A Tribe Called Red: First They Take Turtle Island

A Tribe Called Red is reaping praise for its innovative fusion of pow wow music and hip hop.

With the May 7 release of their sophomore album, Nation II Nation (available through iTunes or the Tribal Spirit Music website), aboriginal DJ group A Tribe Called Red seems poised to become a household name—well, provided you're in a house full of Natives or music critics. The disc and their performances are reaping uniform praise from hip bloggers and the mainstream media alike.

Taking in a show at New Orleans Jazzfest, the esteemed critic David Fricke wrote "their non-stop set was dense, fluid and proudly topical" for RollingStone.com, and further described what he saw as "North America's first dance culture powering a new one. There was heavy metal in the charge, dancehall and bhangra cadence in the rapping that flew overhead and a knockout shot of the Raiders' 1971 hit 'Indian Reservation' – so obvious you didn't expect it, so hip when it jumped out of the mix."

In a profile for PolicyMic, Bear Witness, who often serves as ATCR's spokesman (the other two members are DJ Shub and DJ NDN), put his finger on what might be the secret—and significance—of the group's success. “People in our community owned it so quickly and said ‘this is ours, for us,’ we really started to realize what we had done,” he says. “We had inadvertently created something within the hip-hop environment that all cultures can appreciate, but it’s ours. It reflects who [indigenous people] are and we can own it in a way — we’ve never had that before. We’ve never had something within pop-music or pop-culture that represented us, by us.”

With its burgeoning popularity, the group is now in a position of influence, although they're wary of over-politicizing their message—after all, Natives finding success with a music they have invented is a statement in itself. “It turns out that if you want to throw a party for Aboriginal people, it’s inherently political,” Bear Witness told the Boston Globe. "But we didn’t set out to make a statement.”

MC Red Cloud. Photo by JT Pro Imaging.

A similar quote is included in the liner notes to Nation II Nation: "After what happened in the last hundred years, the simple fact that we are here today is a political statement. As First Nations People, everything we do is political."

Asked about a perennial local topic by a reporter for the Washington Post—whether a certain NFL team needs to change its name—Bear Witness chose his words wisely. “Personally, I want to see those changes from the inside," he said. "I don’t want to have to fight against a football team to get them to change. I want them to realize that they have to change.”

The new album won high marks—4.5 stars out of 5—from reviewer Jesse Skinner. "What’s amazing and truly commendable about A Tribe Called Red is how much space they give to the cultural elements of the source material, actually letting the featured artists, including Atikamekw, Ojibway, Seneca and Mi’kmaq vocalists of various generations, do a lot of the heavy lifting," he wrote in Toro Magazine. "TCR add weight to the mix — hearing the typical dubstep 'drop' surrounded by native voices in 'NDN Stakes' is head-spinning — but their stroke of genius is in tweaking their heritage just so."

Reviewer Brad Wheeler of the Globe and Mail gave the disc 3 out of 4 stars, concluding that "Nation II Nation, as the title suggests, is a bridging. But it is not conciliation. There’s a proud strength to this record – a tribe’s manifesto and ownership of its traditional music, presented possessively and in a contemporary way."

It was a big deal when A Tribe Called Red was nominated for a 2012 Polaris Award. The long list of 2013 nominees won't be out for another week, but juror Ryan Patrick tipped his hand in an article at the Polaris website: "in keeping with the Polaris mandate to choose the best record of the album regardless of genre, A Tribe Called Red's Nation II Nation no doubt deserves heavy consideration."

The group is currently touring. After a few dates in the UK, they stormed seven American metropoli—Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston—in the course of eight days. With this Saturday's gig in Ottawa, they begin a stretch of Canadian dates that will last through mid-August. Check ATribeCalledRed.com for the full schedule.