[Interview] Kardinal Offishall talks Mandela’s influence, changing Canada’s music landscape, and remaining grounded

Lupe Fiasco, Melanie Fiona, Kardinal Offishall

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Few can hold a greater claim to advancing hip-hop in Canada than Kardinal Offishall. It’s been said that if rappers like Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee, and the Dream Warriors got their foot in the door for those who followed them, then Kardinal kicked the door wide open. By the time he was 12 years old, the Toronto emcee and producer had already begun his legacy, performing for Nelson Mandela. He later appeared on the landmark “Northern Touch” single, worked with everyone from Pharrell, to Rihanna, to Talib Kweli, and impressed Jay-Z enough that he was offered a deal with Roc-A-Fella (one which he turned down to sign with Akon).

To his name, he has a triple-Platinum record and three Gold records, as well as four Juno Awards. His success within and outside of Canada has been unquestionable, and now, as the newly-announced Executive Creative Director of A&R for Universal, he hopes to help the next Canadian musicians reach even greater heights. The Come Up Show caught up with Kardinal Offishall to talk about Mandela’s influence on him, how he plans to change Canada’s music landscape, remaining humble, and much more. Read the interview below.

TCUS: Let’s get into a bit of a history lesson here. What can you tell me about Bahdmahnizm: Live and Diewrecked?

Kardinal Offishall: That was my demo tape that I used to get my deal back in 2001. Them times [sic] I had a shitty publishing deal and [with] the little bit of coin that I had, I used to spend it to go to a studio called Iguana. That demo tape is crazy. K-OS was on there, Glenn Lewis was on there, Esthero was on there, IRS was on there… a lot of people, man. People used to just fall through the studio and vibe out. At that time, that’s all I had – music – to express everything.

kardinal bahdmahnizm

That was probably one of the last real times that music was just pure, unadulterated vibes and that’s it, you know what I’m saying? That’s probably one of the last times my music was untainted, because the thing is, once you get a knowledge of the industry, you can’t pretend like you don’t know what it is anymore. It’s kind of like you lose your innocence, no matter who you are or no matter what it is. Whenever you get into the [music] business, it has a way that you live your life, you pay your bills, and you feed your family. You lose a bit of the innocence. So that’s what that demo [represents to me], Bahdmanizm: Live and Diewrecked.

TCUS: So that demo tape was before the business side of things came.

Kardinal Offishall: That’s before the real business side of things came. As a crew, I watched Saukrates get a deal with Warner Brothers LA in ’95; I watched Choclair in ’96/’97, so there were [moments] that kinda introduced me to the business, but I was still a passenger, learning. So for me, when I signed my first real major deal with MCA Records, that’s when I was introduced – they call it inducted by fire.

TCUS: At what time was the Figurez ov Speech crew conceived?

Kardinal Offishall: F.O.S. was like ’93 or ’94. Early in high school is when we made F.O.S. We literally used to go to the high school talents and all that stuff as our little clique: me, Solitair, Marvel, Saukrates, Twelve Inch, Anthem, Ylook… and then what happened was, around ’95 or ’96 was when we linked up with Choclair’s crew Paranormal, and that’s when the Circle crew came together.

TCUS: And ’94 would’ve been around the time that Saukrates did “Still Caught Up.”

Kardinal Offishall: Mmm-hmm.

TCUS: This is a quote of yours: “I lived in places where you had to check the cereal box for roach eggs. I lived in places where we couldn’t afford the heat bill and had to sleep with 2 sweaters on and 3 blankets. I rarely talk about these things, because I don’t feel that exploiting my hardships in life will add some type of cool points to who I am.” What is it like now to have the success that you’ve achieved and look back on those times?

Kardinal Offishall: Look back on what times? That stupid ice storm, that shit still happened! We still had to sleep with two sweaters and three blankets in that damn ice storm the other day, yo. [Laughs] I thought I was past that, man. I was there on my big piece of land feeling nice… that ice storm kicked our ass. I think that was God showing us it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or where you’re going to, he’s still the boss, you know what I mean? As much success that you have, as much whatever that you have, at the end of the day, sometimes you have to realize that he’s in control. And that ice storm was a good reminder to everybody, because at the end of the day, there was nothing we could do to fight that ice storm.

