Toronto Programs

Kardinal Offishall looks back on rap in Toronto

More than a trend-setter, Kardinal Offishall is now considered a trailblazer.

Rapper released his first songs in the 1990s, thanks to a government employment program

Kardinall Offishall was in the Metro Morning studio on Tuesday. (CBC)

Seeing names like Drake or the Weeknd appear on the Billboard Hot 100 is commonplace today. But 10 years ago, there was zero Canadian hip hop on those charts.

That was until Kardinal Offishall became the first Canadian rapper to break into the Hot 100 in 2008 with his song Dangerous. His fifth album, Kardi Gras, Vol. 1: The Clash, has just come out.

More than a trend-setter, Offishall, whose real name is Jason Harrow, is now considered a trailblazer. He began putting out music in the 1990s, first on mixtapes and rap compilations and then as a major label artist, with his debut album, Eye & I, dropping in 1997. 

He summarized the landscape of the city's hip hop successes in those early days with one word: "Bleak."

"When we were first starting out, we were just kids from the city who believed in ourselves. We were just crazy enough to think we could do this on a worldwide level," he said on Metro Morning Tuesday. 

The first notable rapper to be signed to a major deal in Toronto was Offishall's colleague, Saukrates, who signed to Warner Bros. in 1996. Then came Choclair, a rapper out of Scarborough who had his own record label and then signed to Priority Records in 1998.

"I think as the crew started to do it, we started to see that these things were possible as long as our drive was that intense, the dream started to become a reality," said Offishall.

From local rapper to international star

It became clear in the 2000s that Offishall was the star out of that 1990s renaissance of Toronto rap. He had hits internationally with stars like Rihanna, Akon, Vybez Cartel and Busta Rhymes. 

Now, more than 20 years after his first raps were recorded, Offishall is still making music for international audiences. His latest single, One Dream Away, features Stephen Marley. 

He's also able to be a mentor to younger local artists — in more ways than one. He's currently an executive in Universal Music's artists and repertoire division, developing new hip hop musicians.

But he's also still active in his community. He speaks on behalf of arts funding. He does this, he said, because he is a product of that funding. 

Offishall came out of the Fresh Arts program, a JobsOntario training and employment program in the early 1990s started by the NDP government to battle the recession. 

"It was amazing and it was so necessary," he said of the program. "If it wasn't for a program like that ... If they didn't fund that program, there wouldn't be a Director X ... there wouldn't be myself, there wouldn't be Jully Black, Saukrates."

In addition to Offishall, some of those names are still making art today. Director X, for instance, was behind the immensely popular Drake video for the song Hotline Bling

"So many people that paved the way," said Offishall. "All of that stems from funding to a local arts program."