Shad: Best Kept Secret
After the praises of "T.S.O.L." last year, Shad talks about rocking stages with one of his inspirations in Common, and incorporating Biblical punchlines and femininity into his raps.
When this writer first met Shad, it was at a show he was headlining in a small venue in Detroit, Michigan. Despite already being a household name in his home country of Canada, he treated the Motor City like a brand new artist: he displayed showmanship as a performer, interacted with the crowd, and even stayed afterward for hours to joke and hang out with the show's opening act and other concertgoers.
That humility has brought him a long way. The London, Ontario emcee's honest balance of confidence, self-deprecation, social awareness and flat-out bars has earned him a rep in his home country with tours alongside K-os and K'Naan, critical acclaim and a JUNO Award nomination (one of, if not the most coveted music award in Canada) for his 2008 album The Old Prince. After dropping his third album T.S.O.L. in Canada in May of last year, he teamed with indie staple Decon Records (88-Keys, Freddie Gibbs, Evidence) to drop the album in the states. In an interview with HipHopDX, Shad talks about differences between Canada and the United States' Hip Hop scenes, standout songs on his album, and lessons from hometown greats.
HipHopDX: You just opened for Janelle Monae last night. How was that?
Shad: It was dope. Playing in Toronto is always nice because it's close to home, so it has a bit of a hometown kind of feel, and Janelle Monae was crazy. Their whole show is a themed experience, it's next level. I think she has a background in theater or something like that, so she's really good onstage. She's real polished.
DX: Have you had any other shows over there that stand out more than others?
Shad: In 2006, opening for Common was crazy. He was my favorite rapper in high school. When you have conversations about who's your favorite rapper, Common was who I would always champion. That was one of my first show. There was a promoter who was going to put me on a show with Aceyalone, and he was like, “I have to bump you off of this show, I'm sorry. But I'll put you on my next show we're doing with Common.” That was maybe my fifth show or something like that, so that was real special.
DX: That's a hell of a consolation prize.
Shad: [Laughs] Yeah. I didn't tell anyone until it was on his web site, because I was like, “I don't know if I believe this guy. But it was pretty sick.”
DX: You established your rep in Canada first, and now you're doing it in the States. How has establishing yourself in the U.S. been different from back home?
Shad: In Canada, we just sort of hit the road and play a lot of shows. That's sort of how you build here, with grassroots. In the states, it's a lot with mixtapes and that kind of thing. I have a feeling that people don't tour as much until the mixtapes are buzzing, but I made an album right away, was taking any show I could get, and started building that way. That's one main difference.
DX: So how have you adapted to do your thing here? You haven't dropped any mixtapes that I've seen...
Shad: Yeah, and that's stuff I'm thinking about, but I don't want to do anything that doesn't make sense to me. But that's stuff I've talked a lot with my label in the states, Decon Records. They help us understand if there's something that we need to do differently. But I have a feeling that down there, it's about coming about with a lot of material, a lot of mixtapes, a lot of dubs over instrumentals, and continuing to keep the music out there on the blogs. That's a little bit of a difference. Here, you come out with a project and try to play it out as much as you can, and make some videos. So it's less about the mixtapes and the singles coming out. I don't know if we'll have to change it up, but we'll keep in touch with the label.
I'd also like to be on the ground there for a little bit, and get a feel for what's going on and what people are into, and what the energy is like. That'll probably give me a better sense.
DX: Not trying to lump all of you together, but one thing I've noticed about Canada's most successful artists—you, Drake, K-os, and even Kardinal Offishall—is that all of you make memorable songs based on being yourselves. That's something the U.S. doesn't do very well as often; here, people often try to fit in with images already out there. Do you see that as well?
Shad: Yeah, I think so. When I think about what's popular in Canada Hip Hop-wise, it would be considered left of center in the states. K-os, to us, I think underappreciated because of the range of what he does. But to us, having Hip Hop mixed with a little bit of this and that and coming from a perspective of people being who they are, that's really what's hot here. An artist like K'Naan, or an artist like Drake, who does an R&B thing along with Hip Hop. That's what's hot here, which is a little bit different. I don't think there's anything we can do about that, that's how we came up and how we make music. And I'm proud of that tradition of Canadian Hip Hop, that artists come up being themselves and trying to do something different.
DX: What is it about Canada that fosters artists so willing to be honest?
Shad: There are a lot of artists that aren't themselves here, but they just don't make it. I don't know what it is in the culture that makes artists do that. We've always been known as a culture that doesn't take themselves too seriously, so maybe that kind of helps. People in Canada are pretty comfortable making fun of themselves a little bit and taking themselves too seriously. But I don't want to downplay—there are a lot of artists here that are afraid and don't speak their mind, but they're not successful. In all sorts of different genres in Canada, the artists that connect the most are the ones that are themselves and speak from the heart.
DX: Is that something you had any worries about while prepping for your release in the states?
Shad: Not really. That's what I do. I have faith that it might not be a few thousands of people that are into it, but if there's an audience at all, that's cool with me if it helps them. … It's not something I'm ever really worried about, because what interests me as an artist is representing myself. If people are into it, that's cool. If not, it's all good.
DX: Speaking of faith, your music shows your comfort talking about your faith, but you don't come across as preachy. On a song like “Rose Garden,” you incorporate things from The Bible into your punchlines. Is one of your goals with your music to introduce people to your faith?
Shad: My real agenda is trying to show as much of myself as I can, and be honest about my experience and my ideals as I can. I think there's a space for that. Faith and spirituality is a part of peoples' lives, and I think that people should feel comfortable discussing that. I don't know why it's so taboo. That's people trying to live better, understand the world better and treat each other better. Faith is a part of that, so I don't think it should be taboo to talk about that at all. If it's an important part of your life, you should speak on it.
