Heds and Dreds: Talking T-Dot Roots and Culture with Kardinal Offishall

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July 17, 2012

Words by Jesse Serwer—


Four decades after Kool Herc brought mic chatter and other elements of Jamaican sound system culture to the funk-loving streets of the Bronx, Kardinal Offishall is the walking embodiment of hip-hop’s loose but still redolent connection with the mother sound of reggae. The Toronto MC’s latest LP, Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself, a collaboration with beatmaker Nottz released free online last month, doesn’t have any rocksteady riddims or guest dancehall deejays but, as he has his whole career, Kardi brings the yard vibes every chance he gets. (Read our original “Heds and Dreds” piece on Kardinal for a rundown of the myriad ways he’s done this over the years).

In our recent sitdown with the man, we had to ask Kardi about the thought behind AMTRIM (as the new LP is known, for short) and his departure from Akon’s Konvict Muzik stable (where he scored his biggest career hit, with ’08’s “Dangerous”). But we spent more time discussing the heavy-duty Caribbean influence that’s always permeated Toronto hip-hop, covering everything from the T-Dot sound systems he grew up following to pioneering “Janadian” rap crew the Dream Warriors and his own history and preferences when it comes to cutting dubplates. Read on for parts one and two of our interview, and stay tuned to LargeUp for more Offishall business later this week.

LargeUp: Tell me why you felt the need to “re-introduce” yourself…

Kardinal Offishall: You know, it is a pivotal time in my career. Because after the last album—we damn near had a two-year run of success off that, which was dope—I did different collaborations internationally with people… but I took a little time off. One, for my family. I had my first son. So many people get caught up and don’t actually get to enjoy or experience life because they are out there chasing checks. From about mid-2010, I was still doing shows but I just slowed down in terms of America. Me and Nottz both, we’ve achieved a lot in our careers. We have worked with each other probably about a decade, so we always vibe. At the same time, we both felt we wanted to let people know again why they fell in love with us both.

LU: What’s the status of the Akon deal? Are you still part of that situation?

KO: We are definitely still family but in terms of putting music out, I’m not dealing with Konvict for this album. Konvict was never the label, Konvict was the family. About a year-and-a-half ago, I had a conversation with Akon and at the same time I had a conversation with David Banner. With Banner, he was just talking about the importance of standing up as a man on your own two feet and not just be dependent on who you are affiliated with—not just music wise, but in life—to actually be able to create your own legacy. With Kon, his label stuff was going through a shift, so instead of being one of those artists who are really dependent on bars that can shift, I said I want to brand myself more. I don’t always want to be Kardinal associated with Akon, I need to be Kardinal on my own. The good thing about Kon is he’s not one of those super-egotistical people. The way that we got into this thing together was through respect. So I just told him I wanted to do what I need on my own.

LU: You’ve always been able to do straight hip-hop, reggae and pop records. This project pretty stays in that straight emceeing, hip-hop lane…

KO: In terms of hip-hop, anybody that has had any longevity has not been a one-dimensional MC. Nobody. All the people that we revere, from a Cee-Lo to a Nas, even GangStarr, Fugees, has been able to show versatility. Look at Kanye—on different albums he felt differently and expressed himself differently. And that’s kind of where I’ve always been. Nobody that’s in the underground is there because they are able to do other types of joints, and because they want to be in the underground. A lot of people that’s all they can do. Some people are great on pop records, but couldn’t touch a hardcore Nottz joint if their life depended on it. In terms of the dancehall rude boy thing, that’s just me, who I am as a person. I have been blessed with the opportunity to live in whatever world that I feel at the time. Everyday is not a Jordans-and-T-shirt day, you know? Sometimes, if I’m in a crazy, remote, international location, you might feel you’re fly like Slick Rick, and throw on your suits, and your gold chain and your Ballys or Clarks, and rock out. For me, music definitely reflects life, and I am blessed to be able to live in a lot of different worlds, and do it well. When I first linked Akon, and we started doing features and stuff, he told me like that’s the reason I am drawn to you—because you can murder anything. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a Lady Gaga remix, or rocking with Spragga Benz. That’s been a blessing to me.

LU: Even though you’ve been in the broader hip-hop world, a lot of the people you’ve connected with, from Saukrates to the Kid Daytona and Benny Demus, even our friends RepJA, have been West Indian like yourself. Have you ever thought of bringing all those people together on a project that reflected that?

KO: I think it would be good for everybody to come together but we also have to be able to read the times. See how it goes. And the Caribbean influence in music comes in waves. So you have to be sure that if you’re gonna do it, it’s at a time when people are kind of open to it. Because non-West Indian folks, there is definitely a time when they lock it out. When they’re like yeahhhhh, uhhh… not interested right now. It’s all strategic but I don’t live my life based on strategies. That’s just the business side of me. Although I was born in Toronto, the slogan is “Made in Jamaica, born in Toronto.” My parents made sure that I was born up here so I could take advantage of the luxuries of being born abroad—good education, the free healthcare, all that good stuff. But growing up, we were in yard for most of the summer. I compare it to Sylvester Stallone. He’s American but he’s a proud Italian-American. There’s a lot of Janadians over here, you know? The city of Toronto allowed for us to embrace our culture so that’s why it’s always at the forefront.

LU: Hip-hop from Toronto has always reflected that, it feels like…

KO: Almost every last one of us—Michie Mee, the Dream Warriors were all of West Indian descent and they were actually the first group from here to sell a million records internationally wayyy back in the early 90’s. There’s Maestro [Fresh Wes], and then you go on to like Choclair, Saukrates, myself, the Rascalz are all West Indian. Even if you take it to now, with the exception of Drake… Melanie Fiona, she’s Guyanese. That’s the makeup up here.

LU: Right. It’s always had that mix of cultures that makes the music exchange more interesting, like New York, but even more towards the Jamaican side of things…

KO: We used to embrace it a lot more than we do now. We are still very proud people but I guess the younger generation has to do things in a cool way, like you can’t just remember at Caribana that you’re Trini or that you’re Jamaican, or Guyanese or whatever. It can’t just be a once a year thing. We just need more things that remind us of who we are but our city, more than any other city, we still have a huge soca community up here, a huge dancehall community. We definitely pay homage to who we are and celebrate who we are but I’m a purist so I think we could do it even a little more than we do.

Read on for Part Two, as Kardinal talks his favorite Toronto sound systems, voicing dubplates and why KRS-One is his all-time favorite MC.