Photo credit: Danielle Da Silva
Interview by: Martin Bauman
How do you follow an album that won a Juno? That was the pressing question facing Shad as he set to work on his latest album, Flying Colours. His response? Take the same approach as always, trying to write music worth sharing and explore ideas worth talking about – something he had plenty of time to do after completing his master’s of Liberal Studies at Simon Fraser University. The result, in Shad’s fourth full-length album, is a thoughtful offering that delves into the topics of success and failure, fear and pride, and the power of truth, all while displaying Shad’s typical honesty and humour. As a result, it may just be the best album yet for the Vancouver-based “most-rewinded Rwandese.” We caught up with Shad at his homecoming show in London to talk about Flying Colours, fighting fear and pride, why it’s important to remember to remember, and much more. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: First order of business, I would like to announce my availability for the third verse on the “Stylin” remix with you and Chip Fu. Your thoughts?
Shad: [Laughs] Nice! Yeah, that’s coming. I’m working on another little idea for that that’ll put it over the top.
TCUS: Since we’re here in your hometown of London, I figured it’s only appropriate we speak about some hometown memories. What significance does The Embassy have to you?
“N-n-nostalgia, thinkin’ about my old hometown/ Growin’ up with folks showin’ us lovin’ that knows no bounds.” – Shad, Verse 1 in “it ain’t over”
Shad: Dude. The Embassy is where I saw my first concert – my first non-Ribfest type of concert, that wasn’t, like, the Nylons or Kim Mitchell playing in [Victoria Park]. I saw the Pharcyde there; I saw Masta Ace there, so it was big for that. Some of my earliest favourite memories of playing music and freestyling with friends was at The Embassy. I had some great shows [there]. My first real show, with a group called Bread & Water, was there. Also, the first show I ever had with my first album [When This Is Over] was opening for Josh Martinez at The Embassy.
TCUS: Let’s talk about your old high school, London Central Secondary School. Did you have any battles there?
Shad: No battles, but my patner-in-rhyme Antawn – who went by Black Moses at the time – [and I] used to rap there, and Niles [too], who was also part of our group. We weren’t really a group at that time – we became a group later – but I used to rap with them there. So, no battles at Central, but a little bit of rapping in the cafeteria and the bathroom.
TCUS: Back then, were you trying out any other monikers?
Shad: No monikers in the high school days. [High school mostly consisted of] just getting a Slurpee at 7-Eleven on Oxford and Adelaide after playing some ball at the Barracks, and then sitting on the curb and maybe freestyling a little bit. That was basically the extent of my rapping in high school.
TCUS: One of the key staples of any rapper is the adlib – something you don’t seem to have. Have you ever messed around with any different adlibs?
Shad: See, my adlib game is weak. It’s a real hole in my game. Some guys are really strong with the adlibs. I would rate Blu as one of the top adlibbers right now in the game; he doubles himself slowly; he’ll add, like, “maaaan” in between, you know? He’s very good. One of the best in the game. My adlib game is pretty weak, so I didn’t have much – especially in high school – but I’m still working on that aspect.
TCUS: Well, that’s where I come in. Recognizing your adlib game is weak, I’ve taken the opportunity to come up with a couple options for you. [Fans out cards with adlibs on them] I’ve done the hard work of coming up with them, all you have to do now is leave it up to fate and choose one, and whichever one comes up will be your future adlib.
Shad: Okay! I like this. [Pulls card, it reads “Golden Ghost”] I like that! Okay, so, Golden Ghost. I’m trying to imagine a way where I would slip that into my verse, you know what I mean? Obviously, to start. So the chorus is ending, I’m about to come in for my sixteen: “Shad K! [Whispers] Golden Ghost…” and then I start. That’s the adlib right there.
TCUS: Tell me about the significance of that name to you.
Shad: [We were the] Central Golden Ghosts. For the record, [we were the] 1996-1997 midget basketball champions. I had a great time there, man. That was back in the five years of high school days, where you had a whole year to just play cards in the caf – it was an important part of your high school education at that point.
TCUS: What’s your greatest high school basketball memory from playing for the Golden Ghosts?
Shad: Probably winning that championship. I played very poorly in that game, but it was good. We played against RMC – who had beat us twice that year – and I was the point guard of my team. For some reason, they didn’t press, and usually they were a hardcore pressing team; I was very worried about that, but they didn’t press, so I just got to walk the ball up the floor all game – which, if you know me, I enjoy taking my time [laughs]. So I definitely enjoyed that I could walk the ball up the court. It was nice.