DX: On one song, you talk about how tough it is to find a woman while being a man of faith. A lot of rappers tell stories about crazy groupies or freaky women they've met. Do you have any interesting female fans you've met that are the complete opposite, and just genuine fans?
Shad: There's been some fans I've had that have really inspired me, even though my music is groupie-less sort of like the music. The perspective I express, and since it's underground Hip Hop, [the fan-base] is a lot of dudes. But there's definitely been a couple of girls that stand out in my mind that challenge the way I think about music and the way they appreciate music has made me put more time and energy into the music that I make, because I know they're paying attention to every word and coming at it from their own experience.
DX: Speaking of women, one of the new album's standout tracks is “Keep Shining.” What inspired that song?
Shad: Well like I said, some of it was a few female fans that are really into my music. Just girls I see in general at shows, I'm wondering how they connect with my audience. When I'm writing, I'm thinking of a male audience in mind. Not that I'm saying anything disrespectful to women, but I'm not really speaking to women. I have my male friends in mind when I'm writing. So part of it was thinking how I can write something that is directly addressing women in a way that's uplifting and fun, and the second verse takes turn and starts to reflect on that and think, “Instead of me trying to understand the female perspective, maybe we need a female perspective being expressed in the music. More female Hip Hop artists.” That's how the song sort of evolved. Ultimately, it's a song about women, but it's also just about more of a universal message.
DX: What was the casting call for that video like? I'd imagine it being a lot different from a lot of the usual “Making the Video” shows we've seen.
Shad: It was cool. The director came up with the idea for the video. We talked about it, and we just wanted a diverse cast of women who just looked like women you could see everywhere. Real women. We also wanted to have a few artists in there that could perform the lyrics and give that energy. There's one particular woman, Michie Mee, who's in the video. She's like the godmother of Canadian Hip Hop, so it was a real pleasure to have her there too.
DX: Another one of your more notable skills is being able to incorporate punchlines into your concepts and storylines, as opposed to just blindly throwing them in. A great example of that is “Telephone.” How did that song come about?
Shad: My deejay had the instrumental with a lot of the samples on a song on his album, so I really had a sense of the feel of it and what he was trying to say with the song. I was getting the vibe of those telephone conversations when a relationship is ending or is difficult. As I started to write, I was drawing on wordplay that related to the telephone and to specific experiences that I thought people could relate to. That's kind of what I tried to do, have the wordplay be a way of engaging people and making what I'm really trying to say interesting and creative and sound fresh.
DX: How long did it take to develop that skill?
Shad: I think the skill is having an instinct for when it's done right. That's the skill, when you get the feel for when it feels effortless, [regardless] of how much time it might take. A song like that took me a while to write, but I think the skill is honing the instinct of knowing when it doesn't feel too forced, and when the tone of it is right.
DX: What are some other personal highlights on the album? And also, what does the acronym of the title T.S.O.L. stand for?
Shad: T.S.O.L. is “lost” backwards. I like the idea that when you're lost, you don't know when you're lost a lot of times. If it's backwards, when you look in the mirror, that's when you know that it's backwards. Sometimes, when you're lost, it takes looking at something familiar, or some sort of realization.
As far as other songs, I like “Call Waiting.” I like that kind of train of thought kind of style. You can go in a lot of different directions; I find that interesting. I also like “Rose Garden,” “Telephone,” and “At The Same Time.”
DX: You've also been touring a lot, both in Canada and in the States. You had toured with K-Os before. Are you on tour right now?
DX: The last tour was in December in Europe, and the next one will be April in Canada. We'll play some shows in America too. In Canada, I'll be touring with this group named Keys and Crates. In the States, I'll be opening for a guy named Mackelmore.
DX: Anyone that you've toured with that you've learned a lot from?
Shad: A lot of the guys I toured with recently. K-Os, I learned a lot from. I think his show is really on a level in terms of what they do musically is so diverse, it's really amazing. What they do is pretty intricate, but there's still a bit of looseness to it, they can alter it a bit. K'Naan, I toured with him in Canada, and I respect how much he gives every night. He thrives to connect emotionally every single night, which is hard when you do something like he does. It's inspiring seeing people that do 280 shows a year, and they never take a night off. They never phone it in, they always go far. Those two, I probably learned from the most.
DX: What are some other special shows you've had in the States?
Shad: Playing in Chicago with K-Os, that was a good night. New York is always good. There were also some surprises. We played somewhere in Arizona that was dope, none of us expected that. It was one of those towns. I don't know how, but they come out once in a while where you're in a town and you're booked in some small club, but all of a sudden it's rammed with people that are really aware of the music. They're there to have a good time, but they're also knowledgeable. Often, when a crowd is really knowledgeable, they're the standstill type. And usually, when a crowd is interactive, fun and hype, they have no idea what's going on. They're just excited. But sometimes, you'll roll into some small town that's the perfect balance. … To me, that's the perfect kind of crowd. Sometimes, it's in a city like Detroit or Chicago. Sometimes, it's in the middle of Arizona somewhere.
DX: When I met you a while back, you coined a term that I thought was really funny: GGBBs, which stands for Good Guy, Bad Band. About people that are great to hang out with, but make bad music. I'm not going to ask you to call anyone out, so I'll ask this: is there anyone you can immediately think of that's GGGB, or Good Guy Good Band?
Shad: [Laughs] I'd say Classified, who's a Canadian Hip Hop artist. He's been really successful up here, and he's a stand-up dude. He's about his music and his family, and he takes care of business. He's common sense and he's a decent person, and when you see people like that succeed, it makes you happy on a lot of levels.