With a career that spans over two decades, Kardinal Offshall has played a critical role in the development of hip-hop culture, and overall, Toronto’s music scene in general. Long before the city was known as “cool” by our neighbours, and way before Drake ever stepped foot on the Degrassi film set, Kardi was holding the country on his back.
Starting in 1997 with Eye and I, Kardinal has clashed the good vibes of the Caribbean with those of the then-known “Screwface Capital” artistry to create a unique sound that has stuck with his music up until now. A few years later, Kardi was featured on The Rascalz single “Northern Touch,” which has become the cornerstone of Canadian rap music for many. Fast-forward to 2001, and Kardi released his own Toronto staples with “BaKardi Slang” and “Ol’ Time Killin” featured on his Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1 album, followed by “Everyday (Rudebwoy)” off Fire and Glory in 2005. You can easily play any one of these songs today, and you’ll have an entire venue singing along like magic. In 2008, Kardi broke ground by signing with Akon’s KonLive label (after declining a deal from Jay Z’s Roc-La-Familia), and ended up recording the first Canadian hip-hop single (“Dangerous) to reach the Billboard Hot 100 list. Yes, it took us that long. 4 years later, and Kardinal – now deemed “Mr. International”, re-introduced himself with the Nottz-produced album Allow Me To Re-Introduce Myself, and followed that up with securing a position at Universal Music Canada as Creative Executive Director of A&R.
Now in 2015, the Toronto vet is back – but this time with Kardi Gras Vol 1: The Clash, an album that takes bits and pieces from around the world to create an international sonic experience. There’s something familiar about this album that feels like Toronto – somewhere between the cultural experiences we share, the language we use, and our ability to mix our political thoughts with social expressions, Kardinal Offishall introduces listeners to a city where ‘The Clash’ is more than a sound – but a lifestyle. In this all-telling interview, which happened over a 30-minute phone call, the Canadian veteran took a moment to speak about his new album, as well as who he is behind the mic, how we can bridge generational gaps, how (and why) cussing captivates our attention, and whether or not Toronto has a regional sound.
You open up Kardi Gras, Vol. 1 with an extremely strong, poignant song that addresses socio-political issues disguised in some super fun production. What made you choose “Hope” to open up your album and reintroduce yourself to music after three years?
Ironically, I’m not really a light hearted guy. I think the whole project itself kinda represents a lot of where I am in life. There’s a clash of ideals, a clash of priorities, [and] just a lot of pulling of two different worlds that exist within my life. I’m at this stage in my career and in life where I kinda got to, not always but for the most part, I gotta draw a line in the sand and pick a side. “Hope” is the perfect way to open it up, because I want people’s mind-state to be in a certain place from song one. Even though I feel that you’re gonna get a good balance of… for lack of a better description, ‘party songs’ versus songs that have a little more content and that are a little more heavy. “Hope” was a such big song. Stephan Moccio, who people [may] know him recently for having done a bunch of stuff with The Weeknd or he co-produced and wrote “Wrecking Ball” for Miley [Cyrus], a bunch of different stuff. I met him years ago when we all took part in the “Waving Flag” remix for K’Naan, and I met him at a studio out in the West coast, and we really just clicked ever since then. This joint… I think he said there was 80 people from the Toronto Symphonic Orchestra [who recorded it]. That beat for “Hope” happened after a Celine Dion session, where I guess it finished mad early and had however many hours left. If you know anything about orchestra sessions, they’re like, ignorant money – literally can be $100K a day, so that music is what he did at the end of a Celine session. He played it one time for me when he used to live in Toronto – he’s in L.A. now, but he played it for me and I literally got chills, it was so crazy. He was like “Kardi, just take it. Make it into your thing.” That song took about two years to do to be honest, because I wrote it, re-wrote, re-wrote again and re-wrote again. The last time when Obama won, literally on election night, I was on a flight to Beirut, and that’s when I actually wrote the song. Those lyrics from that flight, that terrible Luthuansa flight, those stuck.
That’s crazy, I definitely didn’t expect that to be the answer – or to know how much went into producing “Hope.” Speaking of production, who did you work on for this?
