The Tao of Shad

Photo by Justin Broadbent

We’re all aware of how oversaturated the music industry has become over the last decade, and it’s now increasingly difficult to discover artists, from any era at this point, with a strong voice and unique style. A lot of hip-hop heads heard Shad’s name for the first time when Season One of Hip-Hop Evolution showed up on Netflix five years ago, but I consider those of us who have been fans since the beginning the Lucky 1s.

The Canadian hip-hop artist dropped his seventh studio album, TAO, earlier this month, and fans new and old, will have little trouble connecting with its message. Despite having recorded most of the album before the pandemic hit, Shad’s latest release could have easily been written while we were all forced to stay home for most of 2020. But it’s more about the importance of having a sense of connection, especially during a time when so many of us have been feeling disconnected from ourselves and those around us.

Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble was given the opportunity to speak with Shad recently about why he’s considered “a new standard bearer for Canadian rap” and how he (still) really likes people.

What’s your earliest memory of hip hop? 

My earliest memory of hip-hop would probably be a radio station we have in Canada, which was called Much Music. Because of the broadcasting laws, MTV didn’t get everything, so we had our own music video broadcaster, which obviously played hip-hop. Also, there’s an artist called Maestro Fresh Wes who goes by Maestro who’s our godfather of hip-hop. He’s our Rakim plus Chuck D. He’s kind of all of the pioneers in one. So, yeah, he’s probably the first that popped into my mind. 

Nice. So, you were born in Kenya and raised in Ontario. What are some records you recall hearing in your home at a young age? 

Yeah, a lot of gospel, a lot of African music from different parts of the continent. Some West African stuff, some Ethiopian stuff, and some Rwandan music, as well. I grew up with my aunts who loved Simon and Garfunkel. So, that was always so big. Abba. You know, it’s funny what stuff crosses over to the other side of the world and what’s popular. And a lot of my musical influence came from, and what was played in our house, was just whatever my sister and I would hear on the radio or watch on TV. 

How did your mother’s love of poetry influence your writing style? 

The biggest way my mom’s poetry influenced me, I have to say, it was just in the freedom that it gave me to write. A lot of immigrant families, African immigrant families, the focus is on education. The focus is on doing something practical with your life. But because my mom loved writing so much, she really gave me a freedom to pursue that, and she encouraged me to pursue that, whether that was professionally or just as a hobby. She just really believed that part of being a whole human being was expressing yourself and expressing yourself clearly. 

So, I would say that that’s the thing. It’s not so much stylistic. I think we have some similarities actually more just through our DNA. But that was the way that her writing influenced me. It was just the freedom. She worked a different job. She was a lab tech at the hospital but still made time for writing her poetry. She really just felt like this is a healthy thing, what makes a whole human being. And so, the encouragement, you know, the older I got, the more I realized that’s not super common in African households and immigrant households, having parents that tell you that, you know, writing from the heart and doing something creative is good and healthy and normal. 

So, you hold a bachelor’s in business administration, as well as a Master of Arts. What was your original plan after finishing school? 

So, my plan going into school was to—I had no plan. I’d have to get a regular job, something stable. Something that, you know, is practical and makes sense. But, during that time, I was just discovering that jobs are hard. If you don’t care about something, it’s hard to excel at it. It’s maybe not much about the 9-to-5 thing like it was in our parents’ generation. It’s not a whole lot of that. You kind of have to care.

So, I was discovering that, and, at the same time, discovering the things that I cared about most was creating and telling my own story. The easiest way for me to do that was through music, and I love music. 

Anyways, both of those realizations kind of called me to force it into my time in my undergrad years where I had already begun working on that first album, and that was done more around the time I finished that degree. So, to answer your question, yeah, when I finished, I was thinking, “Let me take a couple of years and see if I can make this music thing work because this is actually what I have the most passion for and energy to give to. So, let me let me try that, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll look into something else.” 

And then, my master’s degree, that was something I did part-time while I was making music, and I was touring, and my career seemed to be working out. But at that point, yeah, it was manageable, it was part-time, and education felt like just a privilege, something to enjoy, something to keep me inspired. So, I kind of stayed with it.

So, you mentioned your first album. In 2005, your sister signed you up for a college radio talent competition, which you won and used the prize money to finance your self-released debut, When This Is Over. What was your main source of inspiration for that album?

Just the excitement of getting it done. It’s easy to forget that 2005…I guess it’s a long time ago now, but things were really different in terms of the possibility of making music. People didn’t have laptops and recording software. It wasn’t that easy. So, I was just overjoyed to have a chance to record music. I didn’t really think I’d get to do that. Or at least that wasn’t guaranteed at all. And so, the main thing driving me was just this incredible opportunity to make an album. 

