Kardinal Offishall still remembers a time when nobody wanted to hire him. And he means nobody.
“Everybody turned me down: Gap, Foot Locker,” the Toronto-born rapper and music executive tells ET Canada. “The only thing I never applied for was McDonald’s, and that’s because there’s no way I was going to work at McDonald’s. But everybody fronted on me, so you know, it was music or bust.”
Thankfully, the music thing turned out alright. Today, Offishall is a Canadian hip hop god, gifting us some of the nation’s most groundbreaking and unimpeachable hits, from the Rascalz’s 1998 classic “Northern Touch” (which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year) to 2008’s “Dangerous” with Akon, which made him the first Canuck rapper to land on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
At this year’s Juno Awards on March 13, Offishall will lead viewers through a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip hop, taking a special look at the genre through a Canadian lens.
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Offishall, who began releasing music in the mid-’90s, made a name for himself with his bombastic, uniquely Caribbean-Torontonian sound back when there wasn’t a blueprint for success for hip hop musicians in Canada. “Of course, we had Maestro and Michie [Mee], but it seemed like those were unicorn avenues, as opposed to like, if you follow these steps you would get to a certain place,” he says. “It was like being dropped off in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest and having to chop your way through, hoping that once you get to the other side, that’s where the water supply is. That’s what it felt like back in them days.”
But these days? Everyone wants to hire Kardi. In January, the “Canada’s Got Talent” host was appointed Global A&R at Def Jam Recordings, the legendary Rick Rubin-created music label that launched the careers of hip hop greats like Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Run-DMC. The new role is a step up from his previous post as senior vice-president for Universal Music Canada, where in 2021 he became the company’s first Black VP ever. While Kardi says it was “an honour” to be the first, it’s “sad” it took so long for it to happen. Canada’s lacking music infrastructure is at least part of the reason he was eager to join Def Jam.
“I needed someplace where they had enough resources, they had a similar vision and a place where I could really go and kill it and not be limited by the infrastructure of the country,” he explains. “And unfortunately, our Canadian music industry is more like a cruise ship than a speedboat, where the changes happen very slowly…. We’re decades behind all these other countries.”
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As Def Jam’s first Global A&R rep, Offishall will be “in the trenches” with CEO Tunji Balogun and executive vice president LaTrice Burnette as he searches the world for new talent.
“It’s a Def Jam renaissance, you know what I mean?” he says of the new direction of the label, which currently boasts a roster of rap heavyweights like Pusha T, 2 Chainz and Benny The Butcher, as well as Canadian stars like Justin Bieber and Alessia Cara. Last month, DJ Khaled even brought his We the Best imprint to the label. “It’s not like Def Jam is trying to recreate something from back in the day. There’s so much new energy and there’s so many new incredible artists that, piece by piece, will start to get broken.”
Among those new Def Jam artists is Zambia-born, Winnipeg-raised singer-songwriter Lavi$h, and Jamaican dancehall star Masicka. Beyond that, Offishall says he’s currently looking at artists in South Africa, the U.K. and even Latvia. “It’s a really dope time because I think the face of Def Jam will literally be one that’s global right now as opposed to, you know, just being hyper focused on the United States,” Offishall says.
Concentrating on the States is something the “Bakardi Slang” rapper feels Canada should lay off of too. He notes that several Canadian songs from the ’90s are considered classics in the rap canon by fans in other countries, but not at home. “When I met J. Cole, he said, ‘Yo, ‘Ol’ Time Killin” was my favorite song throughout college.’ So a lot of these songs are staples in many different countries around the world. The funny thing is, we don’t know that here because we’re so fixated on what’s happening south of the border that we don’t take the time to understand what we really have,” he says. “We’re literally just sitting on a pile of diamonds and gold that has a thin sheet of dirt over it, and people have no idea what’s under that.”
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Of course, the likes of Drake and The Weeknd are now revered at home for being the generational talents that they are, but it wasn’t until they broke out south of the border that Canada truly began showing them love. And while Drizzy paid tribute to the nation’s hip hop and R&B OGs at last year’s All Canadian North Stars concert as part of his annual OVO weekend, the fact that the show was so newsworthy indicates how seldom those artists are celebrated here.
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“It’s unfortunate because living in Canada, some people have almost gone their entire career without being able to receive the flowers that they should,” says Offishall. “You think about people like Tamia and Deborah Cox, who did such incredible things globally. There’s young kids coming up who don’t even know who Deborah Cox is, which is an absolute shame, because if you look at parallel countries — I just came back from London, and they on a regular basis acknowledge the amazing and incredible people that come from there. For God’s sake, they have the MOBO Awards every year, celebrating music of Black origin. So on a yearly basis, they’re giving each other the flowers that they deserve.”
But we’re slowly getting better at recognizing our own talent. Last year’s inaugural Legacy Awards — the first major Canadian award show to honour Black talent, founded by Stephan James and Shamier Anderson — are a great start. And the upcoming showcase of hip hop history at Junos — which Kardi wrote and produced with Joanne Gairy — is a sign of progress, given the troubled history the award show has had with the genre. (See: That time in 1998 when the Rascalz refused to accept the Juno for Rap Recording of the Year because the ceremony wouldn’t televise it.)
As a generation of kids raised on Kardi and the artists he influenced follow in his footsteps and break barriers in executive roles, change will come. Just maybe not quite at 80 knots.
“It feels like a lot of the time we have to go outside of the country to be really appreciated the way that we should, but, you know, slowly but surely, it’s just like that whole cruise ship,” says Kardi. “The cruise ship is turning and eventually we’ll get to a much better place. And I think as some of the younger generation or people that have those big, incredible ideas start to get positions of power, we’ll start to see the radical change that we need in this country.”