[At this point, Kardi starts looking through his phone, jokingly saying it’s so that he doesn’t forget anyone.] “Hope” was me and Stephan, “Baby, It’s You” was me, “OG” was me… “No Reason” was a kid named Hero from Calgary, “Too Kill A Shadow” was me, “COD” was me, “Real Life Gangsta” was a kid from here named Superville – I think Superville is a part of Beat Academy if I’m not mistaken. Me and Superville work together, and I kinda very loosely manage him. “Always Carnival Time” is me, “Insert Here” is Agile… “One Dream Away” is Ace [Harris], who’s part of a production duo out of Atlanta that used to be called the Hypnotics, that then was called PK OneDay, then they split up and now Ace works with Sak Pase. They’ve produced for everybody. He’s a friend of mind kinda through the Rock City connection. When I go to Atlanta, I record a lot at Tree Sounds, and theres kind of a little organic family network that we have, so he produced “One Dream Away”. “Naked Truth” is me, “Sunshine” is Supa Dups from M3 Entertainment, “That Chick Right There” is Haze, who’s signed to Akon. “Do Dat Dance” is Hero again, and “I’m Just a Man” and “Tattoo” are me.
It’s interesting that you handled a bulk of the production, because there are moments that it sounds like home, even though Kardi Gras touches upon so many genres, deliveries, and musical flavours. Take for instance “Always Carnival Time” and “Insert Here” being back to back – one introduces you to our summers, and one introduces you to our winters. To you, is there a thing as a Toronto sound, and do you think we have one?
It’s interesting. The other day – and it’s no shot to The Source or XXL or whatever, but those rap pages used to be my go-to to get a read as to what’s going on in the culture. This was back in the day, obviously. Now I’m a pretty big [on] Juan Epstein, Combat Jack, maybe a couple of others… I’m a podcast guy. I can listen to it on the go, and I can just listen and see what’s going on. The other day, there was a conversation about sub-genres. Erick Sermon was talking about how hip-hop is one of the only genre of music that doesn’t have little sub-genres, like how rock would have alternative, rock-heavy, metal, hard-rock, etc. The discussion of the Toronto sound is interesting. From the days of like… the easiest ones to pinpoint like Maestro, Dream Warriors, Michie and all of them, and then the indie era with the G-Knights, the Ghetto Concepts, The Saukrates, the Choclairs, Frankenstein, Thrust, there was that kind of indie era. Then there was… I don’t know what you would call it – from 2001 when I dropped Fire Starter, for a good number of years, I don’t know if there was really an era perse, like an easily identifiable time. After that, I guess the most obvious one was post-“Dangerous.” After that, in terms of hip-hop, that’s when Drake dropped and Boi-1da and 40 kinda cultivated that newer Toronto sound. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a sound that is indicative of an entire city, because we’re a city with so many different cultures and backgrounds, so that you’re always going to have a variety of sounds. I think what happened now is that because of the mainstream success, there is this “Toronto Sound” that people identity as having music where the instrumentals are crossed over, and can kind of be – well it used to be anyway, described as kind of ’emo’. So we had that sound that everybody calls the “Toronto Sound”. Now, when I make my music, I don’t think it can even be identified as a Toronto sound unless you live in Toronto. If you’re in Toronto, there are vibes that are going to resonate with you where you’re like “Oh yeah, that feels like home” because you know home. But if you’re outside of the city, you may not realize it’s a very Toronto-inspired piece of music that you’re listening to.