And so, yeah, I had no idea what I was doing. I booked a studio. I had no idea what any of those buttons did. I didn’t even know what an EQ meant. I didn’t know anything. It’s kind of frightening to think back on it, but I was just so excited to have the opportunity to make something—make a CD! So, that’s what was driving that. And so, yeah, I just tried to throw all of my ideas into that, everything I loved about hip hop, whether it was kind of battle raps or more personal, emotional stuff or reflecting on the world. I tried to pour everything into it. I really thought that that may very well be the last time I get to record.

Your style has been compared to that of k-os and Common. Were there any other rappers, Canadian or otherwise, around during that time who you admired? 

Yeah, Common was definitely a huge influence. He was the first guy. You know, there’s an awakening I think that all these bands have in junior high or high school where they realize there’s like a depth to music. It’s more than just cool videos. It’s cool videos, but it’s more than that. Common was one of those for me. Like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know you could do that in music.” So, that’s a huge influence. Outkast blew my mind to the point where I hardly even would call them an influence. They’re more just like a North Star. You can make people feel that way. You can make people feel transported. So, they’re a huge influence. 

Yeah, but like I said, we have these rules as far as broadcasting goes in Canada where like 30% of what it is on radio, or a music video, has to be Canadian. So, I was exposed to a lot of really cool stuff that people might not know as much about elsewhere in the world. Like k-os. He’s just one of the great, great artists that we’ve ever had. And what he does, in terms of folding all sorts of other genres and influences and styles into hip-hop, is something that I feel like thousands of people try and fail at every single day. He does it in his sleep. Yeah, he’s amazing. 

I’m trying to think of who else. Lauryn Hill was another major influence for me from, obviously, The Fugees, and her first solo album. But her Unplugged album, too, I think was a low-key big influence on a lot of people with just how candid she was but also how genius she was on that recording. So, I’d name her, too.

Two years later, you signed with Black Box Recordings for a three-album deal and released your sophomore record, The Old Prince, which was nominated for both the Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year and the 2008 Polaris Music Prize. What did that kind of recognition mean to you at that point in your career?

That was huge for me in a couple of ways. The recognition, obviously, early in your career is a huge, huge thing because, you know, some of the first times that other people who presumably know what they’re talking about, they’re telling you you’re good. It’s not just your friends and family. This is some opaque institution that, you know, that seem to know, or you have to guess know, what they’re talking about. So, the validation, of course, and then just from a practical standpoint, those two nominations gave me a career up here Those are the two biggest awards in music. So, that gave me a career that allowed me to find an audience across the country. 

You won the Juno Award for Rap Recording of the Year in 2011 for your third album, TSOL, and Pitchfork contributor Nate Patrin dubbed it “spiritual without being preachy, righteous without being self-righteous, and human without sounding mundane.” Was this the kind of response you were hoping for?

Yeah, absolutely. Although winning the Juno is not really something I really imagined because, you know, this was the beginning of the ascendancy of Drake. So, I did not expect to win, for sure. But yeah, those words I definitely take to heart, and I appreciate them. That’s what I learned from Common. That’s what I learned from Lauryn Hill, right, which was try to put yourself in your music in a way where you’re invested in the stakes. You’re putting something on the line, so that it doesn’t feel preachy even when you’re talking about what’s going on in the world and your perspective or your opinion. 

You know, it is easy to come across that way, especially in hip-hop, because we just say so much. We’re just constantly talking, so it is easy to sound preachy, but when there’s a sense of stakes, personal stakes in it, that’s the main lesson I think I took from Common and Lauryn Hill. You know, they really put themselves in the music in a genuine way. So, yes, those words mean a lot, and it was great that that album was received well.

Tell me about your participation in the CBC’s Canada Reads debates in 2012 where you successfully defended Carmen Aguirre’s memoir, Something Fierce.

Yeah, that was very cool and another interesting quirk of Canadian culture, too. Our national broadcaster, the CBC, has really done a great job of promoting Canadian literature. So, there’s this show called Canada Reads. It’s on the radio. It’s broadcast nationally. And it’s a debate about books almost kind of like a Survivor-style/debate about books and kind of determines what book the Canadians should read that year. It’s wildly popular. So, that was a really cool experience. 

This book called Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre. As it turns out, she lives down the street from me, and we got to meet up after I defended it. It’s an incredible story of her growing up in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship in Canada and then going back to being a part of the revolution as a teenager and a young woman. 

