Legendary Hip-Hop Artist Kardinal Offishall Came Up Between Two Rap Eras
When laying out hip-hop’s timeline, we typically break it down into two broad eras: pre- and post-MP3. When music was totally tangible, the hip-hop industry’s dynamic looked much differently than today’s landscape: budgets were bigger, CD sales were higher, and the way rappers moved and communicated had entirely different meanings.
But what happens when your career takes off in between these two time periods? When the composition of your environment is transforming before your eyes? The future is even more so ambiguous.
Kardinal Offishall, legendary Canadian rapper and philanthropist, gained speed in his career within the window between old school and new school. When he joined MCA Records in 2000, he was the one of first Canadian rappers to sign with an American major, went on to pen deals with Akon, and was appointed as the Creative Executive Director of Universal Music Canada’s A&R team in 2013. While he was brought onto teams with icons like Pharrell and The Roots, he always has kept his ear to the streets of Toronto’s underground rap scene.Throughout his career, not only has he carried this twofold outlook, but he’s had to maneuver the obstacles facing the music industry, let go of old traditions, and adapt new habits.
We spoke Kardinal Offishall about his current perceptions of hip-hop’s new format, and about his new album, Kardi Gras, as a totality of these lived experiences.
Kardinall in the Middle
I consider myself trapped in between two generations. The first time I signed a record deal, I started meeting some of my idols, like Busta and Pharrell. Then you have the present generation, with the Coles, Kendricks, and Drakes. There aren’t too many people who came out when I did, around 2001, that are still active doing anything. So I saw a lot of things happening.
Budgets became smaller. With Napster and MP3s, that’s when you saw a real decline in money that was available to artists. Being able to see the tail ends of both generations, with two million-dollar Wu-Tang videos and private jets, while also seeing the financial hardships faced by artists in the digital era, was the biggest eye-opener for me.
Culturally, things changed within hip-hop also. I signed to MCA Records because at the time they had Common, Black Star, The Roots, and all of these artists who were my favorites and who I identified with at the time. I think that’s why they signed me, but they were also taking a chance on me; at the time, there weren’t any hip-hop artists from Canada who were signed to American majors. Electra turned me down, and the reasoning stuck with me forever: they said, “We’re not signing a Canadian; all they do is copy Americans!” I pride myself on bringing something new to the game and being innovative, so hearing that gave me energy to do even bigger and better things.
Introduction to Social Media
My favorite stars are the ones that leave me waiting more; there’s a mystique to them, and I don’t know everything about what they’re doing and where they are. Because of that, they’re larger than life and I hold them on a pedestal. I think there’s a way you can maneuver that today, wherein you can still say mysterious on social media, but I’m not really that guy. I’m social in real life, but the whole concept of social media is a bit foreign to me.
But there’s this understanding that there’s a direct correlation between the number of people following you on social media and the number of people who are listening to your music, and I don’t think that’s the case. There are people around the world who have huge personalities that people love, but they’re not successful musically. There are people who have sold tens of millions of albums, while their social numbers are low. I remember going into meetings at labels, playing them my music, and in the middle of the meetings, they would be typing on their computers looking up my social media accounts. But whether or not you’re popping on Instagram or Twitter shouldn’t be the deciding factor when you’re considering signing an artist.
Seasoned Mentorship vs. the Internet as a Teaching Tool
Right now, the culture is letting the Internet raise us. There’s not as much OG mentorship and guidance, and I think it’s a problem. It’s a two-way street; when I came up, there were definite rules to the game and a code that you followed, but right now, a lot of young cats are breaking those rules. Sometimes it’s dope when they’re creating their own platforms to stand on, but there are some things I wish we held onto.
I’ve evolved as a person, first and foremost. Between this and the last album, I’ve made a conscious effort to prioritize my life; since the last one, I’m now married and have two baby boys, and I own land now. This album showcases where I am now as a man, the places I’ve been, and the things I’ve seen. I think it also speaks to the clash; the clash of values, of family life and entertainment industry, of wanting to do party joints and songs that have sociopolitical relevance. There are so many things happening in my life, and I wanted to cohesively string them together into a project that makes sense.