When you think of hip hop, you probably think of the main players – Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne, maybe Lupe. But rarely do you think of a rapper or emcee from the Canadian scene. Our neighbors to the North can throw down with the best of them in the US and their scene is only growing. Shad started his career after winning a radio competition in Kitchener, Ontario which funded his first album When This is Over. His smart, humorous, and honest lyrics on his 2010 release TSOL wowed over audiences and critics alike, and he toured the US last year with fellow Canadian k-os and this year with Freddie Gibbs. At SXSW Shad saw himself branching over into hip hop showcases with Americans and Canadians alike, cementing himself as a budding player in the scene. We sat down with Shad before his show at the Paradise to talk about the Canadian music scene and his take on hip hop.
Heave: One thing I really like about your lyrics is that you mix super personal lyrics with more socially conscious ones. Do you tend to write from more personal experience or do you draw from more fictitious or outsider experiences?
Shad: I try to root everything in personal experience just because I find that there might be things that I want to talk about that are social issues or whatever but you don’t want to come off like a lecture, you know what I mean? You’ve got to try and root it in at least your own connection to it. Either that or you’ve got to try to have a sense of humor about it. Or else I feel like people kind of shut you out, at least up until a certain point. They kind of have to trust you. So I try to root my stuff into personal experience so I can feel more real and then people can hear you out if you have other things that you feel are really important to say.
Heave: I feel like there’s a division in hip hop now where artists like yourself who are producing smart, clever lyrics and concentrating on more personal experience and then there’s the other side of hip hop, like pop hip hop, that sings about guns and glamor and money. Coming from the former side, did you choose to go that route because it’s more your personality and why do you think others emcees choose the other route?
Shad: I think there’s a lot of factors. I think that on one level there’s like the skills that you have to entertain and engage an audience. For me it’s things that go deeper, it’s things like observation and that’s what I have as my tools, I feel like, to entertain people. Whereas other people maybe have a grasp on something in the nature of people where by they can appeal to other things. But on a real level I think it comes down to a lot about what you grew up with, like your values. You can’t really expect anything more from an 18 year old kid that’s been indoctrinated with certain values, materialism and all that stuff. It goes with the values that you’re taught. Those are the values that we are taught in our society, that that makes you cool and important and et cetera, and if you haven’t been taught any different from any other factors in your life that’s all you’re going to regurgitate, that’s all you’re going to say. So I think it’s pretty complicated and it sucks, because we have a lot of crap music as a result. But I think there’s a lot of blame to pass around. Obviously as artists, we have a responsibility for what we say and for what we do but I think the responsibility goes even deeper. We live in a society where those are the values. You can’t really expect anything else, you get what I mean?
Heave: I read in an interview that you believe more in sharing music than purchasing it, which you also talk about in your song “I Don’t Like To.” Do you think word of mouth has been a better tool for getting your music out there?
Shad: Yeah I mean, it’s really hard to say right? Because I started making music in 2004, 2005 when Napster and everything was already happening. So I’ve never known an industry where you kick back and make money off of album sales, I’ve just never got a chance to know that. I could be a lot richer now maybe, or I could not have a career. I could have never had the doors open because I wouldn’t have needed people to make doors open for me. So I don’t know where I sit. At the same time I feel like it’s healthy for music when people have more access to the means to make new music and people have more means to access new music. It wasn’t healthy the way it was before that where there was five distributors and unless you got access to that machine you couldn’t even make music. There was 60 songs in the world at any given time and that’s not healthy, that’s not a reflection of people all over the place. It’s just not right. So I think it is a healthier time for music. I do think there is something about the value of music and having a value to it. There’s definitely a lot of time and money and effort that goes into making it. And I think also albums have a value to it, I think it inspires people, it inspires their imaginations and gives social value to music that people could be compensating for and I also think that we’ll regret never hearing a lot of epic albums anymore because people don’t have those kind of budgets. That being said, overall this is a lot healthier for music. More people can make music and more people can share music and that’s just healthier for self-expression.
Heave: I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about the Canadian hip hop scene outside you and k-os. Do you have any recommendations of artists in that scene that you really like or you’ve been influenced by or have worked with?
Shad: Uh…there’s a guy that goes by the name of Drake (laughs).
Heave: Yeah I think I’ve heard of him (laughs).
Shad: Yeah yeah. But Drake is dope. There’s a lot of artists in Canada. K’naan, who’s done a lot of stuff internationally, is dope. On the underground that maybe even people in Canada haven’t even heard of, there’s a guy named Adam Bomb that’s absolutely incredible. Shaun Boothe is talented. Those are the artists that really stand out to me. K-os you already know, he’s always the first person I recommend just because you can’t not like his music if you like music.
Heave: Yeah me and my brother both have very different tastes in music and we both like k-os. It’s something we can both agree is really good. I may not like some of his more crazy math rock stuff but when he showed me k-os I really dug him. Do you feel like the scene in Canada is becoming one of its own? I feel like when a lot of people think of hip hop they think of East coast, West coast, maybe now the Midwest because of Kanye.
Shad: I know in Canada there’s a lot of excitement about our hip hop right now just because you know, k-os has been there for a while but we have Drake now and K’naan. I think there’s excitement about what we’ve got going on but we don’t have a sound, we just have a bunch of artists that are doing their thing. Whereas East coast has a sound, West coast has a sound, Midwest has a couple different sounds but they’re still pretty distinct. You can tell an artist from the Midwest kind of, you know. So I don’t know we’ll ever have a scene in that sense of like “Yo, I want to hear that Canadian sound,” we don’t really have a Canadian sound, but I think Canada could be a place where people are like “Yo, I want to hear what’s coming out of Canada because they always seem to have something fresh and different.”