So, really, really incredible book, and I was fortunate to be successful in defending it and speak to its merits. And so, yeah, that was a really cool experience. And I was glad to see that book just gain a wider audience. It’s this pretty amazing story and also just the kind of story that exists in Canada because we are a nation of immigrants, and so people, just ordinary people, walk down the street carrying these stories. So, the book is a reminder of that, as well. 

In 2013, after releasing a couple of EPs in the years to follow, one of which was a collaborative effort with Skratch Bastid, you put out Flying Colours. How did you go about selecting the features on the album, which include Saukrates and Eternia?

Yeah, I wanted to make an album that felt more collaborative than the albums before that, and a little bit more expansive, I put a lot of work into that album and reached out pretty widely, from Lights who is a pop singer, to some of my heroes like k-os and you mentioned Saukrates who’s another real legend of Canadian hip-hop. Eternia, an incredible rapper and good friend. Kamau. 

I also reached out to a lot of musicians to play on the album. So, that was kind of the goal of that. When I think back on that time in hip-hop, this is post-Dark Twisted Fantasy and the first Kendrick album. So, hip-hop was also in this very kind of maximalist place, really creative place. It’s one of my favorite eras of hip-hop. So, I was also just trying to keep up with my heroes. 

At the end of 2014, you released the Boarding Pass EP with former DMC and Scribble Jam Champion, DJ T.Lo who you also worked with to create besides, a 25-minute mix of guest spots you’d contributed in previous years. How did the two of you meet?

Yeah, T.Lo and I met in college, as you guys would call it. We call it university. I’ve been touring with him since I started, since just about my very first show. He’s my go to when it comes to stuff like that. And then, a few years into our touring, we started getting into production. So, that EP was an opportunity for us to do something, you know, him and I. He’s really a core team member. And that’s how we met. I was a young guy that wanted to rap. He was a young guy that was inspired by DJs and turntablists and got deep into that culture and production. And so, yeah, we just came up together.

Soon after, you became the host of CBC Radio One’s Canadian arts magazine show Q. How did you feel about the criticism you received from listeners for your use of the word “dope” during your interviews?

Yeah, that was to be expected, I thought, because, you know, it’s the public broadcaster. It’s very kind of official. There was probably a better term, but I really don’t know how to not be myself. I’m very bad at being false. So, yeah, it was to be expected a bit. But that was a really amazing opportunity to do something that I love, which was meet new people and talk to them. 

But it was also a time in my career where I really was open to doing something different and to be challenged and to just be a learner again. I think a lot of people get that in their career, kind of like a ten-year itch or something. And so that opportunity came around exactly in a time that coincided for me personally. So, all that to say, the criticism was, for me, I expected it, and it didn’t bother me because I really felt inspired to do that work at the time.

And at least it showed that you were still being your genuine self despite what others thought.

Yeah, exactly.

What inspired the alias Your Boy Tony Braxton and the 90s soft-rock record Adult Contempt, which dropped in 2016?

Yeah, it was the same thing really, just being at this point where I felt really content after Flying Colours with what I had been able to say and really being able to tell my story in hip-hop, and it felt like the end of something. It definitely didn’t feel like the end of me rapping, but it did feel like the end of a story that I’d been telling from the first album until Flying Colours. 

And so, I really felt just in my soul, this is a time to try new things, to take risks, to feel uncomfortable. I embarked on making the album and used all kinds of music like rock music, pop music. I just embarked on this fun, weird journey to try and mine the deepest parts of my music memory, songs that I’d heard on the radio when I was like eight or nine and tried to write something like that. I made that album with a best friend that I grew up with, and I’m proud of that.

How did you come to collaborate with Tanya Tagaq on her album Retribution that same year?

She is this mind-blowing artist and person. We met after we were both shortlisted for the Polaris Music prize, and the first time I saw her perform was at that gala. Her performance there is kind of legendary at this point. Yeah, incredible artist. She reached out to me about trying to put something together for her album, and I’m so proud to have been on one of her recordings. We’re still friends to this day, and she’s just one of the more amazing performers I’ve ever seen. 

If hip-hop fans hadn’t known about you before, Netflix changed all that in December of 2016 with the release of their Peabody award-winning four-part documentary series, Hip-Hop Evolution. What did it mean to you as an artist, but also as a dedicated fan of the culture, to play such a large part in its success?