It’s weird because we’re in such a transitional time, not just even within the city but within music. A lot of different ways that you could describe music or what was happening in music a year or two ago is now all over the place. I think when I did it [recording], I wasn’t really thinking about the city as much as I was thinking about emotionally what I was feeling. “Always Carnival Time,” was literally [created when] I was talking to my boy from Atlanta, but he’s here all the time, and I was talking about going to Trinidad for Carnival. And he was like “My n-gga, it’s always Carnival time.” I was like, ‘you may be on to something.’ I literally just took that vibe and we built the riddim one time, and we were just vibing in the studio. Myself, Quinn Marie and Joe, we were just vibin’. When I made this joint, I just wrote the joint, but initially, I was like, I either need Kes the Band, Machel Montano or Bunjii [Garlin] on the joint. Me and Kes is cool, but Bunjii actually helped the Kes connection and solidify it. The funny thing is that people don’t even know there’s two people on the song. Some people listen and they’re like “Yo, I can’t tell who’s on the joint.” And that just makes it that much doper. For whatever reason, we just caught the same vibe when we went in that booth, and I think that’s part of what makes that song magic.
When describing Toronto’s sonic history, you just named a lot of names that the younger generation doesn’t know at all. At this point of your career, you’ve been working for more or less two decades, and an entirely new generation of hip-hop fans are here. Was putting songs like “No Reason” or “Real Live Gangsta,” which both closely mimic the current trap-rap movement, strategic?
You know what, inadvertently yes. There’s an interesting psyche that exists within a lot of my young G’s that I talk to, rock out with, and might go to a club on a blue moon with. I don’t want to generalize, but there’s a real ‘I don’t care and I have a total disregard for legacy, codes and I guess in essence rules’ that the younger generation has coming up. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a lot of cats from the older generation who are bitter and turned them off. I can see that because it definitely turned me off when the older heads would be bitter instead of being able to communicate respectfully – whether you’re talking to people younger or talking to people older. I think that’s just a talent that not a lot of artists posses or people within the artistic community [posses]. It doesn’t matter who we are, I think we’re very elitist, and whatever we represent, we think that it’s the best and that our way is the best. One time I was in the studio with one of my young cats, and he said to me, “Kardi, you make intelligent, education shit sound so hardcore when you’re ready. But I don’t be listening to that shit. A lot of times people be dropping some science. Nah son, I just turn that shit off. But sometimes you be saying some shit, and you say it in a way to where I want to listen or I need to listen.” I took that in. For me, that’s not really what I was trying to accomplish, it’s just that whenever I get into a certain vibe or energy, it’s all encompassing. I want to make sure that the song is polarizing.
I would hope that a song could be the bridge between some of the younger cats and cats that went before them. It wasn’t the intent, but at the same time I think it’s dope. A song like “No Reason” is interesting. One of the first times I played it, Megaman was in the studio when Haley [Smalls] went to drop her hook on one of the joints, and he was wylin’! He was like “Yo son, this beat is CRAZY.” I don’t think he listened to anything that I said in the song, he was just wylin’ out. But then somebody else in the studio… ’cause we were all listening at the same time, they were wylin’ out in the same way but he was like, “Son, when people hear what you’re actually saying?!” And I was like “No doubt.” And then Mega listened and was like, “Okaaaay.” That’s the type of response that I love. I don’t like to just slap people in the face all the time, sometimes I like when a song has layers and you get to have several different gifts. It’s like one of those Ukrainian eggs where you open it up there’s a smaller one inside, and then a smaller one inside and so on and so forth. That’s how I sometimes like songs to be.
I think you definitely accomplished bridging a bit of that gap through “No Reason,” and being someone who sometimes finds themselves caught between respecting the older generation and enjoying the new rap movement, it definitely holds weight…
It’s funny, that’s how I feel. You have to understand, I’m somewhere in-between like… the people who I looked up to was like Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Outkast… all those people. I came up really idolizing superstars like Lauryn Hill, The Fugees, all that. All the rappers that I loved were true superstars, meaning it’s not just that they had crazy joints, but they came from an era where everything had to be in tact. In-between that was me, and then the younger generation on the come up now are the J. Coles, the Drakes, the Kendricks and so-forth. I kinda feel in a way in-between the newer guys and the older guys that I respected, so I kinda relate to what you’re talking about a lot of times. Lyrically for me, the funny thing is that there’s not very many things that I shy away from. I think the only reason I started to tackle those joints is that people were like “Yo Kardi, you would sound crazy on whatever whatever joint,” so I was just like, ‘Aight cool, let me just knock that out on the album.’
