It could seem that hip-hop in Waterloo Region is not what it used to be. You might, for example, remember a dive bar in Preston called 69 Pickups. Sharky, a legend of local hip-hop, once held an album release party there. Four hundred people packed the venue. Rogers TV showed up with their cameras, and ECHO Weekly featured Sharky’s new album on its front page. This was 2003.

Now, 69 Pickups has been replaced by a nightclub. Rogers TV doesn’t cover local hip-hop shows. ECHO Weekly, the alternative arts and entertainment magazine, folded in 2011.

But this hasn’t stopped Jason Young, a.k.a. Know-It, a local producer whose roots run deep. Talk to any rapper or DJ in town, and you’re likely to discover a connection to Know-It. His hip-hop journey started in Cambridge where, as a 14-year-old kid, he started rapping at a roller-skating rink on Hespeler Road.

“We would bring a demo tape to a guy at the Forum and we’d be like, ‘Yeah, can we perform at the Friday night teen dance?’ And he let us, and we performed there a few times,” Young says.

In November, Know-It released his latest album, The Dialysis Catalogue. “It’s a collection of some of my favourite songs while I’ve been on kidney dialysis waiting for a transplant.” He spends four days a week at Freeport Hospital. “To tell you the truth, it keeps my mind occupied away from these medical issues. For me, it just comes naturally.”

Know-It produced every song on the album, in collaboration with emcees near and far. The first track, “Life,” features Philadelphia rapper Maine the Medicine, who Young met through mutual friends and who was also once on kidney dialysis.

The album release was held at The Cork Hall, a renovated bar joined to McCabe’s in downtown Kitchener. In addition to the two featured performers (including New York City’s Brooklyn35) there were also three cyphers, where a group of emcees take turns rapping over the beat, 16 bars at a time, for as long as they can keep their flow intact.

The crowd trickled in by ones and twos, sporting new fades and giving handshakes and hugs all around. As soon as the first cypher began, they gravitated to the front of the room. Phones came out of pockets, held up to the stage with focused determination. These videos were not for snapchat but something more polished.

Andrew Lakes, a.k.a. Lakes, was one of the emcees on the first cypher of the night. He grew up in Toronto and Montreal, where he was introduced to hip-hop. He describes his first encounter with the genre as a revelation.

“This new outlet came to me, like ‘You can say whatever you want, however you want, in whatever language you want’, and it’s a voice to be heard.”

Lakes admits that he expected to find the tri-cities lacking in culture. But the local hip-hop scene has welcomed him with open arms. He now co-hosts Sound FM’s hip-hop show alongside DJ Carmelo.

“Bottom line, it’s all about Know-It. Without him I would have never known about Carmelo and this station. And from there, I can’t tell you how many connections I’ve made through Carmelo and Street Hop. Being involved with it has been huge in making me feel comfortable out here.”

People tend to catch the hip-hop bug at a young age. Kyle Brenton, a.k.a. Komodo, found that the genre had an equalizing effect. He grew up on Chandler Drive in Kitchener, a multicultural part of the city that is home to many new immigrants.

“There were a bunch of different cultures there, but everyone was into the same shit. We were all playing basketball at the school, rocking baggy clothes, listening to hip-hop. We all liked G-Unit, we all wanted to be hard, we all wanted to be tough… stuff that I really couldn’t relate to, but I wanted to so bad because I thought the stories and their perspectives were cool, to put yourself in those shoes,” says Komodo.

Landing square in the middle of that thug life persona, a local rapper called eSJay released the SJ Jeans Mixtape in the mid 2000s. It was proud, brash gangster rap, and eSJay would go on to tour with G-Unit and Mobb Deep.

Komodo remembers how the SJ Jeans Mixtape sent a ripple of pride through the local hip-hop scene. “A lot of people I knew had older brothers or older friends, and they knew about eSJay too. That was one thing that I remember from my time where I can honestly say there was a physical Kitchener project that influenced people.”

But there are two sides to this phase of Waterloo Region’s hip-hop history. Rapper and producer Shawn McDaid, a.k.a. Fraction, sees the period from the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s as part of the genre’s downturn.

“When the gangsters came in around the mid 90s, it kind of turned away a lot of the promoters… a lot of these clubs don’t want to entertain hip-hop shows because of some of the negative connotations,” Fraction says.

Lakes echoes the same sentiment, and he’s disappointed that the stereotype has stuck for so long. It’s important that more venues realize today’s hip-hop scene has moved beyond that gangster-rap lifestyle.

“I don’t know too many angry-for-nothing people. We’re in it for the love of it, we’re all grown men now. We don’t have time to be fighting in parking lots. We all have kids to go home to,” Lakes says.

That’s not to say the hip-hop community has stood still. In recent years, Young organized beat battles with competitors from Guelph, Hamilton, Toronto and Detroit.

Fraction says that “The Tri-City Beat Battle kind of created a community for artists to come, and obviously all those producers will come and bring their people with them. It creates more of a community environment.”

A strong sense of identity and hometown pride are hallmarks of classic hip-hop, which is easy to represent when you’re from New York City or Toronto. Opinion is split on how to represent the 519, though.

Chris Pare, a.k.a. Crispy, is a young rapper from Windsor. After building a following in the Detroit-Windsor hip-hop scene, he’s expanding with shows in Waterloo Region.

“For me, it is important. I try to say Windsor in a lot of my stuff, or 519. See, Windsor is 519 and I rep that hard. And hopefully one day, 519 will be like 313 [the Detroit area code made famous by rappers like Eminem].”

Others aren’t so sure. Sebastian Schallenberg, a.k.a. Young Lungs, is 18 years old. For him, meeting collaborators online has erased that local sense of identity.

“In 2016, for me at least, it doesn’t really matter. Everything I put out there and everything I receive is all on the internet. So regardless of where I’m at, it will be received all over the world from different people,” Young Lungs says.

Similarly, for 19-year-old producer Cian Patterson, local identity isn’t the defining factor. “I’m not the type to shout out ‘Waterloo represent’, or something like that. At the same time, I do think that our city and where we’re from could use more of an identity and more of a musical culture. If there ever is a huge spotlight, I’ll never say I’m from Toronto.”

For Fraction, these differences extend to the music itself. “There is definitely a generational gap when it comes to the music itself. Coming back to the 18-20 year olds… we came up in that boom-bap, hard drum, sample-based hip-hop. Now it’s totally different. Mumble rap is a thing, and the music is just sonically different now.” Or, as Lakes put it to me, “You gotta make love to make a song. And you can’t make love on the internet.”

So hip-hop in Waterloo Region is constantly evolving. There may be disagreements, but I didn’t find any beef between the artists here. Instead, I found a community that resembled a big family, with an old guard itching for a chance to mentor the up-and-comers. The new wave of producers and rappers may be tempted to focus outward, but there’s a lot of love for hip-hop right here in the tri-cities.

Here’s the whole playlist: