Writing a song
with Moka Only
At one point I was very interested in hip-hop and how it relates to spoken word and jazz. I had some concepts for songs
I wanted to create and had some connection to David Ng, who had had some success as Snow's
manager (Informer, etc.) We had a common associate in Bernie
Walsh, who at the time owned Comfort Sound recording studio
in Toronto. So, David Ng and Bernie were talking about
forming a record label which would release 52 vinyl singles
in 52 weeks and would be hungry for content.
Now, David Ng was busy flying to Hong Kong, Thailand and
all over, setting up successful projects with artist like
"Joey Boy" who was unknown here, but sold one million copies
of his first release in Thailand. Davis Ng was also
busy with his New York company Mo Jam Records, so we were
lucky to see him every few weeks for a day or two, even
though he was trying to merge in some way with Bernie's
Meanwhile, I was out there looking for some hip hop people
to get involved with and I'm walking along Queen west when
I hear this freestyling coming from the Bamboo parking lot.
There are these kids passing the mic around and rapping
over beats in a freestyle manner. Most of it was pretty
weak, then this one guy gets on and does a very eloquent,
confident, "rapping for all people" kind of diary thing
telling about his life and what not. I grab his number
and he writes down his name as Moka Only.
Now, keep in mind, this was a few years before
Moka and Swollen members had blown up. Moka was working
small clubs solo and as far as I know may have been friends with members of
the Swollen Members guys, sometimes writing tracks with them when he was back in the Vancouver
area. After a week I start trying to contact him and
it's like David Ng, where he's in a different city every
3 days, so I'd call the number someone gave me in Montreal
and they'd say, "oh yeah he just left and is crashing with
some friends in Toronto, it could be one of these three
numbers.." Then I'd call Toronto and he'd be "on his way
to Vancouver, try this number or he could be at his mom's
in Victoria.." This went on for months until one
day he's going to meet me at a restaurant in Parkdale (Toronto)
called the Northway.
Now I'm remembering that the Norhtway is a diner where I
used to have lunch as a kid in high school but hadn't been
there in thirty years. So I get there and my mind
is rushing with memories of french fries with gravy and
a small coke for 35 cents in 1970 and how the waitress seemed
like she was run off her feet and every table was sat with
kids and really humble working people on a high energy lunchtime
tip, and how our gym teacher was a bit of a fag and used
to show us over and over again how to receive the ball from
the other player under your crotch and smoking hash sitting
on the steps in the apartment building stairwells after
three of us would chip in for a nickel and go up to Rochedale
to cop...all this flooding my memory as I walk up to the
table where Moka is sitting alone.
So we spend five minutes getting acquainted, he's got his
book of rhymes he's writing & considering, from which
he likes to freestyle on the themes. The guy
is prolific, feels more like a poet, kind of quiet and powerful.
It's one o' clock in the afternoon. He tells
me then he's got until 3:30 p.m., at which time he
must be on a train to Vancouver, so I say "let's go right
now" - we jump in my car and head for the studio.
I begin to wonder why he is called Moka - because he's a
light-skinned Afro-Canadain, kind of coffee like completion?
Later he tells me 'cause he smokes so much - like
"Smoker - Moka" (or did I make that up - I can't remember)
but anyway I'm thinking of what we're gonna do in one hour
of creative time. I have this track prepared based
on how life can get you rushing about so much you can barely
think, which was triggered partly by considering David Ng's
lifestyle (and my own!) , and I had recorded some live bass,
some drum samples and several raucous R n' B like guitars.
I had recorded tracks of the sung vocal chorus
using the fabulous soul singer Amoy Levy.
We arrive at the studio and Moka gets out his book.
I ask if he has a theme that talks about rushing about and
for sure he already has something, but he's like real rap
- wants to flow on and on and I'm wanting to do tidy little
verses with lots of singing in between to get a "radio"
kind of structure, so I just let him go and all in one or
two takes with a bit of discussion and editing back and
forth he drops for me this brilliant unbroken diatribe
onto analog tape, rapped in sync with the basic bed I had
prepared, with no room for the singing parts - then it's
time to go. So to thank him I drive him to Union station,
we part very friendly with a bit of a rush from what we
got done and I head back to the studio.
In those days my studio was just one big room about 1,000
square feet in a commercial building with no washroom (thank
God for the "Coffee Time" next door). I had an analog
16 track, a few sound modules, one sampler and a DAT deck,
Everything was synched up using smart FSK, or maybe
I was discovering SMPTE about then, but it was before
the days that you could record direct to computer reliably,
then just slide stuff around until it works. So there
I was with this long diatribe by Moka and a song that wanted
like three rap verses each about 8 bars long to work with
this sung chorus idea.
Amoy's singing of the chorus I had written was shining,
(plus she added some wonderful ad libs in & out) and
I very carefully, line by line edited the Moka freestyles
down to create a concise 3 verses by flipping the lines
over to DAT tape, then back onto the analog tape until things
were working and came up with this beautiful track called
"Agenda", which seems to me, told the story of what both
David Ng (my intended target) and Moka were going through
at that time.
Here is a sample of the track we came up with:
Here's where I began to learn a bit about what being
a "Producer" is like. I finally got David Ng to hear
it, he says "yeah not bad" and that's the last time I remember
seeing him. Moka, I finally got to sign off on some
paperwork about co-writing and my (limited) right to use
his recorded performance after several mailings and numerous
phone calls for a year. Later he also said it
didn't really represent where he was going artistically.
After all that, the master recording just sort of
sat around, and is still sitting around, but I still think
it's a great track.
Several years later, this Moka guy is all over the radio
and television , and even in fashion ads as a sort of guest
member of Swollen Members. I'm curious what
he would think of the track now, but I can barely
get to talk to him. Short of formally calling his
"people" and probably being treated like a fan or something,
my main contact is his mother's phone number from
back when. I've spoken to her but she's trying to
reach him too.......