[Interview] Classified Discusses Canadian Hip-Hop, Production, and Progress

by: Kara-Lis Coverdale

Within Canadian hip-hop, there are few who have done it big like producer/emcee Classified has. With a long trail of albums behind him in 2011, Classified is up for “Song of the Year” at the Junos, is about to release his second release Handshakes and Middle Fingers with Sony (and twelfth album overall), and is bound for another cross-Canada tour in a few weeks.

In an extended interview from his home studio in Enfield Nova Scotia, Classified sits back talks about the current affairs of Canadian hip-hop, discusses what it takes to make it as a hip-hop artist in Canada, and shares a lengthy discussion about something too scarcely discussed with this prolific beatmaker: his productions.

TCUS: Congratulations on your Juno nomination.  How do you feel about it?

Classified: Thanks, yeah. I’m really excited about it, but I’m not entirely sure what’s going on because of what happened with “Fall From Paradise” from a couple years ago where we got nominated for a Juno for a single in the rap category but they ended up taking it back because the album had been nominated the year before.  It’s a similar situation this time around where “Oh Canada!” was nominated but that single is off Self Explanatory [2009] which got a nomination for rap album of the year last year. So I’m just hoping that doesn’t happen again this year, but I’m likin’ it  [laughs]. To be nominated for single of the year with Drake,  K’Naan, the Wavin’ Flag All-stars, KD Lang and Hedley — it’s crazy. I’m in good company.

TCUS: You’ve been getting huge mileage out of “O Canada.” With well over two million hits on youtube, this is probably the biggest track of your career.

Classified: Definitely. “O Canada” was the resurgence of Self Explanatory. We were almost done pushing the album and “O Canada!” was the third single. We kinda just said, are we done pushing this, or do we wanna keep going? Then we kinda just thought aww screw it let’s do this. When the Olympics came into the picture later we kept going with it because it took the album and myself to a whole new audience. We were pretty happy with it.

TCUS: Do you think it’s a coincidence that you blew up nationwide with your first major label debut with Sony or is there a more direct correlation there?

Classified: Naw, not at all. If it was with the first single then I would probably be more tempted to say yeah, or if it was the third or fourth single. I think it was just because of the timing with the Olympics that made a huge difference, being in Canada when everyone kinda had their Canada hat on and these came at the same time. We recorded the song a year and a half, almost two years before I even knew the Olympics were coming to Canada. We were just lucky that things just fell into place. Timing was such a crucial thing and it really worked out great. I don’t really think it had anything to do with being independent or major. Being on the major definitely did help because they had those connections that helped to get it out there, but I don’t think that it was a situation where, you know, people were just buying the record because I was on a major or that type of thing.

TCUS: There’s a video of you on youtube of your opening performance of “O Canada” from the 2010 Juno awards last year. It was such a hype performance–you were flying through the crowd…

Classified: Oh yeah, yeah, we had a wicked time with the whole Juno weekend. We ended up flying in Thursday to rehearse and do the Juno cup with Jim Cuddy and all the NHL players, then Friday night we did a club show that was crazy, and Saturday night I did this freestyle thing with the Arkells, and then Sunday night we did the opening for the Junos. So it was just the perfect way to wrap up the whole weekend. It was killer.

TCUS: When people usually interview Classified up here, there is almost always a question or two about Canada. And to an extent you spur this on. The first line in your twitter bio is “Canadian hip-hop artist and producer.”

Classified: Canadian hip-hop. That’s people’s go-to question for me, yep [laughs].

TCUS: This sense of nationalism is something your fans and followers up here have come to expect from you. It is also a large part of what has made you so successful thus far. Part of the goal of signing this deal with Sony however, was to reach an audience in the South and to gain more international connects. Do you think that wearing this Canadian identity on your sleeve has helped gain an audience outside Canada or do you think it’s made it more difficult?

Classified: Right now, because of what Drake and K’Naan have done, I don’t think it can hurt because a lot of eyes are on Canada. Especially in the States where they have had the big East Coast and West Coast and the Big South–I think now they’re looking for something a little new and different too. Maybe two years ago it would have hurt since no one had heard much from Canada unless of course you were from Canada. A lot of people didn’t respect Canadian hip-hop like they should but the music up here is dope. The scene has been dope for years. But now I think it’s like, you know, when you go backpacking in Australia and people see that Canada flag and they get excited and they want to know what it’s about.

TCUS: What’s happening with Halflife?

