David Strickland: My life in 5 beats

The Indigenous producer who's worked with everyone from Method Man to Drake is reconnecting with his roots on his new album, Spirit of Hip-Hop.

The Indigenous producer who's worked with everyone from Method Man to Drake is reconnecting with his roots

'A lot of things in my life that I get to see, a lot of people don't get to see that. Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses,' says producer David Strickland. (Ernie Paniccioli)
If you were to draw a chart connecting all the musicians that make up the rich history of hip hop in Toronto, you'd find David "Gordo" Strickland at the centre of it. The Scarborough-born Mi'kmaw producer/engineer has worked quietly behind the scenes for decades, whether producing, mixing or engineering records from the likes of Saukrates, Ghetto Concept, Jelleestone, Kardinal Offishall, Choclair, k-os, Drake and more.

His new album is called Spirit of Hip-Hop, and on it, he connects that same lineage to his roots, featuring Indigenous rappers like Joey Stylez, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Drezus and Supaman as well as some of the Toronto and New York rap luminaries he's worked with, including Saukrates, EPMD and Def Squad. 

The album also contains a spoken-word piece from legendary Cree hip-hop photographer Ernie Paniccioli, who describes hip hop as the "reincarnation" of Indigenous culture expressed through 21st-century technology: "The DJ is the drummer, the MC is the storyteller, the B-boy is the dancer and the graffiti artist is the sand painter."

For Strickland, it was important to show that "hip hop is the same as our culture," he says. "We've been doing that and it's not just Turtle Island. It applies across the world. When I put it together, I was thinking, a lot of our kids are not embracing [Indigenous] culture, they're not raised in the culture, but they love hip hop. So I just tried to put it together and show them some self love, because it all is the same thing and we need to just love ourselves more."

A lot of our kids are not embracing [Indigenous] culture, they're not raised in the culture, but they love hip hop. So I just tried to put it together and show them some self love.- David Strickland

Spirit of Hip-Hop is out June 29, so we asked Strickland to take us through five productions that he was involved in that changed his life, whether he was producing, speaking on the track or mixing and engineering.

This is David Strickland's life in five beats. 

'Flagrant,' Choclair

"'Flagrant' was at a time which was early in my career as far as being an engineer and getting into production. And that was a pivotal point in Toronto hip-hop history because that was Choclair's first album. He was one of the first rappers signed to a major label in Canada. I actually have the master tape sitting right here, but we won't talk about that.

"I was really getting into doing a lot of session work with guys like Saukrates and Kardinal, a lot of the members of that Circle family, and I remember that session. And the thing about that was, the chorus on that song, we didn't have enough tracks to lay it properly, so we had to sample the parts. Saukrates was going in the booth and a lot of the stuff was done on the spot, so I had to sample the chorus, transfer it, program it, and then dump it back to tape to save track space. And that was one of the first times where I kind of felt like I was really involved in the song, as far as not just engineering it, but being a part of the production, being a part of the team. Saukrates is like my little brother and I consider all those guys family now, but at that time, that song was a turning point. I don't even think I have a credit on any songs out of that, which is a whole other story. I dare anybody to tell me I didn't engineer that song. I'm just gonna put that out there." 

'Blow Trees,' Redman feat. Method Man and Ready Roc

"'Blow Trees' was produced by [Toronto's] Tone Mason. I was in New York, rocking over with Red Man, and the beats were coming in. And Red was going wild because that's what Red does. I was very privileged to be part of just watching that and the creative experience. I was a little shy sometimes around artists so I don't want to just throw beats in that I'm hearing, but he's also my favoruite MC of all time, and at that time, I was a champion for Canadian beatmakers. When that Tone Mason beat came in I was cheering for it. The thing about that beat is that it's a Bob Marley sample, and that was not an easy task. There's a whole story in itself of getting that cleared because at the time, the Marleys weren't just letting anybody sample Bob. But Red and Meth was special. 

"That whole experience was special. The reason that's on that list is because it was all about pushing the Canadian producers and being there working with my favourite MC. I was telling my moms and dads, 'It's like, OK, you're a Beatles fan, and then you get to do a song with the Beatles. Come on! Your head explodes.' That's what that song was for me."

'U Aint Nobody,' Keith Murray feat. Redman and Erick Sermon

"I'm in the chorus on this one. Anytime you hear 'Def Squad' or 'Gila House' or 'LOD,' that's me. And then I'm in the chorus with those guys. It's kind of full circle because I ride with the Def Squad, but those guys put me on the song back in the day and they were my favourite crew. I usually don't get put on the songs but those guys are very inclusive. 

"It was an Erick Sermon beat, I mixed it, and it was kind of weird mixing my own voice. That song represents all my rap dreams in one song because I never expected to be on the album. I always look back and think, not in a million years. And it's beautiful because it wasn't planned, so shout out to them guys." 

'Problem,' Method Man

"Since I was about 15, I've been going to New York for hip hop, you know, to get the flavour, to shop, to buy music. And that's how I started. But, by the time I got 'Problems' off in New York, I was hanging out with Erick Sermon and Method Man was doing that album. The crazy thing about that album is I got to help sequence it. Erick sequenced that order, and I was there mastering. You actually hear me in the transitions between songs doing a blunt inhale.

"But I was hanging out with Erick and he's like, 'Yo, Method Man is coming.' I don't ask questions, I just roll. For me growing up, Def Jam was like a dream. When I was a kid I'd listen to LL Cool J, I'd watch Krush Groove, so to have my name on a song like 'Problem,' on Def Jam? That was like, yo, I really do this."

'Light Up,' Drake feat. Jay Z 

"This one is produced by [Noah 40 Shebib], obviously, but it's on here because that first album [Thank Me Later] was a huge accomplishment. And that song was special for me because it was mixed by Gadget, as in Noel Campbell, who's a mentor to myself and 40. We've been through a lot in our relationship as far as working together and I've been around the world and back, but when we were asked to be a part of this project, it was special because of what was happening. It was a special time because it was like, we worked so hard to get the city on. For us to be able to be a part of the album was one thing, but to mix the Jay Z song? 40 could have easily been like, 'I'm doing this whole thing myself.' And we had such a crazy weekend doing it. 

"A lot of things in my life that I get to see, a lot of people don't get to see that. Sometimes you have to stop and smell the roses. And that's kind of what that is. I'm lucky to be a part of this, you know? It was kind of like, 'We are the champions, it doesn't matter what happens from here on out.' And it wasn't about us, it wasn't about [OVO], it was about the city. It was about the country and about putting Toronto and Canada on the map. And those guys did that. It's not about who did it first, but who did it right."



Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Senior Producer, CBC Music

Jesse Kinos-Goodin has been a journalist and producer at CBC since 2012. He focuses on music and the arts. He is currently the senior producer for social at CBC Music. Reach him on Twitter @JesseKG or email