Can you name the artist who beat out Drake for a Juno award, which is Canada’s version of a Grammy, scored the ultra rare perfect ten rating from RapReviews on one of his albums, and toured the US with k-os? This incredible list of accomplishments belongs to Shad, the London, Ontario, emcee who some in hip-hop consider to be one of the best there is on the mic. Much of his work, however, hasn’t managed to cross the border, so while he’s racking up the accolades in his home country, America has been missing out on one of hip-hop’s top talents. That may be changing soon, though, as the Juno win, and a recent collaboration with synth pop singer Lights, has put him on America’s radar. This week RapReviews caught up with Shad (who has one of the strangest Wikipedia pictures ever) to find out more about that collaboration, as well as which album of his he’d like new fans to pick up first, and the intricacies of the relationship between Canadian hip-hop artists and the American hip-hop scene.
Adam Bernard: I want to start by discussing “Everybody Breaks A Glass,” the song you just did with Lights. Lights is an artist I love, but wouldn’t expect to be working with an emcee. How did this collaboration come to be?
Shad: We’ve kind of known each other for a while, just in music in Canada, and so we’ve been in touch and she dropped me a line when she was working on this album and was like I’d like to do something if you’re into it. She’s so talented and such a sweet girl I was like yeah, for sure, throw me whatever you’re working on. I put some things down and she was into em. That’s pretty much how that came to be and I hope this album goes well for her. I know it’s kind of a departure, hopefully the fans can feel her out.
AB: That song features a pretty tough beat. Was it a fun one to write to?
S: Yeah. I think when I do collaborations with people that’s kind of what I prefer, to do something that’s not what I would usually do. That’s part of the fun of working with somebody else, so that’s always cool for me, when somebody pitches something that’s totally different.
AB: Keeping with the theme of the unexpected, what about you do you feel is unexpected, either musically, or personally?
S: That’s a good question. I don’t know, actually. I think… actually, not that much, really. I think my musical persona, if you want to call it that, is pretty closely tied to who I am on a daily basis, so I don’t think there’s too much surprise for either people who know my music first and then meet me, or people who meet me and then hear my music. I don’t think they’re ever terribly surprised one way or another.
AB: So there’s basically a complete and total honesty with everything you do.
S: I don’t think anyone can have compete and total honesty, but I think (both aspects of me) are pretty closely related. I think some people, when they start making music, music brings a side of their personality out that’s something different, so maybe their musical moniker will be something different because different aspects of who they are is what comes out. But me, when I started rapping when I was 14 or 15, freestyling, I would refer to myself as Shad. That’s my name, that’s what came out naturally, so I’d say it was less an aspect of my personality and more of a bit of a spin on who I am, a more entertaining version, or something like that. That’s always been natural for me.
AB: You mentioned when you started rhyming, and you’re certainly not a newcomer, having released albums in 2005 (When This is Over), 2007 (The Old Prince), and 2010 (TSOL), but do you think you’re just now finding a new audience in the US, and does that almost make you feel like a rookie again?
S: I actually don’t know what’s going on in the States. I don’t know if anybody is aware of me down there, but I think in a way I always feel like a rookie. Before every show I’m like I don’t know if this is gonna go well, I hope it goes well. I just feel like I still learn so much and I still have so much I can improve on that I think I always feel like a rookie.
AB: You say you don’t know what’s going on in the States, but didn’t you just do the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival?
S: Yes, I just played that show and did another festival in Seattle, but unless you’re on the ground I find you don’t really have a sense of where you’re at in terms of how well you’re known, or where you’re known, in what sort of scene, in what kind of musical community, so it’s really hard for me to say.
AB: With that idea of sort of being unknown in mind, you have a large catalogue of music, where would you want a new fan to start in terms of your work?
S: Probably my latest music. I’d say start there. The latest music is closest to where I’m at and hopefully closest to the best I’ve been, so I’d say start there and if you’re still interested you can keep going backwards all the way back to my earlier stuff.
AB: You made a crazy creative video for the song “Rose Garden.” First of all, where’d you find those teal kicks?
S: I got those in Victoria, which is a town on Vancouver Island. I didn’t know what it was about them, I’m like I gotta cop these, I don’t know if I’ll ever gonna be able to wear them in public, but I gotta cop em.
AB: When you went to do the video what did you have in mind?
S: The directors, and I worked with them on a few videos, we were like we have no money so let’s do something cheap. Let’s try and do something backwards, that would be fun. They got a kind of Pharcyde vibe off of the track, so there’s a little bit of an implicit tribute there. Then one of the directors called me tripping out, (saying) “I have this idea, we could do half of it backwards half of it forwards. If we get the timing right we can get certain things to line up and they’ll make sense frontwards and backwards. That will be really wild.” Learning the choreography took a long time, but then we just got it done in one take and spent the rest of our limited budget on burgers.
AB: You did it in one take!?!?
S: Yeah, we had to nail everything in one take and get all the timing right so when it goes frontwards and backwards some of these things made sense. Then we tagged on the little outro part with The Pharcyde shout out.
