KARDINAL OFFISHALL as part of the DJ Serious Revue with BAHAMADIA, MC COLLIZHUN, NISH RAWKS, D-SISIVE, ARCEE, BAG O' TRIX and DJ SERIOUS at the Opera House (735 Queen East), tonight (Thursday, March 29). $15. 416-466-0313.
even though he's dressed almost entire-
ly in purple, with a fuzzy Kangol perched on his head, it's hard to reconcile the soft-spoken Jason Harrow sitting on the bench next to me with his outsized MC personality, Kardinal Offishall.
This is the midtown MC who burst onto Toronto's nascent hiphop scene half a dozen years ago, full of JA-style bravado and with the dancehall-laced beats to match. The same patois-shouting rapper who doubles as one of the city's most in-demand producers, and the lyrical live wire whose chorus in the Rascalz' Northern Touch single and video turned the song into a Canadian hiphop anthem, despite the fact that he wasn't on the track until the very last minute.
Onstage and on wax, our man could afford to lend California some spare energy, yet when he sends back his mai tai because it has milk in it -- turns out he's lactose intolerant -- Harrow is the picture of politeness.
"This is art, and there's always going to be a bit of acting in it," Harrow reasons, now sipping on a considerably fruitier-looking drink. "What's strange, though, is how far some people take it.
"I go to the States to do interviews and people are amazed that I'm somewhat enlightened and have some sense, because there are so many rappers who don't."
His forthcoming disc, Firestarter Volume 1: Quest For Fire, due April 10, is the second major release by his tight-knit crew, the Circle. Choclair's Ice Cold disc was the first. Most of the family, including Saukrates, Tara Chase, Solitaire and Jully Black, turn up on Firestarter alongside production trio Da Grassroots, Monolith and uptown deejay Presto.
Mashing up clipped, street-tough beats with a ruff dancehall thump, the album maintains the gritty sound of Kardinal's independent releases.
"This album is supposed to be reminiscent of Saukrates's Underground Tapes," Harrow nods. "It's not one of those "Get your deal and grab a bunch of money' kind of things.
"I had 70 or 80 songs to choose from, old stuff and new stuff. It's representative of who I am and where I'm going."
Firestarter arrives at a transition time in Toronto hiphop. When Kardinal first appeared, "T-dot" was still a catchphrase among friends and everyone saw themselves as underground. Now, the people who were underground -- Kardinal, Choclair and Saukrates -- are on top of the game.
Kardinal's been in the heat of that maturation, going from playing little gigs at the Comfort Zone and getting no exposure beyond his immediate community to making beats for Method Man and touring with Shaggy.
Now, like scenes in New York and Los Angeles before it, Toronto's hiphop community has fractured into different cliques that rarely overlap. No worries, Harrow insists. Despite the success of some, the underground is still very strong.
"If you can rock those hiphop heads, those hardcore niggas who come to the show and just take off their headphones to hear you, you can play with anyone," Harrow insists.
"I can hold my head in your little cipher and in the Skydome."
Of course, Kardinal's relationship with the Canadian hiphop underground was strained somewhat last month during the Juno Awards.
The MC was nominated twice for best hiphop recording and was widely expected to win but instead lost out to fiercely independent Vancouver crew Swollen Members. Even more galling than losing was the close-up shot of Kardinal in the audience, mouth open in shock, that ran on CBC when the winner was announced.
The upset led to a firestorm of criticism from the Toronto hiphop community about the Juno process, with Kardinal and friends asking on radio and TV how a group like Swollen Members could win when no one, at least in the Toronto hiphop elite, knows who they are.
"People try to call the Junos the Canadian Grammys," Harrow offers testily. "They're not. They don't mean anything.
"What bothered me about that night was how my crew was treated. We were told by the people running the Junos that I was going to win. That was the reason we were sitting in the audience. They were, like, "After you win, go here and then go here to do your press.'
"I don't necessarily have a problem with Swollen Members winning. When you have everybody and their mother, including my mother, asking who Swollen Members are and why they won the award for the so-called best hiphop record in Canada, though, there's a problem. It's hard to explain why, if they're the best, they weren't on the urban music tribute that preceded the award.
"In the end, it doesn't matter, though. The indicators of my success are my crew and my family."
Whether he likes it or not, odds are Kardinal will again be in the running for a trophy for Firestarter. Jump-up cuts like BaKardi Slang and Ol Time Killin are likely to get heads nodding, but the track most likely to grab attention is Man By Choice.
It's an unusual bit of social commentary revolving around casual use of the word nigger. It also unveils a conscious side to Kardi that often gets lost in his rude-boy, good-time funk.
"That reminded me of stuff that I grew up on -- strong music that you can get into but also has a real message," Harrow reflects. "That's something that hiphop needs more of. Everybody can get into music that's dope. The reason why people could dig Public Enemy and X-Clan back in the day was because they had dope music plus a strong message.
"Man By Choice was a real serious issue to me, especially in the way people compare the struggles that black people go through to, say, the homosexuals. That makes no sense. You can keep your sexuality in the closet, but every black man is a nigger in someone's eyes.
"My piece is that you can be a man by choice," he stresses. "What do you believe in, Chris Rock or crack rock? That's a heavy question, and I want to spark conversation between people."