I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Shadrach Kabango, better known as the Juno-winning Canadian hip-hop artist Shad, as he came through Ottawa while touring his new album Flying Colours. Here is the interview I conducted with him before his stellar show, which you can read about here.
I have been listening to the new album since it dropped and I really like it. Where does the album title, Flying Colours, come from?
The title comes from the phrase passing with flying colours. I knew I wanted to talk about success and failure, and knew that it would be a thread throughout everything. I just like the idea that we are all doing well, in some kind of grand scheme and ultimate sense. Particularly because it comes as a surprise to everyone, we are so self-critical and to our surprise we are all doing quite well.
What is your favourite colour?
I like grey because grey clothes are easy to wash, hahaha. I also like blue and maroon. I can’t just pick one.
Throughout your new album, and your previous albums, you make a lot of sport reference. What is your favourite sport?
What is your favourite sports team?
I don’t have a favourite sports team that I cheer for year in and year out. Some teams that have been close to my heart over the years are, the Fab Five Michigan, the Penguins of the Lemieux years, Vince Carter’s Raptors, the Golden State Warriors with Hardaway, the Knicks in the Ewing and Starks days and the Stockton and Malone Jazz. My loyalty shifts from team to team, but stays with core players.
Those are some great teams, when it comes down to it you clearly love good sport. What is your greatest sporting achievement?
My greatest… I’m going to have to take it down to two. Grade 9 high school city champs in basketball. I won a three-point contest at a charity tournament I defeated a lot of very good players.
Those are some pretty sweet memories to have. Now to get back to your music. The media and many others say that you are a positive and uplifting hip-hop artist. You do have a lot of positive lyrics, but you also deal with some very serious and troubling subjects. What leads you to be more positive in a style that often focuses on the negative?
At this point, one challenge that I like with lyrics is to try to find hope and name it. Really put a finger on it and put words to it. It is a creative challenge that I like, to try and do it without short cuts or over-simplifying. Confronting the reality of who we are and the reality of the world, but also finding some hope in it.
Sticking with that theme, mainstream hip-hop is seeing a little shift into popular and comedic lyrics like yours, with the likes of Macklemore tearing up the charts for example. How do you feel about that and why do you think it is happening?
It is great, it speaks to what resonates with people. People like to feel good, it just makes sense. People also don’t always feel good, so they don’t always want to hear happy music, and I can understand that. A little aside, in fact the whole musical tradition in America is essentially sad, comes from the blues and it is all sad music. Music elsewhere does not have a tradition like that, it is mostly happy. There is a place for positive. That is what people use music for to a great extent. It can be a release in terms of negative emotions, but also it is a place people go to for joy, to dance, have a good time and remember the world is a good place.
I really like the song ”Keep Shining” off of your 2010 album T.S.O.L. It focuses on the need to get more women involved in hip-hop. I was hoping you could talk a little about why you believe hip-hop needs more women?
It is a curious thing that hip-hop has grown since its inception in so many ways, sonically, creatively, globally but not in terms of female participation. I like to think of it in term of, every guy knows what it is like to be talking with 5 to 10 dudes. You share a brain and there are ways of talking you just wouldn’t do if females were part of that conversation. I see hip-hop to be the same way, if there were more females being a part of that conversation, things would change for the better. From the general tone of the conversation of the music would improve, people’s understanding and the kind of perspective that they share would grow. I like to think I went into it a little with the song. And I hope songs like that are an invitation and create space for women.
What is the biggest difference in Shad from last album to Flying Colours?
That’s a good question. I feel like I have learned a lot. I have grown a lot, learned a lot about myself. With this album my process was a lot more disciplined, I found that I was working harder, I felt more mature with the whole process and approach to it.
Well speaking of that new album, I absolutely love the track ”Stylin.” I think it is one of your most complete tracks so far, and was hoping I could ask you rapid fire questions inspired by the lyrics of the song?
Thank you. And of course.
What is white music?
Off the top of my head, Vampire Weekend, hahaha.
What is your favourite white music?
Simon and Garfunkel are at the top of the list.
