Kardinal Offishall: Northern Exposure

posted June 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 30 comments

Whatever you do, dont ever make the mistake of labeling Kardinal Offishalls brand of Hip Hop eclectic.

Usually when you think eclectic you think that weird shit, people just trying some different shit to have an album left of whats going on, the Toronto emcee (by way of Jamaica) said to HipHopDX during a recent interview.

But doing shit different is exactly what has led Kardi to become the most well-known Canadian emcee by U.S. Hip Hop fans. Spending well over the past decade perfecting a blend of Soul, Dancehall, and Reggae music, Kardi has created his own distinctly unique Hip Hop sound that seems to have been embraced by most statesiders.

Unfortunately, Soundscan has yet to reflect the inroads Kardi has been able to make in the States. While critically acclaimed, his international debut, 2001s Quest For Fire: Firestarter Vol. 1 [click to read], failed to replicate the same success stateside that it enjoyed in our neighbor to the north. And although its planned follow-up, Firestarter Vol. 2: F Word Theory, should have been his commercial breakthrough, Kardis re-up release would never meet U.S. or Canadian Hip Hop fans ears once his then label home, MCA Records, was absorbed by Geffen Records in 2003, just as his big budget sophomore effort for the label was set to drop.

Even without a U.S. label home, Kardinal continued to make noise up north releasing Fire And Glory in 2005 via the Canadian arm of Virgin/EMI Records. His never-ceasing hustle caught the eyes of some Hip Hop heavyweights, which in short order led to Kardi landing his second stateside deal, this time with Akons Konvict Muzik.

Since officially signing on the dotted line with Kon in March of 07, Kardi has set to work preparing for what he hopes will be his true breakthrough in the States, Not 4 Sale. The Wire-inspired video for his tough as nails street single Graveyard Shift [click to view], has been followed recently by his first official single, Dangerous [click to view], signaling that as much as he may deride the eclectic label, Kardi is once again going to display his diversity of styles and sounds on his latest effort. With cameos ranging from The Clipse (Set It Off), to punk-funk band J*Davey (Digital Motown, produced by Jake One), to English songbird Estelle from his Black Jays crew (Do Me A Favor, produced by Akon), Kardi should finally see commercial success in the States for his signature brand of original Hip Hop.

Before he likely nets that plaque later this summer, Kardinal spoke with DX about everything from the revelation in April that his new label boss, Akon, might not be the konvict hes claimed to be [click to read], to why he passed on signing with Jay-Z, to maybe most importantly why statesiders need to have your wits about you when you come up to T Dot.

HipHopDX: Lets start off by having you break it down for the people who dont know how you ended up on Akons label.
Kardinal Offishall:
[I] had signed with MCA back in 2000, and we parted ways once they folded [in] and turned into Geffen. [Following that I] was making a lot of noise internationally. And around 2005 [I] was definitely getting a lot of interest from a few labels, one of them being Akons. He was saying that he was gonna start this whole Konvict Muzik label. Thats around the time that he just started getting T-Pain poppin off. And he had just done [Young Jeezys] Soul Survivor, so he was poppin with that. The way that we spoke, we spoke as men and we were able to talk about the respect that we had for one anothers careers, and the work ethic that we [each] have. And really and truly, I just prayed about it and it just seemed like that was the best way to go because he was somebody that respected me as an artist [and] respected [career] decisions that I had made. And he liked where I was going. He saw the vision. So thats how that all went down.

DX: Did he respect that you turned down an offer from Jay-Z before you signed with him?
I mean, the thing about [that] is it really wasnt all as crazy as it sounded. It was a real dope time for me, and I was honored at the time that somebody like Jay-Z [click to read] would even consider [signing] me. I remember he came up here for Rock The Caribana in 2005 and he was putting on a show. Thats when he had just signed Rihanna and He had a few different people that was poppin at the time and he came up to Toronto, and I was his special guest at the show. I remember we rocked a big ass crowd of thousands of people Jay was definitely cool, but at the end of the day, its not to say that I formally turned down the offer [to sign with Roc La Familia], its just that it just felt better for my career to go in the direction that Kon was going in.