TCUS: Who would your equate your game to in the NBA?
Shad: I’ll be realistic about my comparison. Like, I’m not gonna throw out Kyrie Irving on you; I’ll be honest. At best, I’m a Jarrett Jack. That’s on a good day.
TCUS: How are you like Jarrett Jack?
Shad: Uhh… Bald. Guard. And just feisty, just getting in there. I’ll play hard. I’ll force the issue, get in the paint, and try to create. I might cause some turnovers in the process, but I’m not too worried about that. On very good days, I might even say I’m a quarter of the way to Steph Curry, just because it gets furious. It starts to rain. When it rains, it pours.
TCUS: Are the ankles a problem too?
Shad: No, the ankles are good, because I have no real athleticism – which has prevented injury, because I never go fast enough or jump high enough to really injure myself. So my ankles are good; my knees are good; my body is good, man. So I might even be Steve Nash in the sense that I can play for a while, due to my lack of athleticism.
TCUS: Final high school question before we get into what you’ve been up to lately. What significance did Aquemini have to you at this time?
Shad: Let me just take you back to that moment. I think it was 1998 – grade 10 or 11. I go on a field trip with my Discman, so I had a stack of CDs that I was hyped to listen to: new Brand Nubian album, Black Star album, Lauryn Hill album – still in rotation, there was a new Ras Kass album, and then there was Outkast’s Aquemini. I put Aquemini in the Discman… it did not leave my Discman for like three months.
And I wanted to listen to these other albums – some of them went on to become very influential albums for me, and albums that I love – but that album, I was like, What. Is. This? What IS this?! This is a whole other world. It was one of those experiences where you’re listening to an album, and you’re like, I’m in another world; this is not normal. That’s Aquemini.
TCUS: I was going to say, no love for Black Star?
Shad: That album went on to be a favourite of mine, but I could not put away that Outkast album for a minute, you know? You hear “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” as a 16 year old for the first time, and you’re like, what is that? It’s next level. So it was a very influential album for me, and that was the memory. We went to Toronto on a field trip, and it was time to hang out with your friends and play around on the bus, and I was like, “don’t talk to me. Something’s happening in my ears.”
TCUS: Let’s talk about Flying Colours. You’ve described the album as being about trying even if you fail. Can you elaborate on this thought?
Shad: Yeah. There were certain sentiments that were really inspiring me during that time, and that was one of them. That came to be sort of a new definition for me of the word ‘faith’, as a belief that trying is worth it, even if you fail. That’s what it means. I remember one time in conversation, a friend of mine [told me she] was talking to her class and she said, “let’s say you’re walking by a burning house, and there’s a kid in the window screaming for help. You go in to save that kid, and you die. And the kid dies. Was it worth doing?”
And I said, “that’s a really interesting question to ask your class, because to me, that’s the question of faith.” Is it worth it to try, even if you fail? I don’t know. That’s a heavy question, and I think questions like that and ideas like that were what inspired this album, what kept me stimulated and gave me a lot to think about and write about.
TCUS: This quote comes from your album’s liner notes: “When we realize our brokenness, we do not have to fall into depression […] Seeing our own beauty and brokenness allows us to recognize, hidden under the brokenness and self-centredness of others, their beauty, their value, and their sacredness.” What’s the significance of this quote to you?
Shad: I was reading this at the end of making this album, and I think I felt like that quote summed up a nice place to end. I think “Long Jawn”, “Thank You”, and “Remember to Remember” fall on a similar point for me of perspective on things – perspective on success and failure, which are two concepts I wanted to explore on the album. I like that quote. “We are beloved and so is everyone else.”
It’s like I say on “Remember to Remember”, “we only feel better when we feel like we’re better than.” It’s a strange result of our capitalist society, and maybe something in our nature is competitive. There’s nothing wrong with competition, generally speaking, but there’s something wrong with that idea that “we only feel better when we feel like we’re better than.” I think there’s moments in my mind where I understand that I’m great and so is everyone else, and I think that’s the best place to be in and the best place to work from.