You speak of haikus and highbrows, what is your favourite Shakespeare?
One of the silly comedies for sure, like Taming of the Shrew.
You’re out of my league you’re the MVP, you’re 23. So Lebron or Jordan?
Oooooooooooooooooooooooh! I wish I could say Jordan, but I am more of a Lebron personality.
Fair enough, but who is better?
You’re the best draft, MGD. What is your favourite beer on tap?
Mill Street Organic.
You are an MPP, what is your slogan?
It would be a play on the word party… let’s say I have a party affiliation, let’s say I’m part of the NDP like I reference in the song. My slogan would be ”turning the NDP into a real party.” Hahaha, something like that.
Ok last one for rapid fire, not from ”Stylin” but you have mentioned Star Trek and Star Wars on other tracks. So Star Trek vs Star Wars?
Star Trek, no Star Wars. I think I was most the into the first one, Episode IV: A New Hope.
You recently mentioned Bonnie Klein’s Order of Canada acceptance speech on your blog. Can you talk about why you liked it and what you thought about her view of Canada and the United States?
I thought it was cool it came out the same day as my ”Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” video, so I highlighted and shared it. It speaks to the feelings that a lot of people have had and have, and the conversations I’ve had. I think it is true of our country and our own selves, we can have values, we can have principals, and be proud of the things that we have done, but if you don’t make an effort to progress those values and principals… you lose them. Things don’t just stay in a steady state, you are either getting better or getting worse. I think that is something a lot of us feel about our country. A lot of things we take pride in, many of us feel they are disappearing.
Here in Ottawa we are making national headlines politically, and Toronto is making them internationally. As a politically-minded artist, how do you feel about the state of politics in Canada?
There is an old way of doing politics and a lot of people of my generation have grown so detached, if you know what I mean. I am sure Rob Ford is a talented person for doing work in the city, there is a reason he got elected, and I am sure he is a decent man. But the way that he does politics, there are a lot of us who really resent it. There is obviously a lot of lying, a lot of deceit, a lot of bullying and we are sick of it. Then there are the other political games that we see going on in Ottawa. It’s like I think our generation is hoping there is a better way. We are so disengaged, it just creates this gulf between the people and what goes on in these rooms through all the layers of deceit. Then it just becomes common practice and how is anyone suppose to get engaged.
So you were raised in London, Ontario. It is not exactly known for being the mecca of Canadian hip-hop. How was carving out your career there?
I didn’t really start my career there exactly. Growing up there and going to high school there, music was fun but nothing I took seriously. I think a big part of that was that it was London, and there was not a whole lot going on. You could freestyle with your friends, maybe hop up on some stage at a talent show. That being said, once I started, London has been super supportive and awesome. A lot of my first shows were there and that is great. London was super supportive, places like the Embassy, Call The Office and the whole music community there. I love London.
How was it to present at the Giller Prize ceremony a few weeks ago?
It was a cool opportunity to meet different people. How many people get the chance to talk to very talented thoughtful writers. It was a very cool night. The guy I was presenting, Dan Vyleta, wrote a very amazing novel and it was cool to get to talk to the guy. You don’t normally get to read the book and then talk to the guy who wrote it. I thought it was very cool of the CBC to include me, because there were probably some more likely people to put up on that stage.
Sticking with literature, what are some books you would recommend?
I would recommend ”Becoming Human” by Jean Vanier and ”All Rise” by Robert F. Fuller. Both are very cool and non-fiction.
Keeping with recommendations, who is the one of the best underground hip-hop acts in Canada no one is talking about and that you would recommend?
I would tell people to check out the group called Freedom Writers from Toronto. They are basically a super group of Toronto underground kings. Some of the most talented guys in the city from the last 10-15 years. Very intense, very political music.
Final questions. You have won a Juno, put out killer albums and proven yourself time after time. Why aren’t more people talking about Shad?
I don’t know man. I am happy I get to do what I do, and I get to work hard at this. I get to have awesome experiences, and get to contribute my little piece. It feels really nice to feel like you have something to offer and to get to contribute it. Everyone has that one little thing to give man, I am just glad I get to give mine.