Classified: Halflife is chuggin. You know, Halflife has been my label for years and I’ve had different guys help me out with it but it’s usually me and one other dude running it. It was just something I did because I realized really quickly that, OK, no one else is going to put my shit out, so let’s just start our own label and do it our selves. But I’ve never been in the position where I felt that Halflife was – and I have no shame in saying this because I think there are a lot of fuckin’ people who claim to have labels and they’re just whack labels that give artists false hopes—but I still think Halflife is trying to build to get to that level to be a legit label that can take an artist and make them something, and get their music out there. So, it’s still something I have going and I produce for a lot of other artists and I just signed an artist Kayo who lives out in Halifax and is going to University here. And he originates from St. Lucia and has been up here for about a year and a half so we have about six songs for his album. I’m going to sign him and bring him on tour. But Halflife is more of a production and label entity. I’m doing the Halflife thing to get my production out there but with Kayo I’m producing and recording his whole album and then I’m going to take it to Sony and to other labels and see if we can get them interested in something like a Sony/Halflife venture.  Halflife is still goin’ strong and makin’ a lot of music but really still trying to get my stuff out there until I am able to push artists and do it right.

TCUS: I saw a video recently where you and Kayo were in the studio together.

Classified: Yeah yeah. That was my home studio back in Enfield. We actually did a little competition last year where we were looking for a new artist and Kayo won. I was trying to find an artist who is doing something a little bit different to the table but at the same time, almost 50/50, someone who is taking the business side seriously and someone who is really trying to push their music and isn’t just saying “Oh, I rap. Let me come to your studio and rap and make a song–make me famous.” Kayo is really pushing his stuff and he goes to university for marketing so he is really trying to take it to the next level. And especially coming from Canada, you need someone who is really trying to take it from all angles. You have to have the entire package. You can’t just think “I’m gonna rap and sit around and smoke weed all day with my friends and get famous off rap music” because that just isn’t going to happen in Canada, and even anywhere else in the rest of the world. If that’s what you’re doin’ you’re not going to make it too far.

TCUS: Well you know that better than anyone. You’ve worked extremely hard to get where you are now.

Classified: Exactly, and I mean, me too. It’s taken me a long time, five or six years, to recognize what it takes, and that’s why I want to help these younger guys coming up and say look, you don’t have to take my opinion but I’ve been in your position so you can either do this or that, or you know, this. I think it really helps just to have someone who has been through that shit and can give an opinion. And not even just that, but it helps that I’m an artist too because I can relate to what they’re trying to do. I know a lot of the times me and my manager will sit down with Kayo and he’d tell him one thing and say “you oughtta do this!” and I’m like fuck that, at the end of the day you’ve gotta do music that represents you. So it’s good to have the artists’s perspective when giving career advice too.

TCUS: This could almost be a second phase or era of Canadian hip-hop not only in terms of the music that is now coming up and being heard in a bigger way but also in terms of the growth of the music industry here from a business perspective, and the support system that comes with that. When you were coming up there was no one who could mentor you. You had to do everything on your own. But now, over ten years after you started out, you’re finally in the position to give back while still doing your own thing as an artist.

Classified: Well when I came up we did some shows with The Rascalz, Choclair, Kardinal, Saukrates and those guys. To me those were the guys doin’ it at that time. Those were the guys in Canadian hip-hop.

TCUS: But they didn’t hold your hand.

Classified: Definitely not [laughs]. Yeah, totally, definitely not at all. And even in Halifax, like you said, there wasn’t really anybody doing it on the level that I’m doing it now that I am in the position to reach out to others, help, and give advice. And yeah, you mentioned giving back, which is hard sometimes because a lot of people expect that, like the whole “put me on!” thing. Sometimes bringing someone starting out on tour is more damaging for their career than helping them because for some kid who has never done a show before and you take them on tour every night to play for a thousand people and they got a hotel room, they liquor back stage for them, and they have a tour bus and shit and then we go off the tour and I’m back home and I say “OK you’ve gotta go back on the road and do some touring. On your own.” So then they have to book their own tour and they’re playing in front of 40 people, sleeping on Joe Blow’s couch, traveling on the greyhound bus, and it’s hard for people to take that step back. So I’m really starting to learn now that it’s hard to just hand these opportunities out because it’s going to be hard for that person to go out and do their own tour once they have experienced all the advantages they had on tour with me.

TCUS: You’re Classified the emcee and you’re Classified the entrepreneur. But you’re also Classified the producer. I don’t think this gets talked about enough.

Classified: I agree. I agree [laughs]!

TCUS: Back in ’06 you did special Music School feature with Exclaim! Where they came to your studio and they asked what kind of gear you use. You told them you were running an Alexis Compressor, a MPC 2000, a Korg Triton, Cool Edit 2.0 on your Dell, a Technics 1200, which actually recently became vintage equipment …

Classified: They stopped making those this year, yeah.

TCUS: You’ve been producing for over a decade now. You’ve seen vinyl, cassettes, digital, CD’s–what has changed for you over the past ten years as a hip-hop producer?

