A Tribe Called Red uses Indigenous influences to elevate electronic music
So much of Indigenous tradition is rooted in art. As Native American poet and activist John Trudell once said, “When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art.”
A Tribe Called Red has set out to reveal this truth through their music.
The group is currently comprised of Tim “2oolman” Hill (Mohawk, of the Six Nations of the Grand River) and Ehren “Bear Witness” Thomas (Cayuga First Nation), while past members include Ian “DJ NDN” Campeau (Nipissing First Nation) and Dan “DJ Shub” General (Six Nations of the Grand River). ATCR is based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where they have been producing “powwow-step” since 2007.
They have made three albums to date, with their most recent being 2016’s We Are the Halluci Nation, a term inspired by the late Trudell. By taking traditional sounds of Native American gatherings and fusing them with electronic music, A Tribe Called Red is at the forefront of shaping today’s Indigenous culture.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of the 10 best songs by the First Nations EDM group. While Native American vocal chanting and drumming are common themes throughout the tracks, no two songs sound exactly alike. A Tribe Called Red has released a prolific and diverse offering of records, and each of the 10 tracks accomplish more than enough to stand on their own.
“Electric Pow Wow Drum”
This track has a straightforward production and follows a simple pattern, but the chants are what set it apart from other electronic songs. As Ehren Thomas put best, “It’s not about the things that separate us; it’s about the things that connect us… those are the things that are gonna save us.” “Electric Pow Wow Drum” is a perfect example of the group meeting halfway with the listener, as those who aren’t familiar with First Nations music will find solace in the more mainstream sounds of its instrumentals.
“Stadium Pow Wow” feat. Black Bear
This track embodies the “stadium” part of its title to a tee, as what you get is a booming anthem fit for a crowd of thousands. The initial rhythm and gravelly drums at use remind me of “We Will Rock You” by Queen, and the inclusion of vocal chants only add to its edgy, competitive energy.
“Native Puppy Love”
DJ air horns open and close the production of “Native Puppy Love.” The swaying, cosmic sound effects thrown in precede a set of sharp synths perfect for a high-octane action movie — you can even hear broken glass in the background at certain points. A change of pace in the song’s final third is a solid breakdown featuring thick drums (and more broken glass).
“Sisters” feat. Northern Voice
A great record for clubs, “Sisters” has a buildup created out of vocals by Northern Voice’s singers. Its slow tempo and heavy thuds are comparable to Kanye West’s “Fade,” and with a retro, groovy aesthetic, it’s one of the better tracks to dance to.
“Look at This – Remix”
This song has a more traditional sound when placed next to ATCR’s more contemporary tracks. The vocal chants steal the show, and the steady drums keep you engaged long enough for the slicing synthesizers to make their rounds.
“Sila” feat. Tanya Tagaq
One of the more unique songs on the list, “Sila” includes unforgettable and unabashed throat singing by Tanya Tagaq. The bass has a dirty reverb effect that sounds like the group is striking metal barrels, and the even heavier set of drums layered beneath remind me of how fast my heart races whenever I listen to it — fans of Death Grips will love this one. The most eccentric track by the group, it’s also my personal favorite.
“Indian City” feat. Black Bear
There are many high-pitched chants included here, and a frantic delivery forms when some of these chants are intentionally cut short. Combined with the fast-paced and upbeat production, I can imagine this track playing from the speakers of an arcade racing game.
“R.E.D.” feat. Yasiin Bey, Narcy and Black Bear
A track that’s great for sporting events, the instrumentals fall in line with “Stadium Pow Wow.” Its energy is complemented by verses from rappers Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def) and Narcy. The First Nations duo drew clear inspiration for their name from A Tribe Called Quest, and that group’s influence is best seen in the trappings of hip-hop found in “R.E.D.”
“We Are the Halluci Nation” feat. John Trudell and Northern Voice
The poetic verses of John Trudell eloquently describe the struggles of Native Americans throughout this song. His spoken words repeat the track’s title numerous times, while also referring to the timeliness of Indigenous culture: “Our DNA is of earth and sky… of past and future. We are the evolution, the continuation, Halluci Nation…” This sentiment reflects perfectly with that of Ehren Thomas, who says Natives have “been largely invisible, because if you’re not wearing the beads, if you’re not wearing the feathers, if you’re not doing the things that have been made OK for Native people to exist as; then you become invisible.” The duality of A Tribe Called Red’s music not only respects tradition — it sends it in new directions.
“ALie Nation” feat. John Trudell, Lido Pimienta, Tanya Tagaq and Northern Voice
This track also features a passage from Trudell, who says “Everything is related. All the things of earth and in the sky have spirit. Everything is sacred.” When Trudell concludes his speech, a beat drop welcomes back Tanya Tagaq from “Sila.” This time, it sounds like Tagaq is gasping for air, almost as if she can no longer endure her struggles. The pitch of her voice is briefly increased, and it closely resembles a child. The song ends with one last breath, echoing the final words of Trudell’s poem: “…mining their spirits into souls sold. Until nothing is sacred. Not even their self. The ALie Nation.”
In addition to creating their own space in electronic music, ATCR has also used their platform for charity work and as a means to deal with major societal issues. Most importantly, the group is redefining what it means to be Native American:
“We’ve never been in control of our own image. It’s always been how we’re perceived through the lens of the colonizers,” Thomas said in an interview. After listening to hours’ worth of the group’s discography, I can assure you the image crafted by A Tribe Called Red is a faithful one, one which takes the best parts of Native traditions and breathes new life into them.