Shad proves nice guys don't always finish last—even in the music industry 

The Toronto rapper weighs in on Polaris nomination, his hosting duties, and the inspiration behind his concept album

click to enlarge Toronto rapper Shad hits the stage at the Squamish Constellation Festival on Saturday, July 27. Photo submitted
  • Toronto rapper Shad hits the stage at the Squamish Constellation Festival on Saturday, July 27. Photo submitted

Shad answers his phone on time and on the first ring.

This might not seem noteworthy, but as any music journalist will tell you, it makes him an outlier in the industry.

Fans, however, might point out it's pretty on brand for the Toronto rapper and broadcaster (whose given name is Shadrach Kabango).

"Some people don't like to be considered nice," he says. "I've always been nice. My Kindergarten teacher was like, 'This is a nice kid.' I like people and I like to make people feel good. That's my nature. You also attract the people you should attract as well."

While he might adhere to a goes-around-comes-around philosophy, his latest album, A Short Story About a War, is anything but a collection of feel-good jams. Rather, the hip-hop concept album imagines a world engulfed in war with tracks dedicated to perspectives of different people embroiled in that conflict—ranging from the sniper to the stone throwers and the fool.

It turns out, it all stemmed from an image of a desert world war that popped into his head during his time in Vancouver, where he was completing a Masters in Liberal Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2011.

"I didn't think I'd make an album based on it," he adds. "I just thought, 'This is an interesting image.' It's helping me understand my world a little bit. But it stayed with me. I guess what I was sensing were certain tensions that have only increased. That's why the story has stayed with me. When it was time to make an album it was, 'Wow, actually, I think this is what I have to give.'"

The record, Shad's sixth full-length album, might tell a cohesive story, but he was careful to ensure the tracks would stand on their own too, given how people listen to music these days.

"You can't reasonably expect a lot of people to sit down and listen to the whole thing," he says. "The songs have to work on their own. That's part of why I was feeling that I had to make it imaginative and bring people into the landscape, but also make it clear how it [relates] to our world. It was a creative challenge."

It's a challenge that's paid off. Last week, the Polaris Music Prize—a Canadian not-for-profit that selects one album every year to win its $50,000 prize based solely on artistic merit—shortlisted the record for 2019.

It's the fourth time Shad has made the shortlist and while he hasn't yet won, he says the first nomination helped kickstart his career.

"It's always an honour, for sure," he says. "The first time I was shortlisted, that really helped me have a career. I credit Polaris a lot; they helped elevate my music. It's not the same at this point for me, but I have a soft spot for Polaris."

Does he think he has a shot this time around? "Not really," he says. "In terms of probability, you have a 10-per-cent chance of getting it. I like the spirit of Polaris. It's a celebration of music. That really to me is what it feels like."

Polaris aside, Shad also had another bump in profile from a Canadian institution when he hosted the CBC Radio One arts show q from 2015 to 2016. He had the unenviable job of replacing ousted host Jian Ghomeshi, who was facing sexual assault allegations. The job was short-lived and Tom Power took over in 2016.

Reflecting on that time, Shad is characteristically diplomatic.

"I felt like, ultimately, it's not my decision," he says. "I came there to try and help the show. If they felt like, 'This is as much as you can help' or 'You're not helping,' that's cool ... I had a good time there. It was great. I loved the people I worked with and I loved meeting people. That's all you literally do on that show."

He did, however, go on to host again, this time for HBO's Hip-Hop Evolution, which features in-depth interviews with prominent names in the genre.

"Having these super-long conversations with remarkable pioneers of hip hop, I always felt inspired," he says. "The nice things was working on this album while working on Hip-Hop Evolution, it gave me a break from time to time. I could step away for a week while we filmed and come back with fresh eyes and ears."

Next up, Shad is hitting the festival circuit, including a stop at the Squamish Constellation Festival on Saturday, July 27.

"When I perform I'm always thinking about creating the best live experience," he says. "I never feel a particular need to do all my new stuff or anything like that. It's what's going to be the most dynamic, fun, interesting live show."

The Squamish Constellation Festival runs from July 26 to 28.

For festival passes or tickets, visit constellationfest.ca.

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