[Interview] Classified talks going quadruple Platinum, learning from Maestro Fresh Wes, and keys to success

Interview by: Martin Bauman

The past several months have been monumental for Classified. After winning the Juno Award for “Rap Record of the Year” in April – marking his first Juno win after seven previous nominations – the Enfield, Nova Scotia emcee/producer’s success streak has continued, earning not only a Gold-selling record, but also a quadruple – yes, quadruple – Platinum-selling record. (It’s worth mentioning that the latter also gives Classified the distinction of having the highest-selling Canadian hip-hop song of all time.) Yet, despite all of his increased success, the Atlantic signee remains as down-to-earth – and driven – as ever, quick to credit others who’ve influenced him over the years. The Come Up Show caught up with Classified to discuss “Inner Ninja” going quadruple Platinum, what he’s learned from Maestro Fresh Wes, his thoughts on the keys to success, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Congratulations on “3 Foot Tall” going Gold. How does that feel?

Classified: It feels amazing, especially for that track; I didn’t picture that track to [even] go to radio. That was one of my favourite songs on the album, but even when I made the beat, it was more of an underground hip-hop type song. When the radio team wanted it to go to radio, I was like “crazy, let’s do it!” The fact that the radio was even playing it, and it went gold… I’m pretty proud of it.

TCUS: You have a line in that song that goes “feeling like we built the team, but only I wear the jersey.” Can you elaborate on that?

Classified: Well, I started rapping when I was like 15-16 years old. Even back then, I had a group that I rapped with – it was like me and three other guys – you know, we started rapping together, [but they] slowly kinda fell off and stopped doing rap, and started worrying more about life and getting jobs and going to university. Even later in the years, working from like 20 to 25, I worked with a lot of artists and [I was] in a lot of groups, and 99% of those people don’t do music anymore. That’s kinda what that whole line was about; we all worked towards something, but I feel like nowadays, I’m the only one that’s still doing it.

TCUS: What was that first group you were in?

Classified: Celtic Rebels [laughs]. We were [hugely] influenced by House of Pain back in the day, alright? Then we had Ground Squad; that was a group I was in with like seven or eight other guys: White Mic, a guy I still work with; Tyrone, of Trailer Park Boys fame – J-Roc’s boy; Mad Craze, his whole crew; Short Shane; Unknown; and a couple other guys. Cult of Jim was before Celtic Rebels – that was when I was like 15. [I’ve been in] a lot of different rap groups, to even my brother [Mike Boyd]. I’ve done music with him forever; I thought this guy fell off, then he just started making music again like two months ago. He’s back! He wanted to wear the jersey.

TCUS: Speaking of another Canadian hip-hop artist who’s still doing it, Maestro Fresh Wes, someone you’ve worked with a number of times, is about to be inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame on September 21st. What kind of an influence did he have on you growing up?

Classified: We actually play in Montreal that night, but we’re working on something where we’re trying to get there too. I really want to get there; Maestro is one of those guys that I grew up watching and listening to his music. [When he later] reached out to me to do music, it was the first time I was ever star struck, like okay, this guy’s gonna come to my studio and work with me! And we’ve probably made almost an album-worth of material out of all the songs we’ve done – probably ten songs. He’s a good friend, and a guy that I like making music with. Now that he’s getting inducted into the Walk of Fame, I’m hoping I can get out there and celebrate him.

Just even being the first Canadian rapper that really made it on that type of level, that’s a big influence. Even back then, it wasn’t even like “oh, he’s a Canadian rapper”, he was just a rapper. Back in ’89, when that came out, it wasn’t so separated between Canadian hip-hop and American hip-hop. It was just dope hip-hop, and “oh, look, he’s Canadian too, that’s crazy!” The first time I was with him in the studio, he came down to my house. We stayed in the studio for like two or three days, and just [to see] his energy after doing music for 20 years, it’s refreshing to see someone who loves what they’re doing.

TCUS: How did the two of you first meet?

Classified: This was back in the Trial & Error days, which was an album I put out in like 2003. He heard a song, and Darryl from Urbnet – an old label that I used to work with – he told me, “Maestro liked your stuff, he wants you to call him,” and he gave me his number. I was like, I’m gonna call Maestro Fresh Wes? This is weird right now [laughs]. And I called him, and he was just a super-friendly guy, like, “Hey, whassup b, love your music, man. I’d love to work on something.” The first song we did was “Just the Way It Is”, which was on Trial & Error with him, Eternia, and DL Incognito.