Classified: Well when I came in it was all outboard gear. I mean, you needed to get a sampler, you needed to get a turntable, and you needed to get a keyboard. But now, if you have a laptop you can do everything. You really don’t need anything else other than a laptop. You can get the right programs and learn how to use them and stuff. I’d say the biggest difference is that producers before you’d go to the studio and they’d have their turntables, their records, and this and that. But now you go to someone’s studio and it’s like, well, here’s my laptop. Let’s throw down some beats. So I think the biggest change is with the software, being able to make these crazy beats with just the software.

TCUS: Are you using Logic, or Protools, or what are you using now?

Classified: I use Protools 9 now and a little bit of Reason. But I still sequence all my stuff on my mpc because that’s just the way I came up. I’ve gotta have my pads I can beat on and just sit there and feel what I’m doing. I don’t like to cut in and say, OK, I should put this snare here or kick here. I’ve gotta’ feel it to do it. It’s just the way I was raised on it, so I still use the outboard gear.

TCUS: Oh yeah. I don’t care what people say. I can still tell if a beat is made with a MPC.

Classified: Can you? Cause I can’t [laughs]! I thought I could–I was the biggest hater of fruity loops and the first guy to say fuck all that shit, blah blah blah. But I’ve heard people make beats on Fruity Loops recently and all I can say is that shit is amazing. Even Jorun, who taught me how to use a sampler, uses Fruity Loops now and his shit is crazy! I may be wrong, but I think Boi-1da uses Fruity Loops too.

TCUS: I think he does, but Boi-1da’s beats don’t sound like they were made on an MPC to me. I don’t mean it as a negative thing, it’s just a different sound.

Classified: I don’t know, really? You can tell the difference? I don’t know, because you can get the swing goin’ and once you get that swing going on Fruity Loops– I honestly can’t tell the difference. I was the first guy to say fuck it. But I don’t know. I’ve heard some crazy beats and I’m pretty impressed with what people can do with it.

TCUS: Maybe in terms of the beat itself—the actual break– it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference, but the DAW has completely changed the arrangement. Usually laptop producers tend to go nuts with synthesizers and other effects which has a consequence on the style of the beat itself in addition to the sound.

Classified: True. But I keep going back to Jorun because he’s straight all about vinyl. He has more vinyl than anyone I know, but he uses samples with Fruity Loops and doesn’t ever touch a synth. And it is dope. It’s been sounding great for years. I definitely think that if you know what you’re doing, if you know what you’re doing with the software, then you can make shit that competes with a MPC.

TCUS: So it’s not the equipment it’s the person using it.

Classified: Totally. Totally.

TCUS: Production wise and sound wise, what do you think the biggest difference between indie and commercial records now that you’ve made the switch yourself? Is there a difference in your own music?

Classified: I find that line is so blurred these days. Like, I don’t even know what hip-hop is. I mean, to you. Would Flo-Rida be hip-hop? Black Eyed Peas [laughs]? I find it’s such a fine line between dance music and hip-hop now that half the time you can’t even tell what is what. Most of the time it is a personal opinion, but those underground, dirty grimey beats are also making its way into commercial records. Just listen to something like say “Airplanes” from B.o.B and Em. That’s a commercial track but those drums are grimey! That is a grimey drum beat underneath. So for me, I like to hear a mix of both. I used to hate synth and now I don’t mind them. As long as there is a little bit of grime and a little bit of drum samples or something in there, you can mix it up and have a bit of both.

TCUS: Well that’s what “That Ain’t Classy” sounds like to me: A little bit of both.

Classified: And that’s exactly what it is. I would never release a song that was based around a synth before. And a lot of people think that sound – daaa neeh neeeh—is electric guitar but that’s me playin’ synth. And then with the grimey drum beat goin’ on and shit I was thinking, this is bangin’! It kinda sounds current but it still has that grimey boom-bap hip-hop sound that I love.

TCUS: It totally sounds like a radio hit. I woke up this morning singing it.

Classified: Dope [laughs]! I’m excited for people to hear it! And this is actually what has surprised me, because even when I brought it to Sony I said look dude, I’m not trying to make a radio hit. And when they got back to me they were like “nah, nah, this is a radio hit right here!” And I’m like, are you serious? I didn’t think it was. The chorus is kinda catchy so I can see people getting into that but beat-wise I still hear it as a head-nodder grimey beat. It seems to be reaching both that audience and the other audience as well.

TCUS: Is that you singing over the hook?

Classified: Aww yeah! Stretchin’ the vocal chords a little bit!

TCUS: This is sort-of unusual for you, isn’t it?

