Relate To Me
The seldom told story of Ylook: a hip-hop pioneer with hometown roots.
Angel Panag, September 19, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioSalman ‘Ylook’ Rana at The Beat Goes On on King George Road in Brantford. Photo credit Geoff Fitzgerald.
Before Toronto was ever known as The Six, a collective named The Circle had helped popularize the term T-Dot. Consisting of hip-hop and R&B artists including Kardinal Offishall, Jully Black, Saukrates, Choclair and Tara Chase, The Circle was making it known that the North had something to say. The children of primarily West Indian immigrants growing up in Canada, they reflected their experiences through their unique lyrics and sound. The momentum that they helped build culminated in the release of the 1998 single Northern Touch. A link-up of Toronto and Vancouver rappers, the song quickly took its place as the de facto national hip-hop anthem. Halfway through the music video, a grinning Ylook appears on screen as Choclair raps, “Y’all know the deal, if you don’t ask my man Y-Dawg.”
“All the kids on the block — relate to me!
All the dawgs on the lock — relate to me!
Freedom fighters in the street — relate to me!
All my Third World people — relate to me, relate to me...”
Kardinal Offishall finishes the chorus, followed through by several hard hitting verses by Ylook. His lyrics don’t shy away from difficult topics - critiquing everything from materialism, police brutality, racial stereotypes and socioeconomic disparities. Salman “Ylook” Rana was a founding member of The Circle, and an influential voice in the burgeoning Toronto hip-hop scene of the 1990s. The video to his 2001 song Relate to Me played on Much Music’s television networks throughout the country, gaining him national notoriety for some time. Through the efforts of industry heavy hitters Sol Guy and Mr. Morgan (now the president of Drake’s OVO Records), the song was to be released as a B-Side on Toronto rapper K-OS’s record.
However, the record was never officially released. Accepted into law school, Salman’s focus would also increasingly shift towards academia. Perhaps unbeknownst to him, in Brantford where he grew up, tales of the rapper-turned-lawyer would continue to be told even decades later.
Salman ‘Ylook’ Rana. Photo credit Geoff Fitzgerald.
Salman meets BTOWN for an interview at a North End cafe, not far from where he grew up. Even after his departure from music, his list of accolades are long. Currently teaching at Toronto Metropolitan University, he holds degrees from universities including York, Osgoode Hall Law, McGill and Oxford. His perspective is global, having spent time living in Turkey, Morocco and Uganda. He describes his upbringing in Brantford as some of the more challenging years of his life, but also years that taught him valuable lessons.
Salman’s parents, both pharmacists, moved here from Toronto in the late 1970s. Originally from Pakistan, they were among the earliest wave of Muslim families to settle in Brantford. Of their peers who came to North America, most would choose to live in New Jersey or New York instead. A young Salman would first be exposed to hip-hop culture on trips to visit family friends in the US. While hip-hop has now become synonymous with rap music, this was not always the case. “Beatboxing, breakdancing and graffiti art were the aspects of the culture that were really centred then,” he recalls.
Ylook searching through records at The Beat Goes On on King George Road in Brantford. Photo credit Geoff Fitzgerald.
There were other influences as well. He’d hear Reggae playing at the house of his childhood friend, and traditional Pakistani folk music at his own. “You know, I come from a family of practising Muslims,” he laughs, “but my parents bought me Blondie's Greatest Hits on vinyl for my sixth birthday.” He could also see parallels in hip-hop and the music of Johnny Cash, in that both spoke to the experiences of people living on the margins of society. However, what he heard in hip-hop that country music lacked was a critical awareness of racial issues. A reality that Salman had unfortunately been forced to deal with on a regular basis.
“They weren't very sophisticated in their racist vocabulary,” he says of people in the 1980s. Both Black people and South Asians would indiscriminately be called the n-word. “I don't think a lot of people realize that Brantford was a super violent place,” he recalls. It was a city with a clear class divide as well. Many of his classmates would fall victim to hard drugs as a coping mechanism, or get involved in crime to make ends meet. Through these challenging times, Salman found strength in his religion and a voice through music. The two came to a head by the late 1980s as an increased number of converts to Islam began mentioning elements of the faith in popular hip-hop music. Prominent Muslims such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X began re-emerging as icons for young African Americans — both names that Salman had grown up hearing about at the local mosque. Ultimately, hip-hop was one of the few outlets that provided a space for a child of the Pakistani diaspora to express himself.
Salman ‘Ylook’ Rana outside the Brantford Mosque. Photo credit Geoff Fitzgerald.
By the eighth grade, Salman had been introduced to Kardinal Offishall through a mutual friend, Darryl Chase. Darryl had recently moved to Brantford. As they began taking their music more seriously, a sort of musical exchange formed between the cities with Kardinal visiting Darryl and Salman in Brantford, and them taking trips to Toronto. They also started going to New York, where they began making a name for themselves. Salman recalls that by the early 1990s, Toronto rappers like K4CE and Dream Warriors would come play shows in town to a small but dedicated audience. He admits, though, that he was always looking outwards — an escape from the pervasive prejudice and harassment he endured in his own city. After graduating from North Park, Salman moved to Toronto to attend York University.
Gathering in apartments, on campus, and at community radio stations, a new generation of artists started forging a sound of their own, telling their truth over beats. While some of his peers would go on to put out hit singles and sign record deals, Salman was disillusioned by the fame. His religion gave him a sense of ethics, a moral compass that he didn’t always see align with the demands of the music industry. Once creativity turned to contracts, Salman sought a way out. Instead, finding a better way to express himself through academic writing. While his influence was far reaching, there has never been a publicly released Ylook album. Buried somewhere, an entire discography of songs with countless stories untold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brantford’s native son, Angel spent much of his life living in the far reaches of Canada. After graduating from Dalhousie University, he began a career as a public servant and later in human rights. Meanwhile, remaining strongly rooted in the arts - DJing, managing musicians, producing films, and performing on Broadway. Angel strongly believes in the power the arts have to inspire, and transform communities and people. He is currently a final year Law student, and is excited to help tell stories from his hometown.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Geoff Fitzgerald is an award winning freelance photographer, second season beekeeper, passionate pet dad to an Olde English Bulldogge, two cats and two rats. With an incredible drive and desire for compelling stories and intimate portraits he focuses his skills mainly on the editorial and advertising/commercial world of photography.