The discussion of the “N-Word” has been beaten with a dead horse in music and the media, but you make it a point to juxtapose your feelings towards the word on “Hope” with the parody of “No Reason.”
It just goes back to the clash. I’ve always been somebody who dwelled in the side of being pro-double standard. Without going into it too tuff, the easiest way to describe it for me is if within your family, your mom or dad has a name [for you] that could be offensive outside of the family. So, say they call you a term of endearment like “Doo Doo” or something that’s hilarious within your family or works in your family, but is not necessarily something that you’d want a stranger on the street or somebody that didn’t know you calling you that. I think that’s the same way that I look at the use of ‘n-gga.’ Using it amongst other black folk, people are like ‘Oh that’s a double standard!’ – [well] yes it is, and I think it’s one that we are allowed to have. Two days ago I was at a Freddie Gibbs concert out in Vancouver, because I was out there for WeDay, and you know, he’s no stranger to the word. So I’m rockin’ and watching him do his show, but them I’m like, ‘Yo…’ because the DJ kept dropping out the music and the crowd was reciting his lyrics back. One of my white friends were like “Um… yeah… there’s a whole lot of n-bombs being dropped by the crowd right now.” If that was me, I don’t know how I would feel about it. It’s something that I would address. A lot of times, artists will rock and to them it’s whatever, but to me, everything that I say and everything that I do stems from some place. It’s a very important subject, but it grows into bigger subjects because all the craziness that has been happening within the media and stuff. A lot of times what will happen is that you’ll have the ‘slave master’ turn around and blame ‘the slave’ if you will. What I’ll see a lot in the media is that with all the racial tension, they’lll [say] “Look what happens within hip-hop, all they do is use the n-word and blah blah blah.” That’s why with “No Reason,” I said ‘Maybe you listened, but maybe you didn’t. It really doesn’t matter, it’s your decision my n-gga / All I wanna do is get through to my n-ggas, who will only pay attention when they hear me saying n-gga.’ Literally, that’s why I put that in the third verse and it was intentional. Even with the beginning of the song I say, ‘The following song contains mothafuckin’ bad words just so you listen.’ All of that stuff was intentional because it’s like, unless you have some type ignorant shit in your music, people are not gonna listen. That’s why one of my favorite lines ever in hip-hop is when Lauryn Hill said, “I add a mothafucker so you ignorant n-ggas hear me.” Sometimes in order to speak to people that you want to get to, you can’t speak from the position of preaching at them or talking down to them. Also, you can’t preach to the choir, so I think the people I’m trying to convert or the people who I’d love to have their ears perk up those people who I think would benefit most from the lyrics, and sometimes you have to speak the language of those you most want to benefit.
There’s a very big microscope on the city that hasn’t necessarily always been there with your previous albums, so if there’s something that you’d want a new audience – specifically an American or European audience to take away form your music about Toronto, what would it be?
Oh man, that’s a very good question. I don’t know if I have any expectations. From a strictly selfish, personal, artistic POV, I think I’d love for people to understand that, you know, from Day 1 pretty much, the first song that I had that really did well across the country and started to penetrate the borders was “On Wid Da Show.” And “On Wid Da Show” was just a precursor for “Dangerous.” I always had what we would call ‘club joints’ or ‘party joints,’ but I think if people listen to the actual entire album, they would understand that… if music is to be a true reflection of who you are, I’m a person with a lot of layers, I’m a person who has a lot of things going on in his life or on his mind. Even on those days where you see the “Baby It’s You” video where we’re just wylin’ out and having the most fun in the Dominican, there are days like “Insert Here” where literally, it feels like the weight of the world has my neck pined down the streets. When Agile sent me that music, I wrote that song right away. Twenty minutes in, I just wrote what I felt. To be honest, I was a little bit depressed for a while. With all the stuff going on with the police and the murders that were taking place within the black community, there became a big conflict – well, there was always conflict, but the media started taking note of the conflict between police and people of colour. Then there was the internal struggle that we were having in terms of black on black violence which is a whole other conversation in itself, but all those things lead me to do “Insert Here.” But I think for Kardi Gras, I just want for people to understand the artistic possibilities that exists within me, but also within hip-hop. I think the best example is like, if you want change to happen, you gotta be the one that starts with yourself. I think with me, it’s about showing people that you can still have joints that destroy subwoffers all around the world, but at the same time, you can still be saying something. A lot of times when I hear people and I hear these joints, I listen and I’m like, ‘Imagine if they were actually saying something.’ And I’m not saying that they gotta preach, but imagine that they were actually saying something and there was an actual takeaway at the end of the song, and how much more powerful hip-hop could be. That’s what I would love for people to take away from this clash is… to have a few of those things on their mind after they listen to the album.