TCUS: Speaking of another Canadian hip-hop icon, and now that the album’s been out awhile, was there an attempt to get Snow on the record?

Classified: Yeah. [Laughs] I reached out on Twitter; I was like “I need a connect for Snow,” and everybody thought I was looking for cocaine. Everybody was like “ahh man, don’t go down that route, man,” and I was like what is everyone talking about? Why are they hating on Snow? I [finally] got what was going on – I don’t do coke; I’m a weed head – but yeah, I’m a fan of Snow; I grew up on the old Snow stuff. I met him a couple years ago; we did a couple shows in Newfoundland years ago.

TCUS: What song was he going to appear on?

Classified: The one with Raekwon [“I Only Say It Cause It’s True”]. I was looking for a chorus for that, and I was like man, let me try to get Snow on this.

TCUS: Moving to another song on that album, “Inner Ninja” is now quadruple Platinum. Did you ever see that coming?

Classified: No. I thought the song was something special; even when [David Myles and I] made it…

Mike Boyd: [Interjects] It almost didn’t make the album.

Classified: No, it [was] always [going to] make the album. It was questionable to be the first single, because it was so much different [than] the rest of the album. I usually like to drop something more familiar to the rest of the album. I knew it was different, and I [thought] this is going to have its own little spot, and then when I started talking to the radio team and planning it out, they were like “this could be something.” When [David Myles and I] were making it, and we were calling it “Inner Ninja” and all this stuff, we were [asking ourselves], is this cheesy? Is this too stupid? You know what I mean?

It’s a serious song, but we didn’t want to be over-the-top [and] preachy about it; we wanted to have fun with it. I loved ninjas as a kid, so I was all about it, and Dave [suggested] finding your inner ninja. And we [thought], if this goes, it’s gonna go. People are gonna catch onto it, or it’s gonna be one of those quirky little songs that has its own little cult following. But it took off like we couldn’t believe.

TCUS: What does it mean to you to have a quadruple Platinum record?

Classified: It’s like 370,000 sold, so that’s salary for the next couple years – that’s a great thing. But at the same time, for iTunes, it’s the biggest Canadian-selling hip-hop song [of all time]. It sold more than Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”, which is crazy – in Canada, let’s be clear about that. I don’t have that Eminem money. It’s crazy, man. It still sells like it just came out; it’s been out for almost a year now.

TCUS: Speaking of success, Macklemore opened up recently about how if he wasn’t white, he wouldn’t be as successful as he is. He was talking about “Thrift Shop”, and how white parents will let their kids listen to it and feel safe about it, because he’s white. Do you see a difference being a white rapper in the way that you’re perceived by fans and the whole industry?

Classified: At least a little bit, of course. But I also think that even what I’m talking about is more relatable to… I don’t even want to say white people or black people, because there are poor white people, rich white people, poor black people, rich black people, middle-class white people, and middle-class black people. I think [people] from all walks of life can relate to certain stuff, but I think with Macklemore [and] mainstream America, everything he’s talking about in “Thrift Shop” from R. Kelly’s blankets to being in the thrift shop, that’s just middle-class America s–t. I think whether it was a white guy or a black guy, people would still relate to it.

Obviously, you’re right, I think a lot of middle-class Americans are more comfortable because it’s a white dude that’s like “hey, I’m having fun with it, look, I’ve got a big c–k,” you know what I mean? I don’t know, man; I just think the world is really messed up right now, from WorldStarHipHop to people wanting to be famous [just] to be famous – that’s just always bugged me – whether it’s a negative outlook on someone, they don’t care, they just want to be famous. People are starting to look up to people like that, and I find that very weird.

If I [wasn’t] a white rapper, would I have less white fans? Probably. Not even white people… when I say that I [grew] up watching someone like House of Pain coming out or Beastie Boys, it was like “oh look, white guys are rapping.” It’s not like I’m racist, like I hate black rappers – Naughty by Nature’s my favourite group of all time – but it was like “wow, white people have rhythm like this too? We can hang and do this”. Because [hip-hop] was a black culture, all I ever saw when I first came out was black people doing it – besides Vanilla Ice, which was a joke, so it was even [more] like “f–k, white people suck at this s–t.” And [finally] when you see someone good, it’s like “oh, that’s cool!”

