Whenever a rap musician chooses not to cloak their birth name behind the disguise of an alter ego, there is an expectation that the musician’s persona and bona fide identity are one and the same. Shad, the Juno Award winning rapper, first arrived onto the scene in 2005. But, since then, his approach has always been unorthodox. Even during the rise of alternative hip hop collectives such as Def Jux and Rhymesayers, Shad has always been an artist who chooses to stay on his own lane and let his individual music tell his story. He even admits that his mission to express his own ideas sometimes “doesn’t leave space for somebody else.” This doesn’t mean that he would not collaborate with someone; he just feels that minding his own experiences works well for him. My discussion with Shad covered topics such as his new album Flying Colours, geography’s current role in Hip Hop, his TED lecture at Capilano University, as well as his feelings about being interviewed.
How did you arrive at the title?
So, I had the title before I started working on the album. My intention was to explore success and failure. I thought that would give me a lot of space to go in a lot of different directions. And at the same time have this thread that’s like something that interests me, and something that’s close to me, and something I thought people would be able to relate to. So, the title came from me stumbling upon the idea that we are all doing well in some kind of ultimate sense—some kind of grand scheme. So, in terms of talking about success and failure I see “Flying Colours” as a positive umbrella for all things to fall under.
For the most part, you chose to stay away from high profile features on Flying Colours. Why did you make this decision?
That’s just kind of always been the way I make music. Like, collaborating with the people who are around. Also, collaboration is not what I get super excited about with music. I’ve always been interested in exploring my own ideas and experiences. Some artists love collaborating. For me, the thing I love is kind of minding my own experiences and ideas. I find out something that is pretty unique to me, and it doesn’t leave space for somebody else.
How did the song “Progress, Progress” come into being?
Yeah, it’s actually just called “Progress”. That was an iTunes error. Yeah, that’s the most abstract one on the album and definitely the most experimental. That started with the part one—the “American Pie” jump pop. I think I was in the car one time on tour, and I was listening to Don McLean’s “American Pie” and something about it started evoking these images. In my mind, I started updating it almost. I saw the parallels. The song [American Pie] was inspired by Buddy Holly and Richie Valens death. In my mind, I kind of paralleled that with Biggie and 2pac. And all these images started cascading, and that’s how part one came from. On the guitar part, I wrote it pretty fast. This sounds stupid, but I heard it in a dream, and woke up, and wrote it down. Then when I was doing the “American Pie” part, I just remembered [Part Two: The Future Is Here] and they both spoke to similar feelings and similar ideas. So, I figured out the keys, and put them together, and it felt right.
I’m sure you heard Lou Reed passed away today.
Yeah, I just saw that. I just got online and saw that.
Do you have anything to say about him?
I have nothing really to add about that. I’m not like super familiar with his music or Velvet Underground too much. But, I’m sure I will be learning more in the next few days.
Your last album TSOL came out in 2010. Since then, the internet’s role in the music industry has rapidly grown. Do you think more people are learning about you through this new album Flying Colours?
I don’t know. It’s hard to have your finger on the pulse of what goes on online. So far so good, I mean the album came out about a week ago. It’s finding its attraction with, of course, my fans first, and it’s spreading out slowly from there. So, I guess we’ll kind of see as the months roll-on. You know, initially, fans are aware of it, and they’re talking about it and taking it in and reacting to it. And–then I guess we’ll see from there how far it spreads. Yeah, the internet obviously plays a bigger role in music now then in 2010. And some people get to benefit from that. But also, there is a lot of music around. So, some people don’t get to see traffic. But, I guess, we’ll see how it goes [with Flying Colours]. I guess week 1 is still too early to tell.
You now have released four albums since you’ve started in 2005. Looking at all of them now, what do you see in the evolution?
To sum up the evolution, it would be like there are more things I can do now. At a certain point, there were only certain emotions or certain sounds I felt like I could achieve in a studio. Now, I just think there is a bigger vocabulary, of ideas and emotions, I’m able to express. For example, my first couple of albums were boom bap/soul sample-based. This one [Flying Colours] has more experimental productions. I think there is a bigger range of moods and that kind of thing. That’s the thing that has grown in each album.
What went into the making of the “Rose Garden” video?
That was an achievement that the directors came up with. And don’t ask me to explain it because I don’t even really understand. It’s funny even the director—I work with him a lot—even he gets confused sometimes trying to explain it. It’s just really cleaver. It was fun to shoot. We wanted to do something with our limited means that was interesting and fun and we thought—both him and I are Spike Jonze fans—so we were thinking a throwback to one of the Pharcyde videos, or Beastie Boys videos, or something like that. He [the director] thought of an interesting spin on the backwards thing. It’s just tremendous how we worked it out.
Are there musicians that complement your work whom you would consider touring with?
No one I can really think of. Not off the top of my head. You never really know who people want to compare [you with]—I never really thought too much about that.