With all that being said, what are your hopes for Toronto’s sonic future?
It may be offensive, but it is what it is, sometimes you gotta say it… I hope that we get back to, in terms of hip-hop anyway, I hope we get back to a time where creatively we can be unique and we can have a lot more artists that are themselves, and don’t feel like because.. it doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s me, whether it’s Drake, whether it’s Alessia Cara, whoever, that somebody else’s success and popularity doesn’t mean that we have to emulate what it is that they sound like sonically. I would love for [artists to take chances] the same way that Drake took a chance – because remember when he really first started poppin’, he started to really embraced the whole rapping-singing, and delivering a lot of emotions in what he was doing, and that was a rare thing at the time, know what I’m sayin? That’s why I think people were easily able to identify him because he was existing in contrast to what was going on already, and he found his own thing and he went with it. I hope we have more artists that come out from the city that are so unique that when their music comes out, people are like “What the fuck is that?” That’s what I’ve always wanted, and not just within our own city but in hip-hop in general, but I think because we’re responsible for so much poppin’ stuff right now, I just hope that a lot of the young kids coming up will just be okay with being themselves, even if people don’t accept it at first. I keep telling people that you gotta understand everybody, no matter who you are at some point [get critiqued]. Think about somebody like Jay Z – Jay was turned down by every single record label before him and Dame just did it themselves, know what I’m saying? I remember I used to talk to Drake before he connected with Wayne and all that, and there were people who didn’t believe in him at those times. Once kids understand that it’s cool for you to be yourself and be unique and be different, like, that kind of stuff excites me. When I hear stuff that I’m like ‘Yo, what is that?’, [that’s] just some dope stuff. Shoutout to people like Jahkoy and others who are coming up, who are really just being themselves and not emulating what’s already out there, but making a lane for themselves. That’s what I hope for the city, but [also] for the genre in general.
While this is Vol. 1, Kardi goes on to give us a few details about Kardi Gras Vol. 2
Vol. 2 is going to be all produced by Nottz, so the next volume is going to be very different from Vol. 1. I think it’s gonna be 90% content driven. We’re going to get an album of straight lyricism and there’s gonna be some heavy content on there, so I hope this album really sets up for me to really get into some shit for Vol. 2. I want it to come out like end of winter if possible, so maybe All-Star or just after All-Star… maybe March Break, I don’t know, but the earlier part of 2016.
Kardi Gras Vol. 1: The Clash comes out tomorrow, and you can purchase it/pre-order here. Also check out the full track list, with features, below.
1. Hope ft. Merna (Prod. Kardinal Offishall & Stephan Moccio)
2. Baby It’s You (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
3. OG ft. Assassin (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
4. No Reason (Prod. Hero)
5. To Kill A Shadow ft. Mae (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
6. COD (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
7. Real Live Gangsta ft. Junior Reid (Prod. Superville)
8. Always Carnival Time ft. Kes The Band & Queen Marie (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
9. Insert Here ft. Haley Smalls (Prod. Agile)
10. One Dream Away ft. Stephen Marley (Prod. Ace Harris)
11. Naked Truth ft. Glenn Lewis (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
12. Sunshine ft. JRDN (Prod. Supa Dups)
13. That Chick Right There ft. Chase (Prod. Haze)
14. Do Dat Dance (Prod. Hero)
15. Just A Man ft. Allan Rayman (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)
16. Tattoo (Prod. Kardinal Offishall)