"What's a winner?" – Shad, Y'all Know Me.
He started as Shadrach Kabango, and now he's Shad. But who is that?
The affable Juno-winning hip-hop artist was recently judged by CBCMusic.ca as the second-greatest Canadian rapper of all time, behind Maestro Fresh-Wes. His previous two albums (2008's The Old Prince and 2010's TSOL) were shortlisted for the Polaris Prize.
But his profile and record-selling status, compared to fellow Canadian hip-hop artists K'naan and k-os, doesn't match his high critical reputation. While Drake studied at Degrassi and graduated to mingle with the Jay Zs and Rihannas of the world, Shad was busy earning a master's degree in Liberal Studies from Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. Unlike the rapper Cadence Weapon, formerly Edmonton's poet laureate, Shad has no official title. And unlike the Maestro, so-called "Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop," Shad has no unofficial title either.
Shad is the Kenyan-born, 31-year-old offspring of Rwandan parents who immigrated to London, Ont., where he was raised. Since releasing his debut album in 2005, he's balanced postsecondary schooling and music, while shuttling between Toronto and Vancouver, where he's lived since 2011.
He describes himself as "Redd Foxx mixed with a Ted Talk" on the new album's first track, but in industry terms you could say he's the Ron Sexsmith of Canadian hip hop – lauded by peers and critics, but underappreciated by the larger music-consuming public. But he's too good to be the underdog. Something is missing.
"My story is pretty normal," Shad explains, speaking on the rooftop deck at The Globe and Mail last week. "There's not a lot there to pitch in three lines. I'm not the morose millionaire. I don't have a classic trope."
What he has is his fourth album, Flying Colours, a record of heavy beats and nimble, whip-smart wordplay that's getting major media attention in Canada. And he's under-selling his story by describing it as standard. As eloquently told on the new single Fam Jam, his life has taken him "from donated clothes to caps and gowns." The lyrics touch on immigration policy, colonialism, oppression and First Nations rights.
Elsewhere, the bright emcee muses on the balance of entertainment and giving lessons. "I'm just spitting that for the joy of spitting rap," he declares on Stylin, a track of deep grooves and a soulful hook from Canada's Saukrates. Indeed, there is a joy to what Shad accomplishes – you can see it in his face when he performs live, as he did at an in-store appearance last week in Toronto and an album-launch show at the Opera House on the weekend. His lyrics, though often reflecting topical and spiritual issues, are elative on their wittiness alone.
"The joy of the music comes first," he says. "I always try to err on the side of having fun. The meaning, or the information, is interwoven. It will be there."
On Stylin, Shad bemoans the idea that he attracts fans who aren't so much fans of hip hop in general.
"It's a bit of a slight," he explains. "People are telling me they like me, but that they don't like, essentially, what I do."
It's a slight because what he is doing is, essentially, straight-up hip hop. Where k-os and K'naan add a variety of colours and influences to their raps, Shad's doesn't stray. He's not a braggy-bling guy, and he's a little goody-goody compared to the genre's edgier characters.
Perhaps the worst thing about him, marketing-wise, is that his craft is subtle and his personality is unflashy. Major labels don't have anything to grab onto and sell, and he's not a self-promoter in the Jay-Z vein. "I'm not what the big labels would be interested in," he admits, with even emotion. "I think what I do is a little rough around the edges – a little dusty, a little wrinkled."
After his Juno win over Drake in 2011, at least one major label kicked Shad's tires. But there weren't any serious discussions to pick him up. He's still with Black Box Recordings (an independent based in Mississauga), and still without the connections and promotional machine a major can offer. Nevertheless, k-os, who lends a verse on the new album's Lost, thinks bigger audiences will come around to Shad's understated charms. "He's surprised by what he's accomplished so far," says the Crabbuckit singer. "That humility is real. But he'll have his time."
He will. The epic cut Progress, a graceful hip-hop update of Don McLean's American Pie, attests to the skill and commitment of someone who sees himself as the "North Pole edition" of Rakim, the influential American emcee. Is he Rakim? No, but as the esteemed music critic Robert Christgau has said, he's earned the brag.
Shad is at the top of his game, and with an ascension that has been nothing less than graceful. He himself puts it best: "If there's any value in what I do, it's because I've sat and thought about it for a long time."
SHAD DOES THE LIGHTNING ROUND
Kanye or Jay-Z? Kanye.
Polaris or Juno? Polaris. With Juno, a lot of the awards automatically go to the albums that sold the most, which is already a reward in itself.
D'Angelo or Usher? D'Angelo
Strombo or Ghomeshi? Oh, you can't ask me that. That's really hard. Okay, as a journalist, I'll go with Jian. He goes a little bit more in depth. Strombo is highly personable. He's really easy to talk to.
LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Michael.
Drake or Shad? Really? I'll give it to Drake.
An adjective to describe yourself: I'm not that tall. Is medium an adjective? I'll go with medium.
A verb to describe yourself: Dreaming.