Born Darrin Kenneth O'Brien, 1970, in Toronto, Canada; son of a cab driver and Donna, a homemaker; two brothers and one sister; daughter Justuss, born April of 1996. Addresses: Record company-Elektra/Asylum, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019.
In the predominantly urban-based, African-American world of rap, Caucasian newcomers have been characteristically met with suspicions of cultural appropriation, as was the case with comic-book flash in the pan Vanilla Ice, who fabricated his past to give him the street-wise credibility many "gangster" rappers wear on their sleeve. Irish- Canadian Snow had no need for such phony publicity, as his childhood was steeped in the harsh pressures of city life, as well as to the sounds of Jamaican inspired reggae. When his debut single "Informer" rocketed to the top of the sales charts in the Untied States and Canada, the singer was serving prison time for a knifing to which he pleaded innocent. Nevertheless, Snow was dogged by comparisons to Vanilla Ice from the onset and found himself with the burden of proving he was not a mere novelty. Unfortunately, after his debut album 12 Inches of Snow, the rapper proved that his rugged life did not equal a musical career with several lackluster follow ups.
Born into a working-class Toronto housing project in 1970, Snow (Darrin Kenneth O'Brien) was beset with obstacles from his beginning. Raised by his struggling divorced mother Donna, Snow quickly found himself in the thick of the gang violence and crime that would color the lyrics of his future recordings. "I never had nothin' to do except drink and fight," Snow told Nicholas Jennings in Maclean's magazine. "Sometimes, I'd fantasize that I was Bruce Lee, or maybe one of the guys in Kiss. But mostly, I just hung out and got into trouble." After dropping out of the ninth grade, Snow began racking up a criminal record with the Canadian police.
Although Toronto's Allenbury projects facilitated Snow's involvement with violence and his near alcoholism, the environment also bore the seeds that would save him. Snow's neighborhood was largely populated by West Indian immigrants and descendants who retained their rich heritage of dance hall reggae music. Immersed in reggae, Snow demonstrated a nimble tongue able to churn out the tricky rhythms of that music's vocal style, a use of dialect called patois. With his friend and DJ Martin Prince, Snow began impromptu performances in local basement parties, upending the biases of those who first noticed only the rapper's skin color. "People would think he was a cop or something, " Prince told Jennings. "But when he started rapping, people freaked out."
Before Snow was able to mature as a rap performer, however, his violent life would cause a temporary setback. In 1989, when Snow was only 19, he had been involved in a knife fight, an entanglement which, several years later, sent the rapper to the Metro Toronto East Detention Center on charges of attempted murder. Although it was eight months before Snow was acquitted of all charges, he kept himself busy with his music. Fueled by the experience of his incarceration, Snow penned the song "Informer" and shared it with his fellow inmates, winning their admiration. "That gave me courage," Snow told Jennings. AI knew that if I could rock that crowd, I could rock any crowd."
Before being sentenced to jail, Snow had been introduced by Prince to New York rapper MC Shan, who saw potential in the Canadian and arranged for a meeting with producers David Eng and Steve Salem. The duo quickly committed several tracks to record and test-marketed the track "Lonely Monday Morning" on the EastWest label. Satisfied with the results, Snow's new managers opted to release "Informer" as a single in 1993, when the singer himself was still serving time, but they could not have anticipated its wildfire popularity. Despite the fact that many listeners could not unscramble Snow's rocket-paced patois delivery, which was actually accompanied by subtitles in its video, the song sold at an alarming rate. "It's irresistible, it's incomprehensible, and it's a Number One hit," wrote Greg Sandow in Entertainment Weekly. "We're talking about 'Informer,' a happily propulsive little tune that has to be the most likely smash in years."
After "Informer" dominated the top position on sales charts in the United States and Canada for seven weeks- a record matched in Canada only by rocker Bryan Adams-Snow's debut album 12 Inches of Snow was released. The record featured twelve new songs which explored rhythm and blues and traditional rap along with dance hall reggae, all of them composed by Snow. While the album's sales were on par with the single, much of the impetus came from the buzz of "Informer" alone. When Snow's follow-up single "Girl, I've Been Hurt," a slow tempo ballad, failed to generate the same interest as its predecessor, Snow was burdened with the pressure of proving he was more than a novelty act and comparisons with Vanilla Ice were flung from all quarters.
While Snow's stay in the limelight was relatively short-lived, his visibility did spark greater interest in his often overlooked genre of music, as well as Canadian artists in general. "The success of Snow has not started any stampede to sign white or black dance hall rappers," wrote Daniel Cauldeiron in Billboard, "but the media waves he's set off may yet draw attention to the nation's eager ragga, ruffneck, and yardie [all styles of reggae] wannabes." Besides Jamaican acts Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton, few proponents of dance hall reggae had made it into the mainstream, and unlike these two, none of Snows notoriety came from the deplorable advocating of anti-gay violence.
After leaving EastWest for Elektra, Snow released the albums Murder Love in 1995 Justuss in 1997. As the gap in time between records suggests, Snow had become more meticulous in his production-Justuss was created in Jamaica and Toronto over a period of seven months with three different engineers. In addition, his vocal delivery had grown smoother, and despite his continuing friction with Canadian law, his lyrics took on positive political and social subjects. Spurred by his initial success and the birth of his daughter Justuss in April of 1996, after whom the album is named, Snow made it a point to shed his destructive life of violence and excessive drinking. "Having this success has really opened my mind to the possibilities in life and places which have changed the way I go through this life," Snow mused in an online article. "I reflect that in my music and the way I live now."
Sadly enough, Snow's growth as a person was not paralleled by new fertility as a songwriter. Aside from his new lyrical themes, Snow's second and third albums left both critics and listeners cold, and their rather forgettable songs generated only minor hits. To make matters worse, Snow was sued by his former friend Prince in 1997. Claiming that he had not been compensated for his role in the success of 12 Inches of Snow, including song writing credits, Prince was awarded the sum of one and a half million dollars by a New York jury. Perhaps fearing that Snow might quickly loose any credibility, Elektra released a surprisingly premature greatest hits package that year, despite Snow's obvious dearth of actual hits. Nevertheless, as many careers have made clear, the 28 year old Snow may see yet another turn for the better.
by Shaun Frentner
Began rapping in the dance hall reggae style at basement parties in the late 1980s in his predominately West Indian neighborhood; signed to Atlantic subsidiary EastWest and released debut single "Informer" and album 12 Inches of Snow, 1993; began first live tour, 1993; released the disappointing follow-up album, Murder Love, 1995; sued by ex- partner DJ (Martin) Prince for alleged breach of an oral contract, 1997; released both Justuss and Greatest Hits, 1997.
Platinum certification for "Informer" and 12 Inches of Snow, 1993.
- Selected discography
- 12 Inches of Snow , Atlantic, 1993.
- Murder Love , Elektra/Asylum, 1995.
- Justuss , Elektra/Asylum, 1997.
- Greatest Hits , Elektra/Asylum, 1997.
- Billboard, August 21, 1993, June 28, 1997.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1993.
- Maclean's, May 3, 1993.
- People Weekly, April 10, 1993.
- Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993.