Kanye had an interview recently where he said, “people that love my music, it’s because they believe in themselves,” and he said, “I believe in myself, and I make music to help people believe in themselves and believe they can be great, too.” I think Mark Twain said, “real greatness makes people believe they can be great, too.” It’s not the kind of greatness that belittles people; that’s not greatness at all. I think it’s more small-minded people, people who need to be “better than,” that try to pull everybody else down. That’s what that quote summed up to me.
It’s hard to put into words, which [holds up the album] I guess is why you make something like this, right? It’s hard to sum up very neatly, but I really like that idea that we all have just a little piece to contribute, and that’s a beautiful thing. We all have our piece.
TCUS: There are some great lines to discuss in Flying Colours. Let’s start with the intro, “Lost”. You rap, “this life is a hell, steps from heaven. Fear is a jail, I’m in a cell next to legends.” Tell me about that line.
Shad: I like that: “this life is a hell, steps from heaven.” To me, it speaks to a hopeful thing. If you think about the world, there’s a lot of bad, but part of me feels like we’re just that close from something good. Also, I think it speaks to our mindsets, because a lot can shift just in your perspective. I find I have moments where I’m really down, and in almost an instant, I feel better. Why? Because suddenly I remember to be grateful for things, and my actual mood and psychology has changed – my outlook on the whole world has changed in an instant. That line, to me, it’s kinda always simultaneously true that the world is the worst and the best at the same time.
And then I say, “fear is a jail, I’m in a cell next to legends.” That was my way to transition to Kheaven [k-os] and to Relic on another track, my way of saying, “we’re all in the same thing.” It’s interesting to think that we’re in the prison of fear sometimes, but we’re there with the next great person, you know? We’re all trapped by fear once in awhile, so I kinda like that spin on it.
TCUS: It’s interesting that you mentioned needing to remember to be grateful, because one of the recurring themes throughout the album is the phrase “remember to remember.” What does this saying mean to you?
Shad: That was a very significant phrase for me while I was working on this album, because I feel like that’s what I do now all the time. In my own private personal meditations, I’m just reminding myself of the same things over and over – the same stuff we’re talking about right now. I’m like, why do I have to wake up and remind myself of that everyday? But I do, because I’ll wake up, hop out of bed, and I’ll go on my email, or Google, or Facebook, and see what’s going on, and I’m suddenly distracted and disoriented. Then I [realize], I need to take a second; I need to remember what I’m here to do, which is just contribute my small piece.
“I forget… then I remember to remember/ on the darkest day, the sun’s still shining in December.” – Shad, Verse 1 in “Yall Know Me”
And that’s something that I have to remind myself of everyday. So, to me it’s like, really, the whole work is I just have to remember to take that time to remember. That’s it. because it’s really not that complicated. Life isn’t that complicated. It can’t be, or else it wouldn’t be fair, you know? I think it’s not that complicated, but you do have to take time and just remember some important things.
TCUS: Let’s move on to “Fam Jam”. One of the themes you’ve related the song to is a quote by Bonnie Sherr Klein, who, upon being appointed to the Order of Canada, said, “I am beginning not to recognize this country.” What about this feeling spoke to you?
Shad: Well, that was something that I felt. I don’t follow politics super closely, but it’s a thing you can kind of feel, you know? You see these different policies creep up, and you’re like, wait a second, these aren’t the values that we’re proud of. This isn’t the country we’re proud of. When you hear about medical care for refugees being taken away, and aboriginal rights, and what’s going on in New Brunswick right now, it’s like, this isn’t the Canada that we want to be proud of.
It just made me think, these values that define our country are great, but they don’t just stay there, you know what I mean? We have to progress them. It’s not like we got it right; we started going in the right direction, and we have to keep going in that direction. We can progress these values; we can get closer and closer to equality if we move in that direction, and if we don’t, it’s scary – or if not scary, sad. It was cool putting out that video, and then right the day before, I read that quote and [thought], that would be a great thing to share alongside the video.
“What seems good ain’t always good/ Even what’s really good ain’t all that it could be.” – Shad, in “Progress”
TCUS: That idea connects well with your song “Progress”. It’s interesting that you chose to label this track “Progress”, when what you’re describing – especially in “The Future is Here” – really seems like the opposite of progress.
Shad: Yeah. That was one of those ones that is just an abstract kind of song. Most of my songs, and most rap songs in general – at least right now – is personal, conversational stuff. Whether it’s Drake, or J. Cole, or Kanye, we’ve gotten used to this thing where people talk in very straightforward, conversational terms about their real life events, whereas “Progress” was out of that mode – so that’s the first thing I’ll say about it.
