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."
"From a musical standpoint, I don't want to eat off the next man's plate," says Kardi. "Anybody that I respect as an artist has created their own path and did their own thing." While Fire & Glory contains guest appearances from Busta Rhymes as well as dancehall artists Vybz Kartel and Spragga Benz, for the most part it's an in-house affair; Kardi works primarily with his Black Jays collective of MCs and vocalists, including long-time creative associates Solitair and Ro Dolla.
While Kardinal's sense of humour, party-starting tracks and ear for progressive beats are still in effect on Fire & Glory, the underlying theme is of perseverance. Kardinal is more willing than ever to speak out, delivering social commentary on tracks like "E.G.G. (Everybody's Gone Gangsta)" and lead single "Everyday Rudebwoy," which touches on racial profiling. "Sometimes you have to burn a fire in people's thought process, y'know. I don't like dealing with half-assed people. I am either 100 percent or I'm not with it at all. And sometimes in order to get people to do things and to think a certain way I have to start that fire. When there's time to speak up, people don't speak up. Anything I'm dealing with on the album I feel needed to be talked about, and things that I wanted to express."
While his recorded output captures part of what Kardinal Offishall is all about, his live show was how he built his rep in the first place. Nelson Mandela was in the audience when he first performed on stage at the age of 12 and he spent his teen years appearing in a bunch of local talent shows, rhyming as KoolAid. By '93, inspired by the iron-fisted power grabs of 17th century French politician Cardinal Richelieu, he took the name Kardinal Offishall. He participated in the youth-oriented Fresh Arts program, run by the Toronto Arts Council, where he honed his writing, performing and production skills along with program participants including Saukrates and Jully Black, with whom he created the Figurez ov Speech (F.O.S.) crew. The shows they put on then, and later when they became the Circle crew with the addition of notables like Choclair, were remarkable for their military precision. Each one of up to ten crewmembers had a specific on-stage function; together, they helped raise the performance benchmark within Toronto's moribund live hip-hop scene.
"I was just blessed to be around super-creative people," says Kardinal. "If there was a show, we would practice and practice and do our shit, so people were just blown away and that's always stayed with me. I don't want anyone to ever come to my show and say, ‘That was a garbage show.'" At the recent Getting Up Festival, held this August in Toronto, he was one of the few domestic acts to rouse the crowd to action. At one point, he sat down on stage with a guitar, commenting: "They say I have to play an instrument to sell some records." After a brief skit where Kardinal feebly attempted to play the instrument, he smashed the guitar on stage. A review in a Toronto weekly interpreted the event, without naming names, as a diss to Canadian hip-hop artist K-OS. In the next week's issue — with Kardinal Offishall on the cover no less — K-OS responded in the letters section questioning the highlighting of the diss, and went on to critique the influence of American hip-hop on Canadian artists. "Children like Kardinal are living in a dream world," K-OS wrote, "because the fact is he is not American and no matter how many cameos he does, America loves its own."
Kardinal maintains a diplomatic approach to the incident. "It's one of those things where people who don't know him will be like, ‘Oh my gosh,' but I know him and I know that was said out of him being defensive. The comments about me trying to be American? Anybody with sense knows that's the antithesis of what I stand for." He and K-OS have since resolved the issue and plan to work together in the future, but Kardinal says his actions were more commentary than diss. "My whole thing is not to say that K-OS is a joke or that what he's doing is a joke. Because K-OS is gwanin' big, he runs the country right now. The infrastructure cannot support more than one thing at a time. So now the type of thing that he's doing is what [Canadian hip-hop] is and that's why I was saying — we can never support more than one thing at a time."
For Kardinal, the incident stemmed from a lack of support for Canadian urban acts as a whole. "It's really sad and discouraging for artists from Canada because the scene doesn't allow for there to be more than one chosen person at a time. All the other struggling domestic urban artists are like, ‘Boy! How come this guy is the only one that gets to do this?' It creates hard feelings and it makes the scene hard for everybody to get along. They might feel that ‘Oh [Kardi's] running things,' making it hard for them to get up, or K-OS is doing his thing so nobody can get up. They still like to throw you peanuts and want you to wear that Canadian flag, but the Canadian flag is only giving you lunch money. It's not just with rap — it's with the movie business, it's with anything that comes out of here."
It's commentary informed by his own record industry problems. After snagging a publishing deal with Warner Chappell on the strength of his live show in 1997, Kardinal used it to help finance his debut album, Eye & I. Released on Saukrates' label, Capitol Hill, the record failed to reach the Canadian masses because of poor distribution. "We'd be in Winnipeg, and we'd be like, ‘Where's the album?'" Kardinal says, recalling his first cross-country tour. "And they'd be like, ‘Well, there were only four copies of the album. They sold out and never restocked.'" An additional setback occurred when MuchMusic pulled Kardinal's "On Wit Da Show" video because an extra came to the shoot straight from work wearing his security guard uniform, much to the chagrin of his employer. It was a blow, since video was one of the few national outlets available to Canadian hip-hop artists at the time because of the lack of domestic urban radio stations. The power of a hot video was underlined the following year by the popularity of the "Northern Touch" video by the Rascalz, a track for which Kardinal provided the hook. He worked his production magic for Choclair's breakthrough, Ice Cold, including the single "Let's Ride," and released his own Husslin' EP, which led MCA in Los Angeles to come calling. The plan was that MCA would release an album of new and old songs to familiarise American audiences with Kardinal Offishall (Firestarter Vol. 1: The Quest For Fire) and follow it up quickly with a second, fresher full-length — what became the aborted Firestarter Vol. 2: The F-Word Theory.
