Interview: Shad Talks Flying Colours and the State of Conscious Rap
Shad is kind of a big deal. He may be a relative newcomer in the minds of most US rap fans, but North of the border, in between complaints about the cold and apologizing for bumping into your fellow countryman on the street, they know Shad. The Kenyan-born, Toronto-bred, Vancouver-residing rapper is already three albums deep, but his skills are still being honed and it feels as though he has yet to even hit his stride. His last album was shortlisted for a Polaris Music Prize and it beat out Drake’s Thank Me Later for the Juno’s Best Rap Album award. His self-deprecating style may be somewhat unique to Canada, but his laid-back flow and ability to seemingly effortlessly tell stories over the beat has universal appeal.
Now, with his fourth album, Flying Colours, arriving October 15 via Black Box, the mild-mannered rapper is poised to make his mark on the industry. RESPECT. sat down with Shad to discuss his new album, “conscious rap,” his life post-music and more.
RESPECT: I remember a while back, you mentioned the difference between making your mark in Canada and in the US. Mainly, you said touring was the focus here and in the US you need to put out free music. You dropped Melancholy last year and you recently put out the Spring Up EP for free. How do you think that impacted your profile in the US?
Shad: It’s really hard for me to say because I’m not there much. It’s hard for me to get an impression as far as who is where listening to my music, if anyone at all. Those projects for me were more like, I was in the studio working hard on my full-length and I had these little opportunities to work on different things. Melancholy was just an idea I had on tour and I was like, “Ok, we’re just not gonna work on the album for five days and do this.” The Spring Up was just after I had finished [Flying Colours] and I still had some creative energy and banged out those tracks fast. So I wasn’t thinking about those as far as an exposure to the States kind of intention.
CBC ranked you as the second greatest Canadian rapper of all-time, right behind Maestro. To put that in perspective, the three that preceded you on the list were K-Os, Drake and Kardinal Offishall. What was your reaction when you found that out?
That was tremendous. I’m always amazed when people listen to my music that closely and put me in that category. That was great. Maestro is like our Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-One all-in-one. And, of course, Drake is Drake. So, to be put in that category is really special.
And your album TSOL also beat out Drake’s Thank Me Later for the Juno’s rap album of the year in 2011. So it’s safe to say that it’s you and not Kendrick who’s murdering Drake, right?
[Laughs.] I feel like Drake beats me 364 days a year so that was my one day.
You have a great line on “Stylin’” where you say, “I got fans that say, ‘Oh hey Shad, I hate rap but I like you. Well I hate that, but I like you. At least, I like that you like me.” What’s it like to have people compliment you yet insult your passion at the same time?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s kind of what I wanted to point to in that song. It’s a phenomenon that’s common enough that I needed to address it somehow. But, at the same time, I wanted to do it in a way that’s empathetic and understanding a little bit because everybody has their perspective so I don’t want to come down too hard on people. But it is hard to hear someone say, “Hey, I like you and I don’t respect where your music comes from.” They don’t realize that’s what they’re saying. That being said, I can appreciate that everyone is coming from their own place as a listener and is at their own place in terms of growing and understanding of music and of the world.
I read that in 15 years you’re not sure if you’ll be doing music because you think people will have lost interest in you. Is that a genuine fear?
I don’t even think it’s a fear as much as it is the reality. If you have a ten year run in music that’s just phenomenal. You’re a legend. You have a legacy. Realistically, that’s always been my approach to music. Let’s be a little clear-eyed and look at things here. How many people actually do this for 20-25 years? The Rolling Stones and like five other people? My perspective has always been: I love this right now. I love my craft and I love expressing myself to music. But, at some point, I might lose interest and even more likely, at some point, other people might lose interest.
Is that partially why you decided to complete a graduate program in Liberal Studies well into your career?
Yeah. For me, it’s always been a thing of, as long as I have an opportunity to do things I love, I’m gonna do that, because who knows what will happen down the road? Not even in my music, but who knows if I’ll have the opportunity to do that?
You’ve said that Flying Colours, as a title, is meant to say that we’re all successes in some way, which makes it easier for you to talk about failure. Elaborate on that.
