Words by Harrison Johnstone Art by Victoria Mangano
It was the spring of 1999 on Roxton Road, when Ryan Somers awoke to a sound that would change his life forever. He peered out of his apartment window, overlooking the street, and witnessed a car driving by, blaring a track that would shape that summer.
The song was Steal my Sunshine by siblings Marc and Sharon Costanzo of LEN; the iconic summertime jam would be their greatest hit, leading the alt-rock duo to the most magical week of their lives – one that would give credence to any throwback ‘90s vibe thereafter.
To this day Ryan struggles to ascertain just what it was about that song, about the Daytona Beach music video, that encapsulated the purity and whimsy of that generation. The former VICE Magazine hip hop columnist and Universal Music talent scout took a chance and fell back into the nostalgia of that time; reliving the Toronto hip hop scene, his relationship with VICE founders, disenchantment with the mag, and the booze-fuelled week in Florida that saw LEN’s third studio album YOU CAN’T STOP THE BUM RUSH reach gold record status.
Rocking down Roxton Road
Rock and roll dominated the late ‘60s, jazz swung the ‘30s, but for hip hop the ‘90s reigned supreme.
“It was such a crazy energy, we were all so excited about the music that was happening and the opportunities artists were getting; making records, shooting videos and going on tours.”
“I kind of fell into it, I started my zine In Search of… Divine Styler, to cover all of these underground artists, part of this crazy indie-rap movement.
“Rap was going through this creative explosion; groups coming out with insane styles and I was in love with all of it,” Somers said.
At the same time, mainstream rap was going through an explosion of its own, a bad boy era defined by million-dollar videos and East-West executions taking prodigies like Tupac Shakur and Biggie. However, Ryan’s focus on Toronto’s emerging names, his zine and slot for VICE put ears onto music that no one else was talking about, the voices people were missing.
Ryan naturally gravitated to music and artists that were different; coming from London, Ontario and moving to Toronto, he found friends and freedom with a “loose collective” of Canadian musos, converging on ‘the Six’. Ryan’s friendship group expanded to include talents from Halifax, London, Vancouver and Ottawa all featuring in his zine and later in VICE.
The collective grew to fill the huge three storey home LEN had rented on Roxton Road, a beacon of “beautiful energy”, in Southern Canada. Freestyling, getting drunk, making music and berserk parties rocked Roxton Road constantly, a period that Ryan describes as feeling “like anything was possible, it felt like we were all going to blow up”.
While LEN were blowing up the charts, Ryan’s newfound friendship with band member Derrick hooked him up with another rising group. A triforce of edgy editorialists out of Montreal: Gavin, Shane and Suroosh – the founders of VICE Magazine. The connection between VICE and LEN ran so deeply, that those Roxton revellers would jump in their van and distribute VICE mags to record stores and skate shops all over the 416.
That’s how Ryan first linked up with VICE, landing him a hip hop column with the then loft apartment run monthly mag, allowing him “to write about a lot of artists that otherwise would miss out on the ink”.
VICE – A pointy trident
Ryan shared a distant relationship with Montreal’s new trio of edge, but primarily helped shape Suroosh Alvi’s vision for the magazine’s music showcase – one that at that time was enamored with hip hop.
While Vice Media is now best known as a consortium of gritty mini-doco, entertainment, music, tech and food verticals – their original and more authentic beginnings, were as a broadsheet countercultural magazine made with welfare money.
“It was insane man, the energy of those guys. Shane knew exactly where it was going. ‘We’re gonna be fucking rich, this is gonna be fucking huge, we’re gonna be fucking giants,’ he’d say.”
“Back then it was on newsprint, tabloid size. It was different, pushed the limits, they knew how to spin a story. I mean, I’d read it and not know what half of the shit was about, but I was just a diehard hip hop fan at the time,” Somers said.
Ryan and the crew would venture up to Montreal to party with VICE often, the boys knew how to push the limit in and out of print. Even in the early days, VICE parties were wild, renting out entire bars and filling them with a thousand people just to get ripped and have a good time.
“It’s such a crazy thing, these are guys I used to snort blow with in the bathroom of some nightclub in Montreal.”
Ryan wasn’t oblivious to the fact that VICE were making big moves, Montreal to New York. Each of them had their strengths. Shane Smith sold the ads and marketed the magazine. Suroosh was the music guy, but he also “maintained a certain integrity for the whole thing”. Gavin was the comedian, funny and punk and just a little bit crazy.
His humble outlook prevents him from accepting any part in VICE’s success; Ryan was in the same car when the trio first became millionaires, after scoring investment from Canadian software mogul Richard Szalwinski. Suroosh and Shane often travelled to the UBM Magic fashion convention in Las Vegas to recruit streetwear brands as advertisers. On one trip, Ryan tagged along hoping to get advertisers for his own zine.
“I was in the car with them, driving from Vegas to LA, when they stopped to call back to Montreal and check their messages. The deal had gone through. I remember Shane coming back to the car with Suroosh saying ‘We’re millionaires’.”
“I was sitting there with thirty dollars to my name, but was like ‘fuckin’ A,’ they deserved it. I’ve got nothing but love for those guys, all three of them. I’m grateful I jumped on in the beginning when the waves were just picking up.”
Scooter stickers and Daytona Beach
VICE had an eager and authentic relationship with the communities it wrote about, a small yet striking fragment of this is shown in LEN’s Steal my Sunshine music video from July 22, 1999 – a VICE sticker made gratuitously visible on the lead scooter. This isn’t just a glorified remnant of music past, but in fact the entire curiosity behind this piece.
