On December 20th, videographer Gordon Hashimoto and I headed down to the Caribbean Paradise restaurant on Newman Boulevard in Ville LaSalle to check out “Gift to You” – a youth hip-hop concert showcasing local high school and CEGEP performers. I’d learned about the concert a few days earlier from the Community Contact, a weekly paper serving Montreal’s Black and Caribbean communities. In a full-page spread, I saw that a familiar name was helping the students produce the show: Todd Smith. Todd is a colleague of a good friend and former bandmate. I’ll have a lot more to say about Todd in the future. But for now, you need to know that he is a hip-hop songwriter; radio DJ; community leader; event producer; and, since 2012, a youth mentor working within the Lester B. Pearson school board as an integration aide. A significant part of his work has involved mentoring elementary and high school youth in LaSalle and Verdun through music, dance, and self expression.
Today’s post will share a few of the videos from each performer at the concert. I caught up with Todd in an off-air studio at radio station CKVL 101.1 FM in Ville Lasalle where he gave me the backstory of this concert and his work with each of the youth performers. What follows is an edited version of our interview. (At the end of the post, there’s a link to a YouTube playlist with all the videos which Gordon Hashimoto helped produce)
Glenn: Let’s talk about the Gift to You concert. What’s the backstory? How did that come about?
Todd: That was a crazy concert and even crazier how it came about. Two months earlier, the show wasn’t even an idea in our minds yet. Tebby J and JX were the headliners for the show. I’ve known Tebby since he was eight years old at Orchard Elementary writing poems to girls. Always a gentleman. And he would always ask me my advice on his poems. As he got older he stayed connected with me. He plays football for the LaSalle Warriors, him and JX. Because that’s another thing about me, it’s not just the music that’s important to me. It’s really showing these kids, I’m there for you for whatever you’re doing, whether you’re playing football, hockey, soccer, or are a scholar. And Tebby is 16, turning 17 soon. Same for JX. I would see the two of them on the football field.
So fast forward to this year and Tebby becomes the student council president at LCCHS (LaSalle Community Comprehensive High School). And his teacher asked him who should DJ the school dance. And he suggested me. I get a call from his teacher asking whether I would be interested and I said, “Of course, I’d love to.” But before this, Tebby and JX are telling me that they are making their own music. So I say, “Let me hear your music.” It blew my mind. Just fantastic songs and I said to myself, “Ok, these guys have something.” So I suggested that they perform their own songs at the dance as well. “Perform your tracks. Your tracks are ready.” The night of the dance, the gym is going crazy. I have my DJ with me and the kids are wiling out. JX at one point grabs the mic and starts running around the gym while rapping his song. Everyone there starts following him around the gym. So it was that night last September that I said to myself, “We have to take this further. We have to do another show. We gotta showcase these kids.”
GP: You mentioned knowing JX through Tebby J, was he someone you knew through the youth programs at the schools?
TS: I worked with his older brother. JX was in Grade 7 at this time. But I always followed him too because he has so much charisma and flair. You saw this at the show. He’s a natural star. But really I got to know him through the Lasalle Warriors. He was voted fastest running back in Quebec. He was breaking records playing football. But he only started doing music a year ago.
TS: Yeah. So, that’s when I started talking to him. I was giving him props about his football and he said, “You know, the joke is Mr. Todd, I don’t even have the heart for football.” I said, “You’re the best in Quebec though, bro.” “I know, but that’s not my passion.” I asked, “What is your passion?” He answered, “Music. I always fooled with it but started doing it seriously a year ago.” So, I said, “Alright, you gotta hang with me, man. You gotta stay close. We gotta build.” So, that’s what happened. By the time that school dance came around, I was already close with JX.
TS: JX’s cousin was on the show as well, YVNG FINXSSA (pronounced “Young Finessa”). He’s the producer. So, he makes most of their beats. But JX and Tebby J, they’re actually solo artists. They’re not officially a group. But because they’re friends who grew up together and play football, they end up always doing music together.
GP: In terms of the music we’re hearing behind everything, was that all produced by YVNG FINXSSA?
TS: They had a couple songs produced by other young guys in Montreal and one or two songs were beats they found online. But most of their stuff is originals and all young producers. FINXSSA is a first year student at Dawson with Jess Malka too. So, is Wan, the other performer. These guys are like 18, 19 but making some serious music.
GP: Did Wan come up through your program as well?
TS: Wan went to LCCHS when I worked there in 2015 but I didn’t get to meet him. But he remembers me there and he ends up being very good friends with Tebby and JX. That’s how he came on the show. They were like, “We’re gonna call our boy, Wan. He’s a sick rapper.” So, I was like, “Sure, bring him on.” So, I met him at Dawson. I didn’t know him or FINXSSA before. But these guys were working together and Tebby says, “We’re bringing our boys in.” And I was all for it, man.
GP: Talk about Jess Malka. How did you get to know her?