DX: So these offers [from Jay-Z and Akon] came in pretty much close to one another?
Yeah, they were pretty much around the same time. We were dealing with his man Jay Brown. And they were definitely talking to my management and stuff like that. But again, like I said, I dont wanna be one of them emcees thats like, Yeah, these type niggas was trying to get at me but I was like, 'Nah, son.' Its not like that.

DX: Lets bring it from the past to the present and talk about what you got on deck next. Graveyard Shift was a hard-ass street record, but this new single Dangerous is a dance record more in the Akon tradition. So which Kardinal are we getting on your Konvict Music debut?
Well the thing is, if you know anything about Kardinal [you know] you cant put me in a box. Ive come up watching people like The Fugees, people like Busta Rhymes, people like a Akon, or even a Jay-Z, people that have done joints that can bang on the streets but at the same time have also come with joints that play in like every frat club or any club where they play whatever type music. And thats the whole thing, I dont ever try and limit myself. And I am whatever you hear. So when you hear one of the harder joints thats part of who I am, I gotta get that out. But at the same time, I love to have fun. I come from T Dot, where we got some of the most dangerous chicks in the world. So of course we had to make a song about that. And thats the whole thing about it, my music is an extension of myself and Im not just one way all the time. Im not in the clubs all day long. Im not out there on the grind all day long. Its not always terrible where I come from. So I definitely try and express all the different parts of my life through my music. And thats what Dangerous is.

Dangerous is just the fun shit. Thats the stuff that I enjoy. I dont live in the club 24/7, but sometimes you love to get down in the club and do what you do. So I was able to do a club record but at the same time it had content in it and I was able to flip my flow. That [diversity] is something that I always stay true to.

DX: Do you think variety has actually been a hindrance to your career though, that if you dropped that more Reggae, Dancehall vibe in your music and just made more bare bones Hip Hop tracks like Graveyard Shift that youd have more success in the States?
Thats the thing, there is no real formula. So its not to say if I did one thing that mightve helped. For me, sometimes [variety] does get me into trouble. But I like to raise the bar. I like to put a challenge out there. Sometimes doing just that okey doke shit that you know could get poppin a lot easierif that doesnt help the game to grow, if it doesnt put another step on the ladder in climbing up, then I dont like to do it. [But] I think linking up with Akon really just helped me find a middle ground. I can be the [commercial] artist that I [need to] be, but at the same time try and touch a lot of the fans out there that still love Hip Hop music thats not just one dimensional.

DX: Why dont U.S. Hip Hop fans seem to get you you think?
I think they do. Thats the dope thing is I think they do. And whats ill is traveling across the States, and not even just the states but the world, is people do [get me]. Thats why a lot of people are really looking out for this album when it comes out. The one common thing [that I hear from] people is like, Yo, Kardinal Ive always been a fan, but its like you never got that shot. And really what that means is Ive never had the machine behind me the way that its supposed to be. But everything is in place right now.

DX: I guess its just youve been in the game for 12 years in Canada, gone gold and gotten all kinds of awards up there, but its almost like youre still a new artist down here, like youre still having to remind people of who you are.
And I mean, thats ill! My a.k.a. is Celebrity Face. Everywhere I go people know the face [but not always the name]. And thats dope being able to go somewhere and kinda likenot when you start from scratch, but its kinda like being reborn. Theres nothing better than the feeling of being a new artist thats all of the sudden getting shit poppin. Thats a great place to be.

DX: Well you definitely got the rep and respect in Canada, but why didnt your last U.S. distributed album in 2001 go gold in the States like it did in Canada you think?
Because it was never designed to do that. When I had signed with MCA that first album was what they call a recompilation album. All those songs that came out on that album were actually the demos that were used to get me signed. That was never supposed to be the big studio album that would come out and sell a gang of units. The whole intent and purpose of that album was to just get my feet wet so that people could find out who I am. The next album was supposed to be the big budget album. And that came out at a time when - unfortunately for the label, their shit wasnt together and they had to fold. But thats the whole thing, a lot of times people get signed and the label just throws them out there and they throw everything behind it one time and if it dont stick then thats it. But I got some of the best representation in the game. Like, my lawyer is the same lawyer for anybody from 50 [Cent] to whoever. So we always have strategies and plans. And that album was never the big studio album that we were betting the house on. That was never the function of it.

