In January 2015, Toronto rappers Mo-G and Smoke Dawg uploaded a since-deleted video for their track “Still” to YouTube. In it, the two rappers and their friends — a collective known as Halal Gang — rap, dance, and laugh in dark parking lots, fluorescent-lit apartment hallways, and a nondescript studio.
Two months later, Drake posted a clip from the video to his Instagram. Filmed in the city’s Regent Park neighborhood — Halal Gang’s home base — the clip went viral, finding life beyond Toronto. At the time this piece was published, a fan reupload of the “Still” video has logged almost two million views. In mid-2015, both Smoke Dawg and SAFE, the crew’s only singer, released solo tracks. And last year, rapper Puffy L’z stepped in front of the anti-collective with his own introduction, “Been Flexing,” adding some much-needed light-heartedness to the individual and combined sounds of Halal Gang.
The crew is incredibly popular with Toronto rap fans, yet they’ve been ostracized and vilified by mainstream media for being young, black, and from a low income, immigrant neighborhood. But Halal Gang isn’t a literal gang, and, as Puffy L’z told The FADER in an interview, they’re “not a group or a boy band” either. “It’s deeper than rap,” L’z said, when we met at a busy cafe in downtown Toronto in early February, “these are my brothers.” Within the context of Canadian music — and the industry at large — the four artists are anomalies as Muslims, and young black people, mostly of East African descent.
A week after we spoke, Puffy L’z was on stage supporting Smoke Dawg’s first headlining show — not in Toronto, but at London’s XOYO. While in London, Halal Gang freestyled for Tim Westwood, and have joined fellow Torontonian Pressa as openers for select dates on Drake’s Boy Meets World tour.
Watch Puffy's new video for "Riri" below, and read more about Halal Gang, the complicated city of Toronto, and why the young rapper and his friends have cut through the city's growing rap wave.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a rapper from Toronto; south side, Regent Park to be exact. My parents are from Somalia, and I'm the only one of nine kids [that was] born here in Toronto. You know how I got the name Puffy L’z? [Laughs] My real name is Habibi, but my street name is Loso. When I started rapping I was helping out with everything, so that’s where ‘Puffy’ came in, from Diddy. The swag, whatever. And then Loso is the L'z, and that’s how Puffy L’z happened.
Who is Halal Gang?
We’re all brothers. That will never change, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye on the music stuff, [because] we’re from the same neighborhood, go to the same mosque and restaurants, and all our siblings and parents are friends. It’s deeper than rap, rap just got involved with it. All of us — Mo-G, Smokey, SAFE, myself — we’re not a group, or a boy band. We’re all individual rappers. The name comes from the neighborhood; it was a term we used, and then it caught fire. Really, the people chose Halal Gang. We never sat in a room and said, ‘This what we're going to call ourselves.’ It went on a track and everyone started saying, “Halal Gang!” So we ran with it.
“The name comes from the neighborhood; really, the people chose Halal Gang. We never sat in a room and said, ‘This what we’re going to call ourselves.’”
Your "Been Flexing" video really captures the feeling of summertime in Regent Park. How did it come together?
I dropped the song on Soundcloud and it got 100K listens. So then I shot the video with Remark — he just has the sauce too. He filmed Ramriddlz’s "Sweeterman," and Mo-G and Smoke Dawg’s "Still.” Those videos aren't the best [technical] videos, but they went viral. We made it work. So I got the T-Mac jersey and swagged it out right in the hood. Told the kids, whoever was in the area, to get in. I had to cut off a couple kids because, you know, the hoyos [mothers] were gonna ring off my line saying I'm influencing their kid. [Laughs] Then we just did it up! Mo-G came, Smokey came, sauced it up.
The “Riri” video is different from a lot of other Toronto rap videos, and even your previous work.
I directed the video with King Bee in two days. He did the videos for "Pull Up" and "Propa" too. But I wanted [“Riri”] to be different. Toronto artists always have something to prove; everyone’s from a hood, everyone wants to have 30 niggas in their video, masked up. There’s nothing different about that. I’m trying to bring something new to the table and switch it up. I was like, ‘Yo, let me walk into a corner store and pick up a magazine, see Rihanna and daze off.’ But I like to be different; that’s why I added in the laundromat. Then we did the money shot with the cars. [Laughs]
How does it feel for Halal Gang to be locally famous?
We're popular, but personally I don't think we're where we should be. We deserve more than what we have. If Halal Gang was from New York or Atlanta or L.A., best believe, we would've blown up. In Toronto and Canada, we're big, and in a couple spots in the U.S., where East Africans and Muslim communities live. Toronto is just a hateful city. The love isn't where it should be. I see kids in the U.S. getting signed with less buzz or hype than we have. Halal Gang tracks are all at a million plus views. That's not me looking for anyone to co-sign or put me or us on, but it is what it is. We'll get there.
So what does success look like for you then?
When we're all out the hood, that's when we’ll have made it. There's no being famous in the hood; nothing’s changed. Kids see us, they run up to us with their phones. Everywhere we go in Toronto is like that. But every day we wake up and go to sleep, and we're still in Regent. When you're out, you're out. But we're still in. That's how I see it.