TS: This story still touches me to this day. So, Jess Malka was a student at Beurling Academy while I was working there. I was actually working with two other incredible artists who were her friends. And I could always see Jess was trying to come around us and be where we were when I was working with them. If I was in the gym talking in the corner about music, I noticed she’d be in the gym just a bit further. So, I said, “What’s up with this, girl?” But she never would talk to me. So, finally, I went up to her, said, “How are you doing? My name’s Todd, I’m one of the aides here.” She’s like, “Yeah, I see you all the time. You open the gym at lunch for the kids.” I said, “What are you into? You’re always around but what’s up?” And she goes, “Not much, I play football, this-and-that.” I said, “You do any music?” because I always ask kids that. So, tells me, “Yeah, actually I write songs and I sing.” I was like, “Really?”
About three days later, I came to her art class and she showed me a song she wrote on her phone. And I said, “Wow, this looks really good. Would you mind singing this for me?” and I asked her teacher, “Can I step out of the class with Jess just for a minute?” So, we went in the hallway, just by the doorway, and she sings this song to me, Glenn, and I stood there. It felt like ten minutes but it was probably a good strong minute and I was like, “Wow, you wrote that?” She goes, “Yeah, I wrote that last night. Do you like it?” I said, “Jess, do I like it? This is a hit. I love it!” Her voice, her delivery, her cadence, her words – she’s a natural songwriter. The way she sang it in the hallway, I felt like I was at a show. This is a voice of gold, man. She already knew I was working with her two friends in the studio and she says, “I’m dying to come to the studio with you guys.” So, I said, “Come to the studio.” So, that ended up being my new trio, the three kids from Beurling. From that point on, Jess was hooked. She met my studio guy and started booking sessions on her own and has recorded about ten songs in less than four months. On fire, man.
GP: Tell me about Deshaund. That was a real treat.
TS: Man, Deshaund’s story, I only met him – our show was December 20th. I met Deshaund in November. So, I work with one of the behavior techs at LCCHS, Joanne Graham. Joanne does great work with the kids too and she went to the spring concert at LCCHS last year. Deshaund was in Grade 7 or 8. He was a new kid to the school, no one really knew about him. He’s quiet, very shy. But he put himself in the spring concert. So, he gets on the stage and he does a beatbox, like “The Human Beatbox” from Fat Boys. I wasn’t at the show but Joanne called me all excited from this show, “Todd, you gotta meet this kid! He’s bringing back beatboxing, like back in the day!” I say, “Joanne, slow down. Who?” She said, “This kid, Deshaund. He’s sick! He’s beatboxing. The kids are going crazy, you gotta meet him!”
So, it took me a few months with my schedule but I finally got a day to come see him in November last year. Joanne introduces us. So, I said, “Ms. Joanne told me all about you and what you do. It’s crazy! Who taught you that? Because young guys don’t know beatboxing” He says, “Oh my uncle, my father, they’re musicians. And they said if I want to beatbox go look up the Fat Boys on YouTube. They were doing the real human beatboxing so I learned from listening to them more and watching their videos.” And he’s perfected the art of beatboxing, man. And he came to the show and the rest is history. He’s part of the family now [laughs].
TS: So, once we all knew that we’re gonna do this show, I said “If we’re down, we gotta get serious. We gotta print tickets. We gotta make a flyer.” All that was done within about three weeks and these guys were on it. I took all the pictures of them and had my guy build the flyer, make the tickets and print them out. The tickets were a mini-version of the flyer. So, I remember the night I met the students at Caribbean Paradise and I said, “Alright guys, the flyers are ready and I got the tickets.” I gave them everything and their mouths dropped. I remember Tebby saying to me, “Mr. Todd, my face is on the ticket!” I said, “I know. You don’t like it?” He goes, “I love it.” But he’s like, “My face is on the ticket!” [laughs]. “I know, bro. This is serious.”
And what really floored them, Glenn, and I’m glad you got a copy of this, I reached out to Egbert Gaye at the Community Contact and he said, “Send me a little something and I’m gonna do something for you.” I get the Community Contact two weeks later. And we’re on the front page of this thing! It floored these students. Front page and full write-up about all of them. And they’re like, “Wow, we’re on the front page of a Montreal paper” They’re freaking out. So, just that, it put them at a higher level and made them realize, “Wow we are special. And we’re worth something and we have talent and we gotta take this serious.” It just put something in them to see that.
They named the show. I asked them, “Guys, what do you wanna call the show?” “Ahh gift …. A gift … Gift to You.” I said “Why that name?” thinking that, “Yeah, you are gonna share your gift to the people.” But they said it out of their mouth: “Us performing, we feel that we’re blessed and we wanna share our gift to the people. So, whoever is going to come watch us, this is our gift to them. So, Gift to You.” My goodness, it was outstanding.
GP: Can you talk about the importance of the Caribbean Paradise restaurant in the community?
TS: Hugely important. Yeah, so, I want to shout out Dan and Babita. They are the husband and wife owners of that place. They’ve been there about 35 to 40 years. And they’re a staple in the community in LaSalle. They’re booked Friday and Saturday every week. Older folks’ stuff, younger folks’ stuff, West Indian stuff, Polish stuff, weddings, shows, birthdays, baby showers. They are just open to anybody, no matter who you are, where you come from, what culture, what nationality, “come on in, and we’re gonna treat you like gold.” It’s amazing man. And the food is amazing.