Interview by: Martin Bauman
“If at first you don’t succeed, try again.” Throughout his steady climb from 1995’s Time’s Up, Kid to his most recent self-titled album, Classified’s career has been a perfect example of this lesson. Failing to sign a record deal in his late teens, he opted instead to start his own production label, Halflife Records, and proceeded to produce, record, and release his music independently. It wasn’t until 2001’s Union Dues that he signed a nationwide distribution deal with URBNET, and it took until 2009’s Self Explanatory for Classified to sign a deal with Sony. Now, four years later, Classified is reaping the benefits of his years of hard work. Last year, he signed with Universal Music Canada, and this past month he announced a worldwide distribution deal with Atlantic. For an artist who has built a strong career over two decades in Canada, he’s now finding a larger audience than ever before. The Come Up Show caught up with Classified on tour to discuss his latest album, signing with Atlantic, and keeping grounded, among other things. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: The word just got out last week that you signed with Atlantic, who will handle your worldwide distribution. How does this change things for you?
Classified: I have no idea yet. So far, not at all, but I think in the next five months, a lot of shit is going to change. It just started in the States; “Inner Ninja” went to radio last week, and it’s already climbing up the charts. The team I’m working with… they’re the ones who break these big records. They broke Bruno Mars, they broke B.o.B., Flo Rida, Fun… all these cats that come out with a couple songs, come outta nowhere type shit. And that’s what I want to do. Like, I’ve been up in Canada for so many years, I told them, “I’ll do this deal, but don’t expect me to go down and grind for five years and play in front of 20 people.” I’m just not interested in doing that right now, for where I’m at in Canada.
They’re feeling strong enough that the music alone is gonna break it through, and I’m gonna be begging to come out and tour, so it’s exciting, man! Like I said, I have no idea what’s gonna happen, but it seems like the people I’m associated with have been hooking up stuff. They’ve already got it in a few different TV shows, a couple movies… the guy’s got me making beats for some pretty big people. It’s cool, man. It’s kinda that thing I’ve been waiting for since I was 16, and now I’m 35, and it’s like “okay, this is f—ed up that it’s happening now,” but I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
TCUS: I want to take it back to when you were 16 for just a moment. A big influence on you coming up was the hip-hop coming out of New Jersey. Who were some of the artists you were listening to, and why was it so special?
Classified: It wasn’t for any particular reason. It wasn’t like I was only checking guys from New Jersey. [I’m a] huge fan of Naughty By Nature, the whole Flavor Unit, Queen Latifah, all that shit. I was always into that. And then Redman, Lords of the Underground, Joe Budden… I don’t know, I think it’s very similar to New York; I don’t really separate them like “this is Jersey, that’s New York.” It’s just good music to me and it seems like a lot of the cats that I listen to come from Jersey.
Growin up. I think new jersey hip hop influenced me more then any other place. , redman, naughty, lauryn hill, lords of the underground
— Classified (@classified) November 17, 2012
TCUS: Speaking of Naughty By Nature, one song with particular significance to you is “Hip-Hop Hooray”. What significance does the song have to you?
Classified: You did your homework [laughs]. You know some shit. That was like the first song that I ever [performed], at a school dance, back in grade 10. It was the first time I ever rapped in front of people on the microphone. “Hip-Hop Hooray” used to have the beat for like a minute at the end of it, where it was just the beat riding, and I knew that, so when they played it at my dance, I got up and did my rap shit, felt like a rap superstar for a couple minutes, and it was my first taste of playing onstage.
TCUS: What can you tell me about the Hants East Tigers?
Classified: That’s our [high school] sports team, man. We never had a football team when I was there — they do now, though. We just got a hockey team when I was in like grade 12. Basketball was big, soccer was big…
TCUS: Did you play sports there?
Classified: I was a hockey kid. Definitely. Hockey was my life before music. I played a little bit of soccer, skateboarded a lot, but it was hockey that was probably the forefront of it all.
“I don’t ball, I ball hockey/ Not what you call cocky/ Bob Marley meets Paul Coffey” – Classified in “Anything Goes”
TCUS: I want to talk about your production a bit. What was the first sampler you ever bought?
Classified: The Yamaha MT-100, I think it was called. It had four seconds of sample time, I bought it off of Sixtoo. Sixtoo’s an artist from Truro, Nova Scotia, he used to make rap with Hip Club Groove. He moved to Montreal, and started making more experimental music. I just found out the other day that J. Cole sampled him for Kendrick Lamar’s “HiiiPower” – that guitar in the beat [was Sixtoo’s].
TCUS: What was the best advice Jorun Bombay gave you when you were learning to make beats?
Classified: He taught me how to use a sampler. I’d show him records when I was like 15, rapping about guns and shit, and he was like “do you actually do this shit?” And I was like “no.” He’s the one who really taught me about being myself in music.
TCUS: Let’s talk about your latest album, Classified. The album begins with “3 Foot Tall”, and in your opening verse, you say “been criticized and boxed out since I was a snot-nose.” Can you talk about this?
Classified: You can break it down so many ways. I think any Canadian hip-hop artist feels like they’re boxed out in the industry. I think any East Coast musician in Canada feels like they’re kinda boxed out from the industry. But then even me, when I was a kid from Enfield coming into Halifax, watching shows with Sixtoo and Stinkin’ Rich, and Buck 65… the first show I ever did with Sixtoo and all of them, Sixtoo was gonna diss me that night, because he didn’t like me. None of them liked me; I was the out of towner; I was kinda wack.