TCUS: The most commercially successful rapper of all-time is Eminem.

Classified: And I think it’s partly because he’s white, and partly because he’s one of the greatest lyricists of all-time, so everybody from all cultures can relate to him. As much as it is the skin colour, I think it’s the topics of what they’re talking about. I don’t think [race] should matter; it should be more about what they’re talking about [and] what they’re going through. [I think] people relate to the lyrics. It doesn’t matter what colour they are; maybe they grew up watching the same s–t that I watched, played the same video games, or related to my lifestyle.

I think that’s why Kanye crossed over so much. He was a black guy, but he talked about middle-class regular people s–t, and he’s been pretty successful. To me, he’s one of the greatest artists. When his first album [The College Dropout] came out, I was like this guy is exactly the type of s–t that I’ve been trying to make: a guy who produces his own records, [and] he’s talking [about] regular, everyday life stuff. That’s the majority of people in America, so they’re gonna relate to it more.

[It just happens that] in Canada, there are more white people that are gonna relate to my lifestyle, because there are more white people that are in outback Enfield, Nova Scotia. I had two black guys at my school, and a thousand white people, know what I mean? There are a lot of small towns like that in Canada – we’ve toured here, we’ve seen it a million times. It’s not to say if you’re black, you’re not gonna relate to this; if you’re black and you grew up in my neighbourhood, you’re probably gonna relate to the exact same s–t. I don’t think it’s [about] skin colour, I think it’s about where you grow up.

DJ IV: [For instance,] when we do the Canadian tours and we get to the Prairies, I find a lot of native guys [come up and talk to us, saying] “I’ve had tough times, but your music helped get me through it.” There is no boundary to it.

TCUS: Moving on, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Classified: I don’t know, I haven’t got it yet.

TCUS: Fair enough [laughs]. This wasn’t your tweet, but you re-tweeted this: “If you aren’t willing to invest money into your career, you aren’t willing to succeed. Takes money to make money.” Can you talk about this?

Classified: I think you’ve got to make sacrifices if you really want to be successful in something. Even my brother Mike Boyd who’s sitting here, he’s working on an album now. He gets beats from me, and it doesn’t really cost me anything to give him beats, but I [tell him] “I’m gonna charge you $200 a song,” which is nothing, if anybody knows how much it [costs] to make a studio and get a producer.

Mike Boyd: It’s a very good deal.

Classified: It’s a great deal. Hooked him up. But I’m like, “I’m [charging you] just so you put some money on the line.” If you’re gonna just do it for fun, do it for fun, but if you’re really trying to [be] serious and get your stuff out there, you’ve gotta put more [effort] than just, okay, I’m gonna write my raps, go to the studio, and have fun with it. You’ve gotta really put yourself out there and put your time and energy – and your money – into it…

Mike Boyd: [Interjects] The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

Classified: Mike Boyd once said, “the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.” I believe him.

TCUS: There you go, that’s the best advice you’ve received. Looking back on your career, what’s one thing you know now that you wish you would have known back then?

Classified: I guess [I wish I knew] more about the record label [process]. When I first came out – and I think most artists that just come out are like “I wanna get a record deal; I wanna get signed so I can blow up,” – no one’s gonna sign you unless you’re already making money on your own and you’re already successful on some kind of terms. [That is,] unless they’re just going to rip you off. If you’re nobody and they sign you, you’re gonna get ripped off. I think you’ve just gotta realize that no one’s gonna help you in this game, and just really put your head down and go at it, like, I’m gonna have to do this on my own. If somebody steps in and helps me out, that’s a bonus.

TCUS: Moving from the past to looking ahead, what’s one thing you’d like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Classified: Madison Square Gardens. Obviously that would be great, but that’s not happening. I dunno, just producing and s–t. At the end of the day, I want to be a producer, work in my home studio, produce my own records, and bring artists in. [I want to] bring artists that I’m a fan of, that I grew up listening to, and produce records for them. That’s where I want to be.