As far as calling it “Progress”… See, it was hard to title, because it’s abstract and I was just connecting with feelings and the images were coming out of feelings, but I felt like what the images were describing was something about ‘progress’, or ’empire’, and our idea of what progress is. In a sense, I’m definitely progressive in a lot of ways, but I think that just like there’s definitions of success I don’t agree with, there’s definitions of progress that are problematic, and I think the song speaks to that a little bit.
TCUS: Let’s talk about another song, “Dreams”. The chorus has stuck with me: “We think ’til we’re emotional and drink until we’re sociable again/ This whole century is sensory overload.” Can you dig into that?
Shad: I think the first time I ever noticed that pattern was probably at Laurier. You start to notice this pattern of, “oh man, exams, crazy! Study, study, study, study, study. Ugh! I’m done! Drink, drink, drink, drink, drink. Ugh! I’m sick! What? I just wasted a week? Gotta study, study, study…” It’s just like, wow. It’s kinda crazy, this whole insane pattern where we get so stressed that we need to blow off steam. How do we blow off steam? It’s just weird, and the way our world moves so quickly, we don’t really have time to sit and think about the way our world works. In order to survive, we have to just hop in and do it. That’s what it spoke to for me.
TCUS: This is a quote of yours from another interview: “Most times, happiness comes from being able to forget yourself.” Can you elaborate on that?
“The thing with rapping is it helps me get away from myself/ Put these thoughts and feelings out so they don’t stay on the shelf/ Stay in my soul cause I find the more I stay to myself/ the less I find the real me, the more I stray from myself/ and can’t relate to no one else; I don’t have to make a way for myself/ just make my thoughts point away from myself.” – Shad, Verse 2 in “We, Myself, and I”
Shad: Let’s take writing lyrics for an example. In my own experience, I find the best lyrics come to me in two places: either some kind of very deliberate spiritual meditation – prayer, or something like that – or in the shower. My guess is, the common denominator is those are the two places where I’m not thinking about myself; my mind is on other people; it’s on higher principles; it’s on nothing at all, because I’m just in the shower.
TCUS: So you’d equate creativity and happiness in that sense.
Shad: I think that there’s something about that – that I’m creative in those spaces – but also, I’ve had a very curious experience where something good happens to me, and I think about it, and I’m happy, but if I think about it for two more minutes, I’m suddenly depressed about it, because there’s always some element of it that’s potentially depressing. Say for example, I win an award. That’s great! I’m stoked, that’s awesome, I get to share this with my fans. Oh, I wonder what the backlash is gonna be? Maybe there’s more pressure. Suddenly, I’m depressed about it. If I could just forget about it, think about it enough and leave it in its place, and move on with my life and what I need to do, I’d be happier. I’d say both of those experiences speak to that.
I think a lot of happiness comes from forgetting about yourself. Creativity is a great example, because that’s when you’re just lost in your work; you’re enjoying your work, and that’s pure joy. Like, when I’m onstage, that’s the place I’m always trying to get to: not thinking about what I’m doing anymore. Not thinking about me, not thinking about anything. I’m just in the song, and in an experience with the audience.
“I told E that I like to write when it’s late and I’m sleep-deprived/ That’s when I’m more inclined to joke and just speak my mind.” – Shad, Verse 2 in “Love Means”
TCUS: Getting back to the album, I think another one of the things you touch on a lot is dealing with fear and pride, and how to manage those. This is something you talk about in “Remember to Remember”, where you rap, “The enemy isn’t of flesh and blood, thugs and cynics/ We’re fighting fear and pride for the love within us.” Can you elaborate on this?
Shad: I think there’s probably other evils in the world, but if I could identify possibly the two biggest – or at least two of the biggest – I’d say they’re fear and pride. I think those are two of the biggest evils, two of the biggest hindrances, and to me, a lot of the main task in life is just overcoming those. Again, [that] almost [goes] back to the “remember to remember” thing.
I’ll illustrate with an example. I was playing pickup a couple summers ago, and this guy was one of those aggro dudes that you play pickup with who yells at people all the time. I was just like, man, this guy is pissing me off, like, dude, it’s just pickup. So I was really pissed off at this guy, and I thought this guy was my problem. I thought about it for a couple days, and I realized that actually, what really pissed me off is the fact that I didn’t say anything to him.