AB: Speaking of getting things done, you really made waves earlier this year when you beat Drake for a Juno. In the States we all know Drake, he’s a pop star at this point, but was your win as surprising in Canada as it was to those of us in the States?
S: Yeah, for sure. I did not think for a second that I would win. Not for one second. He’s massive. He’s massive in the States, he’s massive in Canada. He’s a giant star, he’s super hard working and he’s achieved some great things. Especially at an awards like the Junos, which is like our Grammys, so really what it celebrates is the music and also the industry around the music and what people achieve creatively, as well as I feel like in terms of getting the music out there and that whole business behind it. All that made it even more surprising.
AB: How has Drake’s crossover success helped, or hurt, the overall hip-hop scene in Canada, or has it had no effect on it at all?
S: I think it’s helped it. I think a lot of artists in Canada will try and downplay that, or maybe they just don’t see it, but I think it’s actually been huge. It’s gotten fans, at least I know in Canada, really excited about Canadian hip-hop again and really just made people consider hip-hop artists from Canada a little bit differently, so it’s not like a separate class of artists, you can like hip-hop from anywhere, it’s totally fine. If you like it you like it, you don’t have to second guess your own opinions, or qualify your statements about what hip-hop artists you like, “this is my favorite hip-hop artist from here, or there.” If you’re into it you’re into it. So I think it’s definitely had a positive impact on my career and I think a lot of artists’ careers, even if they maybe don’t see it or maybe don’t want to acknowledge it.
AB: You know what would help big time, if they gave the people in the States MuchMusic back.
S: Did you guys used to have it? That’s dope.
AB: We had it for a few years in the mid to late 90s, but then it was taken away from us. Speaking of watching things, recently I checked out the documentary Love, Props and the T.Dot and I noticed a fascinating internal issue of Canadian artists wanting to be better than their US counterparts, but also defining a lot of their success by US standards, i.e. signing a deal with a US label, or getting a video on BET. Do you find that US acceptance is still an important aspect of what you do, or are those days over?
S: It still matters a lot. I think it matters for two reasons. Just on a personal level, everybody in Canada grows up with, yes Canadian music, but still so much American music and American influences. We love American music and culture just like everybody else in the world does, so I think there’s that aspect of it just on a personal level, you want to be received by your heroes and by the culture that inspired you. I think that’s there on one level. Secondly, on just a purely pragmatic level, music that blows up on the States gets broadcast to the rest of the world. On a practical level that is pretty important, but I think it’s become less important. I think Canada’s become a lot more proud of its music scene, not just in hip-hop, but outside of hip-hop I think we have a lot of music to be proud of. I think that’s become a bigger thing. What you probably saw picked up in that documentary, too, is very Toronto specific. Toronto is different from the rest of Canada. It’s the biggest city. It feels a lot more like the States and artists oftentimes have more personal connections with the States. Maestro explained to me that when a lot of the Jamaicans immigrated to Toronto in the 70s it was sort of by chance. You either landed in New York or you landed in Toronto, so a lot of them had family in the States and so there was that connection there that made the US-Canada thing a lot closer. If you spoke with a rapper from Winnipeg, or maybe even Vancouver, success in the States wouldn’t be as big of a thing. They just don’t feel as closely tied to the States on that family, personal, kind of level. I think it’s still important, but probably a little bit less important.
AB: Toronto’s pretty close to the States. I’ve driven there, and it’s not that awful a drive, plus the Blue Jays’ ace is dating a former Miss USA, so there’s a Toronto-US connection.
S: Our Jays had our heyday. We’re doing OK.
AB: You’re stuck in a pretty rough division right now.
S: We’re in a very rough division, but everyone still has memories of 92 and 93.
AB: Getting back to the music scene, is there a chip on the collective shoulder of Canadian hip-hop artists?
S: I think it’s going away a little bit, but it definitely was there. When I was in high school I got that sense a lot more from Toronto hip-hop especially – why aren’t we acknowledged? Why do we not get the respect not just in the States, but in Canada? Why are we not embraced maybe the way we should be? I think that’s gone away a little bit, but yeah, there’s a history of that being there. I think of an artist like k-os, to me he’s such an incredible artist, and really I do not see any way that he’s not on the same level as like a Mos Def or a Cee-Lo. He’s incredibly musical. He effortlessly pulls off these genre bending expressions. He’s a massive star in Canada, but in the States I toured with him and we were playing 400-500 seat venues and it’s just like how is that possible? So I think it’s there a little bit, but it’s less and less. Canadians are more proud of their music scene, artists are more proud of where they’re from, so I think that’s changing a little bit.
AB: Finally, you mentioned you started rhyming back in high school; is it hard getting ahead in Canada without a Degrassi education?
S: Oh, every kid in Canada has a Degrassi education. It’s mandatory. It’s such a funny show. I remember watching it when I was a kid side by side with Saved By The Bell and Saved By The Bell was just so happy and Degrassi just kept it so real. The actors weren’t even attractive. All the plotlines were about things like abortion and suicide. We all got a Degrassi education.