Kardinal Offishall is back

With his fifth album set to drop Friday, the music icon reminisces about paving the way for Canadian hip-hop and R&B artists, working with a young Rihanna on her demo – and speaks to the local industry's ongoing struggle securing homegrown talent


After Maestro Fresh-Wes and Michie Mee gave America their first taste of Canadian urban music in the 80s and 90s, Kardinal Offishall paved the way for more hip-hop and R&B artists from Canada to become visible globally.

Friday’s release of Kardinal’s fifth full-length studio album, KARDI GRAS Vol. 1: The Clash, presents a perfect time to reminisce over these contributions.

After releasing his debut album Eye & I in 1997, Kardinal sang the chorus to The Rascalz’s Canadian hip-hop anthem Northern Touch in 1998 and stole the show in its internationally televised music video by Director X. When Choclair signed to legendary American rap label Priority Records in 1999, his debut single Let’s Ride was produced by Kardinal. And in 2000, Baby Blue Sound Crew’s Money Jane opened the North American door for Jamaica’s Sean Paul to hit top 40 radio, alongside Jully Black and of course, Kardinal Offishall.

Kardinal’s EP Husslin’ achieved cult status amongst American hip hop DJs in 2000, and karma finally came calling with his US major label debut Quest For Fire. 2005‘s Fire and Glory featured collabs with the likes of Busta Rhymes and Estelle, but when he caught the attention of Akon, Kardinal catapulted to entirely new heights.

In 2008, Kardinal made history as the first Canadian hip-hop artist to chart on Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at number five with his multi-platinum single Dangerous featuring Akon. Later that year, Akon’s Kon Live Records released Kardinal’s Not 4 Sale album, with some of America’s biggest urban artists and producers, to give Kardinal and Canadian urban music its biggest platform yet.

We spoke to Kardinal ahead of his emceeing duties next week at Boombox with Director X and DJ Starting From Scratch (November 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox).

Your early hustle had you balancing being a respected emcee along with producing hits for yourself and other Toronto artists. How did it feel to get back to producing your own music on most of this new album?

I always produced from the early days, mainly because we couldn’t afford to buy anybody’s beats. On this album I wanted my production to be highlighted. To be honest, I fell back in love with being in the studio and expressing myself in a way that didn’t involve lyrics. Producing and crafting songs is something I’m really passionate about. I worked a lot with MidKnight and Hollywood P this time around for the icing on the cake, in terms of assisting me with some melodies or arrangement.

What do you remember about your first visits to hip-hop radio shows in the States and your debut appearance on BET’s 106 & Park show to promote your BaKardi Slang video? Did you realize you were paving the way for so many other urban music artists from Toronto to get attention south of the border?

Before I went to radio in America on my own, I used to go down there with Saukrates and Choclair. I knew Sway from visiting his radio show with King Tek in the 90s and having to prove ourselves in a room full of hungry emcees from all over the States. We always had lyrics to go, because people already saw us as “the Canadian rappers” so we had to prove that we were some of the best emcees period. Same thing we did in the UK and other countries.

Being on 106 was a huge accomplishment in those times. The Basement with Tigger, TRL and all that. I hadn’t seen any other Canadian do [that] before, so it was dope to show my city and my country that it was possible. I was a kid from Toronto’s Caribbean community that was staying true to what we knew back home. That’s the ultimate!

My whole intention was to bust open doors for my city, and by default, my country. From my earliest interviews, I always said that I wanted the world to yell out “T-Dot” the same way they yelled it out Brooklyn, L.A. or Atlanta. It was a hard and sometimes lonely road, but one that I wanted to travel. From my demo to my first album, I was inclusive of great Canadian talent – from Esthero to k-os to Glenn Lewis to Saukrates to Monolith to Jully Black. I wanted everyone to know we had arrived!

Canadian artists burn up the top Billboard chart spots, but all of them are signed to American label divisions. As Universal Music Canada’s creative executive director of A&R, do you think artists signed to Canadian label divisions have a chance at mainstream success in the States, or should that not be the focus? Can you share details about any new artists you’ve signed or are developing?

The label discussion is a complex discussion, but similar to the artistic struggle. Legacy is a big thing and we have to prove to artists that there is pride, value and advantage to signing with their home territory. It’s partly psychological and partly perception. Americans don’t run to other countries – they sign at home. We have to make it cool to love where you’re from.

We have to change the discussion from “Canadian label” to “good or bad label.” Our domestic labels have to [also] step up and prove that we can compete on a worldwide level. I believe we can. Universal is a strong company internationally and we work together on all of our artists. I’m still brand new to formal A&R-ing, but I have a couple of amazing things I’m working on that will be huge.

Did you have a favorite moment during the recording of One Dream Away with Bob Marley’s son, Stephen Marley, for this new album? What’s your favorite Bob Marley song?

Stephen Marley sharing the story of the last days with his dad was special to me. It made a mythical, magical family very real. Many people are raised off the music and dreams of the Marley family. Having Stephen as a friend, and trusting me enough to be very honest and share those special times, was really dope.

My favorite Bob song is Small Axe. It’s a song of hope, assertion and a general rudebwoy anthem, but it’s also a battle song! It was made as a response to another label that tried to disrespect. Now that is the best combination on one song!

You worked with Rihanna when you were popular in the American reggae/dancehall scene when you appeared on her debut album and in her Pon De Replay music video by Director X. Did you share advice with Rihanna then? What do you tell other new artists you’ve supported?

My friend Marc Jordan discovered Rihanna while on vacation in Barbados after he left working at Columbia Records. He called me from there and told me about this beautiful little girl that he was going to shop to Jay-Z.

I hopped on a few demos and when she got her deal, Jay kept me on one of the songs that made the album. I didn’t give RiRi any advice. I just told her she was gonna break ’nuff hearts when she turns 18. She lived up to that prediction!

I tell new artists that you have to be as original as possible. Make your own plate that people want to eat off. If there are similar styles to yours that exist, they will just go to the originator. Make it so that the sound you are making is one that people can’t duplicate. That way, they will always come to you when they are seeking a certain sound or vibe.

Kardinal Offishall’s KARDI GRAS Vol. 1: The Clash, supported by its first single Baby It’s U! comes out October 30 on Universal Music Canada. 

website@nowtoronto.com | @raouljuneja

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