Kardinal Offishall span> with Melanie Durrant performing as part of the Kick Up Your Heels Festival on Harbourfront Centre's main stage (235 Queens Quay West), Friday (August 26), 8 pm. Free. 416-973- 4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com. Rating: NNNNN
As local politicians try to find an easy explanation for the shocking surge in gun violence, those who'd rather not deal with the issue of increasing organized crime activity are starting to point the finger at hiphop artists.
Admittedly, any popular art form that fetishizes automatic weapons and presents cap-pealing and shirt-wetting as reasonable methods of conflict resolution probably isn't helping the problem, but neither is demonizing rappers for songs that reflect the day-to-day reality of life in the increasingly dangerous megacity.
Of course, that won't stop anyone from blaming rappers, as Kardinal Offishall is well aware. His creative update of Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) - resurrected by Quentin Tarantino on his Kill Bill, Vol. 2 soundtrack - now seems remarkably prescient during this summer of guns. He's got his own ideas about the current problems and how to deal with them.
"The whole thing about hiphop lyrics contributing to gunplay in Toronto is a myth," states Offishall from Atlanta. "There's always been violent imagery in certain kinds of rap music and some movies as well. That hasn't changed.
"There's a lot of lost kids on the streets right now - that's the real issue. They need guidance and something to do that will keep them out of trouble."
Offishall learned first-hand how beneficial government-backed social programs can be back in 93 when he participated in the Toronto Arts Council's Fresh Arts program, part of the NDP government's Jobs Ontario Youth (JOY) initiative.
"In the aftermath of all the kids rampaging downtown following the Rodney King verdict in 93, the Bob Rae government stepped in with some funding for youth-oriented programs like Fresh Arts. That's really how Saukrates, Jully Black, Baby Blue Soundcrew and I got our start. It gave us something useful to do.
"We were able to go to radio stations and recording studios and see how engineers and producers worked behind the scenes. Many of us had never been inside a studio before, let alone recorded a song in one. Through that program we also got to promote our own events, from making the flyers to doing radio promotion, everything. I can't begin to put a dollar value on what I learned."
Evidently, it wasn't just singers and rappers who got an important leg up in the music industry from the government-sponsored youth initiative. There was one particularly promising young go-getter with an interest in film and video whom Offishall recalls mentoring.
"In 95, I ran a program of my own called the Maroon Squad, with 25 employees, one of whom was Little X. It was during a group trip to New York to visit video production studios that he gave his demo reel to Hype Williams, who hired Little X as an intern. The rest is hiphop history.
"So you see how these programs create real results. The same thing could be happening with the next generation of artists if similar youth programs were being funded right now. But instead, they're only talking about increasing the size of the police force. I think that's only going to add to the problems. We need a long-term solution, and to do that the focus needs to be on prevention."
Offishall's own focus at the moment is trying to get out his forthcoming album, Fire & Glory (Virgin), which he'll be previewing at Harbourfront Friday. The diverse new disc was originally set to drop September 27 but has now been pushed back to November 1. It sounds like his label hassles aren't all behind him.
"The album's done and everything's ready to go, so there's no problem really," Offishall assures me. "We're delaying the release for one month because we needed one sample cleared and it took a little longer than expected. But trust me, nothing is going to prevent this album from coming out November 1."