If you’re expecting 31-year-old Shad K. to look like a mean muggin’ rapper with gold grills freestyling about them bad bitches simply because he’s a rapper, you’d be wrong on about 50 different counts.
On a bright Vancouver morning, he’s sitting patiently – dressed in a simple plaid button up and baseball cap, coffee in hand, open smile on face — at Joe’s Café on Commercial Drive when BeatRoute meets with him.
Flying Colours, Shad’s fourth album to date, is the first topic of discussion. Recorded at Dreamhouse Studios in Toronto, the album is an exploration of Shad’s personal life journeys and his changing perception of success and failure. “I like that the surprising truth is that we’re all doing quite well,” he says of the album’s overall message. “This world has a lot of trouble and violence in it, and it took me to find a resolution to that in my mind and really name it and put it into words [on the album]. [Hope] isn’t always there — you have remember that life is good and that you’ve got to get up and try your best.”
Though Flying Colours is the rapper’s darkest and most personal work yet, songs like “Stylin’” are classic Shad at his best. The song walks the fine line between Shad’s modest boasting of his own skill (“That’s my throne, don’t let me even get near it, please”) and the worldly, conscious lyrics that he is so known well for.
In other cases, influence from Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West’s Yeezus bring a new edge to several tunes. This shines on “Progress,” a song which begins a capella and crescendos with a full orchestral arrangement, develops into a twist on Don McLean’s folk hit “American Pie” and offers a modern-day apocalyptic vision of a world bereft of song.
“To me, Kendrick and Kanye are the creative frontier of rap music and maybe even the frontier of pop music in general,” says Shad. “In my own way, I wanted to imagine how they pushed their limits in the studio because I heard their albums and went, ‘Wow, these guys are pushing their creativity.’ [So when I] mapped out a song in its basic elements for Flying Colours, l’d say to myself, well, how can I make this idea richer in its presentation?”
With Shad being born in London, ON after his parents emigrated from Rwanda, second single “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrims)” is a tribute to the triumphs and troubles immigrants experience living in Canada. Shad describes his family life as “pretty close-knit” growing up, with him being the youngest out of his parents, older sister and two aunts living under one roof. “In Grade 4 we had a speech competition, and my speech was about how I don’t want to grow up. It was funny, but at the same time, I had this sense that I had it good [with my family]. I had essentially four moms and a dad — tons of role models and a lot of fun.”
Despite our half-hour-long chat, there’s still a single unasked question – the most important of all – that remains.
Nearly one month after meeting at Joe’s Cafe, Black Box Music releases Flying Colours.
“So far, so good,” Shad chuckles over the phone. Now in Toronto after a four-day drive from Vancouver, he’s headed to rehearsal for the new album’s release tour. “I haven’t come up for much air lately because it’s been so busy. People have been really supportive and excited about the album, though. It’s great.”
The positive response to Flying Colours should be no surprise — Shad is efficacious and knows no boundaries to his own success. Recently, he was listed by CBC as Canada’s number two greatest rapper – just behind Maestro Fresh Wes and ahead of rap icon Drake — and previously won a 2011 Juno for Album of the Year (again, ahead of Drake) for previous release TSOL.
Then, there is Shad’s life outside of his lucrative music career; besides graduating with a Master’s of Arts degree in Liberal Studies from Simon Fraser University, he’s written articles for the Vancouver Sun, collaborated with St. James’ Music Academy on a performance with music students for charity event #SingitFwd, visited his alma mater as part of the Stephen Lewis Foundation Dare Campaign and engaged with a young leader of B.C.’s Idle No More campaign through The Huffington Post.
“I remember talking to somebody once and saying that I like the fact that I’m insignificant in the grand scheme of the world,” he says, explaining how he stays grounded. “There’s seven billion people in the world. Or six billion? No, seven billion. And I like that. It’s less pressure on me if I just realize that I’m here to do my little piece of some big, massive thing. That’s the main perspective that I try to keep.”
So far, Shad is essentially a perfect model citizen: he’s well-spoken, informed, humble, and a positive force in the community. But, even the most calm and collected of us have hidden, dark secrets brewing in our subconscious — it would only be logical, then, to assume he has a few serious grudges under his cool exterior and silky raps.
News flash: he does. And some of them are seriously hilarious.
“I’ve definitely got a few things I hate. I don’t know if you’re going to like them though,” he begins, clearing his throat almost nervously. “I hope you know that you’re risking me going on long, long rants, because I really hate these things.”
With some persuasion, he caves moments later. “OK. I’ll start with the more benign.”
There’s an audible inhale and exhale on the other end of the line. Over the next 15 minutes, Shad transforms into a different person: animated, comical, cynical and entirely human.
“I hate the fact that Dr. Oz wears scrubs on his T.V. show [The Dr. Oz Show]. My blood just boils when I flick by that channel,” he mutters darkly, “and I see that stupid guy wearing scrubs. It’s like he’s wearing a Halloween costume! Why can’t he just wear normal clothes and say he’s a doctor? We aren’t five here. There’s a whole studio audience of adults watching this man sitting there in scrubs like he’s going to operate in the next five minutes! Do people not see that this is insane and ridiculous?”
The rapper stops for a moment, sighs angrily, and dives back into it. “You can already tell I’m getting worked up here. I just can’t handle it. I mean, I’ll believe you if you tell me you’re a doctor. But I don’t want to take serious medical advice from you when you’re wearing scrubs on a TV studio. Just relax and put on a decent button up shirt and some khakis!”
Shad is still on fire by the time his second dislike is put on the chopping board: credit card companies. You are essentially stuck borrowing money if you want a good mortgage or loans, he explains – and, in addition, some physical retailers will only accept credit as a method of payment. “How can you possibly tell me I need to borrow money to make a purchase? How is that a thing? You can’t have a company that loans people money and hopes their clients forget to pay them back or something catastrophic happens to them so they are unable to pay,” he exclaims. “That just shouldn’t be a legal business.”
When you hear angry raps coming from Shad in the near future, you can’t say it wasn’t coming. And, if you’d like to tempt Shad into rapping about his peeves — or anything else, really — catch him in the flesh on the last leg of his supporting album tour in Canada, or dates in the U.S. and Europe in early spring.
Catch Shad with We Are the City at the Vogue Theatre on Friday November 29th.
By Kristina Charania
Photos: Cody Fennell