LEN share a lot of similarities to a younger VICE, when each brand made their big play nobody was left behind; much like when LEN’s record company threw them $100K to make a music video, they flew all their mates down to Daytona Beach, Florida, for a week of partying and production.
This would culminate into three minutes and forty-seven seconds of concentrated ‘90s nostalgia injected directly into your eyeballs.
That VICE sticker is a small example of their growing reach, but also representative of what Ryan describes as LEN’s “who gives a shit attitude about the industry and expectations of them”.
“They didn’t want to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. We’re going to spend that money on our friends… then we’ve all got this awesome memory for the rest of our lives.”
The unfolding influence of VICE was truly felt in Daytona that week, the whole city was sticker-bombed from elevators, bathrooms, restaurant tables to scooters.
“It was kind of beautiful that the one sticker shows up so perfectly on that scooter in the video.”
“Who knew at that time that VICE was going to be VICE.”
A cultural Forrest Gump
“Y’know, it’s weird man, sometimes I just feel like I’m the Forrest Gump of rap.”
“…just standing in the background or beside the people doing these crazy things.”
Ryan didn’t just appear in the most iconic ‘90s music video to exist and ride in the same car that VICE became meteoric from welfare beginnings; but he also founded Heiro Day and grew Houston rapper Devon the Dude’s digital presence purely out of hip hop passion.
Heiro Day, celebrating hip hop group the Hieroglyphics and their hit ‘93 til Infinity, was quickly snapped up by their label and September 3 was officially declared a community holiday by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan in 2011.
As for Devon the Dude, well his management were gifted their newfound 300K member MySpace presence by an ever-humble Ryan Somers, the Forrest Gump of hip hop. Eventually Devon would travel up to Canada to meet Ryan and play a show.
New VICE, new voice, new problems
Ryan wrote his column and monthly interview in VICE from 1997 to 2004, but he admits for the last two years he “lost the passion for it”. Throughout that seven-year stint VICE evolved; in management, size, finance and most importantly in voice and that new voice didn’t meld with Ryan’s outlook.
“I was ready to move on to other things. The magazine was changing, the attitude was changing and they had gone through a series of different editors.”
“VICE was honing its voice, different to my own. I remember one interview I did with an artist I really respected; but when it was published they changed it in a way that made fun of that artist and I never would’ve portrayed them in that light. That was the end for me, that was when I checked out.
“It was just about being cool, hip, making fun of shit. I’m not really a funny person; more heartfelt, earnest, a soul seeker and I didn’t really relate to being funny, that kind of hipster too cool for everyone vibe trying to outdo each other with how ironic you can be.
“That hipster way, I just didn’t understand it and it kind of felt obnoxious, to be totally honest.
“The era had changed, the music was different, the attitude was different. They were just like, who cares? And I said to myself, huh, I guess you’re right. Everything has a season,” Somers said.
VICE was growing up, and in its puberty had acquired a different voice, edgy and obnoxious, but it was still hard for Ryan to let go.
“I should have quit at five years, I was just scared because the column had become part of my identity, it’s what I was known for.”
“I was scared for the time that I’d pick up the magazine and my column wasn’t in it anymore. To let go of that identity, I struggled with that”.
The voice that pushed Ryan out was also the voice that vacuumed in money and youth unlike legacy media had ever seen, and they wanted a slice.
Buzzfeed on roids?
“They understand how millennials think, what content millennials want,” says 73-year-old man worth $882 million dollars, Sir Martin Sorrell.
Are they selling out? Or, are the geniuses?
¿Porque no los dos?
As the founding three move into managerial roles, or piss off and start a chauvinistic alt-lite men’s group in the case of Gavin McInnes, the voice of VICE seems to be changing once again. From the douche-y hipster sarcasm of the ‘00s to the self-aware hate-clicking rampage of now, VICE is reborn.
The original authenticity the mass youth audience adored became a facade, they have mastered the mass production of authenticity and outrage, see:
- ‘Rick and Morty’ Incest Porn is Tearing the Show’s Fans Apart
- For the Love of God, Don’t Meme Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ Music Video
And although the brand’s typical social media firestorms still engage, for Ryan, he checked out before he even knew he did.
I didn’t want to write about music, I wanted to make it.
“I quit the VICE thing, I quit my job at Universal Music, I quit everything.”
Ryan relocated to Montreal and recorded music for his alternative rap group OK Cobra; his new career took him far enough to learn a valuable lesson – no one was “interested in my weirdo, gonzo rap”.
His last gig, and the final plug in his music career, reflects a contrast in maturing identities for himself and VICE – from earnest to fabricated.
“It was a horrible gig… the only person into it was the sound man, this old half-crazy looking rocker-hippie guy. He’s seen it all and he gets it, I ended that gig and that’s the perfect way to end my music career – in a room full of people who could not give a shit, and one sound man who loved it.”
That sums up how Ryan approached his writing, full of a genuine, heartfelt passion for music and the audience – an authenticity that seems to have vanished from the slick husk that VICE has become.
Maybe it’s just the rose-coloured glasses that make me miss what VICE used to be, or how real Ryan’s words are, or how LEN never fail to take me back two decades. Or, maybe I’m right and the world isn’t as authentic as it used to be.
“Wherever that old sound guy is right now, probably passed out on a couch somewhere, cheers to you my friend”.