But I understand what you’re saying. I mean, coming from them days, it’s always kept me humble. The reality of the situation is – God bless my parents, no matter what the situation was, they always succeeded to provide for me and my sister growing up – sometimes it’s true, we lived in places that might’ve had roaches, but as parents did, they tried to make things better and better for us. They saved up and we went from apartments [to homes]. My mom being a single parent when my parents got a divorce – she looked after us most of the time – she saved up all her life savings and we ended up living in a condo, and then a house, and my pops would look after us on the weekends.

It’s humbling, but for me, that’s real life. A lot of times, that’s why it’s ironic for me to be in this hip-hop industry, because a lot of the guys that I meet never experienced that stuff, and yet that’s what they portray because they think that’s what their fans want to hear. Me personally, I think people are more interested in the truth, rather than what they think the picture of truth should be. So for me, coming from those times until now, it’s always kept me grounded, and I think that humility is what has led me to have a lot of good long-term relationships in the industry and has kept me relevant for so long.

And I’m not saying this in some type of ‘pat myself on the back’ type of thing, but it’s a blessing to be able to be rocking for so long and still going so hard and still being super relevant around the world. There’s a lot of people – never mind in Canada, but in the States [too] – that only have a small window in this music thing and then they’re out. For me, it’s a blessing; every year it feels like we’re just getting started. Without getting into it too tough, towards the end of [last year], God blessed me with a nice little opportunity, to where I’m now the Executive Creative Director of A&R for Universal. So now, it’s like I’m doing my music ting [sic] but also getting my executive on.

It’s a beautiful thing, because for me, I’ve always been somebody that’s tried to build upon the Toronto legacy. It’s not that I live and die by Toronto, but it’s always been a natural part for me: to build upon Toronto and build upon Canada, and always hold that near and dear to my heart. From day one until now, there’s never been a question of where I came from, you know what I’m saying? There’s never been a question of where my loyalties are. I think with that opportunity, it just furthers it, because even though a lot of artists have had success, we need that to translate into the country. There’s a lot of us that’ve had success: myself, K’Naan, Drake, Bieber, Carly Rae, Nelly Furtado… but the thing is, we need to change the landscape for the country as opposed to just for ourselves.

Lupe Fiasco, Melanie Fiona, Kardinal Offishall

I remember from the first time that I had huge international hits a bunch of years ago, and people were like, “well, how’s the scene in Toronto” and “how’s the scene in Canada?” And unfortunately, the scene was the same, because a hit for me doesn’t mean a hit for the country. So I think by me being able to get into this executive role, it’s cool, because I can help from the inside [and] change the way that people view the country and the talent that we have. A lot of doors can be opened.

TCUS: Amazing, you just answered four or five of my questions right there [laughs]. One of the great stories of your career is performing for the late Nelson Mandela as a 12-year-old. I want to ask you about a quote of his: “Being in solitary teaches you the value and importance of every syllable that comes out of your mouth.” Tell me about the significance of this to you.

Kardinal Offishall: It’s super significant, man. I think for the most part, 90 percent of my career, when I go back and look at it, I’m proud of what I said, when I said it, and how I said it. I’ve always been one that never tried to just portray one thing, because in my life, I’m [into] various things. I’m that person that is about equal rights, I’m a person that’s about revolution, but I’m also a person that likes to party, and I’m also a very strong heterosexual man that loves women. So I think throughout my music, I just try to be real to myself.

Kardinal Offishall and Danny Fernandes at The Wave

I remember one time me and K-OS [sic] got into a huge artistic debate, because I was saying that in becoming a great person, I would rather expose all of my flaws along the journey, so that people that are also going through the same things and making the same mistakes can say, “oh shit, if Kardinal went through that, then I don’t feel so bad going through the same thing,” and they can take that journey with me to becoming a better person.

I remember at the time, K-OS was like, “nah man, you gotta keep that to yourself and only show them the best possible person you can be.” And I don’t think either of those philosophies are wrong, but at the end of the day, words are very [important] – especially as you get older and wiser. For most people in the hip-hop industry, unfortunately being older and wiser doesn’t translate into their music, but for me, it’s super important.