Looking back, how does it feel to know you beat Drake for Best Rap Recording of the Year at the 2010 Juno Awards?
Yeah, it was a nice moment—a nice memory, for sure. It was a super fun weekend and a huge surprise obviously. It was a cool thing to bring back to the fans—people who have been supportive for awhile. They were obviously excited about that. That’s really my memory of it. It was definitely a big surprise and something really fun to share with the fans.
Historically Hip Hop has been broken up into sub-genres due to geography. Do you think geographical location matters any more in Hip Hop?
I don’t think it carries the same weight it used to—no. You know there was a time where there was New York and L.A. And everywhere else was sort of peripheral. Now, that’s not really the case. There’s like big rappers from Pittsburgh. And that’s sort of how people understood sounds. Well—where’s this person from? Well, okay, that’s going to explain something of their sound probably. Whereas, [now] that’s a little bit less the case. Like Drake definitely has a lot of southern influences for example, right? Well I think it’s like a little bit more fluid in that sense for sure.
How’s the Hip-Hop scene in Canada? You’re from Vancouver, right?
I live in Vancouver. My career—well it’s kind of hard to explain—well, I mean, I started my career more in Toronto. Canada is such a small country. Toronto and Montreal are the center of the music industry. If you are not based there, you are definitely there a lot. I can’t really speak for a “Vancouver scene” in Hip Hop. In Canada in general, I don’t know what I can say about it. You mean in terms of sound?
Yes, I mean in terms of sound and in terms of culture.
Yeah, Toronto historically has had a kind of a New York sound. You can say that. If there was one big influence, it would probably be New York. We are pretty close to New York. There are a lot of people who have families in New York—that kind of thing. Throughout the 90s or earlier 2000s, the sound was definitely closer to a New York sound. Now, as we were just saying, it’s a lot more fluid. There are people who incorporate southern influence into their sound. I guess there is a sort of a Toronto sound with producers like T-Minus, Boi-1da, [Noah] “40” [Shebib], The Weeknd. I think that’s had an influence on the Toronto scene for sure, in terms of that moodier sound. Yeah, there are a lot of interesting artists coming up [from Canada]. I think everything in Canadian Hip Hop has always been a little bit left-of-center compared to what goes on in the states. But, the New York influence has been the most classic influence in Toronto.
What are your thoughts on the current state of Hip Hop?
I actually think it’s quite good. I think 2013 was a pretty big year for Hip Hop. There are a lot of albums that are very successful. There are a lot of albums that are creative and interesting too. Yeah, 2013 was a pretty great year for Hip Hop. One of the best I can remember.
Any albums stand-out for you specifically?
Well I think just the volume of albums that have quality and were successful. From the Pusha T album [My Name is My Name], the Drake [Nothing Was The Same]. Action Bronson is still putting out music. You know, Chance The Rapper—the Chicago guys. To me there just seems to be a lot of good music from all sorts of different veins and very creative stuff. And, you know; also albums like Big Sean [Hall of Fame] and J. Cole’s [Born Sinner] really selling very well. To me, there’s a lot going on. A lot of successful releases and a lot of creative releases.
What was the first piece of music you recall made an impact on you?
Probably Simon & Garfunkle. My aunts love Simon & Garfunkle. They played it all over the house when I was like four or five. That’s probably the earliest music I remember really caring about. And more influential to what I do now are probably artists like Common.
I watched a TED Talk you did two years ago. It’s not every day that you see a rapper on this type of academic venue. How did you get involved? And what do you get out of lecturing? Is it something you’d like to continue doing?
That was an interesting experience. That took place at a college in Vancouver. Somebody suggested me to the people who were putting it on. And really, for me, it was just trying something new. It wasn’t like an opportunity I was seeking out. It was just a cool opportunity to try something new. What happens in life is that you do your thing. You do it a lot. Eventually, you do it fairly well, and then you find yourself doing it more and more. And finding yourself rarely in a position where you are trying something new or learning something new. I’m not that person who seeks out new things or new learning opportunities. So, that’s really what it was for me. And, yeah, it was a cool experience. It’s kind of scary putting yourself in a position where you are not good at something, especially in front of a lot of people. But, I think it’s cool. It was good for me to be in that position and people think I have something of value to share. I don’t want to turn that [opportunity] down.
This next question is something that has always fascinated me. How does it feel to have someone interview you?
The weird thing is there are natural conversational impulses that you have to turn off. For example, when someone asks you a question—if you socialize well [laughs]—you are taught to ask them a question too. You know what I mean? So it’s weird when someone says, for example, “Whose your favorite artist?” You can’t ask them the same question in return. It’s natural. It’s almost like a reflex that you kind of have to turn off, or else people think you are weird. If you ask [the interviewer] “Who do you like?” They’ll be like “Uh, we don’t have too much time.” So, I’d say that’s the weirdest thing. Otherwise, it’s pretty cool.