If Kevin Bacon can have his own six degree rule, then Kardinal Offishall is going to need one, too. There may be no rapper—hell, entertainer—in Canada with quite the same ties across pop music history. Who else but Kardi can say they were part of Rihanna’s first demo tape? Hand-packaged their breakthrough EP in the same brownstone apartment building Jay Z shouted out on “Empire State of Mind”? Shared the stage with the likes of De La Soul, OutKast and the Beastie Boys? Offered a boost to an early-career Drake, or ran with the Olympic torch, or toured Europe with The Roots, or performed for Nelson Mandela after the civil rights leader’s 1990 release from prison?
Twenty-nine years after Kardinal Offishall—born Jason Harrow—made his recorded debut as an 18-year-old emcee on Saukrates’ “Still Caught Up,” the Scarborough, Ont. born rapper is still pushing the envelope: Last year, Harrow was hired as Global A&R at Def Jam Recordings—the largest and longest-running hip hop label in the world. And he’s not done with performing, either: On Thursday, Nov. 9, Kardinal is headlining a free show at Halifax’s Marquee Ballroom—part of the TD Music Connected Series.
“I’m glad I am still here and rocking,” the 47-year-old says, speaking over Zoom with The Coast on Wednesday morning. “It’s been such an incredible journey… I think a big win for me is being able to sleep well at night knowing that, shoot, I may not be a billionaire, but I feel good about having the success that I have.”
That success goes beyond Kardi being the first Canadian hip hop artist to break into the Billboard Hot 100 in 2008 (“Dangerous” peaked at #5). On Dec. 2, he’ll receive the 2023 Canada’s Walk of Fame Allan Slaight Music Impact Honour for “making a positive impact in the field of music.” He’s only the second hip hop artist to receive the nod, after Drake in 2011.
The world of hip hop was a different place when an eight-year-old Kardinal, living in a fifth-floor apartment on Flemingdon Park’s St. Dennis Drive, first dreamt of penning rhymes in the mid-1980s. Despite a history in Canada dating back to the late seventies, rap was overlooked within the music industry: The JUNOs didn’t have an award for the genre until 1991. And it wasn’t part of the televised broadcast until 1999.
By the time Kardi was a teenager, little had changed. Maestro Fresh Wes’ “Let Your Backbone Slide” was a smash hit—it became the first single by a Canadian hip hop artist to sell 50,000 copies—but still, he found a more willing audience south of the Canada-US border. Kardi and his friends—including rappers Saukrates and Choclair—followed suit. At 18 and 19, they would travel to New York and Los Angeles, networking with any labels and promoters that would meet with them. He paid a visit to famed music video director Hype Williams’ office. Got his music into the ears of underground radio hosts Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Garcia.
“It was a whole ‘by any means necessary’ type of attitude that we had,” Offishall tells The Coast. “And that’s why we literally went canvassing, almost door to door, to these different labels.”
“It was a whole ‘by any means necessary’ type of attitude that we had. And that’s why we literally went canvassing, almost door to door, to these different labels.”
It paid off: Garcia brought a 23-year-old Kardinal on tour to Europe, where he and rapper Solitair opened for The Roots. That same year, Offishall put out a four-track EP, Husslin’, that “went number one on, like, every college chart.” It also caught the attention of MCA Records, who offered Kardinal his first record deal with a major label.
The origin of Husslin’ is its own crossroads of hip hop history: At the time, Kardinal and fellow Toronto rapper k-os would frequent the seventh-floor Brooklyn, NY apartment of then-manager (and now OVO Sound president) Morgan Lieberthal. He shared it with Rascalz founding member Sol Guy. Lord Jamar of rap group Brand Nubian lived in the same building. Three floors above Lieberthal’s apartment, in suite 10B, lived another name you might’ve heard before: Jay Z.