It’s still surreal for me. It feels strange to think about. We just set out to make the first season. First of all, it was backed by a couple of guys that I’ve known in the Canadian media landscape and respect a lot, Darby Wheeler, Rodrigo Bascuñán, and they invited me to host the show. And the plan was just, in the first season, was just to document the origins of hip-hop in documentary form. It’s been covered a lot in news, it’s been covered a lot in books really, really well, but that definitive film documentary account of the origins of hip-hop didn’t exist, so we set out to do that. And that felt really purposeful, something that needed to be done to my mind because, unfortunately, there are people who just don’t often live very long. 

When we got the opportunity to make even more, that’s what still feels surreal, to get to travel to all those different places. And at the end of the day, put together a series that feels like an important document for the culture. It’s definitely not comprehensive. There’s way too much to cover than we can cover in the scope of the show. But it does feel like something important for the culture. It feels like a celebration. Just getting to be part of that is still surreal, still blows my mind. And it was such a pleasure, obviously, to sit down with all those folks and just hear their stories. 

Yeah, I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t even initially Netflix’s thing. It was originally on a Canadian station, correct? 

That’s right, yeah. It was commissioned by HBO Canada. It was initially on Canadian television and got licensed by Netflix. I don’t know the inner workings, but my sense is that Netflix had put up The Get Down and put a lot of money into that. My sense is that they saw Hip-Hop Evolution as a nice accompaniment to that, and that’s how they became trusted. So, yeah, we lucked out in a number of ways. I have fond memories of that, and maybe we’ll get to pick it up at some point. We ended Season 4 somewhere in the mid-2000s, so we can’t really go any further than that at this point, but maybe someday.

You can always go back. Speaking of memories, can you share any favorite memories of your time working on that project? 

Yeah, there’s so many. KRS-One. He’s as entertaining in interviews as he is on stage. He’s so amazing. Busta Rhymes was great, too. He’s just such a fan of hip-hop that you just name an artist, and he would just gush for fifteen or twenty minutes. He told us that he used to, every Tuesday, that’s when albums came out, he would buy four: one for his car, one for his collection, one to listen to, and one to give away. 


That’s how much of a fan he is. So, yeah, he was great. And a lot of those kinds of people, and by that, I mean, artists that are still in hip-hop, love hip-hop but also have done so many things, so many other things. Those are some of the best people to talk to because they don’t always get to talk about hip-hop. Like Xzibit was a great guy to talk to, for example. Ice-T was great to talk to. Snoop was great to talk to. I noticed some of these people that aren’t in hip-hop all the time anymore, but they really relish that opportunity to go back and talk about it. They have so much fondness for everyone, for all of those likely formative experiences with hip-hop. 

2018 saw the release of your album A Short Story About A War, which follows the narrative of a fictional world consumed by war. How did living in Vancouver affect the objective of the record?

That idea came to me when I was living in Vancouver. Vancouver is a very unequal city, like a lot of cities are now, but probably something comparable to San Francisco in terms of, you know, really a lot of wealth and affluence on one side, and on the other side, you see a lot of people just there on the street. So, there’s a little palpable tension, and I think that that was kind of bubbling in my subconscious and came out as this story of war. It came out in that local language. And when that metaphor occurred to me, I was just seeing all the layers meeting: a sniper being above and elevated and participating in violence, but at a distance the characters I call ‘the stone throwers’ are responsible for a lot of the violence. It’s ugly and universally condemned. 

So, all of these characters immediately came to mind. All these layers of meaning immediately came to mind, and it just felt like a cool, creative challenge to try to represent all of that in music. I set out to make that album. One of the great creative experiences of my life, for sure, was trying to put that album together. It’s a story that feels evergreen, sadly. But I would say, the thing is, it’s all about how difficult peace really is. And so, to answer your question, that’s why I think Vancouver inspired it because the tension is really palpable all the time when you’re just looking at wealth right besides poverty, suffering, and oppression. 

Yeah, that’s hard to ignore. I found a piece online from that year that called you a “member of hip-hop’s new generation.” As a longtime fan of yours who considers you more of a veteran, I’d love to know how it makes you feel when you read a piece by someone who may not have done their homework when commenting on your career.

Ha, well you know how it is in the media landscape. Yeah, unfortunately, you don’t get a lot of thoughtful work, and maybe that’s true in a lot of instances. Budgets are shrinking, there’s a lot more, I don’t know, fear and temptation to take shortcuts, and go for click bait and that kind of thing. And it’s sad. I feel less sad for me and more sad for the culture to be honest with you because I think it does us all a real disservice, and it ends up being part of the problem of our state that we’re in right now. It’s just that, in general, there’s just not a lot of space and funds for thoughtful writing.

And storytelling, which is the only way history has survived all these years, so…


Why did you choose “Out of Touch” as the lead single off your forthcoming release, TAO, due out on the first of next month?