Classified: It is. I always sang a little bit on songs but I’d kind-of hide it because I didn’t want people to know I was singing. Even some of my older stuff like “The Maritimes,” that was kinda goofy singing but it was still singing. And I had this other song called “Put It All In Perspective” and that shit came out in 2006 with a little bit of singing in it here and there. Part of me goes “I can’t sing on a track! That ain’t hip-hop!” But nah, I’ve gotta’ keep expanding. I, can’t just keep doing the same thing. Plus I’ve always had melodies in my head, but for this album I just decided I’m going to throw them down and see what they sounds like. I know I’m not a singer but I think I’m a good enough producer that I can make those little singing lines sound good by producing them properly.

TCUS: Well your new album Handshakes is all about change whether it’s musical change or otherwise. You once said that singing isn’t hip-hop and now you’re straight up singing on your first single! Is the way you produce and make music part of this idea of change too?

Classified: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean it really got to me five or six years ago, when every hip-hop song had the singing chorus, and I think it just got to the point where it was too much. It annoyed me. But then, you know, I took a step back and kinda just took it for what it is. Because I enjoy all types of music. I like a lot of different musics from all different genres so it’s not that I hated singing but I just think a lot of people who do it shouldn’t do it sometimes because it just doesn’t sound right. I think if you use it the right way you can make it sound good. I mean, at the end of the day that’s all that matters: does it sound good or does it not sound good?

TCUS: Yes, and whether or not it’s a true representation of where you are at as a musician.

Classified: Yeah. Exactly. And you won’t hear me, ever, even at a live show or anything sitting there holding my Christina Aguilera note or tryin’ to do some bullshit. I actually like to call it ghetto singing when you kinda just almost rap and sing at the same time [laughs].

TCUS: Is “That Ain’t Classy” a good taste of what the rest of Handshakes and Middle Fingers is going to be like?

Classified: Well that was actually the first song I did for the album, which has never happened for me before. I’ve never had my first single be the first song I’ve recorded. So that song is almost a year and a half old by now. I think it is a good representation. I do sing a little bit more on the album, and even beat-wise, just having the use of an orchestra and stuff like at the end of “That Ain’t Classy”…

TCUS: That was a real orchestra?

Classified: Yeah yeah! A buddy of mine who writes for Symphony Nova Scotia, he works closely with me. So we started working on this album and as soon as I’d get a song to a point where I thought it was dope, I’d just send it to him and he’d try some stuff. And sometimes I’d use it and sometimes I wouldn’t. But we had, you know, string players, cello players, trumpets, trombone players come to the studio. And just a lot of different stuff that brought more musicality to it. I think, personally, they are just better songs. They are a step up from my last album. I can’t do the same thing I did last time, so I’m just stepping it up a little bit more.

TCUS: That’s one thing about your discography. Every album is better than the last, which makes you a bit of an anomaly. You’ve never gone backwards.

Classified. Thank-you very much. You know, some people argue that. Some people think Hitch Hiking Music was the best album, or Trial and Error. And personally I think people are crazy [laughs]! I mean, I’m not going to hate on it because that is all music I made, but I think that music has a lot to do with timing and what is going on in your life, too. So for me, when I’m making a song and if I don’t feel like it is better than my last work I don’t even finish the song. I have a lot of songs where I’ve started it and gotten half way through it and I just think, this doesn’t compete with what I’ve done or done in the past, so I just scrap it and start again. With every album I make I try to make it better than the last one.

TCUS: Well it’s a great motto to live by. If you’re not living by that, then what are you doing?

Classified: Well, I think everyone should do that, personally. I mean, we usually cheer those artists. I’m the biggest Snoop Dogg fan, but I’d love to hear  Snoop come out with something like Doggystyle again.

TCUS: There’s always that guy who says “Oh, I love his old shit way better” whether or not they have even heard the new stuff.

Classified. Oh yeah. A lot of people like to discover artists, or like to listen to artists people don’t know and they take pride in that. So a lot of the times they may not even like the old stuff better but it just feels cooler and you feel like you’re more a part of that artist’s work.

TCUS: Can you tell us who’s on the new album?

Classified: Joe Budden, Brother Ali, Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo, Kayo, my brother Mike Boyd who is like, in the studio with me every day with me so I’m surprised he didn’t get onto the album more [laughs]. But, we didn’t try to do too many guests on this album. I wanted to do 15 tracks, and I did the first ten or eleven by myself. Saukrates also did a chorus on one song, so I have a couple guys who are real singers come in and do some work with choruses. But rhyme-wise, it’s Joe Budden, Brother Ali, Kayo, and Mike Boyd who are the main guys.

TCUS: Top 5 Canadian Producers real quick?

Classified: Classified, Kemo, Saukrates, Rich Kidd, and Boi-1da. I know I’m missing somebody and later I’ll probably be thinking damn, but this is a pretty solid five.