The next single that I have coming out – I performed it for the first time today – [is] a song called “Freedom” with JRDN and that to me is a perfect example of where I am in my career right now. Musically, it’s risk-taking, because we mix, like, orchestral-type music with a banging hip-hop loop, mixed with electric guitars and just all types of different stuff, but in terms of content, it’s a real, inspirational, powerful song. I just think it’s one of those ones where… a lot of times, my fans love the party stuff, but at the same time, they really love when I dig deep and give it to the people raw. And that’s what “Freedom” is about.

Lupe Fiasco, Melanie Fiona, Kardinal Offishall

It’s interesting timing. It’s not because of Nelson Mandela, but at the same time, it’s because of people like Mandela. The first time I heard he was sick, I remember talking to my mom and I was thoroughly sad, because he was one of the last truly revolutionary stand-up people we have on the planet. Him passing, there’s not a lot of people left that are like Mandela. There are some people that stand up every once in awhile and say some good stuff every once in awhile, but [there are very few] people that are so good to the core that you can’t explain it; you can only be in their presence or hear what they speak and be moved. That’s who Mandela is, and to me, he’s been a hero of mine since I was a little kid until now.

I’m just happy he’s in a better place, because a lot of times we want him to stick around, but that man was probably in a lot of physical pain. To me, God wanted him to be with him right now. I think it’s a blessing that we got 95 years of that man on this planet. Trust me, all of us were better off with him being on the earth.


TCUS: You mention Mandela as one of your heroes. Who else do you look up to as a hero?

Kardinal Offishall: Very few people. A lot of community people. And I mean, my mom, not just because she’s my mom, but she does a lot of good things within the community. She was actually awarded with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee award for her fight against violence within the community – gun violence and a lot of other things. My mom’s very active in the community and a hero of mine. She gets older, and I would love for her to work less, but it’s like she works more, you know what I’m saying? Trying to help these kids out there.

[I admire] the Kielburger brothers; those guys are able to motivate and invigorate hundreds of thousands and millions of people. Those guys are my heroes. There’s a lot of heroes that are quiet as kept. Somebody like Master T, [he] opened so many doors for us musically before he left from MuchMusic, and he’s been doing his thing on the hush, but Master T was definitely a hero of mine. In all honesty, there’s very few real heroes that I have, because unfortunately for me, I get to meet people, so some people that I think are great, you meet them, and you’re like, “shit” [laughs]. There’s a few of them.

Kardinal Offishall and Danny Fernandes at The Wave

TCUS: It’s funny you mention Master T; he’s actually a graduate of my high school. Wrapping things up, you mentioned your song “Freedom” before and it reminded me of a conversation I had with Maestro a couple months ago. I asked him about what makes for timeless music, and he told me timeless music is about making a statement, not making records but making history. What’s your opinion on what makes for timeless music?

Kardinal Offishall: It’s an interesting formula, you know. I could just say for me, when I’m creating, I try and innovate. There’s some artists that try and do music of the day, and that’s the [music] that doesn’t get played four years from now, because you’re like, “that sounds dated. He was doing the music that was hot at the time.” So sonically, when you try things that have never been done before, it’s easier to be closer to that timeless achievement. When you do stuff that is just so much in your own lane… if you take examples of, like, “Everyday (Rudebwoy).” The funny thing is, I can’t wait until people get tired of that song, but they never get tired of it because there’s a certain energy, you know what I’m saying?

It’s not always about the content, because “Dangerous” is another one that I think people are gonna get sick of it one day and never hear again… not so. You’ll be in LA in 2014 and it’ll be a random Thursday at 3:00 and it’ll come on, or you’ll be in Beirut and they’ll be playing “Numba 1 (Tide Is High),” or you’ll go somewhere in Europe and they’ll be playing “Freak” with me and Estelle. I think for me, timeless music is usually the innovative music that stands the test of time. Those songs that we always want to hear are the one-of-a-kind unique songs. Those are the timeless joints, because you can listen to it and you’re not necessarily thinking about 1993 or 2006, but actually that song itself.

If you listen to “Ol’ Time Killin’,” it’s random as shit just in terms of the production; you know it’s hip-hop, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to a certain time. It just speaks to a certain feel and a certain energy, and there’s no other song that’s like [it] before it or after it. It’s hard to find a formula for it, but I think at the end of the day, timeless music is music that is able to capture a certain energy, a certain vibe, and a unique vibe – that’s very important to timeless music.

Follow Kardinal Offishall on Twitter (@kardinalo) and Instagram (@kardinalo).