A Tribe Called Red
Electronic group A Tribe Called Red (ATCR) has garnered international acclaim for its politically charged, powwow drum-driven dance music. Featuring the DJs Bear Witness (Thomas Ehren Ramon) and 2oolman (Tim Hill), the group emerged from an Ottawa club party called Electric Pow Wow, which began in 2007. Former members include DJ Shub (Dan General), and founding members DJ NDN (Ian Campeau) and Dee Jay Frame (Jon Limoges). The group has described its “powwow step” music as “the soundtrack to a contemporary evolution of the powwow.” ATCR is part of what broadcaster and educator Wab Kinew has called the “Indigenous Music Renaissance,” an innovative new generation of Indigenous artists in Canada. The group was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize in 2013 and 2017, and has won three Juno Awards, including Breakthrough Group of the Year in 2014 and Group of the Year in 2018.
Background and Formation
Inspired by parties for Korean and South Asian youth in Ottawa, DJ NDN (Ian Campeau), an Ojibwa nightclub bouncer-turned DJ, became interested in a similar event for Aboriginal youth. After discussing the idea with his friend, Bear Witness (Thomas Ehren Ramon), who is Cayuga, and fellow disc jockey Dee Jay Frame (Jon Limoges), who is Mohawk, they began the first night at Ottawa’s Babylon nightclub in 2007, calling it Electric Pow Wow.
Encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response, the DJs began holding the event on the second weekend of every month — a schedule that was lasted until December 2017. The parties featured a mixture of traditional powwow recordings from Campeau’s youth, when he performed as a drummer, and mixed them with electronic music rhythms and genres such as dubstep, moombahton and dancehall. The group, which started going by the name A Tribe Called Red in 2008, calls the blend of genres “powwow step.”
The Electric Pow Wow appealed directly to Indigenous youth in Ottawa, but also drew a large number of non-Indigenous people. In addition to music, the parties featured multimedia presentations by Bear Witness, who drew on his mother’s activist background to create multimedia shows that re-contextualized stereotypical depictions of Indigenous peoples from films and television shows.
DJ Shub (Dan General) — who had developed a reputation as a skilled DJ and had won the Canadian DMC Finals in 2007 and 2008 — attended an Electric Pow Wow in 2008. He enjoyed the event so much he sent DJ NDN a song he’d written (it eventually became the track “Electric Pow Wow Drum”) and was soon invited to join the group, making A Tribe Called Red a quartet.
Early Recordings and Debut Album (2012)
The group began to focus on creating their own material. In late 2010, DJ NDN sent some of their tracks to renowned electronic producer Diplo, with whom he had deejayed in the past. The group gained more attention when Diplo posted enthusiastic reviews of the songs “Electric Pow Wow Drum” and “Pow Wow Riddim” on his popular Mad Decent blog.
In early 2011, A Tribe Called Red uploaded their remix of “Red Skin Girl,” a song by Grammy-nominated vocal group Northern Cree. The song became very popular and ATCR released it as a single a few months later. In October 2011, the group released an EP entitled Moombah Hip Moombah Hop featuring the group’s remixes of old school hip-hop tracks as well as original songs.
During the transition of ATCR into a recording act, Dee Jay Frame left the group. The remaining members began to collaborate with a PhD student at the UCLA ethnomusicology department, using some of his wax cylinder recordings of Indigenous singers for a song entitled “General Generations.” A Tribe Called Red also recorded “Woodcarver,” which featured recordings of an encounter between woodcarver John T. Williams of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation and a Seattle police officer that led to Williams’s death.
A Tribe Called Red released their self-titled debut album as a free download without any record label support in March 2012. The album garnered critical acclaim around the world and was long-listed for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. The group then released the EP Trapline in late 2012, which featured a number of new songs.
Nation II Nation (2013)
Released in May 2013, the group’s second album, Nation II Nation (2013), features the group sampling tracks by artists on the Tribal Spirit record label and has a decidedly political edge. The CD’s liner notes feature images of each member’s Certificate of Indian Status with the statement: “After what happened in the last hundred years, the simple fact we are here today is a political statement. As First Nations people everything we do is political.”
In an interview to promote the album, DJ NDN stated, “Even in the name itself [Nation II Nation], and in A Tribe Called Red itself, I’m Ojibwa, Anishinaabe. The other two guys, Dan and Bear are both Cayuga. Our languages alone are as different as English and Chinese. Historically, we’re enemies. So together, in forming this group, that’s a nation-to-nation relationship. Then you go a little more macro, and go federally, then you’ve got a nation-to-nation relationship from the settler nations to the First Nations, and how that relationship needs to start happening. That conversation needs to start happening.”
The album’s lead single, “The Road,” was dedicated to the Idle No More protests and Attawapiskat First NationChief Theresa Spence, who had ended a hunger strike earlier in the year. Ahead of Nation II Nation’s release, A Tribe Called Red also released a collaboration with New York group Das Racist entitled “Indians From Every Direction.” Nation II Nation was nominated for the 2013 Polaris Music Prize.
In late 2013, ATCR produced the song “A Tribe Called Red” by Indigenous-African American rapper Angel Haze for her album Dirty Gold. In early 2014, ATCR was nominated for Breakthrough Group of the Year and Electronic Album of the Year at the Juno Awards. The group had decided to not submit Nation II Nation in the Aboriginal Album of the Year category. At the 2014 Junos, A Tribe Called Red won the Juno Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year.
