Man on Fire
When Kardinal Offishall drops his long-awaited new album Fire & Glory on November 15, you won't hear the song he did with American hip-hop producer Timbaland. It's a curious move, given that most artists would love to gain the cachet that production work with Timbaland would garner. "The Timbaland and Kardinal song does exist and it did cost a house to produce the song," says the Toronto-based MC. "Mind you, it wasn't directly out of my pocket he got a whole heap of money. But I made a conscious decision not to put that on the album. Not 'cause I don't think Timbaland's talented and because the song wasn't sick, but I don't believe that the music I create or people that I work with are any less talented than Timbaland. They just haven't had as much opportunity and maybe don't have the light. A lot of these cats have incredible beats, incredible. The only difference between them and other producers is the opportunity." Kardinal's not willing to alter his artistic vision for the album as a whole simply for the attention or commercial gain a high profile track might provide.
Those familiar with Kardinal Offishall's career may shrug this off. After all, he's worked with many high profile artists and collaborators over the past few years (see sidebar), including super-producers the Neptunes. That collaboration called "Belly Dancer" was recorded and a video was shot for what was supposed to be the lead single for Kardi's American breakthrough, Firestarter Vol. 2: The F-Word Theory. But neither that album nor the video was ever released due to label complications. MCA folded and dropped many of its hip-hop acts; Kardinal himself was transferred to Geffen. It's just one of many obstacles Kardinal has faced since he debuted as a recording artist almost a decade ago, complications that have included beefs with other artists and overcoming Canada's embryonic infrastructure for domestic hip-hop.
Business challenges aside, Kardinal Offishall has been a sought-after collaborator for many of hip-hop's top talent because his sound and style is inimitably his own. While it's apparent he has digested plenty of classic American hip-hop, his sound is heavily influenced by reggae and dancehall music, and his lyrical delivery is peppered with Jamaican patois. "People say, Why does he do the reggae ting and the hip-hop ting?'" says Kardinal, sitting at Irie, a West Indian restaurant in downtown Toronto. "You know why I do it? Because when I listen to reggae music, it seems like it's the only music that can still have a positive message and people look at it as a cool ting. We need music that when you hear it, it changes the way that you feel." Kardinal is also acutely aware he might not have developed his style had he been south of the border. "Even being proud of my Jamaican descent, had I been first generation born in the States, maybe I wouldn't have that same appreciation for my culture. Because in the states ya dun know already, you're American first, then whatever you are second, African second, Chinese second. [Canada] has really allowed me to blossom and to do my thing and they've embraced it and for that I'm always respectful."
This blossoming has been evident from the beginning of his recording career. Back in the day, bored at school, Kardinal couldn't concentrate in class, distracted by a song in his head. He skipped afternoon classes to finish the track and went to a studio that evening. The infectious result, "Naughty Dread," was based around a sample of Bob Marley's "Natty Dread." The song appeared on the landmark 1996 all-Canadian hip-hop compilation Rap Essentials Volume 1, earning Kardinal a Juno nomination for Best Rap Recording. At the time, the biggest wave of quality independent hip-hop since the days of Maestro Fresh Wes was emerging in Toronto, yet Kardinal's track managed to stand out and signify the arrival of a distinctive artist.
Kardinal's 1997 independent release, Eye & I, showcased an obviously talented and versatile artist experimenting with various styles, from East coast hip-hop and R&B to dancehall. Firestarter Volume 1's track listing was strategically made up of both old and new tracks and geared for audiences outside Canada, while the mix-tape format of Kill Bloodclott Bill: Vol. 1 made it a sprawling affair by necessity. But on Fire & Glory, the sounds still veer from traditional hip-hop, dancehall and into futuristic soundclash territory, but are couched in a uniform sonic approach; Kardinal takes the production reins on "9.5 of the 14 tracks."
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