Listen to Shad's new album, TSOL, and you'll quickly realize that this is not your father's gangsta rap or, for that matter, your grandfather's Sugar Hill gang.
It's not that Shad — whose 2007 album, The Old Prince, was one of five finalists for Canada's prestigious Juno Award — is turning his back on hip-hop history. It's just that when he does look over his shoulder, he's more likely to be checking out early '90s innovators like the Pharcyde and De La Soul.
In fact, the Canadian hip-hop phenom's recent "Rose Garden" video is an homage to "Drop," the Pharcyde video that Stereogum named one of the "Best Backwards Videos of All Time." At the end of Shad's version, most of which also runs backward, he finds his friend watching a video and asks what it is.
"It's the Pharcyde," his friend answers. "Oh cool," says Shad, easing into a chair to watch. "Never heard of 'em."
"I think the song had a certain vibe that reminded the directors of 'Drop,'" explains Shad, "so we decided to do kind of a tribute — to put our own little spin on it, in our own little low-budget Canadian way."
Shad is also quick to acknowledge his debt to Native Tongues, the New York-based hip-hop collective that gave us the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Queen Latifah. In fact, he references Tribe's "Bonita Applebum" on the new album, and his current single, "We, Myself and I," is a play on De La's "Me, Myself and I."
"Those are some of the first artists that I was ever really drawn to," says Shad, who, like most musicians, insists he's never consciously patterned himself after any particular artists. "I do think they're an influence, though — more than I maybe even register consciously. When I hear the music that comes out of me, and everyone tells me it sort of reminds them of that movement, I think it's really on a subconscious level. So a huge influence, yeah."
Gender and genocide
Born in Kenya but raised two hours west of Toronto, Shad's approach to rap is anything but one-dimensional.
At one point in his novelty-ish "The Old Prince Still Lives at Home," the music abruptly grinds to a halt and he sheepishly explains to listeners that he "couldn't afford the whole beat."
Contrast that with "I'll Never Understand," in which Shad, whose parents are both Rwandan, addresses the genocide that killed about an eighth of that country's population: "l'll never understand how flesh being torn apart feels / Or how, after all this suffering, a heart heals."
Or take "Keep Shining," the song with the Bonita Applebum reference: "I've been known to talk about women on a track or two / I talk to women, I just can't talk FOR women, that's for you / We need women for that, more women in rap."
Asked about his own female rap idols, Shad answers without hesitation. "Along the way, I've been a fan of Queen Latifah. And Lauryn Hill, of course — I think she's probably the most talented person in music, PERIOD. And right now there's an emcee named Eternia, who's actually originally from Canada and lives in New York, and yeah, she's great."
Unbroken social scene
Even though early Canadian hip-hop artists like Maestro and Dream Warriors ("they were like Rakim and De La Soul to us," says Shad) never did manage to break south of the border, all that could be changing. Artists like K'naan, Shad and his current tourmate K-Os are now finding international acclaim, while, on a commercial level, Lil Wayne protégé Drake seems to be breaking down walls for Canadian hip-hop.
Still, Shad's smart enough to hedge his bets. He's already earned his undergraduate degree in business, and is now pursuing a master's in liberal arts. (Currently, he's taking a semester off in order to promote TSOL, which was released here earlier this month on Black Box Recordings.)
Meanwhile, the accolades keep coming. In addition to being nominated for a Juno (Canada's version of the Grammy), he's twice made the short list for the Polaris Music Prize.
"It's modeled after the Mercury Prize in the U.K., where a bunch of critics vote and they don't make any separation based on genre. They just try to recognize some albums that they think are creative and worth checking out."
This year's final nominees also included Canadian "supergroup" Broken Social Scene, whose vocalist Lisa Lobsinger sings the chorus on Shad's "Rose Garden," which is based on the old Joe South song of the same name.
Like the award they both ultimately missed out on, Shad and Lobsinger are part of a close-knit music scene in which genre boundaries appear more fluid than they do down this way.
"She was always popping into the studio, working with the guys I was working with," says Shad. "Toronto is just a diverse music community, and I think everyone grows up listening to a bit of everything.
"So yeah, it's not at all uncommon for someone to be a fan of Broken Social Scene and make hip-hop music. I don't know if we have a big enough scene here in Canada for a kid to grow up and only listen to hip-hop."