After the second album was delayed numerous times, Kardinal found himself in label limbo. Despite his frustration, Kardinal continued working and eventually dropped the Kill Bloodclott Bill Volume 1 mix-tape, loosely using Tarantino's movie as inspiration. It was apparent that the "Bill" in question was his major label. Inevitably, the end was nigh. "Finally one day it just came to a halt, we had a mutual breaking," says Kardinal. "At the time, the only thing they were putting out was G-Unit, 50 Cent, Jadakiss, that type of stuff. They didn't really know what to do with my album because that's not their forte. It was too artsy or too musical, or whatever. Eminem obviously is a talented guy, but he has his issues and it's easy to sell an Eminem album. But for me it's not so easy." Fire & Glory appears on his own Black Jays imprint in a co-venture with Virgin; Kardinal virtually rules out ever signing directly to a major label again. "All these things were really lessons for me, so now I try not to make those mistakes again."
Kardinal is adhering to some inner principles and isn't about pursuing commercial success at all costs. He won't follow trends for the sake of it — he'd prefer to go his own route. And despite the minor K-OS tiff, he won't knock others down to bring himself up.
It's something Kardinal dealt with even as a student at York University, where he studied Mass Communications. "Man used to say ‘Yo, I wanna battle you.' I used to say, ‘Just tell your friends that you won,'" Kardinal laughs. "They can say whatever they want. ‘He's soft.' That's cool. Then what?" More recently, Mayhem Morearty, a former Black Jays collective member, recorded a diss song over Kardinal's own "Husslin'" track. "With a lot of these guys that have issues, if you were to really sit down and talk to them, they'll say ‘Kardi's faking, he's not Jamaican.' Never did I ever claim to not be born in Toronto. My whole thing has always been the love of my culture, so if I'm faking loving my culture, then so be it."
Instead of striking back, he advises artists who have problems with him to focus on their own art. "If your music is wicked don't wake up and think about me, wake up and think about your music. If you come out with the sickest song, everybody's gonna say ‘Boy! You're wicked.' To get where I got right now, I never had to pick apart another MC's existence." So what is it that Kardinal Offishall is about then? "What I embody is someone who is trying to make a change in the world period. And trying to make some music that I want to hear. If you want to do something go on and do it. I don't want for anyone to say, ‘Ah Kardinal did what everybody else is doing. He's talking garbage.' I would like to be part of the solution or at least give the yin to the yang."
Perhaps more than any other Canadian MC, Kardinal Offishall has an enviable
international profile. Kardinal has fluidly moved through working with artists around the world in various music genres whether they are emerging or established, while managing to maintain his inimitable style.
Bounty Killer • The Jamaican dancehall artist worked with Kardinal on remix to "Bakardi Slang" after it proved popular in Jamaica. Another collaboration, "Sick," was a buzz track for the aborted Firestarter Vol. 2.
Busta Rhymes • The manic hip-hop superstar of Jamaican heritage contacted Kardinal after his "Ol' Time Killin'" single made waves in the U.S. and the two collaborated on the song's remix. Busta Rhymes also appears on Fire & Glory's "Whatchalike."
Estelle • UK's acclaimed up-and-coming female MC and vocalist appears on Fire & Glory's "Kaysarasara" and will have production from Kardinal on her next album.
Lethal Bizzle • Kardinal was commissioned to perform an official remix for UK grime artist Lethal B's ruckus-inducing 2004 anthem "Pow!"
Method Man • After producing a remix of the Wu-Tang Clan's "Careful (Click, Click)" remix in 2000, Kardinal maintained his Staten Island connection, providing the hook on Tical 0: The Prequel's "Baby Come On."
The Neptunes • Kardinal was approached by the Neptunes to appear on the remix of "Grindin'" by their protégés the Clipse. Kardinal later recorded "Belly Dancer," the ill-fated single from Firestarter Vol. 2 with Pharrell Williams and supermodel Naomi Campbell in the studio.
Pete Rock • Sharing the fact that he has a common Jamaican heritage and family living in Toronto, this legendary hip-hop producer invited Kardinal to appear on "We Good" from his Soul Survivors II album.
Pharoahe Monch • Kardinal's mercury-tongued collaboration, "Hurt You," with this revered Queens MC, formerly of seminal outfit Organized Konfusion, was originally intended for Firestarter Vol. 2 and will now likely appear as a hidden track on Fire & Glory.
Prince Paul • This pioneering and innovative hip-hop producer featured Kardinal on "What I Need" from his 2003 Politics Of The Business release.
Sean Paul • Kardinal appeared on Baby Blue Sound Crew's "Money Jane," a song he produced with the Jamaican dancehall artist before he achieved crossover success.
Texas • This veteran Scottish pop-rock group approached Kardinal to lend his vocals and remixing skills to "Carnival Girl," the lead single from their 2003 album Careful What You Wish For after hearing his track "Belly Dancer."