DX: Yeah werent you planning to re-up for Firestarter Vol. 2 with like Pharrell and Timbaland?
We had actually done that. We did all those records. We recorded with Pharrell, Timbaland, with Busta. There was a lot of different stuff that we had done for that album. But everything happens for a reason. And Im glad that I went through what I went through with the label because it just helped me to be a stronger artist and to know what for an artist is the worst case scenario in the game. A lot of artists dont go through that, so they dont see what the other side is: being able to fight your way back from a label that folded. So it just made me a lot stronger and a lot more ready for this new album.

DX: Switching gears here, we spoke about your relationship with U.S. fans, but why do you think stateside fans tend to be unreceptive to Canadian Hip Hop as a whole?
Maybe [Canadian artists] just need to step the level of their music up. I can really only speak for myself and my [reception in the U.S.] has been dope. I guess coming up from the days of when we used to just take our lunch money and press up vinyl and stuff like that. Sometimes I refer to it as "the Fat Beats era," when you used to press up your own [music] and literally had to carry around your music, and had to give it to deejays hand-to-hand. When you come up in that time you kind of get an appreciation for the work ethic that you gotta put in. And maybe all it is is that some of the [other Canadian] artists just need to physically get out there and travel more and see whats up. I can only speak on behalf of what I went though, and some of my people like Saukrates and Choclair, and [we] know that our crew definitely has gotten a good response from not just the States, but a lot of different places in the world. As for the other [Canadian] emcees, I dont know what it is. I dont know what it is that theyre missing, but at the same time I gotta focus on what Im doing right now that maybe they can look to my example and see what Ive done and kinda follow that and just use the [blueprint] thats worked for me to their advantage.

DX: Well I tend to believe that most fans in the States just being bluntly honest view Canadian Hip Hop like they view U.K. Hip Hop as being too unfamiliar, and honestly just kinda weird.
Somebody that would say that I could understand why cause a lot of times in the States a lot of [musical styles] are driven by whatever comes out of the States, which is cool. But the thing is, they used to say the same shit about music that used to come from Atlanta, or music that would come from St. Louis. So [U.S. Hip Hop is] not something thats unfamiliar to me, and I dont feel any ways about it being from Toronto. Everybody looks at shit like that until you get some shit poppin though. And so now [because of] artists like Nelly and Chingy people dont look at St. Louis the same way. People dont look at Ft. Myers or Tallahassee the same way since Plies [click to read] and T-Pain came out. Maybe sometimes you just need for somebody to be a torch career and shed a light on [their region]. And Im cool with being that [person for Toronto]. People can look at an act from Toronto or from somewhere else in Canada and be like, Man, I aint fuckin with it. But the thing is, once you win them over thats a greater accomplishment. And I dont have no problems with going into any club, any concert, any radio station and rockin it and transforming people and the way they think about Hip Hop from my city or my country.

DX: Speaking of your city, another criticism Ive heard about Canadian Hip Hop is that its not street enough. But from what I understand the T Dot is just as crazy as any U.S. city.
Ill tell you honestly a lot of times I think [that criticism exists] because of the lack of creativity we have in Hip Hop right now we really just dwell a lot on sensationalism. Its become less and less about the music and more and more about what the person outside of the music is all about. Now as far as my city goes, anybody thats been here knows what my city is about. Im not gonna be the one to promote [negativity] and say, Yeah, our city is crazy because the kids are shooting each other. And its mad grimey. It is though, but anywhere you go in the world a ghetto is a ghetto. And the funny thing is a lot of cats when they travel for the first time they go to places and think everything is sweet until something happens to them. T Dot is as real as the next place for sure. But at the same time, fuck that shit, to me thats bullshit. I dont wanna exist in a place thats garbage. Im trying to get out of that shit. I wanna lift my city up. I would love for my citys crime rate to be down. Niggas that dwell on how hard their shit is and how much guns they got and who they be killin and how much crack they sell, thats bullshit. As a people I think we need to elevate and definitely change our focus. So Im not gonna be that dude. But at the same time, just have your wits about you when you come up to T Dot.

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