I like when it’s the situation with albums when I’m done with the album, and it’s very clear in my mind what the first single is, and this one was definitely “Out of Touch.” It feels like, in terms of themes and lyrics, ia thesis statement for the album. I kind of touch on a range of things in the lyrics, but ultimately, it’s about this problem of disconnection, and that’s kind of what the album is all about. 

And the reason it just felt like the clear cut first single is, I would say, it’s something that’s in my strike zone musically. It’s what I do best, I think, that kind of soulful, positive feeling in music and a little bit of a spark. But at the same time, I’m talking about things. I’m giving my take on things. So, yeah, for all of those reasons it was the clear-cut choice.

Each song on the album is about a different part of our humanity/humanness we’ve slowly been losing touch with, which has served as an overarching theme in this sci-fi thriller we’ve all been living through. What was it like putting together a new album in the middle of a pandemic?

Oh, it was it was just a tough slog for one thing. Like most people, I get some energy from other people, you know, creatively. I get some energy from working with other people. Also, just practically speaking, I’m not an engineer. I was sitting in my house, just sitting in my guest room trying to edit stuff, something an engineer could probably do in ten minutes would take me two days. So, practically speaking, it was hard, but, you know, in terms of themes, it was definitely inspiring because I wrote most of the album and recorded most of the album before the pandemic. So, it just amplified everything I felt was going on. Yeah, it just amplified it all. The themes got even more relevant sometimes to the point where it was even uncomfortable and scary and way more on the nose.

Who is responsible for creating the striking cover art? 

Justin Broadbent, I’ve worked with him on all of my album art and all the videos for this album. He’s done a lot of my videos. But yeah, this was another instance where, from the album art perspective, things came together. That was amazingly his first pass at it. I talked about the themes with him, and he just right away was like, primary colors, shapes, collage. He just did it. 

Yeah, it’s beautiful. You’re one of three incredibly skilled lyricists on J.Period’s “Globetrottin” track off his album Story To Tell. How did this collaboration come about?

J.Period is an amazing DJ/storyteller. I was introduced to him about a decade ago, and he really took this song called “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home.” It was an old, comedic kind of song, and he really took to that. And we kept up the friendship, and he reached out when he thinking about this song and conceptualizing the song, like you said, called “Globetrottin.”

It’s this kind of trash-talking, self-deprecating, funny basketball song. So, I think, because of “The Old Prince Still Lives At Home” he was just like, “Shad could do this.” So, he gave me a call, and yeah, “Globetrottin” is also very much in my strike zone. I’m a crazy basketball fan, and I play at least once a week. And I know all about that banter on the courts these days. So, it was super fun to write that song.  

In an interview last year, you shared that you “like to make people feel good, and there are not a lot of people [you] don’t like.” Has that changed with all that has taken place over the last 18 months?

I think I still really like people when I meet them, you know, which is part of the problem when spending so much time apart. Face to face, I am really inclined towards other people. 

As restrictions in Toronto have eased up a bit, I see that you’ve been able to perform at a few live venues recently. What did it feel like to be back on stage?

It was a really good experience mainly for me just to know that I could do that still after not performing for a whole year. And it’s a very different switch, it’s a very different gear for me than my ordinary life. I’m not a performer. I mean, I love it, but I’m not on all the time. So, you know, just to make sure I could still flip that switch again was a big deal. 

In terms of how shows feel, I still feel like it’s not the old way, but maybe they feel like the best alternative, but we’re missing the whole part of what we do as performers, which is bringing people together and that feeling one gets from a crowd, but we’re not there yet. So, it was cool. It was 85% great.

What did it mean to work with songwriter Dave Monks on his latest track “Don’t Get Pushed Around”?

Yeah, very cool. I’ve crossed paths with him a few times in the indie music scene. He’s a songwriter I admire. And yeah, also one of these cool moments realizing other artists from different genres are on a similar wavelength. We were both working in the same studio, and I went by the room where he was working. He was playing this distorted up-tempo drum break, like trip hop almost track. I was working at the time on something with a very similar groove. I couldn’t get mine to work. But, that was kind of cool to see like, “Oh wow. We’re kind of on the same wavelength even though we’ve been apart, and we work in different genres.” So, that was cool. 

I’m not the kind of guy that needs to work with every artist that I love, but if it does work out, it’s awesome. I’m more the guy that wants to talk to you and have a conversation. I don’t necessarily want to make something, but if it does work out, then that’s great. It’s just a nice moment and a nice memory. 

You definitely have an inner journalist.

I think so.

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