At the MuchMusic Video Awards after-party, rapper Shad sits by himself in a booth against the wall of Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern, arms outstretched, ankle on knee, head bobbing to a performance by the Canadian rock band Arkells. Most industry people cup drinks and stand with an entourage. What gets Shad to his feet, and onstage with a rogue tambourine, is the Supremes' You Keep Me Hangin' On.
But the 28-year-old is best known for his rhymes; a few songs later, he's freestyling to applause in his impromptu cameo. Shad is revealed in a few tracks - laid-back, musically diverse and kind of old-fashioned - and it's not even his show.
The London, Ont.-based artist, born Shadrach Kabango, has since had more compelling invites to join acts onstage. After his summer festival tour wraps up in August, Shad will open for K'naan, whose anthem, Wavin' Flag, is probably the biggest song on the planet. Shad is riding that wave of momentum; his latest album, TSOL has just been shortlisted for a 2010 Polaris Music Prize. Critics are saying it could be his breakout album, but it's more of a slow rise, marked by a decision to keep the tracks simple, not to give in to commercial pressures. Now, Shad's self-described underground hip hop is about to meet K'naan's mainstream single.
Shad admits to feeling slightly intimidated. "The thing about opening, at least half the people didn't come to see you and, in some cases, none of them did. You have to work a little harder to win them over," he says over lunch at Toronto's Watermark Pub. "The good thing about opening is that you don't have to play for very long, so you can seem more impressive."
It's clear that his quip about wooing crowds with a truncated performance is a joke; he's passionate about music and has been making it for most of his life. For his opening-act set, he can cherry-pick from his three-album repertoire, When This is Over, The Old Prince and TSOL.
Born in Kenya to Rwandan parents, Shad and his family moved to Canada when he was just one year old. He grew up in London, Ont., where, in high school, he started experimenting with hip hop, "because it's easy. You don't need any equipment to freestyle." He has since played hundreds of shows, from university venues to headlining at music festivals.
This fall won't be the first time Shad has played with K'naan; they played together at London's Fanshawe College a few years ago. As for the upcoming tour, Shad says he doesn't know what happens "with managers, behind the scenes. ... I don't really know how the business works."
So far, the business has defined the breakout rapper as a cerebral, old-school artist with an ear for rhymes, not artificial track manipulations.
Shad calls his style "straight-up hip hop - underground hip hop." And by underground, he doesn't mean inaccessible. Shad raps about living at home, how expensive it is to go to the dentist and about not using Twitter; he means uncontrived, not like the computer-generated pop music currently climbing the charts, which "might be good for kids, but is sometimes just bad."
There's something retro about his music, and his style.
Shad doesn't even own an iPod. If he did, he says the playlist would contain "everything from Motown to indie rock. I could be listening to Bonnie Raitt," he says. "Hanson has a new single that's crazy good."
"It doesn't mean I'm gonna sound like that," he adds. It's a distinction between musical taste and musical influence. The fans who have been following him from humble beginnings probably won't be fazed by how frankly the rap artist admits to listening to country music and boy bands.
Shad's first album was funded by a contest that his sister entered for his birthday on his behalf. Since then, it has been a family affair; his parents, who Shad says "aren't musical at all, but are into art," have what he calls "speaking appearances" on his tracks.
The haunting I'll Never Understand has his mother, Bernadette Kabango, reading a poem she penned about the Rwandan genocide. It might be genetic - what album reviewers cite repeatedly - that Shad has a gift for writing compelling words.
"The hard part is kind of like shaking off dust," Shad says of his lyrical process. He could write for hours, even days, before he gets to a sweet spot, he says, and it usually happens in one of two extremes: after an agonizingly slow process or immediately, like an epiphany.
His single Yaa I Get It from TSOL chronicles his career - that is, if you can navigate the dizzying spell of lyrics, like "I didn't have it on the flop, but I'll win it on the river/ longest winter got me seasoned ... not yet a veteran."
"It's a lot of words," he says simply. "That was a quick one. I was in a good mood."
Shad seems quietly confident, as though, if he woke up tomorrow without a hit single, he would figure something else out. He has a business degree from Wilfrid Laurier University and is currently pursuing his master's degree in liberal arts studies.
He may be the world's most practical rap artist, but he doesn't have overwrought plans. Shad says he applies the same philosophy to his life that he does to his music: Don't over-analyze.
"If the rhyme resolves, it's meant to be. You just leave it to fate. I try not to think too much about it, or I wouldn't be able to write any music."
Shad's tour wraps up on Aug. 7 in Kingston, and K'naan's dates kick off on Sept. 25 in Vancouver.