playing on tour with the likes of Kardinal Offishal, K-OS, Saukrates, and Swollen Members. We didn’t sound like anything coming out of the U.S. because that’s not where we are from. We had the first Winnipeg hip hop video on Much Music for the cult classic “Patience.” Along with Farm Fresh, Mood Ruff and Different Shades of Black we wrote, recorded and released original music, produced and promoted shows, building Winnipeg’s hip hop style and the foundation for this city’s hip hop scene.
Ismaila released a pair of solo albums on McEnroe’s Peanuts & Corn label, Just Stretching and 2005’s Mark Of The Zebra, and in 2009 stormed the Brewno Awards brandishing only a microphone.
Stylus: Your influence has now grown beyond hip hop. How do you see your role in the current Winnipeg music scene?
IA: Right now I hold a few different roles in the music scene. I am an emcee and always will be, but feel I now have skills and knowledge to pass on the younger artists. I am also learning new skills and nourishing my singing and songwriting skills with my live band Alfa, so I feel I am still helping to push boundaries on our music scene. Also, as a broadcaster I feel a responsibility to break new musical acts as well as championing more established artists.
Stylus: There are undoubtedly many, but who are three local artists who deserve more attention?
IA: French Press, The Reverend Rambler, and Vikings!
Stylus: What’s one album that still blows your mind like it did the first time you heard it?
IA: Public Enemy Fear of a Black Planet. It changed hip hop and pop culture as a whole. It changed the way I saw the world and how I fit into it. It made me ask questions and seek out answers about culture and race as it pertained to how I saw myself. Chuck D’s words and delivery hold as much weight now as they did back in the late eighties.
Stylus: What sets Alfa apart from your other projects?
IA: My new band Alfa is helping me explore other musical interests of mine. This band is complete departure from my normal DJ and rapper routine mixing afro-beat, reggae, rap, jazz and a little bit of rock and. I worked with producer and guitarist Michael Falk on this one, as well as Curtis Nowosad on drums, Julian Bradford on bass, Will Bonness on organ and piano, and Matt Peters on synth. It has taken two years so far, but it will be worth it when it is finished. This album is a dream I have had since I was 15 and should be ready for public ears in early 2014.
Before the new year, Ismaila will be releasing a pair of albums: Select from Magnum K.I. and Classic, a solo rap effort completed last summer with DJ Kutdown. For more information, please visit magnumki.com.