“It was dope,” Kardinal says. “It was a regular Brooklyn apartment, but it had some super-legendary people that either lived there or came in and out of that place. And because me and k-os were on the east coast, we spent a lot of time there, literally packing mixtapes ourselves and stuffing 12-inch vinyls… we used to pack FedEx boxes and send them to Japan, send them to the UK.”
Kardi’s MCA debut, Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1, brought the Toronto emcee to new heights—you can thank “BaKardi Slang” for popularizing the term “T-Dot”—but it was Harrow’s 2008 collaboration with Akon, “Dangerous,” that lifted him into the stratosphere. The song won “Single of the Year” at the 2009 JUNOs. (His accompanying album, Not 4 Sale, also won Rap Recording of the Year.”) It reached #2 on the Canadian Hot 100 charts and peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The song sold 3-million units in the US, and another 400,000 in the UK. In Canada, it was certified quadruple-platinum.
The newfound success and all its trappings might’ve proven tempting to Kardinal—“the entertainment industry makes it very easy for you to succumb to your vices,” he tells The Coast—but he credits his grandmother with keeping him level. Early in his career, she pulled him aside with a warning: “You can’t serve god and the devil at the same time.”
“I remember I was like, ‘Oh, fun! Keeping it nice and light,’” he jokes. “But that perspective always stuck with me. It’s very easy to get caught up in the bullshit. Put it this way: In the music industry, you can get into the worst of the worst very easily, or the best of the best… If you’re not mentally and emotionally and spiritually strong, the industry can swallow you up.”
It hasn’t swallowed Kardinal. Over a 30-year career, Harrow has quietly forged and kept a sterling reputation among his peers—from Lil Wayne claiming him among his favourite Canadian artists, to Rihanna continuing to sing his praises, to budding R&B star Daniel Caesar inviting him to feature on “Cyanide.” He has also climbed through the industry ranks, from executive creative director of A&R at Universal Music Canada, to senior vice-president of A&R at the label, to his newest role as Global A&R at Def Jam Recordings. Harrow’s new goal: To shine a spotlight on the world’s next undiscovered talents.
“To me, I don’t care if you’re 16 or 30, I’m just interested in what is dope,” he says. “I’m more interested in having talent be my GPS and guide, [as opposed to] whatever the numbers are saying on TikTok or streaming… Are you going to invest in the moment, or are you going to invest in the artist and a lifetime?”
While at Universal, he helped steer fellow Scarborough artist Savannah Ré through the release of her Polaris Prize-nominated EP, Opia. (Ré’s husband, St. Lucian-turned-Haligonian-turned-Torontonian producer Johann Deterville, helped to compose, produce and engineer the album.)
“I think being able to kind of be the artist whisperer and talk to people in a language they understand has been super advantageous,” Offishall told Range in 2021.
When Kardinal takes the stage at the Marquee Ballroom on Thursday, Nov. 9, it will mark more than two decades since his first Halifax trip. He recalls arriving sometime around 2001, on the heels of his Firestarter, Vol. 1 release.
“I remember going to North Preston and just hanging out in the community, getting my hair braided and hanging with Puddie da Mayor [North Preston Bulls founder Neville Provo],” Offishall tells The Coast.
Thursday’s show will not only bring Kardi together with a rising crop of Canadian talent—co-headliner Haviah Mighty won the 2019 Polaris Prize for her album 13th Floor—it also reunites him with Halifax-based friend and collaborator Kayo. The two met at the since-closed Palace Nightclub “in maybe 2009 or 2010,” Kayo tells The Coast. They bumped into each other again in Toronto and kept in touch. Offishall later joined Kayo on his 2015 song “Nagato.” The two flew out to Kayo’s home country, St. Lucia, to shoot the music video.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him,” Offishall says. “First of all, he’s a dope artist. But more importantly, he’s a dope person with dope energy.”
Tickets for the Marquee show went public on Monday, Nov. 6 and have since sold out. The show starts at 7pm.