In September 2014, DJ Shub officially left the group, citing the need to spend more time with family. He was replaced by hip-hop producer Tim Hill (aka 2oolman), who is Mohawk. To coincide with Thanksgiving in the US, the group released the single “Burn Your Village to the Ground” in November 2014.
On 19 May 2015, ATCR released the four-track EP, Suplex. The title track, featuring Northern Voice, was released as a single, while “The Peoples’ Champ,” featuring Cree rapper Hellnback, was used in an iPhone commercial. The group followed the EP’s release with a remix of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 2008 song “Working for the Government.” They then toured across Canada, performing at the Osheaga Music Festival in Montréal, at the Panamania festival during the Pan American and Parapan American Games in Toronto, and numerous free shows on First Nations reserves throughout Ontario. They also performed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
We Are the Haluci Nation (2016)
The group’s third album, We Are the Haluci Nation, was released by the Pirates Blend label on 16 September 2016. A more collaborative effort than previous records, it was inspired in part by Santee Dakota activist and former American Indian Movement leader John Trudell, who wrote the title specifically for ATCR and performed spoken word on the album, along with author Joseph Boyden.
Featuring collaborations with Shad, Mos Def, Tanya Tagaq and Lido Pimienta, We Are the Haluci Nation is arguably the band’s most hip-hop-influenced and experimental record. It performed well commercially, peaking at No. 7 on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart, and drew wide acclaim. Pitchfork’s Erin MacLeod called it “a modern electric dance soundtrack that is politically thrilling and immediate” and “critical listening for everyone.” NOW magazine’s Benjamin Boles called it ”an album of powerful protest music set to pounding beats,” while Exclaim!’s David Dacks described it as “a milestone in Canadian music” and “an extremely well executed concept album that sticks unwaveringly to its vision.”
We Are the Haluci Nation was shortlisted for the 2017 Polaris Prize and named Album of the Year at the Independent Music Awards.The group opened the 2017 Juno Awards gala on 2 April, giving a performance that featured Tagaq and a troupe of Indigenous dancers. They also won the Jack Richardson Producer of the Year Award for their work on the singles “R.E.D.” featuring Yasiin Bey, Narcy and Black Bear, and “Sila” featuring Tagaq.
On 18 October 2017, founding member Ian Campeau (DJD NDN) announced that he was leaving the band. He released a statement saying, “After almost ten years in A Tribe Called Red, I’ve decided to leave the band and shift my energy to my speaking career, mentorship and advocacy work… These past few years, I’ve spoken about how touring was difficult and triggered my anxiety and depression. This is the healthier choice for me. After that much time, my bandmates and I have also grown apart and now have different interests and ideologies than we did ten years ago. This caused tension between us and created a toxic environment to a point that I didn’t feel comfortable in that working environment anymore.” Campeau also noted that he was “happy with the work I did as part of A Tribe Called Red and forever thankful for the all the opportunities this project has afforded me…I’m super excited about what’s in front of me and wish nothing but good things to A Tribe Called Red.”
In June 2013, the group issued a public statement on Twitter asking White people to refrain from cultural appropriation by attending their shows in “redface” or wearing headdresses. The statement read: “Non-Natives that come to our shows, we need to talk. Please stop wearing headdresses and war paint. It’s insulting.”
In September 2013, Campeau began a social media campaign on Twitter (#ChangeThe Name) to urge Ottawa’s junior football club, the Nepean Redskins, to change its name.
He also filed a human rights complaint against the organization with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. The team changed its name to the Nepean Eagles in January 2014, but Campeau received significant online abuse for pursuing the issue.
In June 2014, the organizers of the Ottawa music festival Westfest received a threatening email for booking ATCR. The email called Campeau a “racist hypocrite” for calling on the Nepean football club to change its name while at times wearing “a racist t-shirt” — specifically, a shirt featuring an image of a grinning White man with a dollar sign over his head, a satirical spoof of the MLB’s Cleveland Indians’ logo.
Campeau and the group have also been vocal supporters of the Idle No More movement, and for Indigenous rights and equality in general, often quoting such figures as Noam Chomsky and tweeting archival newspaper clippings of injustices committed against Indigenous peoples in North America.
In September 2014, ATCR cancelled an appearance at the opening ceremony for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, stating, “We feel it was necessary to cancel our performance because of the museum's misrepresentation and downplay of the genocide that was experienced by Indigenous people in Canada by refusing to name it genocide. Until this is rectified, we'll support the museum from a distance.”
- Best Producer/Engineer (2013)
- Best Pop CD (Nation II Nation) (2013)
- Best Group or Duo (2013)
- Best Album Cover (Nation II Nation) (2013)
- Breakthrough Group of the Year (2014)
- Producer of the Year (“R.E.D. ft. Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear”, “Sila ft. Tanya Tagaq”) (2017)
- Group of the Year (2018)
- Album of the Year (We Are the Haluci Nation), Independent Music Awards (2017)
Alexa Woloshyn, “Hearing Urban Indigeneity in Canada: Self-Determination, Community Formation, and Kinaesthetic Listening with A Tribe Called Red,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 39, no. 3: 1-23.