So really, what was making me upset was my own reaction, the fact that my pride was offended and I didn’t have the courage and self-respect in that moment to stand up for myself. So the problem wasn’t him, exactly, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I mean when I say it’s fear and pride. Human beings are all the same, and we all have our issues, but [it boils down to those two].
“Human beings… deep inside, we decide if we’re free men/ Remember to remember.” – Shad, Verse 1 in “Remember to Remember”
TCUS: There’s another great line of yours in “Remember to Remember” that goes, “the truth is, the truth is bulletproof.” Tell me about this line.
Shad: There’s a lot about that line, because that was the last verse I wrote for the album, aside from “Long Jawn”. [At the time], I was thinking a lot about violence in the world. Not just physical violence, but the violence of competition and power that [make up] the dynamic that our whole society rests on – we’re a competition-based society. So I was thinking a lot about that, and I was very troubled by that – I guess the song “Peace” came out of that, off The Spring Up EP that I worked on with Skratch Bastid.
That verse really helped me resolve something in my mind. There’s a long, long story about that, but basically, I like the idea that we live in a violent, competition-based society, but there is a truth out there. There’s still love in the world; there’s still grace in the world; there’s still the capacity for compassion and honesty, and that’s unassailable. There’s something about it that can’t die, that can’t be defeated, no matter [what]. That will always carry on, and in a sense, always prevail – even if not materially in the outcome. You can suppress the truth, but you cannot destroy it. It will always prevail in the end.
But again, these are big ideas, big concepts, big feelings, and that’s why you have to make a whole thing like this [points to album] and that’s why people will go on making these forever, you know?
TCUS: Let’s talk about your song “Thank You”. You rap, “a proud man that’s maneuvered through hardships/ They’ll say you can’t, you can do it regardless.” How has this reflected in your own life?
Shad: I think about even just doing [rap music] as a career. It’s such a bad idea. It’s such a profoundly bad idea of a thing to pursue, you know what I mean? The example that always comes to mind is Steve Nash, a two-time league MVP from Victoria, BC. If you asked anybody about a [young] Steve Nash at the time, if he could be the MVP of the NBA, they’d probably be like, “no, we didn’t think he was that good.” If you asked Steve Nash, he’d probably say, “I didn’t think I was that good,” but I bet you, there was something deep inside him that thought, I can be that good. I bet you anything there was a part of him that felt like, I think I can be that good. If I keep working hard, I think I can be that good. And I think that’s what I mean by that.
When people say “you can do anything if you believe in yourself,” I feel like there’s two sides to that. I can’t believe that I can win the 100-metre sprint. I can’t believe it. You can say I can’t do it because I can’t believe it, but I also think that I can’t believe it because I can’t do it. Do you know what I mean? I think there are certain things you might have the potential to do, and you might be the only one that knows that, and that’s the thing you have to believe in. It’s really in you, and it’s there for a reason.
For me, this experience of working in music, getting to make four albums, getting to share music with people, that makes me feel like, wow, because I remember being 20 and being like, I kinda think I can do this. I feel like that’s crazy to think, because everybody probably thinks they can do this. Of course. It’s just rapping; it’s just saying words that sound the same and putting them close together. Everyone thinks they can do that. But part of me was like, no, I think I can do this. And here I am.
TCUS: One of the lines in “Intro” is “I deliver every jawn like my last song.” This is something you’ve said before in interviews, that you never know if each project is going to be your last. Was there a point during this process when you thought that this might be your last album?
“Rappers love talking this epic/ When we talk of our exit from showbiz, though nobody noticed we left it.” – Shad, “Long Jawn”
Shad: Yeah. I mean, I’m not at the level in my career where there’s a million fans waiting for me if I’m not good on a couple projects, you know what I mean? I don’t have that kind of stability or security at this point. But aside from that side of it, I’ve never felt like I’ll always have something to give every time I’m making an album – that might be more of the thing, really. Every time I’m making an album, I’m like, I know this is what I have right now, but I actually don’t know if beyond this project, I’ll have more that’s worth giving. I feel like it’s good, man. It makes me go hard.
TCUS: With that in mind, what does the future hold for you?
Shad: More music. Usually when I’m done an album, I’m kinda not in that headspace anymore, but I’m already working on new stuff.
Photos courtesy of Danielle Da Silva and Carlos Velilla for The Come Up Show.