By: Chris Dagonas
It all started on a cold night in Collingwood, December 30th, 2008.
That was the first time I ever saw Shadrach Kabango, also known as the hip-hop artist Shad. I was sitting in a rented lodge at Blue Mountain. I was with some friends. I may or may not have been inebriated.
It was late at night, and only a few of the group remained up, playing cards and finishing up the last of the evening’s beer. As it usually is in situations like this, MuchMusic was on the TV. An odd little hip-hop music video came on. It looked a little something like this:
Maybe it was my state of mind at the time. Maybe it was the state of hip-hop music in 2008. But I was into it. I wanted to know more about this guy. And frankly, I saw bits of myself in the video, heard my story in the lyrics.
I was living in Thunder Bay for my Education Degree that year. I did some YouTubing when I got back to my dorm after the holidays. The next thing I found, the thing that turned me from “Hmm, who is this guy?” to “I’m buying his albums as soon as I can!” was this gem of a freestyle:
His style, compared with the majority of hip-hop music at the time, was remarkably unique. He was self-deprecating in an era of flossing. He was humble in an era of boastfulness. He was introspective in an era of showing off. He was humourous in an era of taking oneself too seriously. And it all seemed so earnest and real.
And no one could deny his lyrical ability.
The first album of Shad’s I bought was “The Old Prince”, his critically acclaimed second album. (His first, self-produced, is titled “When This Is Over” and is intriguing, displaying a touch of the versatility and depth he would continue to hone.) “The Old Prince” was nominated for a Juno and a Polaris, and in 2009 Shad was sitting on the precipice of Canadian hip-hop stardom – whatever that means. In February 2010, I drove to St. Catharines on a frigid Tuesday night to see him perform for the first time. He held the crowd the entire time, but was still so unknown that I managed to have a ten-minute conversation with him while he was selling his own t-shirts and CDs at a merchandise table near the washrooms.
I began teaching in December 2010, and started to move dreams of journalism to the back burner. Shad released TSOL in 2010, garnering his second Juno and Polaris nominations. He even won the Juno for best rap album in 2011, edging out international superstar Drake. Now, I didn’t have to drive so far to see him perform live. In the summer of 2011, he played a show on the top floor of Toronto’s The Ballroom, where I took my then-girlfriend (and now fiancée) to see a rap concert for the first time.
My iPod always had an eclectic mix, but my hip-hop tastes were pretty singular; I listened to what the radio told me to listen to. But finding Shad opened doors to all sorts of artists that I would have otherwise ignored. Soon, I was adding and listening to Common, Talib Kweli, Little Brother, Mos Def, and Jay Electronica, over mainstream acts. As I got older, I started hitting some life benchmarks that were themes in Shad’s music; uncertainty about post-university life and career choices, breakups, moving out of my parents’ house. I was growing up, and so were my musical tastes.
And, as much as we like to think of our favourite musicians as immortal, so was Shad.
I began writing online in 2012, seeking an outlet for my (mostly sports-based) thoughts. Shad’s most recent studio album, Flying Colours, a term depicting graduation, was released later in 2013. For the third time, he was nominated for a Polaris Music Prize, and shortlisted for his second consecutive time. Featuring a wide range of musical guests, such as k-os, Lights, Lisa Lobsinger, and Saukrates, Shad explored history, both political and familial, along with his other usual topics of relationships, race relations, and basketball. He was also beginning to show cracks in that Old Prince façade. His songs felt retrospective. Fittingly, and perhaps as a sign of foretelling, he ended the album with a track titled “Thank You.”
Last month, Shadrach Kabango was named the new host of CBC Radio’s pop culture talisman program, “Q”. He won the job after the network held a month-long audition for a variety of potential hosts. The less said about the previous host, the better. Shad interviewed, among others, Norm McDonald, a famously tough interview participant, and got more out of him than experts like David Letterman. As much as I hated to admit it, it was probably the smartest next step for Shad. And it was time.
Despite critical achievements, Shad was far from a commercial success. In any case, I suspect it is hard to build a career, or a financial future, in the vast middle space between “Unknown” and “Superstar”, which Shad occupies.
That’s why his show on Friday, March 27 at Massey Hall had a special feeling to it. Though assuredly not his last show, it was certainly his last show before beginning a new chapter in his life. He may be too busy to record another album for a while. He may find that sitting in the Q studio is more comfortable than driving across Canada doing shows out of a van. He may even feel more creatively free, knowing that he doesn’t have to pay bills with his music anymore. He brought out a few guests. He stuck to his fun, lighter stuff. He ended, me screaming every word right back at him, with the freestyle colloquially called “The One In Front Of The Garage”. But he did not mention his move to Q. That’s how I knew he is not closing the door on rapping.
How many of us have “jobs to pay the bills”? I write because it is a creative release. It is how I connect best with the world around me. I am also a teacher, partly because I love it, and partly because I know that paying bills through writing articles on the internet is far from a stable financial decision.
Like the eponymous Old Prince, like me, like so many of us, Shad has finally managed to grow up and go to work. I just hope he remembers to keep playing.
All hail Canada’s new pop culture King.
(This column was originally posted at Step On Magazine. It is re-posted here with permission.)