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Interview: A Tribe Called Red

Interview: A Tribe Called Red

Photo Credit: Pat Bolduc

A Tribe Called Red’s three DJ’s Ian “NDN” Campeau, Dan “Shub” General, and Bear Witness throw an electric powwow for all cultures. Their music has fired up conversations about indigenous issues inside many media circuits, and they recently won big at the Juno Awards, taking home the award for Breakthrough Group of the year.  In their acceptance speech DJ NDN (accompanied by DJ Shub and Bear Witness) delivered an inspirational message to First Nations  youth: “… know that this moment is proof that whatever goals you strive for in life, they’re completely attainable! Aim High!”


Their vivid show displays the group’s aboriginal experience from an urban standpoint, mixing traditional dance, drumming, and chanting with  dub-step and overlapping beats. We got to talk  to DJ NDN about starting this epic dance party back home in Ottawa, finding long lost recordings of distant relatives, and travelling abroad.


11: So how is your day going? 

Ian: It’s great. I am home for the week before starting the tour. I’m getting to spend some time with my family.


11: I felt pretty confident when I began to write about you. But as i got further into it i realized a lot of terms used to describe ethnicity in native cultures are totally different regionally. Such as in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the U.S. it’s normal to say Native American, but  I found the terms Aboriginal and First Nations are used to describe the people of Ottawa. 


Ian: For us, First Nations is typically used .

11: And the term indigenous?  It seemed all encompassing.


Ian: Yea, indigenous is used more on a global scale, like people in Australia are indigenous.


11: Well, that’s how I have always thought of Aboriginal–in my mind the term took me to that part of the world.


Ian: Aboriginal, or “abo” is actually very derogatory in Australia. I didnt know that until we hung out with this Australian band named OKA. We met up in Winnipeg for Aboriginal Day, and they were a little thrown off, because where it is a term used regularly here,  they let us know it would not be ok in Australia.



11: How did you guys meet up? What was it like bringing this music from your culture and home? 


Ian : Well none of us lived on reserve, we are all urban. Dan General joined us in 2009. Bear and I met because we both worked as indigenous DJ’s in the same club. You really get to know each other quickly that way. We wanted to showcase that we were aboriginal djs in the city, and that’s it, that’s all we really wanted to do. And I’m sure in Portland there is some of the same thing, but here there are cultural specific parties: there are Jamaican parties, Korean parties, that sort of thing. So we wanted to throw a party Ottawa that was geared towards, but not limited to, the aboriginal population here in Ottawa. And yea, it went off. There was a really good response right away.


11: What is it like being a native in the city? Or, er, what my native friends would call a “City Indian”?

Ian: (laughs) yea it’s funny because in the states, Indian is a different term. The most radical activists i know call themselves “Indian”, where as in Canada, that would not fly at all.


11: Yea, I questioned if I could call this Native American music. Because that is how I relate when I hear the chanting. 


Ian: If you want to get down to it, I can’t stand that  term – “Native American”. Because “America” isn’t our term, you know what i mean? So the way I compare it is : if Mars came and colonized earth, and like the only martian i can think of is Marvin, right? then if we called all the native humans native Marvins. That is how “american” sounds to me.


11: That’s why First Nation/First People is a more important term?


Ian: I use aboriginal too, but I’m actually trying not to use it as much.

So yea, we were throwing these parties, growing up Aboriginal we didn’t really have a lot  of people to look up to. We didn’t really have anything to describe the experience growing up aboriginal. All of the music that came out of the cities, there is a lot of blues, a lot of hip-hop, country, a lot  of really sad, hard, struggle music. but we wanted to put a soundtrack to the aboriginal experience. We are a product of the “urban” aboriginal experience. We didn’t create it, we are just a product of it. Bear grew up in Toronto, which has a huge Jamaican influence.


11: For sure, there are some really quick island beats are in your songs. 

Ian: Yea, so that is part of his experience,


11: Are you guys signed to a label or are you DIY? 

We are kind of doing it ourselves, but we do have a deal with Piratesblend, which is a sub-label of Arts & Crafts. We are also a part of Tribal Spirit, which is the label that we sample from.



11: Speaking of samples, tell me about the really old wax recordings that you used? 


Ian: We met up with somebody at UCLA, who was studying ethno-musicology. he had access to all of these old wax cylinders. We wanted to see if there were any recordings from our territories. And one of them was. And not only that, but the recording was of a man with the same last name as Dan, and it ended up being a relative. So we turned that into the song “General Generations”. (Hear “General Generations” here:



11: Did you always expect to travel? Do you enjoy visiting all of these different communities and sharing your culture. Inviting all cultures? 


Ian: Yeah, we visited Mexico which was wicked. But when we tour France and England, it is a little different. Our reason for being there is different. It is more about representing indigenous people overseas to people who have no connection to it at all. Whereas, in America, our crowds are mostly aboriginal. Here we are playing for people that get us, we are with them. People own us really, really quickly.



11: Tell me about your song Indigenous Power? 


Ian: We did a track with Javier Estrada who is an Indigenous artist out of Monterrey, Mexico. The song has lots of Latin undertones.

 11:  On it you sampled Kanye West’s “Power”, which samples native chanting, but you cut out Kanye. 

Ian: Yes, yes we did.


Are you guys excited for Bonnaroo? 

Very excited, I have never been so I’m really excited.


You guys definitely put on a show, and through the music you shine light on differences in cultures, conflict and interest, with a little bit of humor. 


Ian: Well one of the things is that Bear creates the videos. He is a really well known video artist, way before ATCR, and what he does is likes to take very racist one dimensional characters from every sort of media since it began. Because First Nations hasn’t had a lot of their own portrayal in media. Some of these are very racist and stereotypical, but he likes to mine through and find the positive in it. Growing up personally I was a huge wrestling fan. I was a huge Ultimate Warrior fan. And of course the guy wasn’t native, he never specified it. But I grabbed onto his character and looked up to it, because there were not a lot of native role models for us. So we grabbed onto these things.


11:Like Brave Star?

Yea, Like Brave Star! Like Billy from Predator. all of these things that are stereotypical. and the other sort of thing is the images in culture, like the marauding Indians in Back to the Future 3, going after Marty in like, 1885. We want to show these things, from an indigenous and First Nations perspective, so people will look at them differently.


11: So last time you played Portland you played with DJ Anjali & The Incredible Kid. I think there is a racist joke in there somewhere. About Indians getting together with Indians and throwing a huge party. 


Is that the last time we played Portland? That was a wicked show. We had a lot of fun. I’m sure there is a joke in there, it’s a joke we played with Das Racist. Those guys, two of them are Punjabi, and we did a collaboration called “Indians From All Directions”. We ended the show with that song. It meant we actually got to put out their last track, ever. They broke up shortly after the collaboration.



Read more about A Tribe Called Red in this month’s issue of Eleven, and If you want to catch a totally unique and high energy EDM show(tonight, 4-3-14), there are still a few tickets left. Get on that.