The future is now for Randall Thorne. The Calgary born, Toronto raised, veteran music video director, professionally known as R.T., is the creator of this new young adult sci-fi drama currently streaming on Hulu and CBC Gem. Utopia Falls is the first-ever science fiction hip hop series.
“I wanted to see the culture I grew up with, people who looked like me, as leaders, as heroes in their own story in the future. Show a story about culture being rediscovered, art and music and how it can move people, so, that’s where it came from.”
You show a lot of love for hip hop.
“Hip hop is deep in my blood. It’s the culture I grew up with, especially in my teenage years. I really got exposed to it when I went down and spent a lot of time in my early years with my cousins in New York… it was really the Mecca of hip hop.”
You’ve tagged Dream Warriors recently in your social media posts.
“Shout out to Dream Warriors, Canadian talent!”
Giving props to Canadian talent, that’s important to you.
“Coming up at that age and taking in Canadian hip hop, Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, you know, the pioneers and Dream Warriors were in there and I just remember seeing their videos early on, on MuchMusic and being like, “who are these guys!? They just came with a totally different style. And again, it just opens your mind, when you see things you haven’t seen before. When you hear music that you haven’t heard before. It opens up your mind and allows you the space to imagine yourself differently. So, yeah, I shout that out a lot because I love their name, I love what they stood for and I feel like, as a Black artist, you have to be a dream warrior. You gotta fight for what you see and what you hope you can inspire other people to be, because there’s not a lot of help for us out there. In fact, there’s a lot of doors that can close on you. So you gotta be a warrior and fight for your own dreams.”
Was it a fight to make this dream of Utopia Falls a reality?
“It’s always a fight to create something that people haven’t seen before. A lot of times, marketplaces, film and television, music and all of this, they really Iike to lean on what they have seen before and they try to replicate that same success. So, when you come with a very original idea, especially one not of the mainstream culture, it’s a tough sell. Because, unfortunately, still, predominantly the people that are funding a lot of entertainment are of a mainstream culture, they are not the Black people, they are not the Brown people, and you know, it’s tough to, sort of convince them and to educate them as to the power and the value of your culture. I’ll say this for Utopia, it’s a show that could only really be made in the past five years with this, you know, grand expansion of streaming services. It was a godsend for an idea like this. If we had gone to a standard, (normal) network, with this idea, it just would have been turned down right away, because they wouldn’t think something like this would sell.
But the streaming companies are very interested in niche programming. You see when you go on your Netflix or you go on your Hulu, or your CBC Gem, you’ll see a documentary on, like, bubble gum (laugh) as a category. That means that there are enough people all over the world, who are interested in that particular thing, that they would make them, so, that’s a wonderful thing and we were able to sell it to streamers but we went to many places and got turned down, so, it was definitely a challenge.”
Somebody’s scrolling through the menu on a streaming site and they see your show, what would the show synopsis say?
“It’s the first-ever science fiction hip hop and it’s about the rediscovery of a lost culture, history, art and music and how that comes to change the world in the future.”
Where does your drive to succeed and create come from?
“It definitely comes from my mother, first and foremost. My mom raised me and my brother on her own. When we got to Toronto, she showed us the power of incredibly hard work and education. Whether we had homework or not, my mom would have us doing book reports. She would have us analyze the media and write, learn to express ourselves, so, that was something. What was great about her is that she always supported us. I was a little artist back in the day. I’d draw little comic books, and she’s like, “that’s good, that’s cool, I’m happy that you’re doing that but you’re also going to learn how to analyze, you’re going to learn to read between the lines and you’re going to write me reports on that stuff. So, from that get-go, from that base, I always understood the power of knowledge and really knowing that there’s another layer to what I’m living. I’m living a life but there are other things that are going on that we have to pay attention to.
I grew up with a powerful Black woman as my mom so, I want to reflect that in my work. I think Black women are the most powerful women in the world cause, but they end up being overlooked in nearly every aspect of life. But they still surround you with love, sometimes tough love, but they’re preparing you for the world. In Utopia Falls, Gaiah is the founder of New Babel, the city in Utopia Falls and she’s a Black woman, she’s the one that leads them out of the darkness.”
R.T.’s work ethic and insatiable curiosity led him out of the haze of young adulthood and into an enviable position in the world of music videos, but the road was far from smooth. First, he tried his hand as an animation artist in the early 2000s but R.T. left Sheridan College months into his first year at the Toronto technical school. He then attended Ryerson University’s Television and Film program in Toronto. However, it was while working at MuchMusic that he got the hands-on experience (borrowing cameras, shooting music videos and learning the latest editing systems on weekends) that would help make him one of Canada’s most sought after music video directors.
What do you think will happen to Hip hop music in the future?
“Hip hop is probably at its peak power right now in the world. It’s for sure the pre-eminent pop culture influence in the world. Everything is hip hop all over the world, the biggest stadiums are sold out all over the world in every country. Completely different languages, people don’t care, they love the music. I think it’s because, it’s truly an art form that is about giving voice to the voiceless.
I would say the only time hip hop will probably slide is maybe when the whole world is wealthy (laugh) and nobody has any problems(laugh)! And that ain’t gonna happen(big laugh)!
I can’t tell you where I think it’s going to go, I just think that it’s going to continue and it’s going to evolve. I’ll say this for hip hop, it’s also an art form that takes what came before it, integrates it, remixes it and then keeps evolving.”
I’m gonna put you on the spot! Name your Top 3 MCs.
“Alright, my top 3, in no particular order, MCs… Oh, man…, Oh, man… ooohhh, top 3… How about this, my top 3 influential artists, artists who had an influence on me. OK, Jay Z, Common (exhales) it might be Lauren Hill.”
The show has some superstar hip hop talent behind the scenes. Drake producer Boi-1da oversaw the music, mixing in his own original music alongside tracks from Kendrick Lamar, Notorious B.I.G and others. The dance scenes were directed by Tanisha Scott (Hotline Bling) and Snoop Dogg is the voice of The Archive”, who educates the characters about their lost history.
What’s the ultimate hope for your series, Utopia Falls?
"The most important thing for me is that it inspires the next generation of writers, the next generation of directors, the next generation of actors, to see themselves in places that we haven’t really been able to see ourselves and know that it’s possible to do this. So I’m hoping somebody will watch it and is like, 'This ain’t hip hop enough! I need to make the street version of this.' Great, like, now I want to see that. Get out there and write, create, produce!"
Rosey Edeh spent a decade (2005-2015) bringing the latest entertainment and pop culture news to the masses as a senior reporter on Global TV’s ET Canada. Building on her vast experience as a news anchor and TV personality as seen on CNN, MSNBC and Global News, Rosey has founded an award-winning production company, Micha Muse Media Inc. Movies, plays, art exhibits, good books and all things track and field get this journalist, filmmaker and three-time Olympian excited for life. Human connection, struggle and triumph, maintain Rosey’s mission to tell meaningful and even entertaining stories that hopefully offer readers insight, depth and even a little levity. Twitter: @roseyedeh