I wanted to talk about successes and failures on the album. When I arrived at that idea that I think we’re all successes in some grand scheme, we’re all doing quite well and doing the best that we can, that framed things in a way that helped me be more honest about failure, as well as success. Because it takes away the need to justify things and explain things when you can just say, looking at myself honestly, I’m doing my best and that’s okay. That kind of relaxes some of those impulses to validate yourself or find some kind of easy solutions or answers.
Building off that, what would you say is your biggest failure?
There’s no one thing that comes to mind. I would say, in small moments, failures of kindness and failures of courage are the little moments that stick with me the most. I think you regret the things you don’t do more than things you do do. Those are moments I feel like I could have been better.
And to put a positive spin on it, what would be your biggest success in life so far?
I’m pretty proud of some of my friendships and relationships with my family have spanned a few years now. Having moved around quite a bit and been able to maintain some important relationships was probably what I’m most proud of.
It’s been 3 years since TSOL, what is the difference in tone and content on this album?
On this one, I really wanted to push myself. For me, there was a very different approach [on this album.] On [TSOL] I approached it in a very workmanlike way, just going into the studio for a few hours with the songs already put together in my mind. I just worked at it in a slightly even detached way. This one, I wanted to go in there and really approach this concept and push my talent and creativity as much as I can. It was more ambitious, at least in my intention and my approach.
What’s your favorite record on here?
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but there’s a song called “Progress” on there that I like. Going back to the last question of differences and my intention to push my talent and courage as much as I could, that one is probably where that happened the most. I definitely pushed myself with that one.
On “Keep Shining,” you mention that “we need more women in rap.” That was three years ago, and since then we’ve seen a bit of a surge, with the likes of Nicki, Iggy, Angel Haze and others. How do you feel about the state of female MCs at this time?
It was funny when I was writing that song because I started at one point and when I finished I was at another point. I started the song as a rapper in the kind of underground rap world. If you go to shows, it’s like 80 percent dudes and you see some girls there every once in a while and you’re like, “I wonder what they’re thinking?” This is like a dude world. It’s like a dude-to-dude conversation. So, I kind of started the song like, “Okay, how can I be speaking to women?” And by the second verse, it was like, “Okay, maybe that’s not even my place.” Hip-hop is spread all over the world and is in every language but it feels like there’s five females MCs out there. So it was cool to see that surge a little bit later.
On “Peace,” you say that conscious rap is dead and everyone is in love with the trap sound. Without labeling you as one thing, people tend to corner you in that “conscious rapper” category, so is the market for your music smaller today?
Probably. But it’s always been [smaller], at least since I’ve started. I wasn’t around in the ‘90s when that term was coined and when those artists kind of had their corner of things. I think what I was expressing there is an exhaustion people have. Not necessarily with conscious music, but with violence in the world. We just want peace. People just want an escape. I think people lose hope and I think listening to music with big ideas when you keep seeing the same problems in the world over and over again gets old.
Common made a huge impact on you at a young age, so what does that mean for the culture now that fewer and fewer kids are connecting with that style?
I think it’s hard for some kids. That was cool for me when I was in high school, to have something more positive that I could identify with and connect to and say, “Yeah, this is something I can aspire to.” [There were] some ideas that challenged me as a young person. I think what happens a lot of the time with young people is that we just don’t feel challenged. When I was 15-16 and hearing “Retrospect for Life,” it was like, “Oh, wow.” Even if I didn’t understand everything he was going through in that song, I was challenged by it. I was like, “This is a whole other level to music.”
At the same time, I think the cool thing that’s happened in music is the blurring of lines and cross-genres. Even within hip-hop, there’s been a lot of blurring the lines, which probably started with Kanye in terms of “pop rap,” and “conscious rap.” He was kind of doing it all on the same album, sometimes even on the same song. I think kids are growing up with that. And there’s a lot of message-oriented music in hip-hop, it’s just not in this corner of “conscious rap.” Sometimes it’s at the top of the charts.
I’ve personally always had an issue with the term “conscious rap” because I think all music is conscious. I mean, you could say Rick Ross is a conscious rapper. He’s aware of what he’s doing.
[Laughs.] Yeah. It almost feels a little condescending. Like you should get a pat on the back for doing something that’s completely normal and human. But yeah, I think those lines are blurred in hip-hop. I mean, what do you call Kendrick Lamar? What do you call J. Cole? Macklemore? These people have thoughtful content, they’re just not in that one corner. I just think people are partly exhausted of hearing hopeful, positive messages when things aren’t changing in the world.