I was a young kid that just liked making hip-hop, but I always felt like I was kind of that outsider, that young kid coming up, and a lot of people didn’t really get what I was trying to do, or like what I was doing. It was always kinda me feeling what I was doing, liking what I was doing, and I just kept doing it.
TCUS: What can you tell the people about Shawnasae?
Classified: [Laughs, calls out his brother] Jake! He asked “what can we tell the people about Shawnasae?” That’s a seventies supergroup, originated from Enfield, [with] Mike Boyd Sr. That’s my dad’s band when he was like 16 years old.
TCUS: You have a real family connection on the album. You have Jake playing on a couple tracks, Mike Boyd joins you on “Familiar”, and your dad lays down the guitar in “That’s What I Do”. How important has it been to have family surrounding you throughout your career?
“People hold me up ’cause I hold ’em down/ I never moved away from my family/ and got the same friends since elementary.” – Classified in “That’s What I Do”
Classified: It’s good, because it keeps you grounded. I think that’s what keeps you real and keeps you who you are. But it’s also a bonus for me, because you can be open with family members more than with anybody. So whether it’s Mike saying, “ahh, that song sucks,” or “change this or that,” or it’s dad playing a guitar line and me going “that sucks, keep changing it,” it’s just very easy to work with someone when it’s wide open, and you can trust each other enough to say whatever you want. So it’s great to be able to work with people like that.
TCUS: Speaking of family, in your song “Growing Pains”, you rap about your daughters growing up, and you touch upon some of the irony of how you’ll be telling them not to do things that you’re doing now. What’s that like for you?
“I’ll tell you don’t smoke, don’t drink, or buy booze/ You’ll say that I’m a hypocrite, ’cause I do it and get high, too.” – Classified in “Growing Pains”
Classified: I love it. I love that I can say that shit in a song. I think that’s one of the cool things about doing music, for me. You can express yourself. You can sit down and write for three hours, and really say how you want to say something, and put it out there, and it’s there forever. Some of it might be wrong, you might not agree with it your whole life, but that’s the great thing about being an artist, you can express yourself.
People have emotions and shit they wanna say, and they never have the right time to say it, or they never think of the right way to say it. That’s the cool thing about being an artist, you get to say that shit. People know how you’re feeling, and for me, that’s why I think I live a very positive, happy life. Any of my stress, I put it out there, and people know what I’m going through. It takes the relief off your shoulders, when you feel like people know what you’re going through and relate to it.
TCUS: What’s the greatest thing about being a father?
Classified: Kids. That’s it, man. There’s a lot of hardship with being a father, and there’s a lot of amazing stuff, but it’s great. It changes your whole perspective on life, and what’s important, and what you don’t give a shit about.
TCUS: This marks your 15th full-length album. You’ve been nominated for the Junos multiple times. “Oh… Canada” went platinum. “Inner Ninja” just went platinum. At this point in your career, what’s left for you to accomplish?
Classified: For me, personally, there’s so many more things I could accomplish, but I feel like I’m good. I don’t know if that’s cocky or what, but I survive off music, I tour with my friends… I know exactly what I’m doing. When I put a record out in Canada, I know exactly what we’re going to do, how the year’s gonna look, and I’m very comfortable with that. And that’s why this whole worldwide shit is kinda scary almost, in a sense. I have no idea what to expect, which is fun. But I’m good. I have no problems. I like the music I make now, I like working with the people I work with, and it would be great to do more shit, but I don’t need it.
TCUS: This past week, the CBC released their list of the ’25 greatest Canadian rappers ever’. What was your reaction to the list?
Classified: It’s cool. I was happy to be in the top 10, but it is what it is. It’s just a bunch of people who sat around and made a list that work for CBC [laughs]. But it’s cool, it’s great to be mentioned, and for people to think I’m in the calibre of the people they name me in.
Image credit: CBC Music
TCUS: When all is said and done, where would you like to see yourself among the all-time Canadian hip-hop acts?
Classified: I don’t think I’m the greatest rapper, the greatest producer, or the greatest performer. I’m not a cocky guy, but I really truly believe that there isn’t anybody that’s been doing this as long as I have been, as consistently [as I have been], and a person who makes everything. I don’t go get beats from people, I sit in my studio by myself, make my beats, make my rhymes, book my own tours – until now, now other people handle it – but I don’t think there’s an artist that did it the way I did it and did it as consistently as long as I [have].
So I’m good. I think my real fans, they know that. I feel like that inside, which is great, because that’s where I wanted to get to: a point where I feel like anybody in the country, I can go in the studio by myself, and make a f—ing great record. I don’t know how many other artists can do that in the country.
TCUS: Last question, what would your advice be for somebody coming up who’s trying to get where you’re at right now?
Classified: Tour. That’s all I ever say, man. Tour. Everybody does the Facebook shit, everybody does the Twitter shit, everybody does YouTube videos. That’s great, but tour. Get out and play shows, and do shit like this, and meet people. That’s how you build a career, and that’s how you make money. Especially in Canada. You don’t make money on record sales. You can make a little bit of money on radio royalties, but touring [is how you make money]. If I didn’t tour and do this shit, I would never be surviving in the music industry. So get out, learn how to play a show, and remember, you’re out there to entertain a crowd. You’re performing your songs, but perform it like you mean what you’re performing.