By : Robert Ham
You won’t find too many rappers nowadays who cop to being influenced by politically minded singer/songwriter Billy Bragg or can boast that their new album features contributions by a members of indie superstars Broken Social Scene. But there are few rappers in the world like Shad.
The 28-year-old artist has distinguished himself from his peers through not only the frisky, Native Tongues-inspired production on his three full-lengths, but his bold lyrics that have tackled everything from the genocide in Rwanda to his own personal struggles with money and self-doubt. It’s a potent mix that has captured the attention of critics in his native Canada who helped get him nominated for a Juno Award and shortlisted for the Polaris Prize as well as by hip-hop icon Kanye West who counts himself as a fan.
Shad is gearing up for his next big step forward with his third album TSOL. The LP features some bright stuttering beats by cohorts like Ric Notes and Classified, and lets the rapper pontificate on the role of women in hip-hop (“Keep Shining”) and how music can stir up all manner of emotions (“At The Same Time”). Shad spoke with NXTLVL from his home in Vancouver about the progression of his career and his hope to make music that affects and inspires others.
What inspired you to want to make music? Were there particular artists that made you want to become a rapper?
I don’t think I can pinpoint it to any particular artists. Growing up, I just like music a lot, like a lot of kids did and still do. In high school, I was listening to Common, Outkast, Ras Kass. They were the artists that really impressed me a lot. I can’t say that they were the ones that made me want to make music. All the music inspired me. It started out as fun in high school, freestyling as a way to have fun. It evolved from that into a way to express deeper things, more meaningful things.
Were you hearing a lot of Canadian hip-hop when you were growing up?
Definitely. The town I grew up in [London, Ontario] was halfway between Detroit and Toronto. So whatever was going on musically there in Toronto and in American found its way to where I was growing up.
So, how then did you get from freestyling in high school to the point you are now with your third album about to hit the streets?
I think it was a steady progression and a lot of good fortune along the way. In high school, music wasn’t something that was very serious for me. Once I got into college, I started doing stuff with a group. It was a lot of fun and it was just something to do. From there, I started to write things that were more personal and I was looking for an outlet to do that. The opportunity came up not long after to record my first album and start doing shows on own. And from there it’s just been a progression with personal and professional growth happening side by side. I’ve been really fortunate to have a lot of breaks and a lot of people helping me out along the way.
Has it been good for you to be able to express these more personal things in music?
It’s been very helpful for me. It has helped me gain an awareness of where I am at and helped me to have the profound experience of translating some of these profound ideas that I might not be consciously aware of. And hopefully other people are connecting with it and benefitting from it as well. I don’t know how to sum it up. It’s been powerful in my life.
What is it like to hear that someone has been affected by one of your songs?
That’s always been cool to hear. Sometimes it’s been situations where people might interpret a song differently than what was my conscious intention, but it still hit them on a deep level. Music is not necessarily about the meaning that’s translated in the lyrics. It might be more profound than that.
Do you feel like you’ve progressed in some way from where you started to where you are at with your new album?
I think so. I hope to progress with every record. Hopefully I’m getting more clear and more concise in my songwriting and that there’s still a lot of depth there. I want people to be able to appreciate it on different levels. With the new record, the intention was that I’m a little bit older now and I wanted to make music that was less angst-y, but still have it be fun and positive.
The video for your song “Compromise” was posted not too long ago on Kanye West’s blog. How exciting was that?
That was super cool. The Internet is a funny thing. It’s cool when people that you are a fan of get a hold of your stuff. Hopefully that means new fans come along too.
It seems to me that when Christian rock acts find themselves getting some kind of mainstream success, they tend to downplay their faith, yet even the most mainstream of hip-hop artists is very upfront about their beliefs. Why do you think that is?
It might just be the nature of hip-hop lyrics. With rock lyrics, you can be more…I don’t know if poetic is the right word, but there are layers of meaning in what they are singing. With hip-hop the tone is pretty straightforward and like a conversation. You just say what you want to say and say what you mean right there on the surface. There’s less opportunity to downplay anything. It’s just right there.
If you weren’t making music, what do you think you would be doing?
I have no idea! Hopefully something that I could contribute some level of passion and meaning to. Not everyone gets to do that. I’m not sure that I get to do that. I’m lucky that I get to make music.