30 years strong: DJ Mel Boogie's success story

One of Canada’s most influential hip-hop DJs unpacks three decades of excellence behind the decks

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Image courtesy of Mel Boogie

Everything begins with the DJ. While MCs, B-boys and girls, and graffiti writers are fundamental to the five-decade-long story of hip-hop, only one of the culture’s core elements is truly responsible for its genesis.  

In the early 1970s, Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, began throwing massive park jams in the South Bronx, New York. Using two turntables to extend the drum breakdown section of funk records indefinitely, he provided the sonic foundation and collective environment needed for the art forms of rapping and breakdancing to emerge. Over the next two decades, as DJing evolved as a craft, these unique contemporary artists became the primary curators and proliferators of hip-hop records and hip-hop culture overall. The DJ has always been the main catalyst, from parties to radio shows to concerts. 

Canada’s long and vibrant history of hip-hop DJs begins with Ron Nelson, whose legendary Fantastic Voyage radio show first aired in 1983 on Toronto’s CKLN 88.1FM. The first of its kind in the country, Fantastic Voyage quickly became the hub for hip-hop culture north of the US and Canadian border, playing a central role in breaking new artists, advertising events, and inspiring the next generation of DJs to follow in Nelson’s footsteps. DJ Mel Boogie would become one of those important torchbearers, going on to carve out an acclaimed journey all her own.            

As one of Canada’s most well-known and pioneering woman DJs based in Toronto, Mel Boogie has led a 30-year-long career as a prolific radio and event DJ. In 2001, she began a 14-year run as resident DJ and host of Droppin Dymez on CKLN, Canada’s first ever all-female hip-hop radio show. Since then, she has become a resident DJ at Toronto’s VIBE105 FM, won several major awards (including three Stylus DJ awards and Black Canadian Awards DJ of the year in 2015), and opened for an array of iconic artists, including Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes and Kevin Hart. Mel Boogie’s legendary career was honoured during the 2023 JUNO Awards, as she took the stage as the feature DJ in an ensemble performance celebrating 50 years of hip-hop alongside Dream Warriors, Michie Mee and Kardinal Offishall.   

Continuing our ongoing exploration into the story of hip-hop, Mel Boogie recently spoke to Foyer about the legacy of Canadian hip-hop, the evolution of DJ culture, and some of her most cherished career highlights. 

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Image courtesy of  Mel Boogie

Foyer: Can you share your first personal memory of hip-hop? How did that moment propel you into eventually becoming a DJ? 

Mel Boogie: My earliest memories are of listening to my dad playing records at home and listening to Ron Nelson on Fantastic Voyage every Saturday afternoon on CKLN 88.1FM. My first rap records were bought by my dad – Kurtis Blow, “the Breaks” and “Rappers Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang. I used to play those on repeat! 

Listening to Ron's show every Saturday was something I did religiously. I remember pressing RECORD + PLAY at the same time on the radio to tape his shows so I could play them at school on Monday during recess. I was an absolute music nerd, and always knew I wanted to be in music, but was too shy to take the stage as an MC.  But once I discovered that DJing was something that I could get into, I never looked back. 

You were a major part of Droppin Dimez Radio. Can you share some of the backstory of Droppin Dimez?

The show was started by Jemeni (former morning co-host on Flow) and several co-hosts before I came on board in 2001. After Jem left CKLN to be on FLOW, I was invited by former host Bess as a guest DJ for one week, and I just kept showing up! In addition to DJing and hosting, first with Bess, then with Big G and JJ Rock, I worked on developing the marketing for the show to create awareness, and to make sure the ladies were recognized and respected for our contributions to the culture. I was tired of females being shoved to the side when it came to hip-hop and wanted to show that we could host, DJ, produce and have a place in the culture at a time where women were mainly seen shaking their asses on videos. 

We were able to do interviews with some of the most respected and legendary artists in music, including Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Smif N Wesson, Dream Warriors, M.O.P., Maestro, Little Brother, Choclair, Michie Mee, Common, Jeru the Damaja and so many more. My fondest memories include interviewing some giants in Canadian music early in the careers, like Boi-1da and Keysha Freshh, and providing a platform for legends to tell their story. With there being so few outlets for emerging artists to have their music played and interviewed, I made it a mission to work on creating as much awareness for them as possible. I'm so honoured to have had the opportunity to contribute to a radio show that was such a staple to Canadian hip-hop and solidified a place for women in the game.   

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Image courtesy of Mel Boogie

You’ve been a Toronto-based radio, concert and party DJ for over 30 years. What are some of the main ways the city’s DJ scene has evolved/changed over the years? 

The advancement of technology is probably one of the biggest changes. Tools like Serato and digital files made DJing less exclusive and more accessible to almost everyone. While it makes DJing 'easier' by removing the turntables, a real DJ still needs to do their research and have the skill of reading the crowd and connecting with them. That's still something that comes with experience and knowing your music inside and out. Anyone can just press PLAY and call themselves a 'DJ'. A real DJ is an artist who can tap into people's emotions and take them on a journey. I think the technology part of the game is pretty awesome and challenges you to see what you can do to make yourself stand out from the others. 

Social media has also changed the game. It excels as a marketing tool, and as a way to connect with fans. But some artists ascribe to "fake it ‘til you make it” instead of "work until it's yours.” Like everything, there are pros and cons.  

What are some things you miss about the past? What excites you about the future? 

 I miss the relationship building part of the industry.  There was a time when artists and DJs built relationships in person and collaborated. Social media and everything being digital has expanded the reach, but many artists operate in silos with others they already know instead of expanding their reach to grow and build new relationships. 

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Image courtesy of Mel Boogie

Your career is full of so many highlights such as your 2019 Hip Hop Pioneer Award, multiple Stylus DJ Awards, Juno performances and more. Can you share one or two of your most cherished moments with us? 

I'm blessed to have several cherished moments from the past 30 years. Saying 30 years  out loud is mind-boggling because, in the time I've spent behind the decks, I've also been a mom; I finished my degree at York University and just evolved as a woman. Being a music addict and working to improve on my craft has allowed me to meet, work for and share stages with some of my all-time favourite artists like Snoop Dogg, Ghostface Killah, Busta Rhymes and more. I've had the opportunity to work with organizations like the Honey Jam, the Junos, Polaris and more, and be able to contribute to helping to build a foundation for artists in more ways than as only a DJ and publicist.  One of my favourite highlights is getting to go on tour across the country with The Sorority. It was a learning experience on several levels, but I got to see firsthand how many dope artists there are across the country, and how hip-hop truly lives everywhere. Plus, each MC in The Sorority was incredible on the mic! 

As a fan of Canadian hip-hop, it was an honour to be on stage at the 2023 Junos to DJ as part of the Hip-Hop 50 dedication performance. A chance to share the stage with Dream Warriors, Michie Mee, Kardinal Offishall, Haviah Mighty and TOBi, and to be able to share that moment with my big brother Maestro Fresh Wes was just phenomenal. 

Stay up to date with DJ Mel Boogie here. Stay tuned to Foyer for more stories commemorating 50 years of hip-hop culture. Mark your calendar for December 2024, as the exhibition The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century opens at the AGO.

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