Thinking really big with Shad

Shad plays The 27 Club Nov. 22. Photo: Justin Broadbent

Thinking big is just something Shadrach Kabango does. It’s his M.O.

From the radio gig on CBC’s Q to his role in the well-regarded documentary series, Hip Hop Evolution, to his own music, the hip hop artist Shad, as he is better known, just likes to get involved in projects that go beyond the norm.

This is certainly true of his latest album called A Short Story About A War. The ‘agit-hop’ album is a big concept. It features a lot of the leading lights on today’s music scene including Kaytranada, Lido Pimienta, 2oolman from Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red and the B.C.-based rock band Yukon Blonde, along with Ian Kamau and Eternia.

But for Shad all these moving parts aren’t confusing they are “fun.”

“The way I thought about it was as a fun, creative challenge. It’s a fictional story that I wanted to bring to life. … I definitely didn’t want to stay in a fictional world, that wasn’t interesting enough.

“I wanted to include some real world details and weave them in and out of this fictional world. I wanted it to engage the imagination but at same time I wanted to communicate the resonances (with the real world).

“I like making something exciting and imaginative that, at the same time, feels relevant and grounded to people.”

A Short Story About A War is focused around an archetypal character called The Fool who moves through a violent world populated by Snipers, Revolutionaries, the Establishment. Shad see the record as “holding a mirror to our world – a provocative story told through disarmingly catchy songs that weaves through issues of migration, environment, politics and above all, the human spirit.”

The Fool is present in many cultures. He appears to be a comic figure but in truth, The Fool is usually the one wise person in any story. Just ask King Lear.

Shad named the character The Fool after realizing that the character was fulfilling that role. In the midst of a war in the Middle East, the Fool picks up a bullet lying in the sand and asks, ‘Is this what you’re all scared of?’

“The Fool might be a fool or (he) might be exhibiting the highest wisdom. That is kind of what I left for folks to ponder.”

There’s a lot in this album, Shad’s first under his own name in five years.

He believes that follows the growth of the art form that is seeing hip hop artists aiming higher these days.

“As an artist you are always thinking about the history of your art form and how you can help it progress. I see that in Kendrick Lamar’s work. He is rooted in the tradition of Los Angeles hip hop, but, at the same time, he is pushing boundaries.”

This is happening, he says through bigger ideas and in the availability of technology in the studio.

“What you do in the studio; what you can execute is the new frontier,” Shad said. “There are definitely people pushing boundaries in hip hop.”

Hip hop is moving in so many different directions, he said, that it’s almost “more than you can track now. In the past, there was a certain amount of music that was out and it was easier to see the different geographical influences and musical influences. Now the music is everywhere and new people are popping up and pushing boundaries” as Lamar and artists such as Vince Staples are doing.

Shad is listening to these artists and is moved by their work, “but for me, it is also more about the trajectory of my own music-making. I have made a lot of albums rooted in my ideas and experiences. I am little more inspired now to do stuff that is more conceptual, more project by project. I’m telling different stories in different ways.”

Musically there is also a broader range in this album. There are more influences coming in including jazz influences.

“That is happening for so many reasons but the main one is probably accessibility.

“Before we had more limited access to other sounds and influences. But we are a lot more omnivorous musically today. With A Short Story About A War, I tried to keep the music dynamic and interesting by varying tempos and sounds.”

There are interludes in the album that were a necessary part of the presentation, he said as a way to relieve the tension surrounding such a strong subject.

Shad is now on his first big tour in a long time. He said he has been doing one-off shows in recent years.

“But this is first time touring and playing clubs and doing that thing again. It feels good. It is sort of like riding a bike.

“I had my first show in Waterloo a few weeks ago and I was a little nervous but then I got in front of the people and it was familiar again.”

He said he was most nervous about expectations.

“I didn’t know what they wanted. So the first show was a guess with the set list, but I think I guessed right. I play a lot of old stuff in the show and weave in five or six new songs. Generally I try to play songs that most exciting for people who are already more familiar with my work. I did revamp a little bit, but not too much so it would be annoying but enough so that the music  feels fresh.”

One thing that has happened with this new album is a positive review with Rolling Stone. That’s a first for him, he said.

The recognition seems to flow from the prominence that Hip Hop Evolution has brought. It’s on Netflix and on HBO.

For Shad, the documentary series opened his eyes to the history of his art form.

“I compare it to chemistry class. I spent a lot of time in New York where the culture was born, where the culture lived. To really spend time around it and to come to know it a visceral way was the greater education for me.

“Then, of course, there are so many stories. Some ended up in the documentary and some didn’t. Then I was visiting all those cities and getting to feel the texture of them and feel the culture created by this music that I know. This was another kind of knowing, a deeper kind.”

Hip Hop Evolution actually started in 2013. It’s a production by Toronto’s Banger Films. The first season came to TV in 2016. And the second season has just been released.

Meanwhile, over the five years of development hip hop has changed totally, Shad said.

“Good luck to the person who will be chronicling this era because there is so much happening and it’s changing every day including in the True North.

In Canada, Shad said, “people are pulling in global influences. We have major success stories like Drake and Tory Lanez and a couple of others, but we have a ways to go; as an industry Canadian hip hop has a way to grow.

“We have a few stars, but we don’t necessarily have the infrastructure yet for artists to be launched from here. They still have to go to New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta, which has emerged as the epicentre of hip hop today.”

Shad said that in the past he wrestled with the question, “Am I an artist or not?”

Eventually he realized that “making music is … what I do. It is the thing that I know how to do the best. But I am open to different projects when they come up,” including helping to raise his baby daughter.

Even with all that is on his plate, Shad is thinking about his next record.

“I have some ideas for  a new album. I love making stuff and I don’t anticipate slowing down or stopping. My impulse is to do something very different in tone. My impulse as an entertainer is to make people feel good.”

He said with A Short Story About A War he had wanted to produce a happy album.

“That was really my goal. So there are some songs that I worked on that didn’t make this album.They may end up on a new record. I want to dust those off and see if I can turn them into something.”

The album that he is touring, however, came from a different place.

“This album was inspired by tensions I was feeling going back years. On this album, war, to me, was and still is a metaphor for all the conflicts and tensions we are feeling today.”

There is a song, for example, that talks about stone throwers. You don’t have to look hard to find references to that with regard to the caravan making its way across Mexico to the United States, he said.

“My writing was never intended to be literal, but the real world caught up.

“Speaking as an artist. I do think about the issue of truth. I put my very best into this work and I hope people will recognize it as the honest thing that it is. I believe that it is worth it. I believe it is important. You have to trust yourself and really believe that the stuff is vital.

“The final line on the album is that ‘The truth is bulletproof’. You have to believe that the truth is indestructible and that it will prevail.”

Where: The 27 Club
When: Nov. 22; Doors at 8 p.m., show starts at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.